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I lived my mother's “unlived life”

Lisa Marks’ mother taught her to pursue independence. Neither of them knew, though, how that path had its own challenges and pitfalls

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By Lisa Marks on

I remember as a teenager, in the early 1980s, sitting in the kitchen of our townhouse in the so-called posh area of Southend-on-Sea, Thorpe Bay, watching my mum angrily wrestle clothes into the washing machine. She was telling me in no uncertain terms how I should live my life and why I shouldn't make the same mistakes she had. Mostly, it was to do with men and why I should avoid them. I would roll my eyes, before stomping three floors up to play Duran Duran records in my bedroom.

“Be independent”, “Never rely on a man”, “Never get married”, “Don't have kids.” It was extremely wearing and difficult for me to listen to, but I heard it over and over again. The anti-male diatribe would gush from her lips in the same way syrupy fizzy drinks would pour out of our newly purchased SodaStream.

If she'd have been born just five short years later, she may have been able to swerve the tail-end of 50s drudgery, marriage and kids entirely. She may have lived a glorious Swinging 60s/Swingers 70s single life full of excitement, entrepreneurship and lone decision-making. But she wasn't. She was trapped (her words).

So, when I heard political activist and journalist Gloria Steinem tell Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs recently, “I suspect, like many women, I'm living the unlived the life of my mother,” I identified. 

I’ve had this “unlived life” conversation with my mum a few times recently. She's now 76 and I'm in my mid-forties and so we're at an interesting stage where we can both discuss old times with a fresh perspective.

She married my dad in 1960, when she was 21, because “that's what you did. I had no choice”. She always wanted to be independent – make her own money and decisions. She certainly didn't want to be restricted by any domestic shackles.

But, like many women of her era, she was – and she made no secret of the fact that she felt this way – somewhat strangled by her home, her husband and her two children. How I wished back then she would have kept some of that to herself.

My life as a single woman has been exceptional. I've hit many career highs, travelled extensively and lived abroad. But it's also been exceptionally challenging

By the time of the Duran Duran eye-roll, we were living in Thatcher's Britain, which meant that a woman was in the top job. Women now had freedom, shoulder pads and wine bars. No one expected me to marry the first guy I dated or take a back seat in any area of my life. To my mum, it was like heaven had arrived, while I didn't know any different.

Like many of my generation, I put work above everything else. The irony is that I always thought I would have not just a career, but meet the love of my life, have children and create a loving and stable home for them all. It didn't happen. Bad choices, bad luck or subliminal messaging?

The good news for my mum is that I most certainly lived her unlived life. The thing is, though, I'm not entirely happy about it.

My life as a single woman has been exceptional. I've hit many career highs, travelled extensively and lived abroad. But it's also been exceptionally challenging. When the recession hit a few years ago, it would have been lovely to be supported emotionally, spiritually and, yes, maybe financially.

Mum watched me struggle through tough times as my life played out the opposite of hers. Recently, sitting in my kitchen, she admitted, “I didn't realise what I had. I wouldn't have your life for anything. It's just too hard.”

This time, I didn't flounce off to my bedroom, I just smiled at this 180-degree bombshell revelation. It appears that I've lived my mother's unlived life so well she's actually become nostalgic for what she had.

She now tells me often that her children are “the best thing in her life”, how proud she is of us and that she “had it good”. It must have been awful for her to have been so unhappy and unfulfilled, but I'm glad she appreciates what she has now.

And I suppose, hypothetically, if I had a daughter of my own, I hope I would never presume to tell her how to live her life. But maybe living the unlived life of our mothers is unavoidable? After all, the younger generation always want to do things differently from their parents. And that's probably good, if not always easy.


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