Emma Thompson on living in a woman’s body: my daughter thrums with life, my mother is frail – and I’m balanced between | Family


I found myself, during our strange, second Covid Christmas, sandwiched between my 22-year-old daughter and my 89-year-old mother. This year, more than ever, the umbilical connection between us tugged at me as I, Janus-in-waiting, observed, monitored and enjoyed the miraculous luxury of three generations together.

My daughter has tattoos. I like them, which surprises me. I understand the urge to mark life’s more seismic events upon your body. They sear themselves into our brains after all, so perhaps tattoos are just the outer version of the inner burns.

My mother’s body bears witness in more traditional ways – watching her navigate its frailty and bentness is a daily learning, a meditation. She taught me to walk when I was a baby, and now, she teaches me how I will walk when I am old: how to reach for this, bend for that, move around the obstacles like an ancient, patient stream. I try not to help.

Living between these bodies is an odd mixture of joy and grief. My daughter thrums. Her life force changes the atmosphere in the room as soon as she enters. We all receive the electrical charge and, once again, we dance.

I must have done that once.

Or my daughter comes in upset, chaotic, spinning out and sits by my mother and receives a calming nod – no questions, I note – and the chaos subsides.

Whatever made us think we could live without this? We were stuck on our goals and our aspirations and – God forbid – our dreams. We were too busy to notice how the bodies silently speak to one another, how we breathe each other in, recalibrate and breathe out.

But the meeting of these life forces now feels more essential than ever. We are constantly exchanging ever-altering resonances, and balance occurs. Not perfectly – nothing’s perfect – but, consistently, we change and reset one another’s state. So instead of grieving my mother’s ageing, instead of envying my daughter’s youth, I find I am buoyed up and calmed down by turn.

“Why is my fanny getting bigger?” my mother breathes at me one morning as she is washing the forks. We laugh for quite a long time. Her skin reminds me of my daughter’s when she was a baby: the same almost-not-there softness, lovely to stroke.

It feels like she’s returning to something.

Illustration of three generations of women in Emma Thompson's family.
Three generations of women in Emma Thompson’s family Illustration: NGADI SMART / STUDIO PI/The Guardian

When I hold my daughter, I can feel, in deeply recessed parts of my body, her vulnerability. She’s all fire and sparks, but I know it’s there. I try not to help.

She’s brimful of the world, and the image in my mind’s eye is of her walking away towards the sun carrying a rucksack, my mother sitting by the fire, dozing to the crackle, and me, standing in the doorway, held between the two states of departure. One towards action and one into stillness. It’s a rich position to be in, full of nutrients, somehow.

I exist between them. I’m grateful I can still get up a hill and I’m depressed about my thighs.

Emma Thompson is an actor and screenwriter

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