I was snuggled up in bed, still half-asleep, my head buried under the quilt. I could hear Andy moving about the room, getting dressed. Soon he would bring me a cup of tea, say goodbye and leave for work. Just another weekday morning. And then the peace of the early morning was shattered by the sound of the phone, intruding upon our day. Andy disappeared out the bedroom door, towards the kitchen, to answer it. I swung my legs over the side of the bed, and hurried after him. “Who was that?” I asked, as he replaced the phone in its handset. Who would phone at this time of day?
“It was Mother Prioress. She wants me to collect Felicity later this morning.”
Collect Felicity? My eldest daughter, who’d been enclosed in the convent for more than a year, was coming home?
“Why? What’s wrong? Is she sick?” The questions tumbled out, one after another.
“Mother said Felicity should come home for a while. She’ll explain more when I arrive at the convent.”
We’d thought our eldest daughter would never come through our front door ever again. But in a few hours’ time she’d be doing just that. A few hours? So much to do. Where would she sleep? Our youngest child, Gemma-Rose had taken over Felicity’s bed.
For several hours I was busy cleaning bedrooms, rearranging furniture, tucking in sheets. My mind was racing; thoughts whirled around my mind: “Felicity’s coming home. Why? She’ll walk through the door. She’ll eat dinner with us tonight. Is she okay?”
About lunch time, the car pulled up on the driveway. Andy got out and opened the boot to retrieve a small bag. Then the passenger door opened and Felicity appeared. The children ran down the back steps to greet her. With much excitement, they practically dragged her into the house. Felicity looked around and noticed some changes. We looked at her. She had changed too. She looked so small and thin and uncertain. Her head was covered with a scarf. Of course she needed it. She didn’t have much hair.
Andy thrust a letter at me. “From Mother Prioress. I’m sorry but I have to go to work.”
I read the letter. It explained why Mother Prioress was sending Felicity home. I don’t know if I still have that letter. Probably not. It contained painful words, words I didn’t want to preserve. But I remember basically what Mother wanted to tell me.
She was apologetic but firm. She couldn’t have Felicity at the convent. She was too volatile and emotional. She was making life difficult for the other nuns because of her moods. If she could learn to control her temper she could return. Maybe 6 months at home would give Felicity a chance to think about whether she really wanted to be a nun or not. She could use that time to modify her behaviour.
I read the letter, then turned to Felicity and said, “How could you! Didn’t I teach you anything about getting on with people? You can’t take out your temper on others! I thought you had more control than that.”
I took the words very personally. I hadn’t taught Felicity the skills she needed to get on with people. I had failed as a mother. And what would people think? Felicity had brought shame upon the family.
I have often heard parents say such things to their children as “Whatever you do, don’t bring shame upon our family. Your behaviour is a reflection of your parents and your upbringing. Remember that, and do nothing that will hurt our reputation.” Of course, I’ve said similar things many times myself. Children have to be loyal to their family, don’t they? And maybe they do, but I think it’s equally important that parents show complete loyalty towards their children.Family loyalty means rallying around and supporting each of the family’s members, regardless of the mistakes they make, supporting them when outsiders start to criticise, making sure they feel loved regardless of the circumstances. We are a family and we stick together whatever happens. And I should have rallied around Felicity better, instead of imagining what others were going to say about her, and therefore us. Adult peer pressure was once again rearing its ugly head.
I thought back to our last visit to the convent, that happy afternoon we’d spent in the garden. That hadn’t been very long ago. We’d seen Mother Prioress. We’d spoken to her. Why hadn’t she given us at least a hint of what was to come? Why hadn’t someone told us long ago that Felicity was experiencing problems? I knew the answer: It was none of our business. Except now it was our business. Mother had sent Felicity home to us. I was back in the mothering seat.
I tried to work out what had gone wrong. Why was Felicity getting so upset at the convent? She must have told me a little of what she’d experienced but I can only remember a couple of incidents. “I fell asleep when it was my turn for adoration.” That didn’t seem such a big deal to me, especially for a young girl who had to sacrifice a lot of sleep during the night. But Felicity seemed unable to forgive herself.
Felicity told me how she had tried to relieve her feelings by taking out her frustrations on her pillow in her cell. But the sisters complained. That was no way for a nun to behave. They have to be in control, even in private, all the time.
So my eldest daughter was home again. Her siblings excitedly tried to show her everything she’d missed while she’d been gone: “You must watch this movie with us! We have some new books!” I wonder if they noticed their sister was so very different to that girl who’d left home maybe 18 months before?
I wonder what it’s like to suddenly find yourself back in the world. “Mother Prioress asked me to come and see her this morning after morning prayers. She told me she’d asked Dad to collect me. She was sending me home.”
