Saturday, January 24, 2015

My mother is a psychotherapist

One of my daughters wrote this piece and I post it here with her permission, along with some name changes to preserve privacy.  

My mother is a psychotherapist of the psychoanalytic variety. She’s the kind of therapist you’d explain your childhood to, your dreams, perhaps your repressed sexual fantasies. My mother would never describe herself as a Freudian, but he is the ‘grandfather of psychoanalysis’, so he’s hard to escape.

I first learned about Freud’s life and work in Grade Six. I'd seen his name in my mother’s consulting room, on the spines of books that were all the same, but had different numbers at the bottom.  I’d heard her say his name.

When I picked up a book in our classroom with Freud’s name and face on the cover, I knew I had to borrow it. It was one of a collection of books on important people’s lives and work. Churchill was there, and Marie Curie, among others. But Freud was a guy I needed to know about. He reminded me of photographs I’d seen of my grandfather. A serious European gentleman with dark framed round glasses.

I took Freud home with me, and my mother was tickled by my interest. I felt this was the first step to understanding the adult world, my parents’ world. I can’t remember what I read in that book, except for the chapter on ‘Penis Envy’, because I showed my friends and we giggled. But I knew this man was important. He knew things about people and how they worked, and my mother had his books in her room, and I wanted to know about him.

My mother practices from home. Ever since I can remember, the doorbell rang on the hour, and my mother travelled down the hallway, opened the front door, and let her patient in. The patients sat, or sometimes lay down on what my mother called a couch, but was more like a bed, in the front room of our house. 

The room was beige, red and brown. On one side were two large chocolate brown armchairs. They sat like giants, facing each other, silent and solemn. As a child I saw in them crinkled faces, broad arms, and solid legs. Sitting in them swallowed me.  

On the other side was the large red bed, with a hard pillow at one end and an itchy throw rug at the other. It was not like my bed, there was no doona or soft toys. A beige carpet covered the floor. It was the only fully carpeted room in our house – the rest was parquetry.

This room was different, special. In the centre, a rectangular coffee table stood on top of another carpet – Persian with swirls of colour. I squished my bare toes into the carpet, or lay on the Persian rug, arms and legs spread like a star. It was the softest, and cleanest rug in the house.

The cats were not allowed in here. Between the two chairs there were two high windows. Rich, velvet red curtains draped the sides, but they were never drawn. Instead, lace curtains and frosted glass blocked out the sticky beaks.

The door to this room was mostly closed, but I was allowed in when it wasn’t in use. 

I would push down the door handle – it was different to all the others, you didn’t twist it, you pushed it. The door squeaked open; the sound buffer at the base lifted off the floor. I often walked around the room, picked up and inspected objects I had seen many times before. A small glass vase with a tiny opening held dried flowers, a wooden bowl my father had made, and a table lamp with a push switch underneath the shade.

These objects seemed deliberate and meaningful, like the bits and pieces I kept in a special box in my wardrobe. But the objects in my mother’s consulting room were serious and adult; they held a different kind of power.

They were always in the same spot. Perfectly placed on a table, or shelf. In my box I kept a friendship bracelet, my sister’s old mobile phone, and a gold plated frill-neck lizard pendant I bought at Sovereign Hill. I tried hard to make them mean something, to make them important and significant.

Sometimes I picked them up, one by one, and placed them back in the box. I inspected them, contemplated their purpose, and outlined the reasons why I kept them. But the mysterious objects in my mother’s consulting room had seen and heard things that I could only wonder about. They had absorbed the mystery and the adultness the room, and my mother’s occupation, held.

My siblings and I, and my father, weren’t allowed to leave or enter the house when patients arrived. My mother is a reasonable woman. She didn’t make rules unless they were needed and I respected that the things she decreed were important, even when I flouted them.

But patients were off limits. We weren’t supposed to see them, or interact with them. We avoided them. If I asked my mother about her patients and their lives, she told me of the importance of patient therapist confidentiality, of boundaries, of the sacred privacy of her work. I understood. I could take on the responsibility.

