‘Mothercare’ takes a close look at what happens when duty outlives love
Of obligation, love, death and ambivalence
By Lynne Tillman
Illustrated. 161 pages. Flexible skull. $23.
Care work – caring for the sick, the very young or the very old – has long been denied the kind of recognition (and compensation) that such essential work deserves. Activists have argued that society should treat it as a social good, giving people the time and resources to care for their loved ones as needed.
But there is always the stubborn fact that for some people and some relationships, caregiving will always feel like a burden, no matter how diligently one tries to manage it. In “Mothercare,” novelist and critic Lynne Tillman delivers a surprising narrative in her stark, even brutal, rejection of sentimentality. “Mom’s body manipulation violated both her and me,” Tillman writes, recalling how she would help her mother use the bedside dresser. “Carrying it full from his bedroom to the toilet and throwing it away grossly disgusted me. I would gag, and it never stopped.
“Mothercare” traces the 11 years after the end of 1994, when Tillman’s mother began to show signs of dementia. Tillman and her siblings took on a series of full-time caregivers, the last living with their mother for a decade. The book is mostly made up of personal recollections, but Tillman occasionally offers explicit advice for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation. Finding a doctor: “Do what you must to get what you need – close attention, listening (you also need to listen well), genuine attention, candor, and truthfulness.” On how to deal with a doctor’s assumptions: “They can determine your load’s ability to get better, to get the right treatment” because “a doctor’s expectations can help or hurt your load.”
“Your charge” – that’s a useful term for Tillman, one she repeatedly deploys, evoking duty but not affection. She says she didn’t love her mother, though she sometimes tried to imagine her, clinging to an illusion to cope. She quotes an email to a doctor in which she refers to “Mom”, but in this book her mother is invariably “Mother”; formality suits the woman of Tillman’s memories – down to earth, competent, orderly. “I had respect for his intelligence or his cunning and practicality,” writes Tillman, in an attempt to give his mother her due. “Since the age of 6, I did not love my mother, but I did not wish her death.”
She also wished him no harm, but the disease was not something that Tillman, despite being “aware of death and dying from the age of 5”, had never given much thought to. His mother had always been an athletic person, whose physical stamina was so resilient that it persisted beyond her will to live. When she started saying she wanted to die, Tillman didn’t try to cheer up, knowing her mother would have sneered at anything but the harsh truth: “You will when it’s time, your body won’t. ain’t ready yet, and I’m sorry.”
Tillman is the youngest of three sisters, but “Mothercare” suggests there isn’t necessarily safety in numbers: “When multiple adults are in charge, a hell of resentment and conflict can overwhelm the functioning.” Tillman refers to “New York’s sister” and “Caroline’s sister” – their identities as characters are determined by their proximity to events. Tillman and his mother also lived in New York; when she wasn’t teaching, Tillman worked from home, and so she was tasked with picking things up and dropping them off at her mother’s – fulfilling a real need in the most literal sense, even if she couldn’t help but to feel as if his own life, his real life, was somewhere else. “As I walked away from my mother’s apartment, I breathed an air that was not hers,” she wrote. “It felt free.”
All freedom was made possible by Frances, an undocumented Caribbean woman who worked as a live-in caregiver, never being paid more than $640 a week. “She loved my mother,” writes Tillman. “Mom loved Frances.” Frances had her share of problems, but Tillman was too dependent on her to see them. Frances in turn depended on Tillman. “She’s part of the family, inevitably, though she never really is, because she can be fired,” Tillman writes. Where another writer might seek the most flattering light for herself, Tillman is unflinchingly candid about the power she knew she had: “I was aware of it, but I didn’t give up my privilege .”
How she feels now, after writing this book, is on display. Although one of his novels (“American Genius: A Comedy”) is about a woman whose mother has brain damage, Tillman says looking behind the canvas of fiction “is strange to me, very uncomfortable, even disturbing”. For her fiction, she can use experience, but not her “feelings”. She admits to mourning the death of her father but not that of her mother. His mother spoke reverently of his own mother, but Tillman didn’t believe it: “Someone whose mother loved him, I thought, whose mother was perfect – whatever – wouldn’t treat his own children like Mother did. That’s what I thought and think.
There’s something surprisingly retrograde about Tillman’s cross-generational maternal blame, but I guess there’s also something telling. About six weeks before she died, Tillman’s mother told him, “If I had wanted to be, I would have been a better writer than you.” It’s a hurtful comment, what Tillman considers (“petty,” “pathetic”). But the sequel to this book suggests that Tillman is too aware of ambiguity and ambivalence to reduce her mother to this caricature, supplementing it with a fuller portrait, almost in spite of herself.
Elsewhere in “Mothercare,” we get glimpses of a woman who took painting lessons, who scribbled her journal on steno pads, who wrote short stories about her cat. It wasn’t until Tillman was a teenager and her older sisters were out of the house that her mother had time for her. Could the “relentless rivalry” that Tillman attributes to a “selfish” and “competitive” mother be interpreted differently, as the terrible fallout from her mother’s stifled creativity, her thwarted ambition?
“I didn’t know her,” Tillman writes at the end, coming close to admitting that his mother may have been more than just the narcissist the hurt Tillman needs to think she was. “Having written this, I can still only speculate.”