Kate Weinberg: How can I grieve the mum I can’t remember?

After struggling for years with depression and crippling writer’s block, novelist Kate Weinberg decided to revisit her own tragic first chapter – with surprising results.

Kate Weinberg's mum
Kate’s mother Sandra aged 18, 1961.

When you’ve lost your mother at a very young age, people always ask you the same question. ‘Do you remember her?’ ‘I don’t think so,’ I would always reply. ‘Perhaps her auburn hair. Perhaps lying in bed with her, drinking strawberry milk. It’s hard to know what comes from photos and what are actual memories.’

What I never said was what I did remember: a scene that would scroll like a short film, with searing clarity, through my head. Sitting on the end of a bed, aged three and a half, with my father in a crumpled suit and a crumpled face, telling me that my mother was ‘gone’. A pause, as he swallowed and reached out towards me. ‘But we’ll all look after each other, won’t we?’

Not remembering her had a lot going for it. As a child, I saw the horror bloom in people’s faces when they heard that my mother had died suddenly of a brain tumour aged 35. But although I liked them telling me I was brave, I felt a fraud, too: I didn’t think I missed my mother at all. I was aware of a pull towards friends’ mothers and sympathetic female teachers. I was aware of a tight feeling in my chest looking at cards on sale on Mother’s Day. But, as I reasoned to myself, you couldn’t really miss what you didn’t remember. And, besides, if there was a gap, books had filled it.

After my mother died, my father – perhaps at a loss as to what to do with three bereaved little girls – read to us, one by one, every night before we went to bed. The world in books became the place I most wanted to be. I can’t remember ever thinking I wanted to be a writer. It was just always the case. I would often read several books a week by torchlight under my duvet. I raced through the classics before I could understand them, let alone pronounce them. ‘I’m swooning with fat-i-gew,’ I announced, aged 11, having just discovered Jane Austen. It wasn’t the books that seemed to fill the vacuum of a missing parent, it was the characters in them. I identified with the heroines, especially the orphans and misfits. I cried in coming-of-age novels such as Jane Eyre and The Catcher in the Rye as I never seemed to cry in real life.

Although I showed early promise as a writer – winning small awards and competitions at school, reading English at Oxford, getting a place at the University of East Anglia on its creative-writing master’s course – by 27 years old I was stuck. I’d been trying to write a novel and it wasn’t going anywhere.

Kate Weinberg
Kate today. Image: James Rawlings

Reluctantly, on the advice of my GP, I started therapy. ‘Why do you think you’re here?’ asked my therapist, an astute woman in her late 60s. ‘Because I’m stuck. I keep rewriting chapter one.’

‘Perhaps we should start at the beginning then,’ she suggested. ‘This is not about not having a mother,’ I said. ‘That’s behind me.’

‘Well, let’s start there anyway,’ she said gently. She was brilliant, and as the months passed I began to understand that not having had a mother had seeped into every part of my life. The chaos, mess and parking tickets that trailed after me were not symptoms of laziness or an ‘artistic temperament’, but the equivalent of walking around with a sandwich-board advertisement that said ‘Mother Me’. The eating disorder I suffered at school, the depression that kept rearing its head in my early 20s. They had all been about trying to fill that gap.

My therapist taught me a lot about having a mother-shaped hole and my personal life began to ground itself. Until then I had always looked for the same thing in a man – gentle, dependable types who, to an extent, mothered me. But after a while I would leave them to take off around the world, writing on scraps of paper on trains and planes. Now rooted by my weekly therapy, I stayed in London. When my boyfriend bought me a copper beech sapling – the same tree that my mother was buried under – I planted it on my roof terrace and watered it every day. A few weeks later we got engaged. But my writing was still stuck. I began to think that I was not cut out to be a writer.

When I discovered I was pregnant with my first child at 34, I had just come up with a new idea for a novel. This was not virgin territory for me. My 20s had been littered with a pile-up of mediocre, half-finished manuscripts. But this time, I became sadder and a little desperate. The promise I had shown as a young writer seemed certain now to go to waste. I was all too aware of the ‘pram in the hall’ syndrome – the notion that the relentlessness of early motherhood, of nappies, wet wipes and butternut squash purées, would now abort a career that had never really started. All the jobs I had taken until then had been a ‘temporary’ means to becoming a writer. Working in bookshops, a literary agency, editing, ghost writing. ‘Going back to work’ would mean for me going back into a world of words where I was still at least one step away from what I so desperately wanted to be: a fiction writer.

Kate Weinberg
Kate as a baby with her mother, 1975.

Like most people, I found the first year of motherhood incredibly intense. Amid the joy and explosion of new love, I had my share of blues, self-doubt and crippling loneliness. Then, when my son turned one, I started writing again. I picked up the idea I’d sketched out during my pregnancy and applied myself to it with a newfound structure and strength.

I had far less time now. I wrote in snatches when my son was sleeping or in the middle of the night; I kept a notebook in my nappy bag. But the little time I had started counting differently. When something wasn’t perfect, instead of deleting it, I pushed on through. I’d been stuck for so long in the first chapter of my own life, and this had been mirrored in my writing. Now, looking after someone else, I was in a different phase. In my writing, too, I wanted to find out what happened next. It wasn’t about wanting to have an identity other than being a mother. It was more that I was experiencing a mother’s love from the other end of the lens.

Finally, miraculously, the words began to flow. It wasn’t easy, of course. I had just written a full draft when I gave birth to a second child, and the carousel of broken nights and breastfeeding began all over again. I wrote in cafés during nursery hours, until a friend suggested I rent a room in her office building. Like every writer, I edited and rewrote. But now I wasn’t trying to start again. I kept going with the characters. Over time – seven years, to be precise – they changed, developed and grew. When my second child started school I began to apply myself full-time, and a publishing deal – first in the UK, then America – followed.

It’s no accident that the novel I ended up writing is about a young woman who becomes enthralled by a female professor of literature – a woman just old enough to be her mother. Or that it is, in its way, a coming-of-age novel with a mysterious loss at its heart. At 44, belatedly, and about 20 years later than planned, I have given birth to my first book.

With children now six and eight years old, the pram is no longer in the hall. But while it was, it didn’t chain me to the house. Instead, it gave me the courage to go on a journey I had feared I couldn’t do, motherless and alone. Looking after my children taught me to look after myself. It released me to move forward in my own life and in my writing.

I have been lucky. Many people say the first decade of mothering is about a loss of identity and a kind of madness – a ‘ten-year nap’ of the mind. But it woke me up. Having children gave me a link to the mother I couldn’t remember. It anchored me and, as a writer, I have never felt more free.

Kate’s novel The Truants is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, price £14.99