“So you had no warning?”
“No. I didn’t even get to say goodbye to the other nuns. I guess they know by now.” And then after a moment she added, “But I’ll see them again. I’m going back.”
But Felicity had to gain control over her temper before Mother Prioress would admit her to the convent once more. And until that time, she had to live back in the world.
I must say I admire Felicity’s courage. Maybe her natural inclination was to hide away at home, but she didn’t. She found a hat to hide her bare head and accompanied me to the shops and other places I had to go. Everyone was very curious. “Was that Felicity I saw you with? Is she home? What happened?” I guess we provided some very interesting gossip for quite some time.
“Felicity couldn’t adjust to the rigorous convent routine,” I would say. I didn’t mention her moods or her anger. Was I protecting my daughter or myself? Anyway, it was none of their business.
Some people were exceptionally kind. When Felicity came with me to the swim school, where the younger girls were having lessons, the owner/manager remembered her. She offered her a job. So a few days after re-entering the world, Felicity had employment. She was going to be a swim teacher for the next two school terms.
A few people said, “Felicity’s home! How wonderful! I’m glad she changed her mind. You must be so happy. ”
But Felicity hadn’t changed her mind and I wasn’t happy. How could I be happy when Felicity so obviously wasn’t?
Mother Prioress had passed Felicity back to me. I was once again her mother and I wanted to help her. But she wouldn’t listen to me. Everything I said was wrong. I suspect we might have had many arguments. She might have yelled at me and I would probably have yelled back at her. But Felicity was on her best behaviour. She couldn’t afford to show any emotion. She had to prove she was in control of her temper so she would be allowed to return to her other mother as soon as possible.
Mother Prioress had given Felicity permission to phone her at regular intervals. “Can I phone Mother tonight? I have lots to talk to Mother about.” Mother and not Mum. Mother Prioress was still the most important person in Felicity’s life even though she’d sent her home. She was the person my daughter wanted to pour her heart out to.
So the months went by. Felicity’s hair grew. She abandoned the hat, and it looked, from the outside, like she was becoming part of the world again. But in reality, she was ticking off the weeks until her 6 months at home were up. There was no way Mother wasn’t going to accept her back. Felicity was counting on that. She couldn’t face any other possibility.
I decided to book a family beach holiday for the month before Felicity’s possible return. We’d never been on such a holiday, all nine of us. I found a luxury beach house right across from the sand. We were all excited. Felicity’s suspension from the convent would give us an unexpected opportunity to enjoy some special time together.
Then one day Felicity put down the phone after speaking to Mother Prioress and announced, “I can go back!” Her eyes were shining. “I’m going as soon as possible.”
“But what about our beach holiday? What about your job? You committed yourself to teaching until the end of the spring term.”
Felicity shrugged her shoulders. “The swim school will understand. The holiday is weeks away. I don’t want to wait that long.”
The swim school owners were very polite and accepted Felicity’s resignation without complaint, but I knew they felt hurt. These kind people had helped Felicity when she was at her lowest and now she was leaving them in the lurch, one teacher short for the third term of the school year… and she didn’t even seem to care. I apologised on Felicity’s behalf. I felt responsible. Again, I felt like I’d failed as a mother. My reputation was beginning to look very tattered, or so I thought.
So Felicity packed up her few belongings once again. She hugged us and said goodbye and Andy drove her back to the convent. This time our goodbyes, although tearful on my part, weren’t so distressing. We’d done it all before. I just felt all-over, low-key sad. Keeping Felicity home wasn’t the answer. She wasn’t happy with us. I just wanted her to find peace. I hoped she’d find it this time round in the religious life.
We enjoyed our family beach holiday, even though Felicity wasn’t with us. We came home and our lives continued. The weeks passed quickly and before we knew it, we were talking about Christmas. When would we make our Christmas visit to the convent, our third one since Felicity had entered the enclosed life? We were looking forward to seeing our daughter again. I don’t think we’d seen her since her return.
We didn’t end up visiting Felicity that Christmas. There was no need. She spent that Christmas at home with us.
One morning the phone rang. It was Felicity: “Mother Prioress says I can come home. Can Dad collect me?”
This time Felicity had made the decision to leave the convent herself. “I’m having panic attacks. I keep thinking Mother Prioress is going to say, ‘I’m sending you home.’ I can’t take any more.”
Image: This photo was taken several months after Felicity came home the first time.
Note to Felicity: You didn’t really bring shame upon the family. I am just recording my feelings at the time as I remember them. And of course there is more to this story than a simple case of a young girl with a bad temper.To be continued…