A Letter To… my mum by Jo Olney


Mum (right), 1968
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.

So, Mum, here goes…

A Letter to my mum

Dear Mum,

There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.

In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.

Mama G
Mum with six of us, that’s me at the bottom.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.

I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.

Mama G and me
Me and my mum
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:

Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.

I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!

To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.

Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!

2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?

I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap!  We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.

Hugh Jolly Book of Child CareThere were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.

I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.

When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.

A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.

There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!

I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!

In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.

I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.

The sisterhood
The sistehood
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!

In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.

No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!

Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?

I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch!  Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.

In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!

As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!

I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important.  I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.

I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.

I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.

I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life.  I love you all.

Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren
Mum and Dad with two of their nine grandchildren.

A Letter To… Kate Atkinson from Zoë Sanders 

 Zoë Sanders is a writer and editor, helping people and businesses express themselves and get heard.  She’s happiest with a pencil and pad, doodling and scribbling. Or, if it’s a hot day, swimming in the sea.

A Letter To… Kate Atkinson from Zoë Sanders

Dear Kate Atkinson,

Sometimes a gentle nudge is all we need. Sometimes it takes a big glaring neon sign that says “Exit” or a bottle that says “Drink me.”

In the late 1990s my sign to quit came via the way of your first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. It was actually just a couple of your well-crafted lines; lines that conveyed a wealth of meaning to me; lines that tipped me over the edge (in a good way).

At the time I was working in a job that I had slowly come to realise was making me really unhappy. I had started with the company shortly after leaving university and got stuck there. On the surface after all I wasn’t having too bad a time — Friday night drinks after work, wandering around Greenwich Market at the weekends, hanging out with friends. But after a few years working at a facilities management company in the City of London, I was becoming increasingly frustrated. I couldn’t see where my professional life was going. I felt stifled and unfulfilled. And worse. There were times when I had a sense of standing at the edge of an abyss. It wasn’t a good feeling. I knew I had to make a change. When you are enmeshed in a way of life however it’s often hard to take the leap.

Then by chance I read your novel. In the story, a character realises she is living the wrong life. Reading it was like a slap in the face. That was me! I was living the wrong life! Those words were my sign to jump ship and take control again.

It was time to live a life that was true to me.

I saw a new job in a paper, passed the interview and was so excited and overwhelmed at the prospect of starting again. But a big problem — my life as it was — required a big fix: it needed something radical.

The job was teaching English in Japan. I gave in my notice. A month or so later I was off on my first solo overseas flight, laden down with a couple of bags and a load of nerves.

On my first training session in Yokohama, I met Diane. She was my age, Scottish and had a great no-nonsense attitude. She’d started at the English language school shortly before me. Walking out of the building after a day of asking myself “what have I done?” she gave me some brilliant words of advice — just hang on in there for three months and then decide if it’s for you.

Zoe and Diane in a Japanese convenience store
Diane and I in a Japanese convenience store.

So I did and it was — I lived for fourteen months in my very own version of wonderland. Diane and I became close friends. I was privileged to teach some brilliant, funny, warm students based above a fish shop in Zushi, a small village on the coast, a 40 minute train ride south of Tokyo.

Temple, Kyoto

My experience in Japan had given me a complete boost. Before I’d left home and travelled halfway around the world I had been feeling low. Those deep, dark feelings? Well I haven’t had them since.

Kate Atkinson, your book at the very least changed my life. It may have even saved my life. I owe you a big thank you.
Now, many years later I look back and see the twists and turns of my life. What would have happened if I had stayed at my job in the City — would I have ascended the ranks, got a good job, been at the top of my game? My life hasn’t taken a straight path at all and I often wonder if that is OK, if that is right and sensible?

My “just stick it out for three months” then turned into a three year adventure. After Japan, I headed to Australia which I travelled around before settling in Sydney for a bit. I was fortunate to get a job at BridgeClimb, the tour company that runs tours over the Sydney Harbour Bridge.


Me, Ange and Nicola on a New South Wales wine tasting trip.

After my return to the UK I had a couple of jobs back doing general office-based work again. Then in my thirties I had a desire to do something more meaningful and useful with my life. I retrained as a hypnotherapist. And one thing I have learnt (out of the very many things) from hypnotherapy is about fear and how it can hamper us. Fear of what others think. Fear of failure. Fear of not living the life true to you.

And now again, I’m moving on. Hypnotherapy was an amazing journey, personally and professionally, but it’s a hard gig with a young family. I have loved hypnotherapy; it’s given me so many great insights and whatever happens next, I will always have these insights and understandings to help guide me.

Whilst running my own hypnotherapy practice, I also worked with my husband Ian, helping with editing and writing projects. Now I’m expanding my writing and editing in new ways, focusing on my own clients. I feel all I’ve done, whether here or in Japan or Australia feeds somehow into what I do now. I bring all of me to work, all the lessons I’ve learnt, all the experiences I’ve had to inform and help my writing.

In my life choices I am carving out a life that suits me, and my family, and that really is the most important thing.

Chopping and changing professionally might not be for everyone, but the world of has changed so much from that of our parents and grandparents. There are few jobs for life – most of us will have to go on working much longer. Adaptation and change will be a necessity if we are potentially going to live to 100.

So perhaps more than just changing my life at a point in time, perhaps you, Kate Atkinson, gave me resilience for the future. You helped me quit something destructive in my twenties; perhaps I now have courage to face the future with a sense of adventure. I’m hoping that that fearless mindset where I embraced such change in the past will help see me through. Perhaps that adaptability will help me navigate the changing job landscape. Perhaps when I’m 80 I’ll be back at school learning new tricks.

I’ll keep you posted!


Pass it on to: 

I’d love to read some of Sam Lieren’s writing in letter format! @SamLierens.

Also Laura Jayne Lawrence @workitleigh has interesting things to say and I think is looking to expand her writing.

Irene Brankin @IreneBrankin is an older woman, a psychotherapist, who is warm and nurturing and has a lot of wisdom to share.
Zoë can be found on Twitter: @ZESanders or Instagram: @doodlezoe