Life After the Convent

This story follows on from When a Daughter Leaves the Convent

We were looking out of the window, waiting for my husband Andy to arrive home with our eldest daughter Felicity. The younger girls were hopping up and down. “When will they be here? When will they be here?” they said, again and again.
And then we could see the car coming along the driveway. Everyone rushed helter-skelter down the back steps into the garden. The car doors opened. Felicity was here. I looked at her. And I was shocked.
It had only been a few months since we’d last seen Felicity. When Andy had returned her to the convent, after a few months at home, she had looked fit and healthy. She had been excited and hopeful and eager. Now she was a changed person.
Felicity was wearing someone else’s clothes: a plain skirt and shirt, probably cast-offs of a woman who’d swapped her ordinary clothing for a habit. They were big clothes. They needed to be. Felicity had put on a lot of weight. A scarf once again covered her head. I looked at her face. Not only was it blemished, it showed signs of stress. My daughter was suffering.
Of course, we were all excited to see Felicity. We kissed and hugged. Someone filled the kettle and made some coffee. We asked about the journey. Then Andy went to work and I asked the other children to give Felicity some space. “Let her settle in,” I said. “She’ll still be here later.”
We went to her bedroom where we could chat. I wanted to make her comfortable, find out what she needed. Her first need was clothes. It was obvious all her old ones, that were packed away, wouldn’t fit her. Felicity’s size was a huge surprise. How had she put on so much weight in such a short time?
“Mother Prioress gave me the job of cook.”
Felicity cooked the meals for the nuns as well as those of any guests who were making retreats at the convent. Apparently she was an excellent cook. She still is. She was taught by my husband who has a passion for cooking. Felicity knows how to turn ordinary ingredients into something spectacular. No wonder her efforts were appreciated.
I thought about Felicity in the kitchen and the nuns enjoying her meals, and I clenched my fists. I would never have given that job to Felicity, despite her obvious skills. I know my daughter. I know the kitchen would have been the worst place to send her to several times a day. When Felicity is stressed, she comfort eats. I knew that. But I wasn’t Felicity’s mother at the time, so no one consulted me about what was best for her. She was instead under the care of Mother Prioress. “I’ll look after your daughter,” she’d said.
“How could she have sent Felicity home in that state?” I later asked my husband. “Couldn’t she see there was something wrong with her?  Didn’t she notice she was putting on weight? Why didn’t she give her another job?” Andy tried to soothe me as I poured out all my frustrations.
But weight wasn’t the only problem.  Felicity needed help with her skin. Was it irreversibly blemished? And her scalp was very dry with skin flaking off. “What’s wrong with using proper cleansers and shampoo?” I asked. “Soap is far too harsh.”
“It’s the same for everyone, Mum,” replied Felicity. “No one worries about their appearance. We are taught not to pay it any attention. It’s not important.”
Blemishes and itchy scalps might be acceptable in the cloister but not at home. I wanted to soothe Felicity’s skin, see her glow with health and take a pride in her appearance again. But she just didn’t seem to care about all that. Her physical state didn’t matter when she was so distressed spiritually.
There was so much I needed to know. Why had Felicity made the decision to come home? “Every time I saw Mother Prioress I imagined she was about to say, ‘I’ve phoned your father. I’ve asked him to take you home.’ It was too stressful. I was having panic attacks. Mother just thought I was calling attention to myself.”
Tears ran down Felicity’s face. I could barely make out her words as she added, “I was willing to give up my life for God and He just didn’t want me. I failed. I failed twice.”
What does a mother say at such times? I hugged my daughter close. I didn’t dismiss how she was feeling. I knew enough not to do that.
“You’ll feel better when you’ve had a good night’s sleep.”
“Things will improve. Just wait and see.”
“Some new clothes will help.”
“I’ll help you lose some weight. That will make you feel good.”
“Cheer up. At least you’re at home.”
All these would have been stupid things to say, when I could see the agony my daughter was suffering.
But still I wanted to do something. I wanted to take away her pain, or at least help her to deal with it. I thought back to when I was at the point of despair after our son Thomas died. Each day felt like a never-ending marathon which I had to endure. I had to force myself to get out of bed each morning and plod through the day, putting one foot in front of the other. I found myself telling Felicity about this, suggesting some prayers and even some spiritual reading. With great enthusiasm I found a couple of books I thought might help her. I don’t think she even glanced at them. It was all too much, far too soon. All Felicity needed at that moment was to be hugged and to be listened to. She didn’t need an overenthusiastic mother ready to solve her problems, problems I felt could, at least in part, have been avoided by proper care and attention.
I wanted to tell Mother Prioress how I was feeling. She’d promised to look after my daughter but had she really done all she could to take care of her? Perhaps she didn’t understand the needs of young women. I thought they needed regular opportunities for exercise, a healthy diet that maintained a healthy weight. Surely health should be a priority in any situation, even a convent?
After she passed out through the cloister door for the last time, Felicity never again heard from anyone in the convent. No one phoned to check on her. There was no debriefing session. She went back out into the world, and as far as the convent was concerned, she no longer existed. That’s just the way it was. But even if Felicity had never been given the opportunity to discuss the whole experience with Mother Prioress, I felt I was entitled to have my say.
