A letter to my children on being a better mother.
I’ve been your mother for over ten years. I’ve been your mother in the sense that I became pregnant (eventually), gave birth (hastily), and navigated you (anxiously) through your early years. I’ve read, and cooked quite well; I’ve fixed grazes, temperatures, and broken buttons passably; I’ve tolerated craft activities and role-play, barely. But it’s only recently that I can really say I am a good mother.
Of course, I’ve always loved you. I would do anything to protect you, though I’ve always made sure that you rely on yourselves. A drop down the behaviour chart for leaving behind your homework book once too often? Your lookout. A playground dispute? I’ll give you advice, but you sort that out yourselves. I thought I was a good mum, and I was, in lots of ways. But I could do better, I could be better, and now I am.
It has taken a significant event in our lives for me to really see my children, to understand who you are, and why. I would give that event back in a flash, and yet I feel blessed by how it has changed our relationships. Before, we rushed through life, ticking tasks off lists, on a headlong dash towards bedtime, when we briefly sank into a sofa, a glass of wine, or a plate of pasta, and sleep, before starting the process all over again. The pace of family life left little time for talking, and even less for listening.
I had tried to change. Acutely aware of the process of separation that would gradually take you from adoring toddlers to distant teenagers, I peppered our lives with activities, and holidays; as if by creating big memories I’d have something to cling to when you inevitably left me to start your ‘real’ lives. And it has worked! Some of our happiest moments are spent as a family, just talking about the ‘remember when’s. Yet still there was an underlying sense of panic that I didn’t have long left before your desire to create memories with someone else would carry you away, and leave me with an empty nest.
But I was coming at it from the wrong angle. I was motivated by my own needs, not yours. I have changed tack, and I have all this to show for it…
To my girl:
I will never forget the day when your world fell apart. I would give anything to take it away, to wake up from the nightmare. To see the smile when you wake, and know that it will stay there. But I can’t. All I can do is be there for you, as helpless as that feels. You came back to me that day; the fledgling sense of independence was stopped in its tracks, and I was once again your safe place. You’ve never slept in my bed, but you did that month, as we both got to grips with all the new and alien tasks that are now part of your life. We cried together, and I held you, not knowing what to say.
I did not know it then, but that time spent together not talking, was more than just consolation. It was time to think, to wonder, and to try to understand you. To get under the skin of who you really are, and what you feel. You talked more to me then than you ever had, and you still do now. I think you know that I understand you better, and that even when I don’t, I want to try.
Now when you lose your temper I don’t write it off as a hormonal tantrum. I wonder if you are low or high, sad or frustrated. When people talk of the tempestuous teenage years I no longer roll my eyes in parental collusion; I think of what a tumultuous time that is, and hope that you will still trust me enough to tell me things; I try to stand in your shoes.
I love you now better than I ever have. I respect you more, I admire you more, you inspire me more.
To my son:
You were mine, and I was yours. I loved you both, but you needed me more. You rated us on a scale of 1-5000, me and your dad. I always came out at 5001, and was secretly smug. I did everything for you, and you were happy that way. It was a classic mother and son bond.
I know when things changed that it hurt you. You held it together and never complained – you knew it had to be about your sister for a while – and I was proud of you for that. But I knew you were smarting. It hurt me too; I missed your small body in my arms, your shuffle towards me on the sofa, your melt-into-me cuddle. I was no longer there for you one hundred per cent of the time, and I hated it. You were scared for your sister, I know that, though you said you were fine. You were scared for yourself – would it happen to you too?
Suddenly she needed more of my time, and gradually you came to rely on your dad. It was he who tucked you into bed for a while, his face at school pick-up when I couldn’t be there. He started to read to you at bedtime, while I supervised medical chores. He got up for you in the night, to let me catch up on sleep. You bonded over Match of the Day, and he coached you to more confidence in your football skills. You became friends.
You’re still mine. I’m still yours. But your confidence in yourself has doubled. You learned to rely more on yourself, you and your dad worked on a different relationship, and I’ve loved watching you discover shared passions and in-jokes. Now you shuffle closer to him on the sofa than you do to me. It’s fine, because you still rate me 5001.
I love you now better than I ever have. I am proud of you, I’m impressed by your resilience, and I’m moved by your compassion.
I’m a better mother.
I’m a better mother now. Not because I craft, or iron more shirts. I will never be good at art, and I’ll always nag grumpily about music practice. I still hate role-play, and I’m rubbish in the mornings until the coffee machine is on. The daily grind is always there, the to-do list snapping at my heels. But now there’s a difference. I’m better at ignoring it, at setting aside moments to talk, to listen, to just be with you. I know who you are now, because I took the time to ask, and I tried harder to understand. I’ve finally realised that parenting isn’t about me making you better; it’s about taking the time to learn what kind of people you are. And it’s about being the best role model I can be for you.
It takes time to become a mother, to really feel like mothering is under your skin. At least, it did for me. Thank goodness I realised how much I was missing, before it was too late.
Photos by Stephanie Belton.