Peninsula Press (UK)
Forthcoming: 23 March 2023
At some stage, the relationship we have with the parents who have cared for us (or not) may as suddenly flip on its head as if it had always been that way. Be it slowly, as age catches up with a parent, or as a result of a sudden illness, one day, the child realises that the balance has tipped and that they must now take charge.
Acclaimed American short story writer, essayist, and novelist Lynne Tillman confronts this subject in Mothercare (released in the UK by Peninsula Press) an astonishingly honest account of what happened when her own mother developed a brain condition called ‘normal pressure hydrocephalus’ and needed over a decade of care from her three daughters and a consequent constellation of professionals.
Tillman’s relationship with her mother was certainly not easy (indeed Tillman’s mother seems to have been someone who could deeply hurt those who wanted to love her most) and this complicated the already messy process of caring for her. Mothercare recounts how Tillman tried to make the best decisions she could on her mother’s behalf, the aim being that her mother would experience the love and comfort that Tillman didn’t. Although many of us face the prospect of ageing parents and must grapple with the mixed emotions of caring with all its heartache and incessant admin, it is not often so honestly and openly laid bare. After all, how do we talk about what it means to be so needed by a vulnerable parent in a culture where we often live lives rather independently of our parents –where we may not live near them, or even like them?
Tillman’s writing is forthright and uncompromising although as she says, ‘any incident is filtered subjectively, which causes memoirs and oral history to be compelling as much for their versions of honesty, what they remember, the facts of their lives, as for their untrustworthiness, misinformation, and bias’. And indeed, the truth is always muddy, diagnoses are uncertain, and reality is laden with the baggage of our lived experience.
The underlying narrative of Mothercare speaks of broken systems, from breaks in family relationships, broken pathways of communication, to broken healthcare systems and economies where migrants have to leave their own families to care for someone else’s mother, and of course the broken relationship of a mother with her own children.
And yet, there are moments of hope. Tillman refers several times to the brain’s ability to reroute its pathways – to find new connections, new ways through damage. Speech is lost and recovered, and over time, the end arrives as, at the very least, a release.
Through Mothercare we may re-live or foretell our own experience. And for Tillman? To narrate such a situation is to be there, and yet not. To be present and yet absent. And in the end won’t we all become nothing but the stories told about us long after we’re gone?
Main image by Craig Mod: Portrait of novelist and author Lynne Tillman, sitting in the courtyard of the Norwood club in Manhattan in 2016. (wikipedia)
Lynne Tillman's Mothercare can be ordered now in the UK through Bearbooks, OL's local bookstore, here⇒