“When I grow up, I want to be just like you. I’m going to have the same hair as you, the same clothes, the same smile. And I’m going to walk like you, and cook like you. I’m going to do everything like you…”
“Oh, darling that’s lovely…”
“… Except I’m going to stay at home with my children.”
My memory of saying this is while sitting in the back seat of our black Citreön, talking in part to my mum’s eyes in the rear view mirror and in part, to the back of her dark, shoulder-length bob, which in those days she wore back in an Alice band. Asking her about it recently, Mum corrected the memory: we were in the kitchen, adding that she’d had to turn around so the two-year-old me couldn’t see the tears in her eyes.
At that age, I spent the large part of my days in a children’s centre with my newly born sister, while Mummy and Daddy disappeared to a mysterious place called The Office. Often, they didn’t return from here until long after all the other children’s mummies had picked them up. ‘Mummies’ being the key word. The fact that other people’s Mummies came to collect them, on time, meant they didn’t go to The Office. This was enough for me to harbour the first inklings of resentment that, though my mummy was perfect, she wasn’t being a proper mummy.
It was the early nineties and the idea of the career mum hadn’t yet gained traction. Certainly not in the leafy Twickenham suburb where we lived then, and my mother, with her high heels, pencil skirts and dark suit-jackets didn’t fit the vista of floral skirts and loose, buxom blouses. Unbeknown to me, behind those enigmatic Office walls, she was pioneering the cause of the working mum, and would do so unremittingly for the next two decades. She was subject to suspicion and gossip from other women and demeaning comments from their husbands. Two weeks after giving birth to my sister, she took her in to her office.
“What’s that?” A male client exclaimed, pointing at the baby on the sofa.
“What do you think?” said my mum.
“You can’t bring a baby in here.”
“Why ever not? Shall we start the meeting?”
On Mother’s Day 2019, I am 29, the same age as my mum was the day that, with the frank, misconstrued words of a child, I told her that she was perfect but was failing because she wasn’t there for me all the time. I think it’s time to redress that:
Mama, in the two generations that have taken place since that conversation, I have learnt that you are not perfect. You are alive with imperfections. Your work began as a necessity, and then became obsession. Stress took over your lifestyle, and eventually your good health. You have misjudged and been mistaken; you have styled your hair in ways I didn’t like and said things I don’t agree with. Nor am I just like you. I will never wear heels every day, or insist on changing round the furniture or moving house when I feel depressed; I don’t even have any children to entertain staying at home with.
Still, Mama, I want to be like you today. I want your zest for life and your dedication, motivation and perseverance in the face of adversity. I want your sharp tongue and your school-girl humour at 56. I want that gung-ho attitude, your unwavering belief in the good in humanity, and to give the same heart and soul you grant to the people in your life to the people in mine. It was this heart you willingly broke when you abandoned your dream of being a “stay-at-home-mum,” so that my sister and I could have the best life possible, and we do.
Mama, you are the real-deal, proper mummy, and I couldn’t be more thankful for you, nor more proud of what you’ve achieved, home or not.