I actually wrote Mother a long letter. I didn’t end up posting it though. I decided it wasn’t my right to tell a nun how to run her convent. I wouldn’t like anyone telling me how to run my family. And Felicity had entered the convent of her own free will. But it took a long time for my anger to seep away.
Soon it was Christmas. I can’t remember many details. Probably this celebration was a distraction for all of us. Then it was the start of a new year. What was Felicity going to do next?
Someone phoned asking if Felicity would like a job looking after a family whose mother had just died, a kind of nanny/housekeeper. I don’t really know what Felicity thought of this idea. I just refused the job on her behalf. How could she be expected to look after a grieving family when she was so needy herself? This time I was in charge and I made the decision.
Then one day Felicity announced, “I think I might join a youth mission team, Mum.” We knew some other young people who’d spent a year or more mentoring young Catholics. They’d enjoyed their time visiting schools and arranging retreats and other activities for young people. Maybe this would be something good for Felicity to do while she waited for an answer to her plea: “What am I supposed to do with my life?”
Felicity was accepted on a team and before we knew it, she was packing her bag and leaving us once more. She’d hoped she would be sent to Sydney so she could be fairly close to home. Instead she found herself on a plane flying towards Perth. This Western Australian city is right on the other side of Australia from us, about as far away as you can go. “I’ll be home mid-year, Mum. We all get a week’s break during the winter.”
Felicity phoned home now and then. She sounded happy enough. She had a part-time job in a café. She was sharing a house with two young women who were part of her team. “They call me Mum because I look after them.” Everything sounded fine. Just occasionally she’d report an upset she’d had with her housemates or with her boss at work. Teething problems I thought. She’ll work it out.
Mid-year the team flew back to Sydney for World Youth Day, and when that finished, Felicity caught a train home. We were going to have her to ourselves for a whole week.
Are all mothers like me? Do you look at your children carefully when they’ve been away? Do you notice differences? I looked at Felicity and my heart sank. She was still having weight problems. I tried to bring up the subject in a sensitive way. Could I help her in some way? Then Felicity said something I have never forgotten.
“I’m sure you’d love me more if I was slim like you.”
Aren’t these shocking words? Of course, I loved Felicity just as she was, but somehow the subject of weight was standing there like a boulder, causing tension between us. Why does our weight and appearance seem to matter so much? Oh I could write so much about this topic. Maybe it deserves a post of its own.
“I’m worried about your health,” I defended myself.
“I haven’t got time to deal with my weight problem at the moment,” said Felicity. “I have too much else that needs sorting out.”
I didn’t really understand what she meant by ‘too much else that needs sorting out”, but it was obvious she still wasn’t happy within herself. And it was obvious I’d just had yet another conversation where I’d said all the wrong things. It seemed I had a talent for doing that. Felicity and I couldn’t seem to slip back into our old comfortable roles of mother and daughter.
The leader of the youth mission team phoned to arrange a time to get together with Felicity. “He meets up with all the team members to see how they’re going, before we head back to Perth,” she told me.
When Felicity returned from her meeting, I could see something was wrong. I guess by this time I wasn’t surprised.
“The other girls have complained about me. They say I’m hard to get on with and want me off the team.” Felicity felt she had failed yet again.
So did Felicity return home to live? No, she went back to Perth with the team. She still had her café job. She was hoping to find somewhere to live. She wanted to make a life for herself in a new place, rather than rely on us at home. I am very proud of Felicity for doing this. She’d always lived at home or in the convent. Now she wanted to live an independent life.
I’m a bit hazy about the details of the next year or so. I know we talked on the phone every now and then: polite talk where I tried not to offer suggestions or say anything that might cause Felicity to back away from me. She faced many challenges. She had trouble with landlords and bosses. There were times when she cried and had panic attacks. Nothing seemed to last very long. I was concerned that when life became a bit difficult, Felicity caved in and gave up. Perhaps if she tried a little harder, persevered, was a little less concerned with herself and her own feelings, tried to get on better with others… Oh I had many such thoughts. It’s just as well I kept them to myself.
But it wasn’t all bad. I heard good stories about the skills Felicity had and was using. She made a few good friends, despite her problems. And she’d been asked out by a lovely young man.
“I organise a youth evening every month. I arrange the food. We have some music and a guest speaker,” Felicity told me. “One evening, after everyone left, Graham stayed behind. He asked if he could help me wash the dishes and then take me home.”
Felicity and Graham are now married. They came home two years ago to be married in our local parish church. Despite everything, Felicity has found love in her life. She found a man who was willing to look past her problems, and love her for who she really is.
But there is also something else she found. She found out why her life has been so difficult, why she was unable to cope as a teenager, why she couldn’t adapt to life in the convent and why even living with other young women was such a challenge. She wasn’t a bad person. She wasn’t self centred and bad tempered by nature. She wasn’t unfriendly or socially maladjusted. No, there was another reason.
And I shall tell you about that when I conclude this story next time.
Conclude? Yes, we are almost there. Thank you for staying with me for so long.

