If either parent is not firmly on their feet, how does that affect an entire family? That's what A good mother, the new novel by Jan van Mersbergen (50). The story is based on the past years of his own life. 'It wasn't supposed to be a reckoning.'
Two years ago, he said that at 50, when he would have been a writer for 20 years, he wanted to write an adventure novel starring himself. No, an adventure novel is A good mother It didn't turn out to be that, Van Mersbergen says, laughing, but it is his most personal book to date. That adventure novel will come later; I really had to write this book first. But the father figure in the story is, of course, me. This story is a reconstruction of the past five years. I wanted to see from several angles what exactly happened.'
At A good mother mother Anja can no longer properly care for her child. She has psychological problems, which have a strong physical effect, leading, among other things, to her having no energy and literally sinking through her legs. But a precise diagnosis - and hence adequate treatment - remains elusive. When daughter Anoushka visits her mother, the girl often has to take care of her instead of the other way around, much to father Erik's frustration. Social services get involved, but no proper guidance gets off the ground; neither for the mother nor the child. A harrowing, but occasionally tender story about the desire and inability to be a parent in the usual way.
A few years ago, Van Mersbergen ended his relationship with the mother of his two children after 16 years. For years, he shouldered both the financial and most of the practical care of his family until he ran out of money. 'The realisation that something was not right with her psychologically came slowly. When our children were born, the difference between how we handled parenting and what care we could offer them became more and more visible. With children, you have to get down to business, every day. It became more and more of a struggle as to who should do it all. While I had to earn an income from writing, I was also fulfilling almost all the caring tasks. For too long, I thought it might work out to have a family together. I overestimated myself in what I could bear, because not giving up is my basic mentality. I may have felt somewhere that I was slowly crumbling, but kept fighting for our family by constantly making new arrangements: if you take the kids to school once, I'll do the rest. But if even that one time no longer works out, at some point it becomes too hard.'
After the two separate, the situation does not change for the better. The mother cannot cope with caring for herself and the girl, and visits eventually have to be limited to one hour a week. 'Treatments only make sense if the person being treated really wants it themselves. Setting goals and working to achieve them has always been lacking. Then there was another mental health practitioner, then another group therapy, but my ex had no faith in those treatments. She adjusted the dosage of medication and antidepressants as she saw fit. There was no development in it.'
Official bodies also fail to improve the situation. After years of fruitless talking and e-mailing, the father had had enough and pulled the plug. To prevent my daughter from ending up in that care roll again and again during the weekly visit, a supervisor was supposed to be present. But even for that one hour a week, no support could be found; the neighbour had to do that. I found that really unimaginable.'
It took many years before he could write about it, Van Mersbergen says. 'A friend said to me that I did have to make it a love story, because my ex and I had been together for 16 years. I found that difficult - too much happened - but I did realise that I had to look for what attracted me to her so much. Because of course there was attraction and love, otherwise I wouldn't have kept fighting for so long either. This book was not to be a reckoning, but a search for how it can happen that a family falls apart and what the different perspectives of those involved are. At some point, a laundry list of people interfere with your family; you lose grip on the situation, get caught up in it. How exactly does something like that happen?'
Van Mersbergen chose to tell the story from the mother's point of view so that he could also portray the father - i.e. himself - in a critical manner. 'I have wondered why I have often been so rigid and strict. When the children were small, I was strongly committed to a fixed rhythm regarding eating and sleeping. I think that stemmed from my need for footing and security. I wanted to explore what a day is like, what a day looks like when you are sidelined. With my new family, I have a clear daily schedule, but when you are no longer part of society or a family, what does life look like?'
Powerlessness, not unwillingness
Movingly, at the end, the father tells the mother that she is a good mother despite everything. 'That is also what I would like to pass on to my ex. She is told by everyone that she is unable to be a good mother, because she cannot live up to the rules and standards we have set for her. But that is not unwillingness, it is powerlessness. Within her abilities, she does her best.'
With his current girlfriend, their son and his other son and daughter, over whom he has full care, Jan van Mersbergen is experiencing for the first time what it is like to have a balanced family. 'I am still amazed that when we go to the Efteling amusement park, I am not on my own greasing the currant buns and packing the bags, or that I have made the children happy with something that subsequently cannot take place. We each take our own role. For many people this is normal, but I have really had to learn to trust that things can also go smoothly and I don't have to do everything alone.'
288 p., Cossee, €22.99