By Hannah Shuckburgh. Illustrations by Miranda Sofroniou
There’s a photograph of my mother that I look at most days, as its corner is poked into the frame of my bedroom mirror. She must be about 27; she has long, dark hair and a blunt, ’70s fringe. She’s wearing a rainbow stripe jumper under dungarees and she is looking down, adoringly, at her new baby in her arms. It’s probably the first picture of my mum and me. She looks calm and happy.
Whenever I look at the hazy pictures of my childhood, my mum makes parenting look so easy. In the pages of her photograph albums it always seems to be the holidays. She is smiling, tanned and barefoot, dressed in strappy sundresses, surrounded by naked, muddy children. There don’t seem to be any tantrums or sleepless nights; no shorttempered mornings or illnesses. My sister, brother and I are eating lime lollies on the beach or squished, sunkissed, in the back of mum’s old Peugeot, a picnic on our laps. Of course there must have been boring school days and bad stuff, but those don’t feature, and when I think about my childhood, those aren’t the days I remember.
Now I’m a mother myself, I look at those pictures more intently. How did she manage with three small children? Did she find potty training as difficult as I have? Did she, too, sometimes sit on the edge of her bed and cry out of pure, extreme tiredness? My mum was the perfect mother, but having a baby myself brought her to life, and it made me look more closely at her.
After my first baby was born, my husband – grey-faced and filthy after three days of labour (and without the rush of hormones that was still buoying me through) – was only too pleased to play tag-team with my mum and go home for a few hours sleep. She arrived at the hospital after my son was born and immediately started straightening things out, opening the curtains and arranging a bunch of daffodils. In the days after we got home, she would be a quiet, comforting presence, folding laundry away, putting the kettle on (after my sixth cup of tea in a row had gone cold). Gradually, as the days passed, she came less, like a parent teaching a toddler to walk, inching away, so the child barely notices they’re now standing on their own.
It was never mum who I went to for those almost hourly questions that new mothers have (How often should he be pooing? Is he sleeping too much or too little?). Those queries were always sent in the direction of my sister. Whenever I did ask my mother a question, she was always a little vague. “Perhaps he’s hungry?” and “Never wake a sleeping baby” were her two refrains and I could never get her to broaden the advice to anything more helpful. She seemed to be able to remember almost nothing about the details of her own babies’ early lives (fair enough, I suppose, it was 30 years ago). Her attitude was that whatever I was doing was probably right, and that the baby was going to be just fine. Any rising neurosis about my baby would be stifled quite sharply.
The modern obsession with baby kit left her puzzled. In 1979, when I was born, I was brought back from hospital swaddled in a muslin and laid in a shopping basket on the back seat. There weren’t endless books and blogs and Instagram accounts to make my mum feel insecure about how she was doing it all. She had a gang of friends (most of whom had also stopped work altogether) and a husband with absolutely no expectation that he would even once be asked to change a nappy. They were all in the same boat, her mates and her, and it was quite straightforward that she would raise her children pretty much alone. It was a different time. But as a stay-at-home mum, she felt fulfilled. It was not a complex choice for her – the balance between work and motherhood – as it is for so many woman of my generation, who feel we fall short, whatever way we chose to parent and whichever choices we make.
Although I’m so grateful to live in a time with greater equality, my mum and her friends went for the kind of relaxed ’70s parenting I often aspire to. She would dig a hole in the mud, and let us play in it for hours. Supper was often pasta with butter, potato waffles with grated cheese. Perfect, faultless, organic-kale-smoothie parenting was not something she thought about. She would talk on the phone for hours, sitting on the stairs with the long, curly phone lead trailing around the kitchen door and we would be expected to play independently.
I have always had a very strong relationship with her, but as a mother myself, I really, truly needed her, as if it were I who were the small child again. I would long for her to arrive, literally standing by the window, looking out for her, and instantly feel better when she did. I was so lucky to have her around the corner, I often thought about what it must be like for those new mums who no longer had their mothers. My friend Kate lost her mum to cancer three years before her first baby was born, and she describes how her grief changed once she became a mother. “For me, becoming a mother felt healing in some ways. I still felt this desperate loss but there was also this strong new life, an undeniable future. Being a mother myself made me felt connected to mum in a new way, even though she’s gone. But most days I think of something I would like to ask her, something I remember from childhood, or some advice I’d love to get. I find her birthday and Mother’s Day particularly hard because I know she would have been such a wonderful grandmother and would have adored her grandchildren. There will always be that gap in my life, the place she would have occupied in our lives.”
For women who have strained or difficult relationships with their mothers, motherhood can change things, too. It can bring new challenges, or it can be the way to find common ground. For my friend Ella, motherhood brought forgiveness. “I spent a lot of my twenties feeling very angry with my mother and I had failed to create any meaningful relationship with her as an adult. When I gave birth to my daughter, it made me feel differently about her, almost instantly. I found myself thinking about her a lot, particularly in the first few days and weeks of my daughter’s life. It made me see how hard it must have been for her and that she probably did her very best in difficult circumstances. I don’t see us ever having a brilliant relationship, but I think motherhood brought empathy, helped me move on and let go from feeling sad and bitter. I don’t feel angry anymore.” And perhaps that is what parenthood does, ultimately: it brings you forward, onwards, to the next stage. Motherhood carries with it a new chapter: no longer a child, you’re a mother now.
Last night, as I was scrolling through my husband’s photographs on his computer – endless pictures of our babies sleeping, smiling, stretching, taking their first steps, their first mouthfuls of mashed banana. Suddenly, a picture caught my eye. It’s me, sitting on our sofa at home, holding our month-old baby. I am wearing a stripey jumper under dungarees, my fringe and long hair framing my face. I am looking adoringly down at my baby. I looked calm and happy; the future, now, in my hands.