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.