The rhythm of my mother’s sessions ran my day as a child, and I respected and enjoyed the pattern. It was always the same. At ten to the hour, she let her patient out. I heard the outside come in, the sounds of trams and cars, and then the front door clicked shut and the patient was gone. In the ten minutes between her sessions, when she sometimes gobbled down a snack or skulled a cup of tea, I snuck in to see my mother. That was our time – the ten minute increments allotted to me.

“Mum, I hate Helen,” I often told her. Helen was my nanny when I was seven or eight. She cried a lot because the father of her child was “a real arsehole” (as mum told us), and had left her. Helen’s son, Ben, was the worst kid I had ever met. He broke things, he screamed, he ran around our house shrieking. I hated him. I hated being left with him. He was snotty and out of control, and played with my Lego without asking.

When I told my mother how much I hated Helen and Ben, she told me that life was hard for them, and I needed to understand this. It made me cross that Helen cried and that she didn’t tell Ben off when he was naughty. 

This was not how things should be. She was the mother, and he was the child. Mothers were supposed to help people. They were supposed to help their children be better.

At this point in my life, I didn’t know exactly what my mother did, but I knew she helped people. She talked to them and they talked to her, and sometimes they cried. She did what she was supposed to do, as a mother, and I accepted her role, and her fifty-minute absences entirely. I see her room as sacred, it was where she did her work, and saved other people, helped them be better. I didn’t mind sharing her.

My mother worked on Saturday mornings. She had two sessions and finished before 10am. One Friday night, a girl from school, Ellen, slept over. We were friends, but I found her annoying, and she only came over when her mother asked if she could. Ellen was a ‘difficult’ child, my parents told me. But we should be kind to her, and be her friend. 

I dobbed on Ellen in Prep when she stood on a table while the teacher was outside the classroom.  She was sent down to Kinder for the day. I didn’t like the way she flaunted the rules, but Ellen and I had fun together, most of the time.

One Saturday morning after our sleepover, my mother was with a patient, I told Ellen, and when we were in the hallway we must be quiet, and we must keep the door closed when we’re in the kitchen because the noise will carry. 

We played on the floor in the kitchen with my Barbies. I liked dressing and undressing them, putting shoes on their tiny pointed feet, brushing their hair. I was preoccupied with tasks such as these, so I didn’t notice Ellen stand up and walk towards the hallway door.

By the time I realised, it was too late. I looked up and saw she had gone and the hallway door was open. I got up to try and find where she was. I looked down the hallway and saw Ellen at my mother’s consulting room door, hand poised to knock.

The door opened and I saw my mother’s blonde curls poking out. I couldn’t hear what they said. She closed the door, and Ellen walked back up to the kitchen, and to me. 

My face was red and hot. My throat was claggy and it was hard to swallow. I looked at Ellen and I wanted to hit her, to punch her, until she said sorry. 

How could she violate the sacredness of my mothers’ room? How could she dare to attempt to pass the threshold? I was so angry I almost couldn’t speak. 

“Why did you do it?” I said.
“I wanted to know what the room looked like,” she said. 

Ellen’s mother came to pick her up an hour later, and I spent the day in my room with the door closed, simmering with rage.

When people find out what my mother does, and where she practices, they ask me if I’m comfortable with it. “Aren’t you worried about these people coming to your house?”
“They’re just people like you and me.” That’s what my mother always said, when my siblings and I asked about the strangers who rang the doorbell.

Sometimes people ask, “Aren’t you curious about the people your mother sees?” 

There isn’t room for curiosity  The constant reminder of confidentiality and privacy I received since a child dampened my curiosity. The line was drawn, thick and strong. 

Even as a child, when I picked up those objects in the consulting room, hoping to absorb some adult sensibility from within them, I stopped myself from trying to discern what they had seen and heard. 

I know my mother worried about how her children, the offspring of a therapist, would turn out. Would we feel neglected or ignored? Would we feel these other strangers who rang the doorbell were more important to her?

In fact, my mother’s work provided me with a structure, a pattern, and an authority that comforted me as a child. She was a mother, helping people, as mothers should, and Freud was the man who told her how to do it.

I see things in a different light now, obviously. The world is messier, less black and white. Old men don’t often connect with authority to me anymore, and women aren't always maternal.

