My mother is a psychotherapist

One of my daughters wrote this piece and I post it here with her permission, along with some name changes to preserve privacy.  
My mother is a psychotherapist
of the psychoanalytic variety. She’s the kind of therapist you’d explain your
childhood to, your dreams, perhaps your repressed sexual fantasies. My mother
would never describe herself as a Freudian, but he is the ‘grandfather of
psychoanalysis’, so he’s hard to escape.
I first learned about Freud’s
life and work in Grade Six. I’d seen his name in my mother’s consulting room,
on the spines of books that were all the same, but had different numbers at the
bottom.  I’d heard her say his name.
When I picked up a book in our
classroom with Freud’s name and face on the cover, I knew I had to borrow it.
It was one of a collection of books on important people’s lives and work.
Churchill was there, and Marie Curie, among others. But Freud was a guy I
needed to know about. He reminded me of photographs I’d seen of my grandfather.
A serious European gentleman with dark framed round glasses.
I took Freud home with me, and
my mother was tickled by my interest. I felt this was the first step to
understanding the adult world, my parents’ world. I can’t remember what I read
in that book, except for the chapter on ‘Penis Envy’, because I showed my
friends and we giggled. But I knew this man was important. He knew things about
people and how they worked, and my mother had his books in her room, and I
wanted to know about him.
My mother practices from home. Ever
since I can remember, the doorbell rang on the hour, and my mother travelled
down the hallway, opened the front door, and let her patient in. The patients sat,
or sometimes lay down on what my mother called a couch, but was more like a bed,
in the front room of our house. 
The room was beige, red and brown. On one side
were two large chocolate brown armchairs. They sat like giants, facing each
other, silent and solemn. As a child I saw in them crinkled faces, broad arms,
and solid legs. Sitting in them swallowed me.  
On the other side was the large
red bed, with a hard pillow at one end and an itchy throw rug at the other. It
was not like my bed, there was no doona or soft toys. A beige carpet covered
the floor. It was the only fully carpeted room in our house – the rest was parquetry.
This room was different,
special. In the centre, a rectangular coffee table stood on top of another
carpet – Persian with swirls of colour. I squished my bare toes into the
carpet, or lay on the Persian rug, arms and legs spread like a star. It was the
softest, and cleanest rug in the house.
The cats were not allowed in
here. Between the two chairs there were two high windows. Rich, velvet red
curtains draped the sides, but they were never drawn. Instead, lace curtains
and frosted glass blocked out the sticky beaks.
The door to this room was
mostly closed, but I was allowed in when it wasn’t in use. 
I would push down
the door handle – it was different to all the others, you didn’t twist it, you
pushed it. The door squeaked open; the sound buffer at the base lifted off the
floor. I often walked around the room, picked up and inspected objects I had
seen many times before. A small glass vase with a tiny opening held dried
flowers, a wooden bowl my father had made, and a table lamp with a push switch
underneath the shade.
These objects seemed deliberate
and meaningful, like the bits and pieces I kept in a special box in my
wardrobe. But the objects in my mother’s consulting room were serious and
adult; they held a different kind of power.
They were always in the same
spot. Perfectly placed on a table, or shelf. In my box I kept a friendship
bracelet, my sister’s old mobile phone, and a gold plated frill-neck lizard
pendant I bought at Sovereign Hill. I tried hard to make them mean something,
to make them important and significant.
Sometimes I picked them up, one
by one, and placed them back in the box. I inspected them, contemplated their purpose,
and outlined the reasons why I kept them. But the mysterious objects in my
mother’s consulting room had seen and heard things that I could only wonder about.
They had absorbed the mystery and the adultness the room, and my mother’s
occupation, held.
My siblings and I, and my
father, weren’t allowed to leave or enter the house when patients arrived. My
mother is a reasonable woman. She didn’t make rules unless they were needed and
I respected that the things she decreed were important, even when I flouted
But patients were off limits. We
weren’t supposed to see them, or interact with them. We avoided them. If I
asked my mother about her patients and their lives, she told me of the
importance of patient therapist confidentiality, of boundaries, of the sacred
privacy of her work. I understood. I could take on the responsibility.
The rhythm of my mother’s
sessions ran my day as a child, and I respected and enjoyed the pattern. It was
always the same. At ten to the hour, she let her patient out. I heard the
outside come in, the sounds of trams and cars, and then the front door clicked
shut and the patient was gone. In the ten minutes between her sessions, when
she sometimes gobbled down a snack or skulled a cup of tea, I snuck in to see my
