With: Mum (born 1947)
Date: 28 July 2016
Where: Stratford upon Avon
[Photo credit: Rachel Ferriman]
I'm not sure which of us was the more surprised when the person I decided to spend my actual 40th birthday (and the day after) with was my Mum. Several months in advance I decided I wanted to meet in Stratford upon Avon, to see a Shakespeare play (actually Ben Jonson's The Alchemist), and to have a Thai meal. Mum also brought along chocolate cake, strawberries and Champagne, which we enjoyed sitting by the river.
After several years of excellent therapy and some equally helpful reading I'm discovering in myself a spirit of gentle curiosity about where my parents 'came from'.
The following words written by John Welwood had a profound impact on me:
'Your parents had their own legacy of not knowing they were loved, which made it hard for them to love themselves. When parents don't love themselves, they inevitably wind up using their children to shore up their shaky self-esteem.
... As a result of having to push my mother away because she could not let me be me, I had separated myself from love and remained on guard against it throughout the early decades of my life.
Consequently, I had learned to develop my intellect, at least in part, as a way of dissociating from the pain of this disconnection from love. Yet much deeper than any need to... accomplish... there was an undeniable longing that was humbling when I faced it in its unvarnished simplicity: At the root of everything I did, I had to admit, what I most wanted was to love and be loved.'
Harriet Lerner wrote:
'When a particular topic (or person) is especially difficult, remember the "two-step". Try to think in terms of having at least two conversations or a series of conversations that fall into two categories. In the first conversation we only listen, and ask questions. In this way we let the other person know we are genuinely interested in learning more about their perspective. Listening is an important part of having voice. As we enlarge the context around a problem, we take the pressure off the hot spots and begin to understand where the other person is coming from.
We feel calmer as we come to understand that the other person's insensitive response is fueled by anxiety and history - not lack of love. It's an act of maturity to not take things personally and to understand that the other person's response may have more to do with them than with us.
...In a separate conversation we can share our perspective and define our differences.
...If we're confident about our ability to hold firm when we need to, we can be loving, curious, and connected as we voice our needs, expectations and limits.'
The day after my birthday, fuelled by a substantial B&B breakfast and with Lerner's strategy in mind, we began quite a long walk along the canal to Wilmcote and back. According to the internet, 'There are apparently 22 lock gates between Stratford and Wilmcote, a rise of about 40 metres. This is hard work if you are in a canal barge and will take all day, but for the walker it will take between one and two hours'.
Before we'd even left the town it had begun to rain slightly, so we sheltered under a tree for a while drinking our takeaway coffees. I spilt mine a bit, which is unusual for me. Soon after we begun walking again my Mum said, with a slight quiver in her voice, that she'd be glad to talk about anything I wanted to raise. She qualified this by saying that while she'd be glad to talk about anything, she was also scared that our brief and precious time together might get spoilt by a difficult conversation. This didn't surprise me. I'd had a hunch for a while that she imagined there to be something deep and dark I might at any moment accuse her of. I told her that while I've been doing a lot of work on the impact of our family dynamics on me as the first-born, she should rest easy that there would be no 'big reveal', that in fact what I'd really like would be to ask her some things about her own parents, and their parents.
At first she said she'd done a lot of work herself over the years and wasn't 'mad keen' to rake it all over again. But then, like most people do, she warmed to my questioning and ended up talking (as I'd hoped she would) for most of our walk about her childhood, what she knows of her parents' childhoods, and a little (but not too much) about my childhood. I won't say more than that because it's her story, other than to say I'm really grateful she was willing to tell it.
During our outbound walk we were both bursting for a wee but there was no way to leave the towpath so we took turns to be lookout while the other wazzed close to a canalside driveway! The owner came out of the house as I was wee-ing, but - not for the first time - Mum's gift-of-the-gab caused a suitable diversion!
On reaching Wilmcote we had a quick gawp at Mary Arden (Shakespeare's Mum)'s house from the outside before settling into the garden of the village pub for two gigantic plates of terrifically good value 'surf'n'turf' (sausage'n'scampi, that is, not steak'n'lobster!). Food is definitely one of the several passions we share!
The same conversation continued as we returned to Stratford where we rewarded ourselves with coffee and some enormous ice-creams before Mum set off back to Nottinghamshire in the car and I went to find a place to spend my third consecutive night camping within the town limits. As it turned out I managed to get myself a stand-by ticket for Christopher Marlowe's Doctor Faustus that evening (and the stage door manager arranged for me to leave all six of my panniers at the cloakroom!), which rounded off a really terrific visit to Stratford.
Thank you Mum for celebrating my 40th birthday with me in exactly the ways I asked for. It was definitely one in a long line of truly memorable birth-days!