This is a relationship made in heaven, although it may have been forged a little in hell.
That’s often the case if you think about it. The more that you go through together, the stronger the ties that bind you. If you ask Marie-Hélène and Daphné what adversity forged their ties and made them so close, each would likely say me, at least now. Of course, I would beg to differ!
I would point to Pierre, Daphné’s papa, as the source of the adversity which drew mother and daughter together. Here’s why.
Daphné was born while her mother was staying at La Grée, her parents’ summer place in Brittany, during the summer of 1987. Pierre was busy working, apparently, and only made it out to Brittany a few days after she was born. He did not make it out there for the birth. He then confirmed that he was Daphné’s father in the local Mayor’s office. If a couple is not married in France, the father can formally acknowledge the baby as his by confirming paternity to the government promptly after the birth.
Pierre made his confirmation, just in time according to Marie-Hélène, because the government requires the confirmations to be made promptly after the birth.
Then he disappeared. Completely. For several months. Without explanation.
She returned to their apartment in Paris with her new baby and felt utterly abandoned. He could not have done it more cruelly if he had tried. I remember thinking “barefoot and pregnant” when she told me this: he knew that he had her locked up with baby Daphné, and so could do whatever he wanted for a while. Which he did.
When he came back to her, again unannounced, he explained that he had been “obliged” to look after some of his other children. Their mother, France-Lise, his prior live-in girlfriend, was not taking care of them properly, he said, and so he was forced to intervene to “protect” them. Of course, this intervention meant that he was forced to live with them for a few months. And with France-Lise, ostensibly his ex- at this point!
During this whole period, Marie-Hélène, supposedly his current girlfriend, looked after their baby daughter alone in her apartment, the apartment that she and Pierre had shared until he diappeared, not knowing where he was or even if he would ever return to her. I never did hear his explanation of why he was unable to even call Marie-Hélène while this was happening to let her know what he was doing and that he would be back. I didn’t want to evoke that miserable time again for her by asking too many questions.
That terrible story, which happened when Marie-Hélène was so very vulnerable right after giving birth, was to me the hell that forged her particular bond with Daphné, the baby who offered her maman almost the only comfort that she had in her hour of greatest need.
But no, Marie-Hélène didn’t even tell her daughter that story, at least not until she was a young woman, if then. Rather than doing so, as our relationship progressed, she joined in and supported Daphné’s own instinctive loyalty to her father. Daphné has always been very loyal to her papa, of course, commendably so.
But why did Marie-Hélène go out of her way over the years to support her daughter’s loyalty, to the point of hiding and minimizing the very facts that explained why she left her father? What was she thinking? Wouldn’t Daphné have been better armed to handle a father who never paid for her in a meaningful way or gave her presents, let alone spoiled her, if she had learned over time how he had treated her mother?
Pierre explained their parents’ separation to Daphné and Alban as stemming from my seducing their mother away from his caring and love. No, seduction is not my forte! The principal goal of his simplistic and thus appealing expanation was to deny his own responsibility. A secondary goal was, I think, to interfere with my relationship with his children: understandable, from his jealous point of view, but not from theirs. And not even from his if you take into account his continuously expressed desire to avoid paying for these children.
Marie-Hélène knew why she had left Pierre: because his straying was compulsive, frequent and increasingly indiscrete; because he had fathered another child, Arnaud, with France-Lise, between Daphné and Alban (remember France-Lise? She was the woman whom Pierre was “obliged” to live with right after Daphné was born, to “protect” her children: she just keeps popping up here, doesn’t she!); and because of his constant stinginess and incessant money problems.
She moved away from Pierre because of what she hid from Daphné, and not because of me. I was simply the escape hatch that she found.
Pierre was incredibly effective at inducing sympathy in women. Again, not my forte! Maybe that’s part of why Marie-Hélène hid the damning facts from his children. She felt that she had hurt him enough by leaving him, a hurt which he gladly portrayed whenever he could, and she didn’t want to hurt him any more.
The problem for me was that If I defended myself against Pierre’s ridiculous accusations, Marie-Hélène accused me of finding fault with Daphné and Alban’s father. She almost never found fault with Pierre in front of his children. And I shouldn’t either, to protect the image of the absent father.
Of course, that’s right.
But the perpetuation of this myth continued to plague relationships within our blended family. Pierre’s misleading version of its formation became the truth for Daphné and Alban. This viewpoint, that I had seduced Marie-Hélène away from Pierre, cemented the mother-daughter bond by rendering Marie-Hélène innocent of any wrongdoing and me guilty. Both ended up seeing me as the villain of the piece.
Wouldn’t it have been possible not to have demonized either father or stepfather?
“Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other.” Adrienne Rich, in “Of Woman Born.” I mocked that thought when I first read it at Cal in 1976. Is there any difference in the quality of a baby boy’s and baby’s girl’s experience of the womb? Bliss is bliss, whoever experiences it. Is there any difference in a mother’s labor giving birth to a boy or a girl? Each is torture, nothing more, nothing less.
But when you get beyond the gross physicality which Adrienne focuses on, and strange to say she does so in much the same way as men do, there may be something in that mother-daughter resonance, certainly in our family. But it’s based on relationships and how they evolve, not on our respective genders.
Marie-Hélène was the parent at home, and so she was in charge of family relationships at home. Daphné was her favorite, maybe because she was a girl, but also because of what they had shared when she was a new-born baby. I used to joke sometimes about how the two of them ran our household despite being only two among six of us guys.
Unfortunately, that didn’t always work for everyone’s benefit. In around 2001 or 2002, I told Marie-Hélène that I wanted to adopt Daphné and Alban. I’d been thinking about doing so for a while, not just because I love them both as if they were my own, but also because it would have helped equalize relations between the older children. That was how I saw it. Since Nick and Tom had moved back in with us in 1999, Daphné and Alban seemed to feel left out of my life in some way. Maybe this would help reassure them.
The word came back from their mother a few days later: the children weren’t interested. Again, being adopted would pry them further apart from their father. Unspoken was the possibility that my proposal was a continuing attempt to do so. I had half expected that response, which was replete with Marie-Hélène’s misplaced maternal instincts.
Then in 2010, after I moved out, I discovered that Alban had never heard about this offer. At least, he did not remember hearing anything. He would have been 12 or 13 when the offer was made, and I think old enough to have remembered.
So what happened? Here’s my theory: Marie-Hélène took the proposal to Daphné, then 14 or 15, and neither liked the sound of it. The mother was still obtaining the daughter’s allegiance by supporting her father, and the daughter was in full-fledged adolescent rebellion. Rather than running it by Alban, just in case, they decided for him.
But the children were living with me: I was effectively their father by this point, and not just because I paid almost all of their expenses. I was the dad at home, warts and all. Unlike Pierre, I could and did provide for them and could and did do my best to educate them.
Alban did have the benefit of being Daphné’s full brother by blood, her only one. This earned him her support, which did benefit him except when she misconstrued what he needed, as in the adoption story. Nicholas and Thomas had no such luck.
Daphné had a dubious boyfriend at around the same time as the adoption refusal, one her mother visibly disliked. Let’s call him Dick, not his real name. With Daphné’s blessing, Dick asked Nick to list some things that he wanted to sell, I forget what, maybe electronics of some kind, on Nick’s eBay account, or another account that Nick used to buy and sell things. Nick duly did so. He was always willing to help out, even Daphné, his constant rival for influence in the household.
Before we knew it, a Sheriff’s Deputy appeared. These items had been stolen. Dick was using Nick as an involuntary fence! Tell me that Daphné didn’t know this: why wasn’t Dick using his own account, or if his prior tribulations with law enforcement prevented him doing that, an account of Daphné’s?
How was Dick punished for using Daphné’s family member to fence her boyfriend’s stolen goods? You will be astonished to hear that he wasn’t! In fact, he was rewarded. Daphné convinced her mother and me to sell our old Mazda to him, for a good price. Let’s hear it for mother-daughter family management!
Tom suffered from that joint management more than anyone else. Neither Marie-Hélène nor Daphné liked him very much after he and Nick moved back in with the rest of us in 1999. He was difficult at times, but anyone excluded from the group becomes difficult at times, or all the time. Mostly he was a child who couldn’t really understand why he was so little loved in our home. When I began to realize how badly he felt, it was of course too late, and I felt terrible.
Let’s find the positive. One of Tom’s reactions to feeling unloved turned up trumps. He had wanted a guitar, and when I bought him one for his birthday, it became his life. Almost overnight, he played and played and sang and sang, all alone in his room with the door closed. And if he left it open, someone closed it for him!
In a way, this form of sharing between a mother and her 16 year-old daughter was a natural outgrowth of defining their relationship by opposition to me. Sharing her mother’s feelings for the children I brought into the family was simply another step in the same direction.
But the regrettable consequences of a complicity misused should not negate the complicity itself, which was extraordinary and long-lasting. With only rare interruptions, the odd disapproved of boyfriend or failure to complete a quarter of junior college, Marie-Hélène and Daphné got along famously, a living breathing advertisement for mother-daughter affection and understanding. Much of the time, it was quite lovely to see and be around. Except perhaps for Tom.