mother. That was our time – the ten minute increments allotted to me.
“Mum, I hate Helen,” I often told her. Helen was my nanny when I was seven
or eight. She cried a lot because the father of her child was “a real arsehole”
(as mum told us), and had left her. Helen’s son, Ben, was the worst kid I had
ever met. He broke things, he screamed, he ran around our house shrieking. I
hated him. I hated being left with him. He was snotty and out of control, and played
with my Lego without asking.
When I told my mother how much
I hated Helen and Ben, she told me that life was hard for them, and I needed to
understand this. It made me cross that Helen cried and that she didn’t tell Ben
off when he was naughty. 
This was not how things should be. She was the mother,
and he was the child. Mothers were supposed to help people. They were supposed
to help their children be better.
At this point in my life, I didn’t
know exactly what my mother did, but I knew she helped people. She talked to
them and they talked to her, and sometimes they cried. She did what she was
supposed to do, as a mother, and I accepted her role, and her fifty-minute
absences entirely. I see her room as sacred, it was where she did her work, and
saved other people, helped them be better. I didn’t mind sharing her.
My mother worked on
Saturday mornings. She had two sessions and finished before 10am. One Friday
night, a girl from school, Ellen, slept over. We were friends, but I found her
annoying, and she only came over when her mother asked if she could. Ellen was
a ‘difficult’ child, my parents told me. But we should be kind to her, and be
her friend. 
I dobbed on Ellen in Prep when she stood on a table while the teacher
was outside the classroom.  She was sent
down to Kinder for the day. I didn’t like the way she flaunted the rules, but Ellen
and I had fun together, most of the time.
One Saturday morning after our
sleepover, my mother was with a patient, I told Ellen, and when we were in the
hallway we must be quiet, and we must keep the door closed when we’re in the
kitchen because the noise will carry. 
We played on the floor in the kitchen
with my Barbies. I liked dressing and undressing them, putting shoes on their
tiny pointed feet, brushing their hair. I was preoccupied with tasks such as
these, so I didn’t notice Ellen stand up and walk towards the hallway door.
By the time I realised, it was
too late. I looked up and saw she had gone and the hallway door was open. I got
up to try and find where she was. I looked down the hallway and saw Ellen at my
mother’s consulting room door, hand poised to knock.
The door opened and I saw my
mother’s blonde curls poking out. I couldn’t hear what they said. She closed
the door, and Ellen walked back up to the kitchen, and to me. 
My face was red
and hot. My throat was claggy and it was hard to swallow. I looked at Ellen and
I wanted to hit her, to punch her, until she said sorry. 
How could she violate
the sacredness of my mothers’ room? How could she dare to attempt to pass the
threshold? I was so angry I almost couldn’t speak. 
“Why did you do it?” I said.
“I wanted to know what the room
looked like,” she said. 
Ellen’s mother came to pick her up an hour later, and I
spent the day in my room with the door closed, simmering with rage.
When people find out what my
mother does, and where she practices, they ask me if I’m comfortable with it.
“Aren’t you worried about these people coming to your house?”
“They’re just
people like you and me.” That’s what my mother always said, when my siblings
and I asked about the strangers who rang the doorbell.
Sometimes people ask, “Aren’t
you curious about the people your mother sees?” 
There isn’t room for curiosity 
The constant reminder of confidentiality and privacy I received since a child dampened
my curiosity. The line was drawn, thick and strong. 
Even as a child, when I
picked up those objects in the consulting room, hoping to absorb some adult
sensibility from within them, I stopped myself from trying to discern what they
had seen and heard. 
I know my mother worried about
how her children, the offspring of a therapist, would turn out. Would we feel
neglected or ignored? Would we feel these other strangers who rang the doorbell
were more important to her?
In fact, my mother’s work
provided me with a structure, a pattern, and an authority that comforted me as
a child. She was a mother, helping people, as mothers should, and Freud was the
man who told her how to do it.
I see things in a different light
now, obviously. The world is messier, less black and white. Old men don’t often
connect with authority to me anymore, and women aren’t always maternal.
Little did I know, when attempting
to absorb the power of those objects in my mothers consulting room, I was
trying to enter a world that I would have found far too confusing, far too
complex than I could have coped with then.
My mother’s consulting room is
still beige, red, and brown. She refuses to change it because it might disturb
her patients. The chairs are different, but they are still large and brown. The
bed is new, but it is still the same shade of red. It holds few mysteries to me
now. I know it well. Its musty smell is unchanged.