 

Image: This photo of Graham and Felicity was taken December 2009, when they both came home for Christmas.
I had a difficult time writing this story because I didn’t know whether I should reveal my thoughts and feelings concerning Mother Prioress and the convent. In the end, I decided to be honest and say things the way I saw them at the time. This doesn’t mean I have told the whole story. I haven’t given Mother Prioress’ side of the story. I am not able to. I imagine it wasn’t easy looking after my daughter, especially when she had an undiagnosed mental illness. Mother, like us, never suspected Felicity was living with such a condition. I am sure she did the best she could under the circumstances.

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Comments

  1. Reply

    Thanks for sharing your – and Felicity's – story of a difficult time. Like another commenter, I'm thinking of Andy's thoughts and views. It could be interesting to see a father's thoughts on this.

    1. Reply

      Uglemor,

      Andy is not the sort of person who opens up and shares his feelings with people he doesn't feel comfortable with, unlike me and Felicity! I agree his thoughts and opinions would add another dimension to this story but I don't really want to ask him to share them here on my blog. He is a great person and never complains when I write about him. I can joke and say almost anything I want but I know this subject is different. I bet he is like most fathers in the fact he is protective of his daughters and doesn't like to think of them suffering, and would probably get upset with anyone that causes them distress. Oh one other thing I can share… Andy knows Graham takes good care of Felicity and loves her very much. No need to worry!

  2. Reply

    Now that I have wiped my tears of sorrow for my own foibles, let me lighten things up a bit by asking, "Am I the only one who thinks Graham resembles Andy a bit?"

    1. Reply

      Michelle,

      When Felicity phoned to tell us about Graham, she said, "You'll like him, Mum. He's just like Dad!" And yes, when we saw him we agreed he looks like Andy in appearance and is like him in other ways too. Other people have remarked on this as well. At Felicity and Graham's wedding, during the speeches, someone made a joke about Felicity choosing a man like her father. Did she also say something about how Graham looked like he belonged in our family, but actually he was only marrying into the family? Something like that. I forget the exact words!

    • Hwee
    • January 15, 2014
    Reply

    Life is a long road. We'll never know what each event truly means in the greater scheme of things until the end of our lives, I guess. I'm glad to know this part of the story has a happy ending so far. 🙂

    1. Reply

      Hwee,

      You are right! Everything that happens to us contributes to who we are, and has a purpose. No experience is ever wasted. And of course the best lessons are usually learnt from the hardest events. I don't think we can afford to have resentments or stay upset over the past. We move on and take new things with us. Yes, Felicity has found happiness in love. I wonder what else is ahead of her. She is young. Her story is far from finished. Maybe her painful experiences will still be used in some way we can't predict.

      Thank you for stopping by. You have been a faithful reader and commenter!

  3. Reply

    Felicity and Graham look so happy, so very "right" together! 🙂

    And I hope I don't sound terribly critical of Mother Prioress and the convent when I say this – certainly I don't intend to, for it's not my business. But but lest people think ALL convents are like this, I can say that they're not. I know of several where women have left and the Mother Superiors and other Sisters maintained friendships and contact with them afterward. In one such case, a former novice goes back for regular visits and retreats, and maintains healthy friendships and correspondences with the (cloistered) nuns. I only say this so others will not think Felicity's convent was the norm! I can certainly understand your distress over how these things went.

    1. Reply

      Nancy,

      I'm so glad you left this comment. You touched upon something I wanted to say, but didn't. Yes, I am sure not all convents are the same. I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from answering the call to the religious life.

      I think it would have made such a difference if the convent had maintained contact with us, like the ones you mention. But they chose not to. Before Felicity ever entered the convent, I used to receive the convent newsletter regularly. But we were crossed off the newsletter mailing list as soon as Felicity came home. Maybe they thought it was better if she had no reminders of her time with them. A clean break, perhaps. I just don't know.

