I watched my mum bustling round her kitchen, a contented beam on her face, happiness radiating from her. She is in her element, here in this sunny kitchen somewhere in leafy Hampshire. This is her whole world – for her, the world beyond these walls means very little. She never had any desire to conquer the world, to achieve or to leave a mark other than quietly and gently through her children and grandchildren. She had no ambition beyond us. She had always been like this.
Yet she was the brightest star in her village. She was the first girl to go to university (Aberystwyth) and whilst at university, she was in the rowing team, winning medals. She even kicked the bar on several occasions (as per the tradition at her university).
When the children came, that all stopped immediately. My mum had a sweet little job teaching Biology in a local school, but it had always been clear that her focus was her children. She devoted her every waking hour to us, and did her mothering duties with a big smile even when under duress.
I was 16 when I first fell pregnant (accidentally, of course), and again at 20. I didn’t want my first two children.
“Daddy, I have changed my mind,” I cried big tears when I was being wheeled into the delivery room. “I don’t want a baby!”
In the beginning, I never felt that I was a good mother. In fact, I have always believed that I was a bad mother, blaming my youth for my shortcomings. I was saddled with babies at a very young age, at a time when my peers were out there in the world doing exciting things. I, in the meantime, was stuck at home with squalling brats, and the father of my child was a penniless man who lived an itinerant life.
We were both so not ready to be parents. The day I told him that I was carrying his child, he was about to set off for the British Olympics Sailing Trials. He wasn’t expecting to be daddy, not for a long while at least. Moreover, I was just the one-night stand on a careless, enchanted summer evening.
The animal passion we had for each other counted for little when it came to raising children or building a home. Our differences as people were beginning to show when we had to throw our lot in together. I was ambitious and hyper, whilst he was laidback and chilled. I was permanently stressed and exhausted as we had more babies whilst I was at university, hundreds of miles from my soothing south coast life in my parents’ peaceful home. Life was a flurry of dropping the babies off to the university nursery, then lectures, then burning the midnight oil completing assignments and studying for exams.
Though there was lots of love in our household, it was chaotic, messy and haphazard. The children were not always cleanly dressed (in summer months, they ran round naked in their wellies) and meals were not always on time. I was often impatient with them, as my nerves were frayed from university studies, household chores and the stress of raising young children without practical help and financial support.
Later, when I started working (out of necessity), I was occasionally an absent mum. The conflict raging within me was savage. On the one hand, I wanted to stay at home with my babies; on the other hand, I wanted to run towards the exciting opportunities with my arms outstretched. To live and to experience so that I live a life of no regrets was my mantra. I wanted to experience more than the confines of my family life.
And so, on my precious older daughter’s ninth birthday, I was on the plane circling over Heathrow, not being able to land because of the snow. I arrived home the day after her birthday, and I disappeared for weeks on end to the Occupied Territories, armed with the mistaken belief that I was saving lives. I undertook a 1000km Sahara trek for a dare.
My children had a successful mother who often made it into newspapers and glossy magazines. But inside, for the longest period of time, I believed that I was a bad mother, and in my thirties, when the real value of life dawned upon me, I scrabbled frantically to rearrange my priorities so that my children became the centre of my universe. Our family life took a dramatic turn for the better, when I realised that career success, exciting adventures and even friends could not warm your heart the way only your children and the father of your children can. Only they can put their arms round you, and transform a mediocre day into one worth being alive for, and that the love is constant, eternal.
At 46, I am contemplating another two children. I know my future children will have a different mother than the seventeen year old one that I had been: I no longer have the pressures to live my life, to prove myself, to achieve my ambitions and to earn money. I had done all that.
I mentioned this to my mother. “I will be a good mum this time, Ma, like you.”
She stopped bustling. She stopped smiling. She fixed me with a strong stare. “Darling, you have never been a bad mother. There is no such thing as a bad mother. All women give birth wanting to do their best for their children. We just have different ways, that’s all. Now don’t go beating yourself up for what you did or did not do in the past. Good or bad is subjective, but love is absolute.”
Yes, Ma, I loved my children more than life itself, even when I did not know how to express it. And I love you, my wise mother, for always healing the cuts in my heart.