Mother’s Day 2001
I am 17. Dad died two months ago and the house is very quiet. We are sad and shocked, trying vainly to adjust to being a family of three. For the first time, we make a big deal of Mother’s Day, and I think it helps all of us.
Mother’s Day 2003
I am 19 and I’m at a beach party in Byron Bay, Australia. I’m drunk with freedom, and probably a lot of other things. I have no idea what day it is and I forget to contact my mum to say Happy Mother’s Day. When I eventually go to an internet café several days later I discover she has been frantic with worry and is completely furious with me. We have an argument over a badly-connected phone line and I hang up on her.
Mother’s Day 2009
I am 25 and Mum and I are in Paris for the weekend. She suggested it on a whim, saying it could be a celebration of my birthday and Mother’s Day combined. We share a room in a tiny hotel and spend the whole weekend eating, drinking and walking. I don’t realise at the time just how important this trip will be.
Mother’s Day 2014
I’m newly-engaged and just turned 30 – plenty of reasons to celebrate. It’s also been three months since the phone call when I discovered my Mum had been found dead. I am eating very little, and sleeping even less. I’ve never noticed it before, but social media is flooded with images of people with their mothers, endless happy captions saying ‘Happy Mother’s Day mum!’ I throw my phone across the room.
Mother’s Day 2017
I am 33. My daughter’s first birthday is next week. ‘Happy Mother’s Day everyone!’ say my friends on the NCT WhatsApp group. I realise, for the first time, that this is for us – we are the mothers now.
Mother’s Day, 2021
I still find it hard, this day that I barely noticed for so many years. These days it brings good things: a crumpled, handmade card from pre-school, a bunch of flowers or a scribbly drawing of me, usually with giant hair and strange long arms like a spider. But it also brings a little nudge of grief, a reminder of what – or rather who – is missing.
I used to think that navigating motherhood without my own mother by my side was something that would smooth down over time, becoming something softer and more manageable. But I think I’ve come to accept that perhaps it will always have sharp edges. Her unexpected death took something away from me that I had assumed would always be there. But it also took away the chance to say thank you, to tell her that I see her clearly now; that I finally understand.
Is anyone ever truly prepared for the reality of parenthood? Being a mother is a world of juxtapositions – frustration sits side by side with peace, boredom with mania, love with fear. It is everything and nothing I expected it to be and the magnitude of it, the feeling of being forever responsible for the safety and happiness of these small people, can sometimes be overwhelming.
I have a lot of regrets about all the things we’ll miss out on, my mum, my kids and me. So many moments when she should have been there, but isn’t. But most of all I regret the conversations we’ll never have, the questions I never thought to ask, before I found myself trying to fit into the ‘mother’ mould myself.
I look back at my mum’s frustrations and sacrifices with fresh eyes. I want to tell her that I understand now how much she must have missed her life as an actress, which she never went back to after I was born, moving instead to the more stable world of teaching.
She was a wonderful teacher, but I wonder now whether she felt a longing for the adventure and freedom that acting had given her. I know I’ve struggled to come to terms with the routines of motherhood, how incompatible creativity can feel within the rigidity of someone else’s needs.
I look back with amazement at the woman who lost the man she loved, then had to navigate her grief as a single parent to two teenagers. At the time, she was the adult, the mother – it never crossed my mind that anything could have broken her.
Years later, I understand how laughable that is; that the real truth is that mothers are not unbreakable, just masters of disguise, cracking and putting themselves back together over and over again.
Memories of mum
I’m lucky in that my relationship with my mum, bar the odd teenage strop, was a hugely positive one. She was the kind of person who liked to look after everyone, from the children she taught at school, to mine and my brother’s friends. “Your mum is bossing me around again,” my now-husband would complain after a weekend visit, as she took it upon herself to fix all of his problems, fill our fridge and order us yet more cushions. She was quick to cry, to laugh and to forgive, too. I still hear her on a daily basis telling me to “feel all the feelings, because they’re all part of being alive.”
I remember being a teenager, coming home hours later than I had promised, raiding my parent’s drinks cupboard and filling plastic bottles with a hideous cocktail of whatever I could find. Whenever I came home, it would always annoy me that my Mum would be awake, calling out from her room to say goodnight.
Then, the first night in the hospital after my daughter was born, I couldn’t sleep. Despite being up for 48 hours and counting, every time my eyelids drooped I jerked myself awake. What if something happens to her? I need to stay up. I need to make sure she’s ok. In those endless early hours in a room where there is no quiet and the lights never go off, I thought of my mum lying awake at home, waiting for the unsteady scrabbling of the key finding the lock, so that she could finally close her eyes.
As Mother’s Day comes around again, I am steeling myself for the social media deluge of dedications, the images of three generations of women, each celebrating the one that came before. I used to feel sad, but now it’s something more intangible – a sort of nostalgia for a time that might have been, if everything had gone as it should have.
There will always be a parallel world when you have lost someone so pivotal, however hard you try to make it go away. This year of isolation, uncertainty and endless time has pushed that parallel world into the forefront, taunting me with a hologram of a different reality. My mum was a primary school teacher and she lived alone. Would she have moved in with us? Joined our bubble and visited regularly to help inject some actual patience and teaching into the hell of our home school juggle?
These thoughts are not helpful, but still they come. Maybe that’s the way it is with an unexpected death. Perhaps there is a scrap of disbelief that never really goes away.
It is a truth I battle on a regular basis, the fact that, for all the imaginary scenarios, there is no world where my mum and my children exist side by side. It is a painful realisation, but in a way, it is the one that has brought me some semblance of peace.
Perhaps there is a hazy, alternative world where she recovered and is still living in her house, constantly scouting for bargain furniture she doesn’t need and making coffee on the world’s most complicated machine, the one no one else can work out. But this world, the one with the pandemic home schooling and the grandmother-shaped gap and the life I’ve built without her – this is the world where my kids live. And will I choose them, every time. I suppose that’s what it means to be a mother.