The hidden pain of splitting up with your partner's family
Sir Paul McCartney has a book out soon, as you probably know. In it, he revisits the moments in his life that were the inspirations for his songs. Hey Jude was written for John Lennon’s son Julian when his parents were getting divorced, and so on.
But never mind all that. All we care about now is the five-year interlude in the mid-1960s when McCartney was walking out with “a very classy girl” called Jane Asher and ended up living in her family home, talking politics at dinner, listening to chamber music, discussing art – your regular 23-year-old live-in boyfriend’s nightmare, unless, that is, you are Paul McCartney and the family who have taken you in are the Ashers.
Jane’s father was a doctor, her mother Margaret was a music teacher (she taught Paul to play the recorder, which you can hear on Fool on the Hill) and, aside from introducing him to new musical genres, she was, in Paul’s words “a real mumsy type”. His mother died when he was 14, so Margaret “filled that role for me”.
That’s all he says, but any mother of daughters, or sons, will read this with a pang of recognition, hand clutching throat, and hear Margaret calling out from the kitchen: “Won’t you need a coat?”, “What about breakfast?”, “Oh look, just borrow his shoes… here.”
We may not all have had a young couple living in our homes for years on end, but we’ve all fallen in love with the boyfriend or girlfriend of one of our children (or step-children, in my case) at one time or another.
You can’t help it. Well, sometimes you can – they can’t all be Pauls – but often the bonds you forge with your children’s partners are unusually close. We’re talking about the early relationships, long before they settle down and have children of their own.
Once that happens, you’re into new territory. Then you’re the mother-in-law, and what was a surrogate-mother-with-no-strings deal becomes something more loaded.
But in the early days, if the plus-ones love your child, you love them for it, and you’re also free to mother them without any of the hang-ups that go with caring for your own lot.
You can enjoy their wildness and lust for life without feeling responsible. You can give them advice without questioning whether you should be interfering, spoil them without worrying that you’re showing favouritism.
When it works – when you’re in Asher territory – the boyfriends and girlfriends become part of the family with one big difference: they’re grateful and interested and delighted to be lightly mothered and fussed over. And then, one day, it’s all over.
“Sadly, Jane and I did break up, and that meant breaking up with her mother, too,” writes Paul, and you wonder if he ever thought about how it felt for her at the time.
Poor Margaret. Tough for Jane, of course, coming home unexpectedly to find Paul in bed with someone else (he doesn’t mention this in the book) – but Margaret… Five years of mothering the most motherable of The Beatles, over in a flash. How sad is that?
It happens to us all sooner or later, but no one ever really talks about it. Occasionally, you’ll see a friend staring into the distance and she’ll admit she’s thinking about “Hettie – you know, the one before Jane…”.
Every so often, you’ll find yourself checking the middle-one’s ex’s Facebook, or asking the eldest in passing: “Whatever happened to Him? He was such a lovely boy.”
It’s not that you wanted them to stay together (though I bet Margaret did – they were engaged, and it was Paul McCartney), it’s just that you miss them. The same way you miss your stepson’s best friend who used to live in your kitchen and now lives in Berlin, or the hordes of chattering schoolgirls pounding up and down the stairs.
Only more so. It’s a kind of bereavement, is all we’re saying.