mothering without my mother

My mum died of breast cancer when I was 10 years old. Losing a parent so young is the antithesis of the gift that keeps on giving. Every special occasion, every achievement, every milestone in my life is a reminder that she’s not here.

I felt this even more keenly when I was pregnant with my first child. Midwives and sonographers asked me, “Is your mum looking forward to the baby coming?”. Colleagues told me, “You’ll be glad of your mum after the baby is born.” Even the books I read talked about how the bond between a woman and her mother is often strengthened after the latter experiences childbirth.

Here I want to state that I have a father who has done the job of two parents for the past two decades, and a wonderful stepmother. But this is about the absence of my own mother.

She wasn’t there when I wanted to ask if her pregnancy was like mine, if she experienced sickness as badly as I did, if she had the same nerves about becoming a mother, and how she dealt with working while pregnant. I didn’t get to discuss birth choices with her, and she wasn’t waiting anxiously outside as my son arrived in the world (as the baby books assured me she would be).

Afterwards, when motherhood wasn’t quite what I expected, she wasn’t there to listen and empathise and tell me whether she felt the same when I was born. She couldn’t help me navigate my new identity as a mother, and reassure me that I’d come out the other side.

She didn’t see my children’s first steps, celebrate their first birthdays, or hear their first words; she wasn’t there when my eldest started school. She is absent at Christmas and birthdays, and more poignantly she isn’t there for me to cry to when mothering is more than I can bear.

My children will never know her (except through the stories I tell); *I* will never know her as a person and not just as a mother. I won’t tell her how much more I appreciate her influence on me now, or hear from her what I was like as a child. I can’t ask her whether I am doing a good job, or how she did all she did, or why it’s so bloody hard sometimes.

My mother has been dead for more than 20 years, but with every stage of my own mothering journey, I feel her absence more. Mothering without my mother is a difficult journey, but she gave me the roadmap through her mothering of me, and for that I will always be thankful.

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dear eldest, i miss you

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It started while I was pregnant. Confined to the house, if not to bed, our just-the-two-of-us world was interrupted out of necessity. I railed against it, did too much, because I wanted to be with you and make the last few months of me-and-you extra special so that’s what you’d remember when the babies came. I missed you and I missed milestones – you were just two and learning at a rate of knots, your vocabulary seeming to double each day. Already then I felt twinges of regret that I had chosen to disrupt your world.

No one tells you the sting that comes from missing your eldest child when you welcome a new baby (or babies) into your family. It’s not something I prepared for or even anticipated. I have watched close friends glow with the excitement of late pregnancy with their second children, I have smiled when they ask “what’s it like having more than one?”, I have answered simply “it’s different.”
 
“Of course you miss your eldest,” said one very wise and compassionate midwife as I cried when my babies were a week old. “You have spent over two years with him; you know him. You don’t know these babies yet.” That was exactly it – I felt stuck caring for my newborns, knowing that was my most important work at the time, but I longed for my biggest boy, whose every expression I knew as well as my own.
Over the past three years, I’ve missed you more and more. I waved you off to preschool, then ‘big’ school. Each step you take away from me like a jolt to my heart, though my encouraging smile doesn’t falter when you look back. You see, my firstborn, you hold a piece of my soul in your hand in a way your sister and brother never will. You taught me how to be a mother, you walked me through those impossibly difficult early months, you let me go at my own pace, and oh how you rewarded me by growing into a beautiful, bright, resilient boy.
 
It is perhaps my lot as a parent to stay your constant while you gradually step further and further away. To watch you grow and learn about the world is a privilege; you amaze me every day with your perception and observation. I expect more of you than is fair, because you are so articulate and expressive. I am hard on you, because I want you to be the best you that you can be. I forget you are so little still; I forget you were even littler when you acquired (through no choice of your own) two very demanding younger siblings.
 
I didn’t know how much I’d miss you, my eldest, I didn’t know how much it would hurt not to be just yours.
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the lost art of following your instinct

When my first baby was born and I realised I was not quite as prepared as I thought, everyone kept telling me to follow my instinct. The problem was, I didn’t feel like I had any instinct. My baby didn’t arrive how I had expected, he wasn’t feeding how I expected, and he didn’t sleep like I expected. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and traumatised. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing, and furthermore I didn’t have an internal voice guiding me, like people seemed to be suggesting I should.

I felt alone at the time, watching other new parents knowing what their babies needed and providing it without fuss. However, five years on, I realise it’s really common feeling among new families, this lack of instinct or natural ‘knowing’ what to do with your baby.