Little did I know, when attempting to absorb the power of those objects in my mothers consulting room, I was trying to enter a world that I would have found far too confusing, far too complex than I could have coped with then.

My mother’s consulting room is still beige, red, and brown. She refuses to change it because it might disturb her patients. The chairs are different, but they are still large and brown. The bed is new, but it is still the same shade of red. It holds few mysteries to me now. I know it well. Its musty smell is unchanged.

The objects are still the same, same vase, same lamp. When I enter our house through the front door I pass the two high windows of her consulting room. Sometimes I take a quick look through the window and see the outline of a figure lying on the red bed. The frosted glass and the lace curtains prevent me from seeing a clear picture. 

That’s how it should be, though, so I look away.


Christine said...


PhilipH said...

Absorbing account and perfectly written.

It held my interest right to the end. A classic study.

I shall read it all over again later today. Such a remarkable piece. Love every word.

John the Gardener said...

Held me until the last word, could have kept reading for hours.

Jim Murdoch said...

At the moment I’m editing my novel The More Things Change. I don’t want to spoil it for you but one of the things that happens in the book is a man loses his memory. Nothing prior to his fortieth birthday is available to him, nothing personal that is; the doctors are baffled but there’s good reason. So he has to rely on family and friends to build up a picture of who he was and, of course, who he was or at least the man people describe to him doesn’t feel in any way like who he is or at least who he seems to be; there’s hardly a page in the book without the word ‘seems’ on it. I wonder if you interviewed people from my past what picture you’d get of me? It wouldn’t be Jim-the-writer; that’s a given. My daughter was over at Christmas with her new beau—it’s the word I feel most comfortable using to describe the man she’s now living with—and at one point she asked me, “Dad, how long is it since you retired?” Retired? Moi? Well, of course, for all intents and purposes I am retired but she’s the first one to ever describe me as retired. I don’t mind but it doesn’t feel like me. In my head I work every day. I just don’t get paid for it. I have a routine that varies little from one day to the next and about the only real difference now from when I had a paid job is I no longer treat the weekend as anything different from any other day. I have a picture in my head of what retired people do and this isn’t it. But, clearly, this is how my daughter sees me. Maybe ‘retired’ makes her feel better about me being jobless; perhaps that’s how she copes. For a while it did bother me but that’s because my identity for years revolved around being a worker, a hard worker, the indispensable employee. Took a while to shake that off.

So it’s interesting to see how your daughter presents the character of her mother: mum-the-psychotherapist. The picture’s incomplete though because there’ll also be a mum-the-mum who’ll be every bit as valid as the woman we have presented in this delightful wee essay. What I find interesting is reconciling the image of you I have in my head with the person I see presented here. I’ve known what you do for a living for years. It’s never bothered me nor—a little to my surprise—interested me that much. I’d be curious to see your daughter write a companion piece to this: ‘My mother is a writer’. I wonder what that would reveal about you. And her.

I don’t know you. Not really. But Jim-the-writer gets on well with Lis-the-writer and that’s enough. Because that’s life. It’s all we have time for. Your patients get on with Lis-the-psychotherapist and although your daughter’s aware of the existence of Lis-the-writer, Lis-the-psychotherapist, Lis-the-wife and maybe some other Lis we’ve yet to hear about (Lis-the belly-dancer?) she undoubtedly gets on best with Lis-the-mum or maybe—hopefully—you’ve progressed to the Lis-the-friend-who-happens-to-be-my-mum-too stage. As it should be.

Kass said...

Stunningly edgy and compelling.

Karen C said...

What a beautifully written piece. What was your reaction when you read it? I read respect and pride in her words about her mother.
I am just starting to hear my sons thoughts on my parenting and for some reason I am always surprised about the positive and the things that did or did not matter.

Unknown said...

What a beautifully-told story—made it sound surreal and dream-like, this psycho-analytic world that belonged to adults. And the sacredness of the room, its furniture, its icons, and its patients. I loved the anecdote about the visiting friend who dared breach the sacred barrier! Your daughter is one helluva writer! I hope she writes more ... Thank you for sharing this with us, Elisabeth.

mm said...

Love it.

sarah toa said...

Well done, your girl. A beautiful insight into your world.
Thanks :~)