Letters

MATERNAL ESTRANGEMENT

MY IN-LAWS are visiting for the weekend. They took an hour-long flight then drove for four hours to stay with us for two nights, so that they could spend time with their granddaughter, our baby girl, Sophie. They make this trip every six weeks or so and Skype with us at least once a week because they want to spend as much time with Sophie as possible, but live in a different country.

You, my mother, live in a village that is ten minutes’ drive from our house. You see Sophie less than the parents who live overseas, but you delude yourself that you are a doting, loving grandparent.

When Sophie was born a year and a half ago, you and my dad were the only people we invited to visit her in the hospital. She is an egg donor baby and we had waited seven years for her, during which time we went through quite a lot: donors coming forward then disappearing; my own mental and physical illnesses brought on by my menopause at age 17; failed egg retrievals and embryo transfers, before finally, this one, this precious, beautiful little miracle grew in my tummy and popped out like a tiny perfect rainbow after a very long, very relentless storm.

​​ You had had nothing on all day, yet you arrived ten minutes before the end of visiting hours. When you got to our room, you complained about the hospital car park. I’m not sure whether you even noticed the newborn in my arms, until I held her up to you and felt like I forced you into paying attention.

Before I went into hospital, you had told me excitedly that you intended to buy a helium balloon to celebrate the birth of my baby. I asked if you had bought one and you told me, yes, a lovely one. I asked where it was, thinking perhaps you had left it outside in the hospital corridor as a surprise. “Oh it’s outside our house,” came the reply. “All the neighbours have congratulated us and brought us cards and presents.” I never saw the balloon, and neither did Sophie.

We didn’t see you at all after that for about a month. And when I asked you why not, you said you were giving us space to adjust as a new family unit. My in-laws moved into our house for a week after we brought Sophie home from hospital. They cooked for us, kept the house clean, washed and dried countless baby clothes and let me rest when I needed to. My mother-in-law asked us why you had not visited and were not helping at all. We didn’t know why. We couldn’t understand why you weren’t falling over yourself to spend time with your new grandchild. But a year and a half later, you are still not interested and the penny is finally dropping. You don’t, and maybe never did, care – you are simply not interested in us, or our baby.

It would hurt less if you would just come clean and say as much. But instead we are stuck in this passive-aggressive little dance, with you forever pretending that you are interested in our baby, giving us just enough to keep us thinking that maybe things will change soon, that you really are just very busy at the moment and will make up for the missed opportunities for bonding and spending time with her, soon.

It’s true that you look after her for four hours every week while I spend time running a business. But that is completely on your terms. I drop Sophie off at your house and pick her up four hours later. You get defensive when I ask how you’ve spent the time, and quite often I think you lie to me about what she’s eaten and how much she’s slept. And you always make a point of having something else to do immediately afterwards, which means that Sophie and I must always leave straight away.

When we leave, we go to the local zoo or for a walk in the forest or to the park. Sometimes we meet up with a friend and their child. Usually it’s just me and Sophie, and that’s really fine, we like each other a lot. But when I see other children with their parents and grandparents, I can’t help feeling sad for her at your lack of interest.

Sometime during the first few months of Sophie’s life, your father, from whom you were estranged, died. You did not attend his funeral. You did, however, spend every weekend and some weekdays for about eight months, sorting through his house and looking through his old diaries for clues about his affairs and illegitimate children. Whenever I suggested we meet up, this was your excuse not to. You missed most of your granddaughter’s first year of life because you were sorting out the affairs of a man you hadn’t spoken to for 20 years.

Four weeks ago, my husband had a spinal injection for a slipped disc. You offered to help over the weekend and we gratefully accepted. But when you arrived at our house, you told us you would give us “a good hour”, took Sophie out in her pram, and returned exactly one hour later, to leave and go back home. We managed to have lunch in that time but nothing else. But we have to be so grateful for your help and support, because you continue to remind us of it for weeks afterwards. 

To our extended family, you keep an excellent pretence of being an involved grandmother. Sophie was unwell on Easter Sunday at my auntie’s house, and you made sure everyone could see how concerned you were. When we left early to try t0 settle her, you told me that you would call me the next day to see how she was. You haven’t called me on the phone for years, and I knew that there would be no call the next day. But I had to keep up the pretence for you in front of family, so I smiled and said, “OK, speak to you tomorrow.”

I wish I could call you out on your lies. Just say in front of everyone, you won’t call me because you never do. Please stop pretending to care when you really don’t. I have told my auntie that we communicate solely by email these days. She laughed because it’s so bizarrely funny. You never answer my phone calls and always say you don’t get my texts, so you’ve engineered the most formal way for us to stay in touch, and it’s hilarious. I get emails from you every now and then with the subject “Thursday” and the content being about how you’re meeting Janet for lunch at 1pm on Thursday so can I please collect Sophie as early as possible after you’ve looked after her.

About a year ago, I tried to have an honest conversation about all this. I said that I missed you and that I just wanted to spend time with you, and for Sophie to spend time with her granny. I said that we didn’t need space to adjust as a family, and that if you gave us any more space we might as well be estranged. You said that was mean and stormed out. I sent you an email to apologise. You did not reply. You ignored me for a few weeks, then everything gradually went back to how it was. We never spoke of it again and I daren’t bring it up in case you disappear completely from our lives.
Last week was perhaps the final straw for me (but then who’s counting?). I had a something a bit like a colonoscopy in a hospital an hour away. You looked after Sophie in my house while I drove myself to the hospital and back. When I got home, you had your coat on, ready to leave as soon as possible, to get home for the afternoon. Before you left, you lingered in the house, telling me how guilty you felt for leaving me and Sophie alone. I said you were welcome to stay, but you made your (see-through) excuses and left. I took Sophie to the zoo and we wandered around the animal enclosures, her laughing and falling over and waving hello to everyone we walked past, me feeling overwhelmingly sad and alone.

And so here we are at what feels like stalemate. I can’t go back to pretending that you care, but we can’t move forward to a more honest relationship. I’m happier than I’ve ever been in every aspect of my life except for my relationship with you. Maybe it will stay like this for years. 

The author uses a nom de plume

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