The objects are still the same,
same vase, same lamp. When I enter our house through the front door I pass the
two high windows of her consulting room. Sometimes I take a quick look through
the window and see the outline of a figure lying on the red bed. The frosted
glass and the lace curtains prevent me from seeing a clear picture. 
That’s how
it should be, though, so I look away.

Religion, sex and psychoanalysis

‘You gave
up the church for psychoanalysis,’ my mother says, during one of our many
arguments about my leaving the church. 
‘It’s just another form of religion but it has no moral core.’  She points her finger at me and waggles
it.  ‘And that fellow who started
it all.  Well, what can I say?’

My mother first
warned me against Freud when I was at university doing an Arts degree and
majoring in psychology. 

‘He had cancer
of the jaw.’
‘From smoking,’
I said. 
‘No’, she told
me, ‘much worse.’  Never once did
she spell out what worse was.  I
knew she was hinting at sexual peculiarities and perversion.  Little did my mother know, I gave up
the church long before I began my analysis.
I was nineteen
years old, home alone, cramming for my first year exams.  My philosophy lecturer had telephoned
to tell me I’d failed the previous examination because I didn’t answer the
question.  It was on the issue of
ethics.  One of those exams where
you’re told the question beforehand and sit for an hour under exam conditions
to write the answer.  I thought I
had it all worked out, even rote learned my response.  It was the first time I’d failed anything, apart from mental
arithmetic in grade six, and that didn’t count.
If I tried hard
in the next exam, my lecturer told me, I could still pass.
On the third day
of swat vac, a friend telephoned.
‘Come down to my
place,’ he said.  My friend was a
failed dietetics student who worked in a city bookshop where we met.  We worked together during the university
holidays.  He was downstairs in
general fiction while I worked upstairs with the other casuals flogging
second-hand textbooks.
‘It’s a glorious
day,’ he said.  ‘We can spend it
together here.’
‘But I’ve got to
‘One day off
can’t hurt.’
I walked to the
train station in the crisp spring light. 
The train rattled its way to Edithvale.  I could see the bay from my window, a strip of blue and
silver.  Guilt hung heavily but I
shrugged it off.
My friend lived
with his parents in a pale green weatherboard halfway down a street that ran
off the Nepean Highway.  All the
houses in the street looked the same. 
Long concrete driveways down one side, and in front, neat lawns of
cropped couch grass, bordered by hydrangeas and ti-tree.
Inside, three
porcelain ducks flew up one wall and a couple of round, stand-alone tables
served as ashtrays, beside two his and hers Jason recliners that were propped
in front of the television.  The
place reeked of stale cigarettes. 
His mother worked as a supervisor in the delicatessen at Safeway.  His father, a returned soldier who
drank too much beer and spent most of his time at the RSL, grew orchids in a
hot house attached to the back. 
My friend had taken the day
off work while his parents were away. 
He used to bet on the horses and by the time I arrived, the second race
at Sandown had already run.  I
could hear the drone of the race caller through the open window when I pressed
the doorbell.
Although it was
not a hot day, he answered the door in his shorts with no shirt.  He was stocky, with a round face and a
delicious cherubic smile.  His
boyishness belied the fact that he was several years older than me.  I melted at the sight of him.
‘I’ve won on two
races,’ he said, as he ushered me down the hallway, ‘and I’m looking for a
He led me to his
bedroom, pulled off his shorts and climbed into bed.  I’d never seen a man naked before; I had to look away.  I sat on the bed’s edge, my hands in my
lap and eyed my sandals.
‘Come on,’ he
said, ‘ get in.’
‘I don’t think I
He’d kissed me
before, once or twice.  He’d held
my hand when he took me to the Spring Racing Carnival at Caulfield.  I’d argued with my mother when he first
asked me out.  He’d wanted to take
me to Fellini’s Satyricon. 
‘You can’t see a
film like that,’ my mother said.
‘But he’s going
with a group of friends specifically to see that very film.  I can’t say no.’
‘If you can’t
say no now, when will you ever be able to?’
I went to the film. 
It was a clumsy
seduction in a tight single bed. 
More than once I hit my head on the bedstead above.  It served as a bookshelf and held
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and a book
on chess.  My friend stopped
briefly to listen to the results of the third race and crowed when his horse
won again.  Then he turned off the
Although God
came into my mind, He didn’t stay for long.  I’d learned early not to touch myself or let anyone else
touch me for that matter.  I had
two holes below, or so I chose to believe, one for peeing, one for shitting, no
more, no less.  I was content with
that.  Then one day my sister told
me about the third hole and its function, the making of babies.  She didn’t mention pleasure. 
I hadn’t felt
There was a line
of blood on the sheet when it was over. 
My friend stripped the bed and threw the sheet into the washing machine
then offered me a cup of tea. 
The next Sunday, my mother
and I sat in the front pew of the Church of Mary Immaculate.  Head bowed, I considered the
possibility of taking communion.  I
was in a state of mortal sin, for the first time in my life.  Any guilt I felt was outweighed by the
pleasure of knowing I was now a woman. 
