Not every woman wants children. Not every woman should have them. Canadian journalist Leah McLaren had one of those mothers, the reluctant kind.
There are few human pairings more intense than mother-daughter; here is one of them under the microscope, helpful for everyone considering parenthood in these fraught times.
I knew both of them — McLaren was a fellow columnist at the Globe and Mail in the Aughts, her mother, Cecily Ross, was a copy editor — and I remember a time of constant puzzlement if not crisis.
McLaren was something Canadian journalism had rarely seen before, young and a beauty in an industry that didn’t attract such people, with her own column, a fact that enraged and attracted ambitious men and women unused to women with such power. She drew desire and resentment, repelled by male interest but amused by it, too.
As I read McLaren’s remarkable memoir of her strangled relationship with her complicated mother — to which Ross initially gave her backing — many details fall into place. McLaren finds value in the theory of “enmeshment” credited to Argentinian therapist Salvador Minuchin, enmeshment being a kind of emotional incest by parents in which the parent depends on the child for support.
McLaren wrote “Where You End and I Begin” after moving to the U.K., marrying an English journalist and becoming the devoted mother of two boys. Like every parent, she wishes to understand her distorted, enmeshed early life and not repeat her parents’ mistakes. But it’s like unmixing paint.
When Ross was 12, she was raped by a man she called “the Horseman,” a riding instructor at a local stable who went on to abuse her for years. “What happened to my mother as a child completely screwed up her templates for love,” McLaren tells me. “I still don’t think she can entirely face that.”
Child abuse victims can grow up obeisant to men, without boundaries, unable to complain about male cruelty. Ross showed flashes of this, yet at that same time she wrote a peculiar piece in Chatelaine magazine basically saying she regretted having had children, a pointless shivving of her own famous daughter that left McLaren shocked and hurt.
Even this week, Ross is tweeting hateful poems about her daughter: “I thought I knew you; what did I know? / Your beauty fooled me, all charm and glow. / Since you betrayed me I marvel so / That I believed in your charm and glow.”
What the Horseman did to her mother’s mind, McLaren writes, was to create “a set of limitations when it came to her ability to love or be loved — especially by me, her elder daughter.”
According to McLaren, Ross was unable or unwilling to mother her two little daughters normally. She was, and this is not said lightly, a resentful parent, leaving one child with her gentle ex-husband Jim when she left her rural Cobourg housewife role for a bigger life with eight-year-old Leah in tow, splitting the girls forever. (I like Jim. Everyone does. His brain is clear, distant from the toxic family soup.)
What Ross ended up with was not very big, the hardscrabble life of borderline poverty, having inherited hippie values — subjection to the male — that distorted the lives of so many women whose lives crossed with the Sixties.
She pasted a sign on the mustard-coloured fridge, “Commitment Sucks the Life Right Out of You,” a scary message for a child to see. But like some women of her era — modern women are discarding this doomed search — she hungered for a new man and sobbed over her many failures.
At home, the enmeshment was extreme. According to McLaren, Ross used the little girl as a confidant, bringing her into bed at night for self-comfort as she sobbed over sexual disasters. Yet she disliked the child’s hunger for maternal love and declined basic parental responsibilities.
Working at a magazine, Ross asked McLaren to babysit for an older colleague and his wife. The man then became the teen’s sexual predator and stalker. “He has wolfish hair,” McLaren writes, “but his mouth reminds me of a rabbit’s: searching lips and eager buck teeth. There is hair growing from the cavern of his ear.”
Leah adored her pet hamster. She says her mother disliked it and put it outside in winter to freeze to death, which it duly did. When Leah, then in Grade 9, told her she’d had sex for the first time, Ross didn’t much object. That’s hippie mothering.
McLaren writes. “‘If only I were young and beautiful like you, Leah,’ my mother takes to remarking wistfully during this time. ‘Then I could find someone to love me too.’”
The memoir is painful, a dense and elaborate tale of a child’s mystification and distress, a young woman’s mistakes in love, a new mother’s continuing love for an impossible parent. She wants her mother to see her for what she is, not friend or enemy but simply a daughter.
“Parents will always love their children more than their children love them,” is a line from an Alan Bleasdale TV drama, “Jake’s Progress.” I thought it a deep truth all of my life but now wonder if I was mistaken.
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