When I had our twins, I had a sort of ‘aha’ moment. From the start of their birth, I knew exactly what we needed to do and what was right. Sometimes I falter, and I get it wrong a lot, but I rarely go looking for advice because I trust my instinct.

So what was missing first time around? I have spent a long time reflecting on this question. One thing I realised is that prior to the last few years, I didn’t trust my instinct in lots of areas of my life – work, friendships, relationships… When making any big decision, I asked everyone in my life what they thought I should do. I never asked myself what I thought I should do. Not only did I not listen to my instinct, I didn’t even give it a chance to voice an opinion.

It wasn’t until I had to make lots of big decisions every day, in order to keep a tiny human alive, that I noticed this absence of instinct. In general, I think it comes from a lack of confidence and self-esteem on my part (something many years of therapy have yet to unpack), but in becoming a mother I blame the overwhelming amount of often-conflicting information we are given.

From my first appointment with the midwife (at about 6 weeks pregnant), I was bombarded with guidance, official recommendations, leaflets, and other sources telling me exactly what I should be doing. Some of it I sought out, like the ‘Babycalming’ book I found in a charity shop, but I would estimate that about 75% trickled in passively, even subliminally.

I can’t remember musing about what kind of parent I wanted to be, or what it would be like to have a newborn. I had lots of expectations based on societal norms depicted in the media: like all other babies, my child would sleep in a Moses basket, he would sit in a bouncy chair or lie on his play gym during the day, he would go to sleep nicely and night and wake up in the morning, and he would enjoy going in its pram for walks.

It’s almost laughable now. He did none of this. Our first week home, he would not sleep anywhere but on one of our chests. We slept in shifts, terrified to put him in our bed (while our bodies screamed out for rest) because the leaflet the midwife gave us said it wasn’t safe. He hated being put down, and I hated hearing him cry when he was away from me, but people said we could spoil him by holding him too much. He slept in 10-minute increments day and night, so I could not sleep when the baby slept like everyone kept telling me to. He did not enjoy being in his pram; he did not care that people said it was where he was supposed to go.

Why didn’t I do what I thought was best? Why didn’t I trust myself to keep my baby safe? Perhaps we would have had a very different start to our relationship if I had listened to my instinct instead of turning to books, healthcare professionals, and websites for guidance. What if someone had taken a moment to ask me what I wanted to do, instead of telling me what I should do?

It got better when I had the twins, because I was confident in my choices. People still offer unsolicited judgement and recommendations, and I have learned to smile politely and change the subject. They are happy, having imparted their wisdom, and I am happy to continue as we are.

But I still wonder how differently our parenting journeys would be if we were encouraged to listen to our inner voices. I still feel sad that I wasn’t.

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on mindy kaling and sexism

Recently, I have been binge-watching The Office and The Mindy Project, alongside reading Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? and Why Not Me? This particular essay was prompted by watching The Mindy Project and mass-consuming interviews with Mindy Kaling. She plays the main character and is executive producer of the show, and one of the writers. This isn’t hugely unusual in the world of US TV, especially in sitcoms. Except – oh yes, she is a woman.

Despite her long CV of accomplishments (first writing role for ‘The Office’ in early 20s, becoming producer of ‘The Office’ by 30, Emmy-winning writing, acting, running/writing/starring in her own network TV show, authoring 2 books…) the main themes that come up in interviews I’ve seen are about her being a woman. Yesterday was the last straw for me – I watched an interview from when the show started and she was asked not about her impressive body of work, but “is it funny seeing yourself on billboards? did you get to influence the photo? were you able to look through the designs and sign them off?” To her credit she answered with grace and patience, simply saying “no, I am used to seeing myself like this,” and when questioned further, gestured at the ad and said “I’m pretty happy with how it looks. It turned out really well.”
Kaling’s staff is asked what it’s like working for her – with paragraphs about how cool it is that she is a “girl boss” (because she can’t be put on the same level as boy bosses – or ‘bosses’, as they are commonly known). Kaling herself is consistently asked (often incredulously) where she gets her confidence from, with commentary about how ‘assertive’ (at best) or ‘self-centred’ (at worst) she is. To keep saying these things, after she has been in the TV industry for over 10 years, implies that she has every reason *not* to feel confident. The woman has won an Emmy, had 2 books on the NYT bestseller list, and had 5 seasons of her very own show! Why on earth should she not feel confident?
The continued patronising questions put to Kaling is just another manifestation of the overt sexism that still exists in our society. Would anyone ask Seinfeld if it’s funny being on a billboard, or why he seems so confident? As women, should we not be confident/assertive/proud of our achievements? The implication is that we should be slightly surprised and embarrassed that we have achieved anything at all. That isn’t good enough for me. I want my female friends, relatives, and especially my daughter, to know what they do well and f-ing shout about it from the rooftops.
Kaling deals with this questioning with a grace that I aspire to. I don’t know how, after so much time, she refrains from shouting “STOP ASKING ME THESE F-ING QUESTIONS” – although she does deal with the topic in her books.
Let’s just stop being surprised that some women know their worth, and instead encourage them to celebrate their accomplishments. Let’s stop comparing them to men in their industry (usually finding them lacking). Let’s stop trying to find holes in their confidence – they’re a ‘bitch’ or a terrible boss or self-centred or a maneater – and most important of all, celebrate ourselves and our own accomplishments instead of being embarrassed about them.
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shake it off 

