I was born in 1945: my mother, 19, my father an American serviceman. I don’t think he ever knew.
She doesn’t think it important for me to know anything about him; she only seems to care about herself and the stigma she suffered.
My grandfather and step-grandmother consented to bring me up. Step-gran also had her own daughter, then five, and also my mother’s brother, 24. I was very much second in her eyes — which has impacted on me during my life.
Thought for the week
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder if I have made of my life something particular and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing, or frightened or full of argument. I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
Mary Oliver (U.S. poet, born 1935, died January 17, 2019)
Two years later, my mother got pregnant again — to a married man. This time she was banished to work in a hospital nearby.
After my brother was born, Mum was allowed to keep him in a cot in her hospital room, breastfeeding, knowing he was to be adopted. One day she found him gone. Six months old. I weep when I think of this.
When I was eight, my mother married (pregnant again) and they lived with her new husband’s parents. I went, too, but it was a disaster and after seven weeks I was returned to my grandparents, stayed for four years until mother and stepfather got a council house, then went back to them. They now had a daughter, aged five.
Mother and stepfather never stopped criticising me. I became a British Airways stewardess (me with my inferiority complex!) for 17 years, earning a good salary. When I went back to the family in their council house, she sneered: ‘Just because you have all the money.’
I heard her telling neighbours BA probably only took me because they were running low on recruits! Why always belittle me?
I’d also like you to explain the reasons I was so needy and chased men through my best years — and even when they rejected me, I carried on. It plays on my conscience and since I still meet up with some of these friends, I am acutely embarrassed, as some of the husbands were privy to my bad behaviour and, at the time (the Seventies), treated me with contempt.
Divorced, I’ve shown my wonderful adult children love and affection and am grateful that I can.
My sister lives nearby. My mother is now 92 and nearly blind. I visit periodically, but hate it, as my mother talks only of her awful past. I don’t think she loves me, only herself. I can’t forgive and have lost all feelings for her.
The cards I was dealt at birth and through childhood have ruined my life, and I do feel some bitterness towards my mother. Can you pacify my tortured mind?
This week, Bel Mooney advises a woman whose mother ‘never stopped criticising’ her and who now feels the cards she was dealt at birth and through childhood have ruined her life
First, I want readers (bound to be full of sympathy for you) to know I’ve had to edit your original email from 2,341 words to 428.
The whole sad saga reads like the synopsis for a bleak modern novel — one in which the tragic theme is ‘the sins of the fathers’ and misery handed on.
The key omission here is your mother’s early life — which I’ll sum up as poverty-stricken and unloved. Her mother died when she was four, her stepmother was ‘harsh’ and there was no praise in her life, no more than in yours.
That’s the background to her fling with an American . . . and the start of the life which you call ‘ruined’. Did she think you ‘ruined’ her life?
Perhaps every time you asked about your father, you inadvertently rubbed salt in her wounds. You present her rejection of your wish to know as evidence of selfishness — but might it not also suggest old trauma?
You suggest your own inferiority complex started there in childhood, in the cold, critical atmosphere at home.
Surely it must have had the same effect on your mother, leading her to make reckless choices with men? You wonder why you were so promiscuous (I supply that word, reading between the lines), but can you see a pattern here?
With zero self-confidence, women are likely to be ‘needy’ — saying yes to anyone who asks, grateful for the attention. Guilt over this aspect of past behaviour is really bothering you.
Therefore I ask you to confront it, reflect on how hard it was for your mother in an age when women really were judged, recognise the pattern — and now try really hard to forgive her as well as yourself.
Surely there is nothing else to do at this stage of your life? I completely understand how hard it will be.
You had a terrible childhood: unwanted, shoved from pillar to post, picked on and never really loved. That’s so desperately sad — but I pity both the scared, unwed mother and the resented baby who took away her youth. Remember none of this is your fault.
On the contrary, you were a victim of sad circumstance, yet still made something of your life. Even if your marriage failed, it gave you two children — for whom you found wellsprings of love you’d never before experienced.
Ill-treated, your mother passed on her misery to you. Treated badly in turn, you gave your children a good life. Untaught, you created love. That should be proof your precious life is not ‘ruined’.
You bitterly detest visits to your 92-year-old mother and say you have ‘lost all feelings for her’.
And yet . . . when you think of the ostracised 21-year-old returning to her room to discover her baby son taken away, you ‘weep’.
So in spite of all your anger, bitterness and grief you still have some empathy for the woman who gave birth to you in shame. Focus on that feeling, and even weep some more — for both of you.
Reading your story, I feel boundless pity for one motherless child (your mother) and for another (you) who was never mothered.
