Today is my mum’s birthday. So this is a little note for her. But you should read it too. Everything I think I know about motherhood comes my own brilliant mum. If I do ever get to follow in her footsteps, it is a pretty dazzling trail she has blazed for me.
She is not what you would call conventional. She has pink hair, for a start. Sometimes purple-ish. Almost always unbrushed. Though, actually, the hair is the least unconventional thing about her.
She is a software engineer, from a generation when women still didn’t really do that kind of work. In fact, when she got her place to go to university to study the subject, she made the local newspaper, so unusual was it.
You often hear about the importance of getting the next generation of girls learning to code. Well, my mum can do that. She has been doing it for more than 30 years.
Suffice to say, there were never ‘girl jobs’ or ‘boy jobs’ in our house. (Although we did once have a bizarre argument when I was a teenager about why it was an important life skill that I learn how to make custard).
By the time she was my age, mum was divorced with two children. It is only really now that I can even begin to appreciate how hard that must have been.
Especially as she worked, too. She wasn’t long into her career when she had me and then my brother, and – again, a little unusually for the time – she went back to work afterwards. Later, as a single mum, she worked full time. It was never a ‘thing’. It wasn’t a debate. Life requires money and mum earnt that money. End of. We went to a childminder, and that was the way it was. I don’t remember ever being bothered that she couldn’t always come to all our sports days or assemblies. Maybe she came to all of them. The point is I don’t remember.
She’s a software engineer. There were never ‘girl jobs’ or ‘boy jobs’ in our house
So I’ve seen my mum be a working mum. I’ve also seen her be a stay-at-home mum, for a spell when my younger sister was little, and then go back to working again a few years later. She made it all seem easy – normal. Though I realise now that it can’t have been.
Perhaps the most radical thing about my mum is the fact that she has hobbies. Lots of them. For as long as I can remember, she played squash competitively; eventually making the ladies England team in her 50s.
Now, she also runs. She cycles. She swims. She completes triathlons – including a Half Iron Man this year, for which she topped her age category. She’s also joining me for the London Landmarks Half to raise money for Tommy’s (you can sponsor her here, if you’d like, and me here).
Then there’s the knitting and the sewing. And at the moment she’s learning how to quilt. Just because. (Seriously, she’s so much more interesting than I am).
Of course, hobbies shouldn’t really be a radical act, but somehow when ‘mum’ is so often assumed to be the beginning and end of a woman’s identity, carving out time to do things that you love, that make you feel like you – unrelated to the humans who happened to come out of your uterus – strikes me as a quietly feminist statement. What a powerful thing to see from the woman who raised you. That your time and your needs matter, too. That you have interests, opinions, and talents.
Today, we don’t have a live-in-each-other’s-pockets kind of relationship. We don’t speak on the phone every day. Or even every week, sometimes. Though we do message, frequently, whether it’s her sending me pictures of her latest sewing project, or me with updates about my running times. But, crucially, when I have needed her most, she has been there. Notably, at the lowest of the low ebbs this year – on hearing that a third baby had died inside of me – she literally got on her bike and cycled in the pouring rain so she could be by my side.
As mum has shown me, there are many versions of motherhood. It may not look the way you expect it to look. But underlying all of them is that raw compulsion to do whatever you possibly can for your children when it counts.
I’d intended to end this post by saying that as much as I want to be a mother, I also, more than anything, want to be able to make my mum a grandma. Because she’d be brilliant at it. And then yesterday she said something, while we were out running (because that’s what we do), that blew that out of the water. She said: ‘Yes, I want to be a granny, but that’s not what matters – what matters is you, and that you’re happy.’
And that just says it all, doesn’t it?