The mother who didn’t love back

Review: Vivien Horler

My Mother, My Madness, by Colleen Higgs (deep south)

Very early in this brief journal-based memoir, Colleen Higgs writes: “My whole life has felt like a long deeply unsatisfying love affair with my mother.  She is the beloved who doesn’t love back.”

How hard it must be, to assume the care of a person who is not really interested in you, but demands a lot of you. And Higgs tries to be a dutiful daughter, while running a business – the publishing company Modjaji – and dealing with her not entirely satisfactory husband and her young (entirely satisfactory) daughter.

Patchily, this journal tells the story of the last 10 years of her mother’s life, while she is living in a “luxury retirement resort” near Century City. Sally suffers from depression, has made numerous suicide attempts, has been diagnosed as bi-polar and has early onset dementia. She frequently fails to take her meds.

Higgs has three siblings, two of whom are living in South Africa at the start of this memoir, but Higgs, the eldest, is the one who has taken responsibility for their mother’s care. She buys Sally’s clothes and toiletries, pays the bills, makes doctor’s appointments, and visits, but not very often.

Most Sundays she thinks of fetching Sally home for lunch, but rarely does, partly because she finds the whole experience emotionally exhausting. It doesn’t help that her husband, Adam, doesn’t like having his mum-in-law around. Higgs feels guilty much of the time. She is compassionate of her mother, but adds: “It’s such an odd concoction of love, guilt, duty, anger, resentment, longing.”

Once a month Higgs goes online to order her mother’s requirements – and they are extraordinary.  Sally needs four packs of double-ply loo rolls – she goes through a roll a day; and 70 2litre bottles of Coke. I had to read that twice – 70 2litre bottles of Coke. That’s about 4litres of Coke a day, which is the only liquid she drinks. No wonder her teeth fall out.

She is also a chain smoker who gets through around 90 Rothmans a day. This gives rise to problems at the care centre, as does her habit of flushing soiled “broeks” down the loo.

The retirement centre has a garden, a gym and a swimming pool but Sally, who is in her 60s, mostly stays in her room on her recliner, drinking Coke, smoking and watching TV.

Fortunately for her own mental health, Higgs sees a therapist regularly and she helps Higgs be “objective about despair, my own complexes, and myself”.

Because of her relationship with Sally, Higgs worries about whether she is a good mother, a good enough mother, to seven-year-old Kate. Is she too soft, is she keeping Kate too dependent? It’s not always easy to tell the right thing to do.

This is a searing and insightful look at the life of a woman who has been permanently scarred by the person who was supposed to nurture her. Higgs’s life is chaotic, mundane and anxiety-provoking. There are moments of contentment and humour, and things do get slightly better. She muses towards the end: “When you have a mother like Sally, how do you recover?” But Higgs staunchly goes on trying.

This is the second Cape Town-based memoir about a child’s relationship with an unstable mother to appear in a handful of months: the first was Brent Meersman’s A Childhood Made Up: Living with my mother’s madness.

“Mad” mothers may make interesting memoirs but I thank God for our late mum, Thora, who was funny, warm, brisk and interested in us and, on wet winter days when we came home from school, often had a fire burning in the grate.



2 thoughts on “The mother who didn’t love back

  1. David Bristow

    Yo! I remember when you reviewed Meersman’s book, I mentioned “we” had had a bi-polar mother, However, when she was good she could be very good, so that kind of made life tolerable. And her husband , our saintly father, loved and cared for her to the end. Big mercies to be grateful for.


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