As much as I
feared committing a sacrilege, I feared my mother more.  I lined up alongside her as the priest
in white and gold tipped the host onto outstretched tongues.  I was convinced at the instant of
contact between my tongue and the host I would shrivel up in a burst of
flame.  When nothing happened, no
heavenly voice spoke and my mother failed to notice the telltale blush on my
cheeks, I decided it was all a hoax. 
Same as when I was ten years old and they abolished the ban on eating
meat on Fridays and stopped requiring three hours of fasting before communion.  How could it be, I pondered, that such
well-established rules, sanctified by the Pope in Rome, could be so readily
I had wrestled
with impure thoughts before.  It
was never enough simply to admit to them. 
In the dark of the confessional my cheeks burned whenever I tried.  The priest always wanted more detail
and I could never find the words. 
I gave up trying.
A month later my
friend took a job in the pub at Tocumwal and I never saw him again. 
Ten years after that seduction, I
entered analysis.  The consulting
room was full of the scent of aromatic oil and Christmas lilies.  There was always a bunch of fresh
flowers.  It reminded me of a
church.  My analyst sat still and
silent in her high-backed chair. 
When I was
little, I saw a nun eating spaghetti. 
I had knocked politely on the staff room door to leave a message for one
of the teachers.  Through the
corner of my eye I saw her, Sister Perpetua eating tinned spaghetti.  She forked the soft strands into her
mouth.  Until that very moment I
thought nuns did not eat nor did they use the toilet.  Under their habits I imagined clockwork bodies, fuelled by
love of God.
Although she had
a toilet in the back of her garden specifically for the benefit of her
patients, I refused to use it.  My
analyst lived some distance from my house and everyday I visited her, I allowed
enough time to stop at the shopping centre near her consulting room to relieve
myself.  I wanted to be nun-like
I visited my
analyst five times a week.  She
lived in a double storey weatherboard perched on top of a hill three houses
from the beach.  Her consulting
room stood beside the house, a separate apartment with high windows shielded by
trees.  Her sloping garden was
carefully tended, in some places even restrained with neat beds and
close-cropped bushes.  Freesias and
jonquils fought for space in wild clumps across her lawn.  Elsewhere, like her, my analyst’s
garden could surprise me.  It was
wild and spontaneous like the crooked arms of the ti-tree and geraniums that
entwined along her rocky front wall.
I spoke to my
analyst from the couch and rarely looked directly at her.  Whenever I arrived at her consulting
room, I kept my eyes to the ground as she ushered me in, to avoid her gaze, but
I took note of her shoes.  They
were brightly coloured to match her clothes. 
My analyst’s
couch was like a bed, a single bed with a teal blue cover.  Lying there flat on my back with my
eyes closed, I remembered the title of a book I’d read about an old woman’s
last years confined to bed in a nursing home, This Bed My Centre.  My
analyst’s couch became my centre. 
Unlike the priest in the confessional whose interest felt prurient, my
analyst’s interest was genuine.  I
spoke; she listened.  She spoke and
I listened and we learned from one another.
The last time I saw her,
she took my hand when we came to say goodbye.  Before then we had only exchanged words.  Her own hands were large and
tanned.  On her right fourth finger
she wore a silver ring.  It held an
oval stone, a lapis lazuli that matched the blue of the sea that rolled
unceasingly near her house. 
When I walked
away that final time, I took with me a sprig of geranium from her front
fence.  I planted it down the side
of my house.  It took root in that
effortless way geraniums do. 
Within a year it flowered. 
Within another it was gone. 
The builders ripped it out to make room for their equipment during
After it was
gone, nothing happened.  The sky
did not fall down.  The earth did
not crack.  There was nothing left
for me to take up now.  No noble
causes, no ideal ways of being, no firm system of beliefs.  No way of escape. 
‘I feel sorry for people like you,’ my mother says.  ‘It’s all me, me, me.  You just do as you please.’
I’ve learned to say nothing.  I sit and wait till the storm has
‘When you want to live without any
discipline at all, you’re not growing but heading for disaster.’  My mother is older now, grey haired and
shrunken.  The book she is reading
falls off her lap.  She struggles
to get to her feet and reaches for her walking stick.
My baby is asleep in her carry basket.  She’s bundled up ready to leave. 
‘And what about her?’ my mother says,
pointing down at the baby’s head.  ‘How
will you teach her to lead a good life?’ 
She jabs her walking stick at the floor as she staggers behind me to the
front door.
I click the carry basket into its
position on the back seat of the car and kiss my mother goodbye. 
‘Without some form of religion, there can
be no moral sense,’ my mother says.
I wind down the window.  ‘Don’t worry, Mum.  I’m sure we’ll all be okay in the end.’
‘How can you, without God?’
I release the hand brake, indicate and
pull out into the street.  In
the side rear view mirror I can see my mother, soon a dot on the horizon.  She’s still waving, still hoping I
suppose, if she prays hard enough, her daughter can be saved.

‘Religion, sex and
Psychoanalysis’, Psychotherapy in Australia, Vol. 14, No. 3, May 2008