I was never indifferent – that isn't fair – but I was cold. Looking back now at the years after I left home, aged 18 and two weeks, I feel ashamed at just how deliberately cold I was. I went to university in London, ushering my mother out of my halls of residence and never looking back. The youngest of five children, my teenage years felt loud and claustrophobic. Leaving home was my release; and I felt I had so much to prove. Not least of which was that I didn't need my mum any more.
I didn't call home that first year, not properly. I would check in with texts every now and again; there were the occasional emails. After my first year of studying, I went to Australia for three months and my phone wouldn't work. I called from a pay phone on my 19th birthday and it was the only morsel I allowed my mum, who knowing her like I do now – must have been worried sick, crying herself to sleep by her phone, waiting to hear from me.
When the defiance faded, habit remained, and for the years that followed I called rarely and visited home only for birthdays and Christmases. My mum was my mum: a lovely, warm, one-dimensional presence I loved fiercely, but didn't know well. She was there if I needed her, but I didn't. And I never felt the lack because I didn't know any better.
That started to change a few years ago, around when I turned 30. It was gradual; my weekly calls to Mum slowly became daily. The six-monthly visits became once a month, and then every couple of weeks. My adult life had always been so much about aggressively moving forward – partying, working, friends, boyfriends. But as I got older, I partied less, relaxed into work and many of my friends fell away to start families.
There was an odd sort of vacuum left but she was there, full of affectionate wisdom and stories of her own. I realised my mum had so much to say, and I hadn't been listening. When I started working from home last year, I realised I wasn't tied to London in the same way anymore. Not physically or emotionally. I wanted to do something different; I wanted to go home.
So, after 15 years away, working and living in London, in March I sold my zone-two flat and bought a terraced cottage in a Cambridgeshire village. I have a nearby river, a tiny pub, and – most crucially – my mum's house, just a six-minute walk away, where she lives with her partner Nigel (my parents split 15 years ago). It's hard to describe just how happy my mum was about my decision. I don't think she dared believe I was really doing it until I was there with boxes. We've never really had a conversation about the distance we had before. I think – having had four kids before me – she knows it's natural for children to pull away, but I am keenly aware of just how happy she is now that I'm back, emotionally and physically. She says it often.
Could you move back in with your mother? These women have and are loving it.
My world has become smaller and slower. I write in my conservatory, with two sleeping dogs at my feet. At lunchtimes I walk them through the fields and, in the evening, we head to my mum's house, where we sit and drink decaf tea and sometimes sherry. We play cards and giggle and talk about every little inconsequential thing. It is not like the mother-daughter relationship we had when I was growing up, which was always punctuated by teen angst and endless sulking (both me), and it's certainly not the relationship we've had in the last 15 years. It's so much better; so much closer.
In the last six months I've learned more about my mum than I have in 33 years of knowing her. I've learned about her life before us; her loves and losses, growing up in the sixties, about the relationship with her own mum and dad. She's my parent and my best friend; a difficult, emotional, vulnerable, funny, giggly, 3D person full of love and Catholic guilt.
I don't have a definitive answer as to why I did this. Quite a few of my friends have moved closer to their families in the last few years – but they've done it because it was the sensible option. They have babies and need free childcare and emotional support.
But that's not my situation. I'm resolutely single and happy about it. I don't want children, and it's not like I was lonely or sad in London. But I do want to forge closer bonds with the people I won't get to keep forever. Because, without being morbid, I am aware we can't have this forever. My mum is 67 and has had a few health problems in recent months, which has meant that there are increasingly moments where our roles are reversed. I supervise GP appointments and scold her for doing too much. This used to be something I was afraid of – something to keep me far away and distant. It was my biggest selfish fear, but I'm not afraid any more.
Mothers are so often presented as single-faceted. They are the smiling woman in a butter advert; the soft lilac font on a greetings card. Always available, always kind, always nurturing. And my mum is all those things, but it took me moving back to understand she is also a human being. And it took me 15 years of pulling away from her to understand that I want to be close; that I really like this fully-rounded, flawed person she is under all that mum. She gives me the comfort of a shared history and emotional connection no one else can offer. She is my mother and my friend. And I am so happy I get to be her daughter.
Lucy Vine's latest novel, What Fresh Hell, (Orion) is out now.
This story was first published on our sister site, Grazia
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