Lucy Mangan

"If only I had my Mother's competence"

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This morning I took out a new loaf from the bread bin, cut off the end piece and stood motionless for five minutes staring at it.

I love the end piece. I want to eat the end piece, but some ancient, primitive part of my brain prevents me.

This is the part controlled by my mother. Years of early training has ingrained in me the need to keep the end piece and use it, jammed up against the ‘open’ end of the bread as an extra prophylactic against the dehydrating effects of air and the 24-hour wait until it is next needed for breakfast. These embedded instructions still, after nearly 30 years, override a) conscious thought and b) my personal preferences. My mother never snacked to this day. The idea of a comforting piece of toast – midmorning, say, or with a cup of coffee at 3pm if lunch didn’t quite hit the spot – baffles and unnerves her.

As I stare down at my granary dilemma, I recall a survey recently carried out by Hallmark – no doubt rigorously by the crack team of sociologists and qualitative research teams they have on hand at all times – which revealed that 32 is the age at which women turn into their mothers. This disturbs me more than a little.

At a conservative estimate, I was 25 before I even started to develop a personality of my own. Until then, I was just a jumble of maternal rules and regulations, coupled with a profound readiness to bow to any form of adult authority. Basically, at any time until the end of the Nineties, any middle-aged woman could have come up to me in the street, told me to set myself on fire and I would have doused myself with petrol from the nearest car and asked her for a match.

Even those who, unlike me, did the sensible thing and went through a period of teenage rebellion, come to find from their late 20s onwards that after all their passionate, hormonefuelled efforts, adolescent mutiny only ever ran skin-deep. Revolt against curfews, sartorial restrictions (altogether now – “That’s not a skirt, it’s a belt!”) and the general Total Unfairness of Life all you want – there is still a moment in your existence when you will find yourself forbidding people to sit on a sofa before you feel you have quite got the value out of the pristine states to which you have recently brought them.

My mother has never snacked. The idea of a comforting piece of toast at 3pm baffles and unnerves her

The thing is – I wouldn’t mind turning into my mother, if I could just go the whole hog. My mother is amazing. So are all her friends. I don’t know whether this is a selection bias – for all I know, there may be a special scent common to all competent people that allows them to sniff each other out like wildebeest across the Serengeti – or if it is some kind of post-wargenerational- necessity thing, but it seems as though they can all do everything. Their houses and gardens are immaculate, their evenings neatly packed with activities evenly distributed between the fun and the useful, their jobs dovetailing neatly with personal responsibilities AND their laundry baskets never overflow AND they can all put up shelves, wire plugs and do assorted other DIY tasks that customarily leave me and my peers desperately tapping away at the internet trying to find out which end you hold a screwdriver at.

When, I would like to know, do I get me some of that? I have passed 32 now. Many of my mother’s traits are apparent. I’ve got the impatience with things I cannot change – people who only start getting their money out at supermarkets once the last item has been packed away, an unwillingness to spend money and, of course, the bread thing has been a constant throughout. But when do we get the good stuff? The efficiency, the managerial competence, the discipline, a life free of chaos – and mould – the power tools and drawerful of useful oddments so we always know where the string and scissors are?

My mother tells me that there was even a point in her life when she felt ready to have children. Who the hell feels ready to have children? Don’t you just wait until the fear of feeling your ovaries rattling inside you like dried walnuts becomes unbearable, so you inevitably force yourself into it? I have no answer to this. But I do have toast. Of course, it may be snacking that has fatally weakened our generation. If so, there is an answer to that. But not today. I’m incredibly hungry. So not today.

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Picture credit: Rex Features