When the babies were only a few weeks old, and I was completely overwhelmed looking after two tiny newborns and a rambunctious toddler, four o’clock was a very hard time. Everyone was tired, wound up, hungry, and I was desperate for my husband to come home from work. I was trying really hard not to fall into the abyss, and the long, dark days of winter didn’t help this feeling.

To deal with it, I made four o’clock ‘Dancing Time’ – when, no matter what we were doing, we’d drop everything and put on some energetic music (sometimes even Just Dance videos on YouTube) and let out our pent-up energy. One of our regular dancing tracks was Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’; the uptempo beat and f-you lyrics the perfect antidote to a stressful, relentless day.  Even the babies loved being jiggled about in the sling and some of Jake’s first giggles were as he watched us fling about our limbs energetically.

The song has continued as a favourite, instantly cutting through our bad moods and grouchiness. It made it onto my first running playlist, and it’s still there 18 months later, pushing me on when I’m lacking energy. Last summer Lucas requested it almost every time we got into the car, and by July could sing along with Taylor through to the end. He insisted that she was singing “shake it, ahh” – not realising that it was her accent and stylised voice that disguised the word. In the end I agreed with him as he got so upset trying to convince me and it seemed a petty thing to argue over. 

‘Shake it Off’ still makes me smile whenever I hear it. Partly because of these precious memories, and because it’s apt for a time when I’ve struggled to let go of negative influences in my life. “Haters gonna hate” – it’s teenspeak that I’m 20 years too old for, but the sentiment is true. The song contains good advice for my children, too. I’d like them to grow up to be resilient, to assume they can achieve anything and everything they want to – to be able to shake off negativity rather than getting drawn into it. 

And if you’re not a fan of Taylor, you can always check out the Beef Seeds’ bluegrass cover of ‘Shake it Off’ instead – it’s worth a listen! 

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about a boy


Lucas, on the eve of your first day of school.

I write about you, my darling boy, and I could fill pages upon pages. You can be infuriating, challenging, frustrating. You are kind, thoughtful, inquisitive, clever. You teach us how to parent, and often how not to parent, and your younger siblings will thank you for that one day. You don’t have an easy ride, and I am sorry for that. But you are happy, and you know you are loved, and you love fiercely. 
There are so many things about you that remind me of me – and I’m sorry for those, too! You will start primary school tomorrow and we can’t wait to see how you deal with that adventure, although we are nervous for you as you will one day understand. Like me, you see things in black and white and you find any perceived injustice very hard to bear. I wonder how you will deal with this at school, and I hope it won’t hamper you. Like both of us, you have an incredible thirst for knowledge and information, and you are surpassing us greatly in your studies of dinosaurs. I think you will really enjoy learning new things at school and I’m sure you’ll be able to educate us in many areas!

You are growing up into a truly wonderful boy and my biggest hope is that you continue to be the happy, open-hearted child you are. We are not always the parents we want to be – sometimes we make mistakes – but I hope you know how much we love and adore you, and that we will always be here, watching and rooting for you. 

Here’s to your next adventure – may it be big, joyful, and full of wonder.

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fake it ’til you make it

The most memorable piece of parenting advice my dad gave me is also the one I fall back on most frequently. I think it’s actually one of The Parent’s best-kept secrets, and I’m going to share it with you. Prepare yourself: it’s a big one.

We don’t actually know what the hell we are doing. 

I know, right? When you were a kid and your parents seemed to have it all together, know exactly what to do and how to handle every situation, did you imagine that they were completely winging it? 

I can’t remember what prompted my dad to tell me this – it’s likely that I was bemoaning my lack of any clue what to do with my toddler – but I recall that I asked him “how did you always know what the right thing to do was?!” That is when he laughed, and replied “fake it ’til you make it.”

