On the shelf
Mothercare: On Commitment, Love, Death and Ambivalence
Soft Skull: 176 pages, $23
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Not long ago, while talking about my mom and dad aging, I found I was revealing an uncomfortable truth. “I’ve become what I never wanted to be,” I blurted out. “The dutiful son.” It’s a moment that stands for me as a signifier, as a symbol of what changes as the parents grow old. As Lynne Tillman puts it in her latest book, Mothercare: On Obligation, Love, Death, and Ambivalence, “People do things they don’t imagine they can and later they wonder at themselves. Adrenaline , will, stubbornness, blindness, ignorance, you get through. I performed the good daughter, my heart wasn’t in it, my conscience was. We sisters were all driven by conscience. That’s nothing bad.”
Tillman’s mother died in 2006 after more than 11 years of dependence “on her three daughters … and on doctors, attendants, helpers, physical therapists and other professionals.” Embarking on any version of this journey makes her book a cautionary tale for me. More than that, it represents an examination of the question of duty or conscience, what we owe or want to give to the people in our lives. “I often wonder,” Tillman mused in a recent email conversation, “how conscience, a superego, develops and how conscientiousness develops. … My conscience led to my sense of duty.”
Part of that meant not abandoning her siblings, an intention I share. And yet, even if we go through it all together, we all experience it for ourselves. “This is an incomplete picture,” Tillman writes in the book, “told from my point of view and possibly to my advantage, although I hope to be able to write against that bias.” Writing, yes, and living too.
Tillman and I have been friends for over 30 years; We met in 1991, shortly after her novel Motion Sickness came out. “The burden of responsibility attracts me in moderation,” she writes there. “I get seasick on ferries, even when the water is calm.” Such sensitivity also motivates “Mothercare”. Among the most resonant aspects of her mother’s demise is the way she casts even the most mundane interactions in a new light, reversing the polarity of the parent-child relationship.
“It was never a normal life,” Tillman admits, looking at the years of care and describing a kind of mental dizziness. I saw it as my grandfather lay dying, as his world grew smaller and more constrained. Now, a generation later, I see it differently.
Aging is claustrophobic, can we just put it that way? Not just for the person aging, but also for those providing care. There are no templates for dealing with dynamics. There are no guidelines, no standards or rules. “I didn’t have a model for nursing,” Tillman confided to our correspondence. “I had no idea what was coming or how to deal with anything. … I had never read anything that reported on the big and small. So many people care about others, and more has been written about emotional strengths or weaknesses. … I saw the need to be specific and hoped in that way to help others, at least to inform them as best I could.”
In part, such specificity is evident in advice on how to deal with doctors and medications, as well as an age-neglecting medical facility. “Some don’t treat the elderly well enough, others are condescending,” writes Tillman. “Older people represent mortality.”
Tillman also writes with emotional specificity while focusing on her own experience; She’s reticent about revealing too much — about her mother, yes, but also about her siblings. “I mention my sisters sparingly,” she told me, “but don’t write what they thought or felt. … I also don’t use their names and use initials for mother’s doctors. I protect the innocent and the guilty.” This is the ethical dilemma faced by any writer trying to make the private public. At the same time, Tillman is strict about how she reveals herself. Most striking is her attitude towards her mother; “I felt,” she bluntly put it in an email, “mother didn’t deserve my care.”
For the reader, there is something refreshing about Tillman’s honesty, which transforms “Mothercare” from a record or logbook into a work of art. After all, what she’s suggesting is something I’ve long believed: relationships don’t change as people get sick or get old, they just become more of what they were. They deepen, solidify. And yet, when Tillman addresses her difficulties with her mother head-on, it doesn’t mean she’s lacking in empathy. How could it be otherwise when her mother is confronted with what she will one day experience herself? How could it be otherwise when they share so much history? Call it respect, call it devotion, call it conscience again.
“In the beginning,” Tillman tells us, “I imagined mothercare would be like raising a child … but unlike a child, she wouldn’t grow up and become stronger, more independent — she failed, sometimes better, but always.” even closer in case of death.”
I quote this passage with a certain trepidation. I quote this passage with a tightness in my throat. I quote this passage because I see the implications, which I become more familiar with when I move into territory I am unprepared for. This is a use of personal narrative. That’s the stuff they don’t teach. That’s the balm of seeing yourself in someone else’s story. It’s a different form of empathy.
And empathy is the common space that connects us, what we have when it’s all done. Duty, compassion, conscience: from parent to child, from child to parent and back again. “I felt compelled,” Tillman insisted via email, “to discuss the complexities of nursing as honestly as possible without protecting myself.” Her clarity in pursuing such a process is both a comfort and an appeal.
Ulin is a former book editor and book critic for The Times.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-09-29/how-lynne-tillmans-mothercare-helped-me-face-my-aging-parents-future How Lynne Tillman’s ‘Mothercare’ helped me face my aging parents’ future