“What I learned from two years of joint therapy with my mum”

Written by Georgina Lawton

After DNA tests revealed she wasn’t related to her late father, Georgina Lawton found therapy was the only way to heal the rift between her and her mother. Here, she shares her story.

If you’d have told me two years ago that I’d be discussing Mother’s Day gifts with my brother this year, I would have sneered at you with derision, shut the conversation down and told you I’d never celebrate this day again.

I didn’t think I could have a fully-functioning relationship with the woman who brought me into this world after a series of family tragedies and revelations brought havoc into our lives. But turning to therapy seems to have saved us. It’s opened up our relationship, which was shrouded in resentment and mystery, and bridged the chasm between us that I once thought was too vast and too wide to ever heal. And finally I know more about who my mother is.

Mum and I embarked on joint therapy around two years ago, when the foundations of our relationship lay in ruins. My dad – and mum’s husband of more than 20 years – had passed away in 2015, and both of us were grieving in very similar, but very separate, ways. We were united in a grief that was long and arduous, like wading through the unending waters of a dark swamp, but we couldn’t help each other through it.  

Our loss was complicated and confused by the fact that a year after dad died, I’d taken DNA tests which had revealed I wasn’t related to him. I’m mixed-race in appearance and my entire family is white, but whilst he was alive none of us had ever spoken about what this meant, or where I’d got my dark skin and curly hair. Dad had raised me without question. But the test results led to my mother finally confessing to an affair with a black man she now knows nothing about – and my entire world caved in on itself for the second time in a few short years.

Therapy was the only way the two of us could be in the same room at first. We started the sessions after some months spent apart, with a family counsellor called Lisa, in a small room in south London. When you go to a therapist, they don’t tell you what to discuss. I remember how, in our very first session, Lisa just asked us innocuous questions about our family set-up.

“And where’s Dad?” she probed softly. Then as mum and I crumbled and the whole story came tumbling out, we started the long process of delving into difficult conversations, together.

Anger characterised a lot of our early sessions. We couldn’t process the world without my father. And mum had gone so long without talking about my difference that I felt she was dismissive when I tried to talk about my experiences. Sometimes it felt as if I had rage for blood. I couldn’t look at my mother without raising my voice, or making an acidic jab about her parenting skills or her personality traits. 

I didn’t understand why mum and dad had never spoken about my heritage, and felt that by not doing so, they’d erased a large part of who I was. And because dad wasn’t around, criticising him left me feeling guilty, so it was mum who bore the brunt of my fury.

At times, mourning for the loss of my dad was overshadowed by the relationship troubles between mum and I. Deep-rooted anxieties about not belonging to my family had bubbled to the surface after 23 years and layered themselves over my grief, like a cold coating of frost. We we were supposed to be grieving dad, who was the lynchpin of our family. But instead we found our grief was twisted and turned into something ugly, which was weaponised between us. 

 Lisa therefore acted as more of a mediator at first – she helped my mother and I to listen to each other and stepped in when one was being unreasonable. 

But sometimes I felt like my mum was too defiant. “I did the best I could,” she said once. “Me and your father were always there for you and your brother – why do need to keep talking about your skin colour?”

I went hoarse from screaming that session. Yes, my childhood was defined by bedtime routines, homework help and happy holidays to Spain. But couldn’t she see that my white brother and I had experienced family life differently, all because of the colour of our skin? Didn’t she realise that in not speaking about my blackness, it had led me to internalise that there was something unspeakably wrong with me? That for years, I had been at war with the mirror, wondering where on earth I came from?

Finding the words to talk about my race with my mum after so long was freeing, like finally getting fitted for the right sized bra after years of squirming and not knowing why.I didn’t know how much I needed to tell my mum about the reality of my life until I started speaking. But sometimes it was too much for her to hear – she’d raised a black child without ever engaging with my blackness.I also felt that in a way, she resented me for challenging her parenting. There were sessions where she walked out, and others where I left in tears.  

Gradually though we started to hear one another, and therapy has changed our relationship for the better. We dutifully arrived week after week, come hail, rain or shine, and after a year and a half, we reached a turning point when one session ended in a heartfelt admission of love and forgiveness. 

Lisa had pointed out that in distancing herself from my experiences as a mixed, black woman for so many years, my mum had placed an impenetrable wall between us, which now had to come down brick by brick. She also noted that I’d let go of a lot of defensiveness and unfair accusations towards my mother, accepting that the erasure of my identity was accidental, that my parents did the best they could with a difficult situation, and that so much of my upbringing was filled with love, support and laughter. 

We’ve both helped each other through the darkest days of missing my dad, days where we feel his absence acutely: that first painful Christmas, his birthdays, our birthdays.

I’ve found that having therapy with a parent is like cracking a window into their soul. In just a few short months, you learn more about the person they are beyond their relationship with you, than you ever thought you could when you saw them in just their role as provider and caregiver to you. I once thought that my mother was naturally deceitful and thrived on secrecy, but I’ve listened to her open up about her childhood in rural, Catholic, Seventies Ireland. She was one of seven and went without hugs, ‘I-love-yous’ or open dialogues about relationships. It’s made me realise that she’s lacked the emotional toolkit to express herself like me. 

Not talking about infidelity and race for so long has definitely offered her safety and protection. Although she accepts that her actions were selfish at times, I’ve realised that holding back is her natural safe space. I can’t ever change that about her, so I’ve had to come to accept it.

We still go to therapy. And of course, some sessions are still ridiculously difficult. My mum’s got better at hearing me when I talk about race whereas previously she couldn’t relate, but sometimes we still clash. Both of us have also had to learn how to deal with the ebbs and flows of normal life in the absence of my father, and grief buries itself into our world at the most inconvenient of times. 

But when things get tough, each of us now knows what the other needs, safe in the knowledge that we’ve put our darkest days behind us.

Images: Unsplash, Getty, courtesy of author

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