The Great Umbilical

The Great Umbilical

(1994) Hutchinson

‘Fascinating, as a man, to discover how mother-daughter relationships repeat across the generations.’ John Cleese

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The blurb describes the book like this: ‘RB argues that maternity builds a barrier that no man can cross and, perhaps because of this, the family tree of women has remained curiously undefined. The mother/daughter relationship is little explored in history, art and literature, yet theirs is a passionate story and one that is fundamental to society. The Great Umbilical tells that story, taking us through all the stages of a woman’s life, from daughters to mother to grandmother, and yet always still a daughter.

I was the fifth of eight children, four boys and four girls. My mother was the writer Elizabeth Longford (Countess of Longford). I was one of the lucky ones: I had a remarkable and loving mother who thought all her children were special and encouraged them to use their talents to the full.

In my research for this book, I interviewed many women who were not or had not been so lucky. I did interviews both in the UK and US but I was struck by the same phenomenon: whether the daughter loved her mother or hated her, she still thought her enormously important. In the end the secret of a happy or, at least, happier life was to admit that your mother wasn’t quite as you have liked and get on with her at whatever level was possible. The alternative was a lifetime of rage and resentment.

In the course of the book, I realised that, despite all the good things feminism taught women, there were some bad things too. One of them was what I call ‘the blame mother syndrome.’ It was quite logical really; the mother made you what you were so it was her fault if things went wrong – particularly is she wasn’t very open-minded. It was certainly easier to take this approach than to take responsibility for yourself. The problem was that it didn’t really help the situation.

The Great Umbilical (a nickname for my mother used by one of my brothers) turned out to be more of a celebration for the relationship between mothers and daughters than I’d expected.