Monday, September 24, 2007

Mummy dearest

23 Sep 2007, ST

If there's one relationship I've never had problems with, it's the one I share with my mother

By Sumiko Tan

THIS is going to sound politically incorrect, but one word always comes to mind when I spot a single woman who is very close to her widowed mother. The word is sad.

Before I get pelted with eggs, let me declare that I'm one half of such a couple. I still live with my widowed mother and we're close. We exercise together, have lunch together and go on holidays together.

Why would anyone find this sad, you might ask?

It smacks so much of the novels of British writer Anita Brookner, you see.

Her books are filled with thin, well-mannered, repressed spinsters nursing some disappointment in love and life.

Her 1992 book Fraud, in particular, deals with the complex relationship between a mother and daughter.

Anna, a woman 'in middle years' living a comfortable but hermetic existence with her once-pretty widowed mother Amy, goes missing after the latter dies.

Much is made of the contrast between the nun-like never-married Anna and the coquettish Amy.

When Amy plunges into an animalistic love affair with a lout, Anna looks away, 'a neutral presence, expressing neither disappointment or disdain' at the sexual games being enacted right before her eyes at home.

The man abandons Amy in the end, but not a word of reproach escapes Anna. Instead, she takes on the role of her devastated mother's comforter and nurse. Amy, meanwhile, is filled with remorse at her daughter's unmarried and unmarriageable state, and her health goes into decline.

It's a depressing book, but I digress.

Is it just me or do you also find it strange, and even pathetic, when a woman is still a Mummy's girl when she is past the age of becoming a mother herself?

Maybe it has to do with the assumption that they are drawn to each other only because they are both without male companions and hence lonely, which makes them such pitiful characters.

Or could there be something darker going on? That the mother is so domineering that she can't bear to let go of the apron strings and, worse, that the daughter is so timid she allows herself to be strangled by them?

Why is it that the sight of a married woman who's chummy with Mummy doesn't instil the same negative sentiments and speculation? In fact, you'd describe that relationship as sweet rather than suffocating.

Could it be that such a relationship abides by the laws of nature - that every girl should grow up, get married, have her own family and, hopefully, maintain good ties with her own mother on the side - whereas the other is a quirk of nature and hence makes people uncomfortable?

BE THAT as it may, I love being a Mummy's girl, even at my age.

And, thankfully, there is nothing Anna-Amy about our relationship.

In fact, for someone with a history of stumbling from one ill-fated romantic relationship to another, I've been very lucky when it comes to the ties that I share with my mother.

We've always been close and to this day I still park myself next to her just to chat about nothing.

We get on well because we like the same things - dogs, shopping, spas, exercise, football and losing weight.

I can repeat ad nauseum a story about my life and she'll still respond as if it's the first time she's hearing it. She's understanding about who I hang out with and doesn't judge me or my friends.

We're matched in that she's stubborn and finds it hard to say she's sorry, while I'm the opposite because I can't bear any unpleasantness in my life.

It also helps that we are both undemonstrative.

My late father was the type who'd regularly spout 'I love you' to us, which always made me groan because it was sappy and unnecessary.

But my mother is emotionally reserved, as maybe the Japanese tend to be. I can recall hugging her only once in the last 20 years, and that was when someone in the family died. And we're both happy to keep it that way.

She does get on my nerves when she comments on my appearance ('Your hair looks very dry today') but she's cottoned on to my trigger points. I suppose there must be things I do that irritate her, but she doesn't show it.

My elder sister, on the other hand, has had a more difficult relationship with her, maybe because they are both stubborn. Clearly, I am my mother's pet - even my Mum admits it.

I asked my sister the other day: 'You do know that Mum's closer to me than to you, right? Do you mind?'

She said she was aware of this but has never been jealous. She's just happy that my mother and I share a bond - and she meant it when she said so (my sister's a nice person).

Besides, she's now a mother herself and motherhood does shift one's priorities. Building a relationship with her daughter is of bigger concern to her than the ties she shares with our mother.

MOTHERS matter more than some women care to admit.

How you relate to her does have an impact on other aspects of your life. If you're part of a quarrelsome duo, your confidence and self-image are bound to suffer.

A May 2007 issue of Real Simple magazine quotes experts who have identified five typical types of mother-daughter relationships:

Best friends. They so like each other's company they go for dinner dates and are buddies.

Sisterly. They understand and like each other well enough, but an element of rivalry underlines and even undermines their relationship.

Clashing personalities. You have her genes but that's where the similarities end. Marked by frequent headbutting, with each side feeling angry and powerless.

Reverse nurture. Your roles are switching because of age, health or finances. Daughters feel needed and mothers loved, but looking after the parent, or being looked after by the child, can also breed resentment.

Enmeshed. No decision gets made without the other's approval. It can signify closeness, but it becomes a curse when you feel your life is measured by your mother's approval.

I suppose I fall into the category of best friends, although I'm not sure I always show it.

Last week, my mother had a health scare. She had been feeling tightness in her chest and so had gone for a treadmill test. It didn't go well and she was told to go for another more complicated examination.

She spent more than four hours at the clinic, by which time it was six in the evening. Although she must have been exhausted, she rushed to the basement of Tangs to buy me dinner because she didn't have time to cook before I arrived home. And she travelled back by MRT, a 30-minute trip, what's more.

We were both worried about the test results, but kept it light. Thankfully she later got the all-clear.

As I said, our relationship has never been sappy. We were very relieved that she was okay, but neither talked much about it.

But it's my mother's 72nd birthday on Sept 25, so I thought I'd dedicate this column to her.

I'm sure I speak for other women - daughters who are best pals with their mothers, as well as those who clash with them - when I say, thanks for everything, Mum.

We might not always express it verbally or even show it, and we might sometimes even make you feel unloved, but at the end of the day, we do mean it, really.

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