My dad’s pretty impressive approach is to act like you know what you are doing, even when you have no idea what the right course of action is.  This fools your child into believing that you hold the road map, therefore you are in control. It must work quite well, because until he shared this with me I actually thought he knew exactly what he was doing. The alternative is that I was an incredibly gullible child, so I prefer to credit my dad’s fakery. 

I jest, but I was seriously simultaneously aghast (my childhood belief in my parents’ omnipotence was shattered) and awed (they had me believing wholeheartedly in their omnipotence). As parenting approaches go, it’s simple but brilliant and it’s served us well. As it works, your confidence in yourself grows, and herein lies its true brilliance: you don’t even realise when you’ve stopped faking it. Suddenly the right course of action starts coming naturally to you, and when you stop for a minute, you realise that you’ve got this. 

At least until the next phase. Then you can go right back to faking it.

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what we did: dino land

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More dinosaurs! As Lucas was leaving to go to his childminder’s house for the day, I had a flash of inspiration for a no-fuss activity we could do when he got home. I’ve been wanting to invite more exploration of natural materials but the weather has been so rubbish lately that none of us feel like spending much time outdoors. Lucas has been playing in an imaginary ‘Dino Land’ with his friends at daycare and I thought we could make a small world ‘dino land’ for him to explore with his figures.

It took less than five minutes to set up – I dashed into our front garden with a plastic tub, and chose leaves and wildflowers of varying sizes, shapes and colours. They needed some drying time so I left them under the radiator. When Lucas came home, we got out his plastic dinosaurs and I let him explore dino land. He enjoyed making the dinosaurs ‘talk’ to each other (they are often all called Bob) and helping them navigate through the leaves and flowers.

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what we did: ice excavating

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I loved the simplicity of this activity. Plastic dinosaurs, animals and shells frozen in water, placed inside plastic boxes for the scientists to excavate. I really struggle to find activities that work for both Lucas and the twins, but this held both biggest and tinygirl’s interest (tinyboy slept through it!).

Due to over-freezing, the blocks took a while to start melting. This provided an excellent opportunity for learning, as we discussed what can melt ice. Lucas came up with fire (conveniently the wood burner was going!), using our hands, pouring warm water over the block, and using tools. We tried all four of these and talked about how they compare.

Tinygirl had a fantastic time touching the ice, depositing her lunch into the box, and playing with the tools.

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when it all goes wrong again

Today I rang my GP to discuss increasing my medication for anxiety and depression. It is a phone call that I have been putting off for several weeks, hoping to avoid it, that things would start feeling easier. They haven’t, so I know it is time to ask for help.

Maintaining good mental health is a delicate balance that I have been dealing with for a long time. Things have become harder since having my children and I have suffered two bouts of bad postnatal depression, as well as post traumatic stress disorder. I am pragmatic about needing medication to help: after all, if I was diabetic, I would expect to take insulin to manage the condition.

Despite this, I still struggle with the stigma attached to mental health issues, and I find it hard to admit when the balance is tipping away from my control. Like most people, I do not like to admit when I am having a difficult time. My anxiety is very connected to feelings of failure and negative thoughts, and I prefer to soldier on until it becomes clear that I can’t.

This doesn’t make me strong, just like asking for help doesn’t make me weak. Sometimes I have to work really hard to remind myself of this. I am lucky to have a close group of friends who will also remind me of this, and with whom I can be truly honest. Sometimes it helps to just say, “yes, I am struggling,” and know that they won’t look at me any differently.

True friends take the rough with the smooth and the bad with the good. They are there for you when you’re at your worst, not just your best. They love you when you’re struggling and they hold you up so that you don’t have to go it alone. It is I have friends like these that I found the strength to make the call today.

We need to be more open about and accepting of other’s struggles. Admitting that you’re having a hard time is not a sign of weakness – it is normal, and anyone who judges you negatively for being honest is someone you do not need in your life. Asking for help should be encouraged, not frowned upon.

I know things will get better for me, because they always do. I will ask for help (albeit grudgingly) and I am lucky to have a small number of good friends who will make sure I don’t flounder. Even though I may feel alone, I know that I’m not. And gradually, life will seem easier again.

Stockport is creating a perinatal mental health forum ‪#‎stockportPNMH‬
The group is bringing together statutory services, primary care, volunteer organisations and charities to improve the way parents’ mental health is looked after in the perinatal period.

The first meeting will be on Weds 24th February 7.30pm at the Education Room, Maternity Unit, Stepping Hill Hospital.

This meeting will be focussing on raising the knowledge and improving the education of Midwives & Health Visitors around perinatal mental health.

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