But stronger than that is my admiration for you — because you have used those bad cards you were dealt to set yourself in charge of your own good life.
I dream of living in England again
I’m 63, writing from the U.S. — a dual UK/U.S. citizen, born in London, but moved to America aged two.
I grew up in New York and worked as a book editor. At 40, I found a similar job in London — thrilled to relocate. Life was good for 15 years.
I bought a flat, had a happy circle of friends, never found a partner. Then the company folded. I struggled to freelance.
Within a year I’d sold my flat (which I bitterly regret) and moved back to the U.S., expecting family support.
Life here hasn’t been great. I lost a full-time job two years ago and haven’t worked since. My parents are dead and my three siblings have their own lives. If it weren’t for some dear friends, none of whom live nearby, I’d be even more depressed.
I dream of moving back to England, but how to start again? I only know London. I inherited some money — not masses, but enough. Yet I’m afraid to make a move, though I’m floundering here. I’m aware life is short and getting shorter.
My work contacts in London have dried up, but I’m fairly confident I could find freelance editing again. I have cousins in England — once close — but I feel awkward contacting them, as I’ve been out of touch for years.
I’m paralysed with indecision. I don’t know how to move forward. What would you do?
Faced with a long, complex letter like today’s from Tessa, I reach yours with relief — knowing exactly what I would do in your place.
This is not to minimise your problem, but to suggest some clarity. I would certainly relinquish any fantasy of starting a new life in the UK at 63, because I doubt the English grass would be any greener and it’s more likely you’d face a lonely older age here.
I often counsel courage in the face of possible change, but not in your case.
It was bad luck when the company folded, but even then, when you had many contacts, you discovered how tough freelance life can be. And I can tell you that it is worse now: think of all the arts graduates hoping for a (poorly paid) job around books.
To up sticks and shift back to London when you don’t know people any more would surely be a terrible risk. As you say (and I am all too aware myself), life is indeed short, so you must ask yourself whether you want to waste the time you have making such a risky move. I repeat: I wouldn’t.
Nevertheless, you do need a change, so I would do a number of things, in this order.
First, I would go and stay near the friend or friends you love most in the U.S. and seriously investigate moving to live near them — 63 is a good age to create a new ‘nest’ for yourself, near congenial people who will introduce you to others.
Having done that, I would also think of new things to do — like tutoring, or (say) helping young people with special needs with reading, or some other voluntary work that might give you untold satisfaction while drawing on your proven skills.
Then I would make contact with those long-lost cousins, saying you are researching family history and would like to meet them.
I expect they’ll be delighted — and you could plan a good holiday in England, maybe with a friend, having created a fresh life in the States.
And finally… over 50s CAN learn now tricks
In an interview with People Magazine, the actor Idris Elba suggested you can’t have new experiences after 50. Can it be true that the ‘sexiest man alive’ believes such nonsense?
I haven’t stopped having new experiences and learning from them since my 50th birthday in 1996.
Here’s a whistle-stop tour.
In my 50s, I learned how to roll with serious disappointment on various work fronts; how to cope with the sudden, heartbreaking end of a long marriage and grow stronger; how to steer my adult children through the same ending; how to become independent earning money; how to accept the limitations of many friendships; how to celebrate a second marriage — and give thanks; how to grasp with both hands a never-thought-of chance, and run with it, rejoicing in a new role in journalism I hadn’t dreamed of (which leads neatly to this very column!).
Bel answers readers’ questions on emotional and relationship problems each week.
Write to Bel Mooney, Daily Mail, 2 Derry Street, London W8 5TT, or email email@example.com.
A pseudonym will be used if you wish.
Bel reads all letters but regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.
What else? In my 60s, I started going to a gym. I looked back with astonishment at my old Leftist notions and wondered that I could have been so naive.
I’ve embraced Christianity while retaining my agnosticism; because ideas are gloriously complicated. I’ve become a grandmother and learned a new kind of love as well as finding levels of patience inside myself I didn’t know were there.
A deep, rich love of the countryside still moves this city-born woman — accompanying profound, perfect contentment in the life I share with my husband and our dogs (remembering that until 2002 I didn’t even like the creatures).
I’ve surveyed my wrinkles, sighed, regretted — then accepted. Resisted buying clothes, instead mending old ones. Realised imposing order on a cupboard can be sublime.
More negatively, I have learned to become more cynical — terminally disillusioned with politics and the elite class of politicians, commentators and writers I once socialised with.
Thanks for the emotional exercise, Idris! It’s good for all of us to look back, assess — and give thanks.
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