      Felicity's situation was unfortunate. I know she would never have been accepted as a novice if they'd realised she was suffering from a mental illness. Everyone has to declare they are fit and healthy before they are considered for the religious life. That is fair enough. So I guess the nuns regarded Felicity as a 'normal' teenager. We all did. No one knew any better. So I can accept Mother Prioress' reaction.

      But I'm still not sure about the soap! I think if Felicity was still in the convent, I'd be bringing along gifts of shampoo for all the nuns!

  4. Reply

    HI Sue

    It does sound fro your post that order was not decent kind,or for that matter Catholic. If it had been me Mother Prioress would have had a got a blasting in person.They failed your daughter and there is not justification for that

    1. Reply

      Karna,

      I do agree that Mother Prioress failed my daughter. What happened within the convent was unfortunate but maybe excusable. Many people don't understand mental illness. Mother Prioress wouldn't even have considered it. (I didn't either.) That's why we need to write about it, bring it out into the public eye. But what happened afterwards – being cut off so completely- could have been avoided. I don't think this was kind at all.

      I spoke to Felicity this afternoon. She wants to write more about her experience in the convent. The memories are painful so she will have to wait until she can face them.

      A blasting… I wonder if I should have posted my letter after all. It was politely worded. Mother might have considered my concerns.

      Thank you for your comment.

  5. Reply

    Hi Sue and Felicity,
    I have been so absorbed in this story. I have almost wondered whether you both should co-write a book. There seems to be so much about family relationships and the challenges of living an authentic Catholic life as well as mental illness. Both of you are so talented and such thoughtful writers. I am glad you chose to share your story; I know it must have been hard writing it out at times.

    1. Reply

      Willa,

      I read your comment to Felicity over the phone, this afternoon. We both thank you for your kind words. Maybe a book would be possible. I could use these posts as a start, expanding them into chapters. Felicity would need to write more too. There are other experiences she wants to put into words but only when she is ready. It's a good project to keep in mind for the right time.

      Willa, thank you so much for sharing our story and for stopping by with such an encouraging comment. I do appreciate it!

  6. Reply

    Blasting the Mother Prioress.. Hmm. Well, I can't deny I most definitely would have wanted to, if I had been in your shoes Sue. Mess with one of my babies, and I turn into Momma Grizzly Bear. As my Robyn would say, I'd "rip out your liver, fry it up, and serve it to you for dinner with rice and gravy". 🙂 WOULD I have? I cannot say. Again.. I sure would have seriously considered it. I think writing the letter and then not sending it probably helped you a lot. I've done that.. wrote someone and said EXACTLY everything I'd love to say to their face.. and then burned it. That way I got it off my chest, even if I didn't smack the other person in the face with it, (even though I wanted to!)

    I would LOVE to know not only Andy's perspective in all this, but Grahams as well. I know many times I have felt that my husband Mark 'gets' me and loves me, when others found it too difficult. I am so happy that Felicity and Graham found each other. I'd love to hear their 'story', if ever they'd like to share. The look so happy together! 🙂

    1. Reply

      Susan,

      You are right. Even without sending that letter, it helped me to write out all my thoughts and concerns… get everything off my chest. Sometimes it can be good to let others know how their actions have made us feel or affected us. I wrote to my obstetrician with a long list of concerns after Thomas died. I didn't feel he'd taken enough professional care over my unborn child. I hoped the letter might save another mother with a difficult pregnancy from having to deal with what I had to.

      But Mother Prioress… I just don't know. Medical practitioners have to live by certain professional standards and it is our right to lodge a complaint if we feel they haven't done their duty. But convents are run with their own rules and don't have to answer to anyone (except perhaps the mother house.)

      It sounds like you found a very special man too! Perhaps Felicity could ask Graham if he is willing to share his perspective. Yes, they do look happy together!

  7. Reply

    This week is my sixth anniversary of leaving an apostolic order, under similar circumstances, albeit without the panic issue. I can't tell you how much this honest story has helped me. I have never understood my moods out my periods of intense productivity. While I don't know that we have the same issues, reading about Felicity has helped me to feel less freakish. Thanks a bunch again, from half a world away.

    1. Reply

      2aselin,

      I am so glad you found our story helpful. Entering the world again, after being in the convent, must be so very difficult. It takes time to readjust and process the experience. Even years later, Felicity is still affected by her time in the convent. Maybe you are still dealing with your experience too. Even though I found it hard, at first, to write this series, I'm glad I did. It's good to share with you. May God bless you!

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