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Motherless mothering

It is impossible for me to untwine my relationships with my children from the one I had with my own mother. For when I pour my soul into them, when I give them all the love I have, am I not imbuing them with memories of my own mother?

For a long time, the process of my own mothering has been a desperate effort to either re-enact or rebuke the way I was mothered. She was loved, loving, gregarious, dedicated, funny. So, I try to embody those characteristics of hers that made her wonderful. She loved me – the times we had together were for the main part fun. She would come home from work, dizzy, pour herself a vodka and put on the record player. Taking me by the hand, she would spin me round and round to Elvis. Yes, she was fun, and being in her presence felt sunshiny. Of course, she had her faults too, and initially, I did not realise that I was subconsciously rebuking them when I made decisions about my own children. She was dedicated to a fault – but to her work, not me.

Because of this, there were many times she was not there. So many times I would have to let myself in to an empty house, waiting for her to come home; an only child trying to amuse herself until mum arrived. And then, the ultimate absence – death. It was such a strange and isolating experience watching my mother mutate from strong and glowing to weak and sallowed. It took three years for her to die but no one (apart from dad and me) even knew she was unwell until her death. Motherless at the age of 16; a crucial juncture in a girl’s life and one I found I had to navigate on my own.

How can this be left unsaid when defining myself as a mother? It cannot. She devoted herself to her work; I devoted myself to my children, stopping a burgeoning career in its tracks. I wanted to be there for my children; no latch-keys for them. As much as I loathed pregnancy (for the most part), I bore three living children to ensure that they would not face life on their own. No matter what happened to me, no matter what will happen to me, they will always have each other. You may say that siblings might not get along and so that choice is moot. Yes, I accept there is that chance but it is highly unlikely, given the endless hours of social engineering, the lessons of friendship and trust I have imparted to my children, the import I have placed on love and family.

I’m sure that on some level, I’m still angry at my mother for abandoning me. I’m also quite sure that this is what drives my will to ensure my children will never be fully abandoned. I never want them to feel the trauma of being left alone.

My three children do not yet know that they have a sister, who died long before they were born. I was 28 when I sat aside the doctor, told I was due on the 26th of February. Auspicious, given that my mother died on the same day. ‘Renewal’, I thought. ‘The universe is speaking to me. My mother is speaking to me’. For twenty weeks, I bonded with my baby; felt her kick, as if trying to connect with me, tell me something. I would smile and poke back, thinking about my mother, wanting to share this with her and feeling sad that she would never meet this child. Then at my twenty week scan, the news that she was ‘incompatible with life’, the offer of a lift home, ushered out the back door so I wouldn’t upset all the pregnant women awaiting their scans. She was born a few days later. I touched her face, she was wrapped like a cocoon. If I ever had any faith in a god or in the universe, it left that day. It wasn’t a blinding flash of atheism, more a quiet slinking away of hope and trust.

How can this be left unsaid when defining myself as a mother? It cannot. You might see me in the playground hovering over my children, watching their every move and think to yourself, ‘She needs to lighten up – she’s so overprotective’. I ask you, wouldn’t you behave the same way if you thought for a heartbeat that something might go wrong – probably would go wrong? If your life had been shaped by loss, if against all the odds you had lost both your mother and your daughter, would you not be resigned to the fact that your children were imperilled as well? If I so much as hear a thump and a wail, I feel as if my heart is icing over – the cool of panic sets in as I race towards my children. For surely it was the thump of death or at least the sound of danger seeking them out.

Thankfully, they have never been in real peril but the thought always lurks in my mind. Just this Christmas past, my eldest daughter fell off a windowsill and knocked out two of her teeth. Shaking, screaming and bloodied, it was my husband who carried her to the car – I was too terrified to touch her. Family had been over that night for dinner and all the kids were playing in the living room. I sat with the ‘grownups’ in the kitchen, ignoring the urge to stand amongst the children, keeping danger at bay. But I didn’t. I already have a reputation as an overprotective mum and I was desperately trying to prove that I was cool and calm. I fought my instinct so as to avoid judgement. I learned a hard-won lesson: follow your own instincts, not the parenting philosophy of others. I am the first to raise my hand and tell you that I am overprotective but I can't banish this flaw overnight. I am working on it. I realise my children need to have space to grow but equally I need space to get used to the fact that they might actually be okay without me.

I don’t know what the key ingredient is to being a good mother. What I have learned is that mothering is a process, mothering is a pastiche of your past, both good and bad, a reaction to your own experiences. I think a good mother knows herself and can point to her own flaws so that she might minimise the effect they have on her children. And a good mother forgives herself those flaws, recognising them as innately human.

Looking at it differently, loss has shaped how I parent in a good way. I am so keenly aware of the brevity of life that I learned from an early age to ‘stand and stare’. I can happily watch my children play for hours; I breathe in the giggles and the silliness of their capers, memorising the scent of their happiness and youth. I pretend to be asleep when they crawl into my bed, draw them close to me and wonder what they’re dreaming about.

Like every mother on the planet, I have my bad days; days when I am quick to temper and slow to cool.  Yet I have lost enough to realise that life's richest blessings are right in front of me and while I am learning every day how to be a parent, even though I make so many mistakes, I know that my children feel safe. I also know that the memories we are making as a family are happy ones. And that is good enough for me.