“How are things going with Carol then?” is the inevitable question my friends ask me when I explain I have been living with my parents for the past nine months. They ask the question in a humorous way, but underneath I sense genuine concern. Not just because for most of my adolescence my mother and I were at war (and still do enjoy the rare showdown), but also because at 28, moving back in with my parents is somewhat of a taboo. I should be independent. I should be self sufficient. I should be a grown up.
I was more surprised than anyone when my sister and I decided to ride out the lockdown with our parents, leaving our flat in Islington for what we thought might be a couple of weeks of novelty working from home. Falling back into old childhood battles about the dishwasher or my “unbelievably abrasive attitude” had always been enough of a deterrent to return, but the allure of our family home, abutting the edge of a National Trust park, with its quiet nooks for work and beautiful garden, was too much to resist. The only worry in both camps was if my mother and I could call a truce.
I tend to favour big dramatic acts of rage (plate smashing, door slamming, screaming fits) she has mastered the devastating dismissal
To give some context, Carol and I have been engaged in some form of combat since before I was born. She likes to tell people when they ask about my childhood that I “was a problem from day one” due to the fact I was both breech and growing outside of the embryonic sack. I reply it is her who is at fault for creating such an inhospitable environment. The point is though, for nearly the past three decades, we have perfected the art of domestic warfare. While I tend to favour big dramatic acts of rage (plate smashing, door slamming, screaming fits) she has mastered the devastating dismissal. Those caught in the crossfire can only pray.
Our most iconic contest came around my 14th birthday. After a particularly nuclear encounter in which my Mum refused to take my best friend and I to Blockbusters to rent Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, I decided the only solution would be to get the film myself. Rather than allowing my teenage temper tantrum to crescendo in a dramatic runaway, my mother curb crawled us the entire way using the cruise control in her glossy new Mercedes, occasionally rolling down the window to make some remark about how ridiculous I looked. It was both mortifying and brilliant.
Another more regular battlefield was in the changing rooms of the local shopping centre. Looking back it was the perfect storm really. I wanted to wear what all my fellow 13-year-old stick insect friends were wearing despite having the body type of a well fed 35-year-old woman and my mother believes tact is for the weak. I would pull back the curtain wearing a rah-rah skirt, or some other hideous item three sizes too small and Mum would take one look and deliver the crushing “I don’t think so” I knew was coming. Despite me sobbing and shouting and often storming off, Mum would traipse around with me from shop to shop until I found something I felt good in, which was usually the thing she had suggested five hours earlier. Her smugness at being right all along would accompany us the whole drive home.
In case I have given you the wrong impression I should mention now that my mother is a remarkable person. She is both reassuringly robust as well as deeply loving, vastly intelligent with the capability of being wickedly funny. My confidence, curiosity and sheer force of personality all stem from her as well as my penchant for luxury travel and the ability to make the perfect cup of tea. For the past 28 years she has been the perfect teacher and ally. All fool me for taking so long to realise it.
The joy of rediscovering my parents within the context of adulthood is at the top of my list for 2020
But realise I have. When listing everything I am grateful for, an age old tradition I do at this time every year, the joy of rediscovering my parents within the context of adulthood is at the top for 2020 (alongside the purchase of a despicably impractical white Chanel handbag which we can talk about another time). I now empathise with Mum’s need to always have her voice heard and to control logistics with militant command, because I need exactly the same things. Her mantra, “you can’t look after anyone else unless you look after yourself first,” suddenly seems the best life advice around, rather than an example of how deeply selfish I used to accuse her of being. Now my teenage pride has cooled off, I consult her on everything from how best to clean a loo, to where I should go on holiday.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still areas where we differ enormously. I am highly emotional and materialistic; both characteristics I don’t inherit from my maternal side. I also force myself on new people with a deeply undignified confidence while Mum is much more reserved. We also still argue. Yesterday I told her that I despised everything about her when she refused to hand over the kitchen appliance I needed at the time, but now our bounceback rate is so quick we were happily planning the last minute Christmas shopping list together five minutes later. The difference is the threat of an atomic argument no longer lingers. This time round it’s only friendly fire.
So while mum has always understood me, probably better than anyone ever will, it has taken until these last nine months for the feeling to become mutual. The next stage to this process will be if I have children of my own who, no doubt, will partake in the same psychological warfare I did from the age of zero to 27(ish). Of course if this is going to happen at some point I’ll have to move back out. But for now, I’m quite happy living in this strange limbo alongside a mother who, it turns out, is really quite marvellous. All it took was a global pandemic to make me realise.