A Letter To… my mum by Jo Olney

 

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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.
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In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

image1Lora is a wife and mummy of four sons.  In 2012 her family were devastated when her third son, Finn was born sleeping.  

Her brave and honest account below was written to promote Baby Loss Awareness Week this week.

 

In Her Words… Losing Finn by Lora Price

My third little boy, Finn, is 4 years old. He would have started school in September, joining in his brother’s morning rituals which are sealed with a kiss goodbye in the school playground. I imagine he would be delighted and excited by the prospect of being a big boy and starting school.  I imagine. I imagine everything about Finn, as he isn’t with me anymore.

The aftermath of losing Finn was deeply wounding. The grief was engulfing and all-encompassing whilst my deep sense of guilt was choking. I lived on the fringes in the early weeks, as babies born sleeping seemed to be one of the great unmentionables.

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Lora with Finn

I was angry. Angry at my own body; angry at those people who were still pregnant; angry at those who tried to comfort me with their own sadness of miscarriage (I have had four of those too). Finn was a perfectly formed 5lb 8oz little boy. He may have been stillborn, but he was still born.

Finn is irreplaceable, yet a few months after his passing my arms felt desperately empty and I became pregnant again. Interestingly, I felt more normal when I was, as suddenly friends who had gone quiet were more comfortable speaking to me again. At 34 weeks, our family was blessed with the arrival of our fourth little boy Joshua Finlay Martin, known as Joss. Our tiny miracle perfectly filled our yearning arms and helped us smile again.

With Joss in our lives, I felt strong enough to start the beginning of our new future. Sadly, this was short lived as one week post-birth I learned that my beloved father had, unbeknown to me, started an aggressive battle with cancer. (He had withheld telling me whilst I was pregnant as he didn’t want me worrying). He put up an incredibly strong fight with the bravest of faces, but four months later cancer took my Dad and enveloped me in the tentacles of grief yet again.

This grief was akin to carrying a boulder around with me all day. I struggled under the pressure, my knees buckled and my arms strained to maintain grip. But letting myself go through this grieving process, allowing myself to feel angry, to unapologetically feel like I had been wronged, that I was the victim, that life was unfair, was in hindsight key to starting the healing process.

It takes time to feel human again and I remember feeling a huge sense of pressure to seek professional help. For reasons that I don’t even understand myself, I couldn’t face this. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of exposing or sharing my deepest feelings with someone I didn’t know. I was much more comfortable being the shoulder to cry on, rather than the one doing the crying. Or maybe I just didn’t want them to take the pain away?

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Lora’s dad with his grandson Joss

You can’t heal every wound and I believe that is OK. The ache in my heart is important and I don’t ever want it to fully subside. It’s what tells me that I love Finn so deeply, it’s how I take Finn everywhere with me and it’s my barometer which helps me evaluate what is important in everyday life.

However, I am not ashamed to admit that contentment and happiness are a big part of my life again. I spent the early part of this evening with Sonos belting out some big tunes in the kitchen whilst my husband, three other children and I busted some shapes amongst a furore of laughter! However, as I sit here writing this article with a glass of wine on standby, I am joined by tears rolling down my face and a very heavy heart and it got me thinking about how often I cry now. Is it daily? No. Is it weekly? I’m not sure. Is it about Finn or my Dad? I don’t know and really it doesn’t matter because I love and miss them both. But what I do know is that crying feels much easier and more manageable now, as I know that happy times are just around the corner again. I’d actually go further to say that shedding a tear is for me now is a therapeutic exercise. It’s always done privately, in a quiet moment at home or maybe on a contemplative country walk with my faithful four-legged friend, but for me it is like releasing the pressure valve which allows me to be the wife, the mummy and the friend I want to be. Crying (and writing!) are my own personal forms of healing it would seem.

In fact, I jest about writing, but actually in the early months after losing Finn I found myself enslaved to the computer as I completed a piece of writing which captured our two days with him. This documentation of Finn’s time with us proved to be somewhat cathartic. I was conscious that time could possibly erode the details and I was keen to preserve as much of that time as possible. It’s neither a heart-warming or uplifting read, but it is an honest and precious account, you can find it here: Forever My Finlay 

It is clear to me now that I was particularly fortunate to be surrounded by such a strong and patient group of people who gave me the platform to face the future again with renewed strength and hope. However, one of the most painful struggles I faced in the early months was the discomfort that clearly resided in many friends, dare I say some extended family members too. I get it. Giving birth to a baby who isn’t alive is a difficult reality for everyone to face. Many people don’t have previous experience to draw upon when dealing with friends in this situation. What do you say to them? Talking about said baby will only cause further upset surely? So, many simply said very little. At best ‘how are you?’ At worst, nothing. Certainly there was never any mention of his name. I don’t want Finn to become a forgotten member of our family or his name to be a taboo word in my presence. I yearn to hear his name still. Yes, it may bring tears to my eyes, but it also brings music to my ears.

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Lora with her boys and husband David

So looking back now, how do I reflect on all this? I do believe I can see the world in many more colours than I did before we had Finn. Having witnessed both the fragility and blessing of life I am more self-aware than I was before, I count my blessings with much more commitment and I look to really enjoy and not second-guess the good times. To get to the place I am in now, I had a choice to make; I could stagnate and let the world move on without me or I could re-join the journey and start moving forwards again. I chose to jump aboard life’s train, in part, because I owe it to my incredible family unit, but also because I am so grateful to be alive. Many people didn’t go to bed last night or didn’t wake up this morning. But I did. And I am grateful.

I am also much more mindful now of how I react to others facing difficult times, whether great or small. I always try to step off the ledge and offer the comfort that I feel I didn’t always receive. To be honest, this has had a varied response, some have closed me down not wishing to go any further, but equally some have welcomed that subliminal nod which allows conversation to unfold.

I don’t profess to have a secret ingredient as to how best to get through times such as these, I think everyone’s road to reach their new normal is totally personal and unique to them. What I would say though is if I can, then you certainly can too. Also, for those readers who do have a friend out there who does need you, then don’t let your social awkwardness stop you from being the friend you want to be or the friend you need to be.

Everyone’s life will undoubtedly have ups and downs. I believe it is critical to appreciate and savour the ups because this creates the reserves of strength that you need to deal with the downs.

Finally, my advice when you are going through your own crisis: listen to advice but don’t allow this well-intentioned counsel to take you in a direction you are uncomfortable with. Trust yourself and you will find the right path back to happiness.

For anyone looking for support following the loss of a baby, the following charities offer excellent advice:

Sands 
Tommys 
Saying Goodbye 
The Mariposa Trust 
Baby Loss Awareness