A Mother’s Day Reflection
I’m not sure what I expected from motherhood except that life would change – and that expectation has most definitely been met!
My daughters grew inside me and remain a part of me… I can’t imagine life without them but the person who taught me most about motherhood was my mother – an amazing woman I will probably never stop writing about!
The older my children become, and as I age, the intensity of love for them deepens. I think of them every day, confirming the feelings and wisdom my mother shared with me in the months before her death in 2009, aged eighty-nine.
She talked about her fears for my brother, George who was undergoing treatment for Leukaemia and said,
‘Loving and mothering is a lifetime responsibility – your children should never die before you. It’s not right.’
I have close friends who have lost adult children. They confirm the truth of Mum’s observation and I know each day for those friends getting up and coping with daily life is a struggle and testament to their resilience to ‘continue and carry on with life’ the way their loved ones would wish. The lead-up and actual celebration of days like today must be particularly difficult and my heart goes out to them.
‘She never quite leaves her children at home, even when she doesn’t take them along.’
Margaret Culkin Banning
When I decided to have a baby, I was thirty-two and didn’t truly understand how profound becoming a parent would be personally or the effect on relationships with family, friends – and even strangers.
Born in the 1950s and part of Women’s Liberation in the late 60s and 70s, I was still expected to follow the ‘normal’ path of marrying and having children. It wasn’t my sole aim in life and I didn’t actively plan it but I went with the flow after meeting John and neither of us challenged the system, except I eschewed a white wedding and expensive reception and married in the garden of the house we bought together and party afterwards with many of the guests ‘bringing a plate’!
On reflection, I can say becoming a mother was the most exhaustive (and exhausting) change in my life – and continues to be – as long as my daughters and I remain intertwined.
I could write a lot about the picture of me in the early days of my daughter Anne’s homecoming – the congratulatory cards still visible, the dessert and glass of wine husband John prepared sitting untouched, me in an exhausted sleep all new mothers know well…
I salute my mother for her guidance, values, and many examples of mothering. How she coped with six of us I will never know! I remember ringing her up and asking her once, after a trying day with a baby plus toddler, ‘How are you still sane?“
I know that the deep love and bond I had with her is one of the reasons a loving bond with my daughters came easily.
There are similarities and vast differences regarding how Mum and I parented but not in attitude and determination to be loving and loyal whenever needed. We were both lucky to be with partners we loved (Mum had Dad and I had John).
Partners who wanted children and were supportive, partners unafraid to share the household chores and unglamorous aspects of parenting and in my case, I know, a partner who cherished me and never stopped showing it.
John had been married before and so to a certain extent ‘knew the ropes’ regarding parenting so I was lucky. Although being present at the birth of both our girls, a novel experience for him just as having me, a feminist, as a partner, also a fresh experience!
In this picture, we are pregnant and ecstatic.
‘Say, what is the spell, when her fledgelings are cheeping,
That lures the bird home to her nest?
Or wakes the tired mother whose infant is weeping,
To cuddle and croon it to rest?
For I’m sure it is nothing but Love!’
Cheryl, now my ex-sister-in-law, was a friend and part of the extended family in 1986. She produced the first of the next generation for our branch of the McInnes Clan in Australia in 1979 and the only ‘modern mum’ I’d observed firsthand.
She visited me in Jessie McPherson Hospital, Lonsdale Street, shortly after Anne’s birth. Into my ear, she whispered, ‘Welcome to the club.’
Her brown and my hazel eyes met as she squeezed my arm gently and with the still vivid memory of that miraculous moment when I held Anne to my breast for the first time, I knew exactly what she meant – becoming a mother, accepting the responsibility for another human being is transformational and understood by other mothers.
My first little ray of sunshine born after an emergency dash to Jessie Mac’s in Lonsdale Street at 3.00am, May 24, 1986.
John tailgated a taxi breaking the speed limit ( ‘they know the fastest route and where all the coppers and cameras are’ ). We hit no red lights and made the city in record time.
Three hours later Anne Courtney Neil arrived, three weeks earlier than expected but wide-eyed and ready to take on the world!
When I took Anne home from the hospital little did I know she had a hole in the heart – not discovered for almost twelve months, and then only by the extra diligence of a young doctor on work experience at the local clinic!
I still have cold sweats in the middle of the night when I think of the operation she had for ‘sticky-eye’ and a blocked tear duct when she was barely two months old, the eye specialist and the anaesthetist unaware of her heart condition.
There were the usual childhood accidents and illnesses too. The catastrophes that send mothers into a spin, fearful for the child’s wellbeing and welfare – Anne had no broken bones (Mary Jane delivered that excitement) but one day she bit hard and severed her tongue when she collided with a large wooden rocking horse.
I rushed to the local GP at the corner of Albert and McDonald Streets, in my slippers, wheeling five-year-old Anne in her sister’s pusher and carrying a protesting Mary Jane under my arm.
I’d stuffed a wet face-washer in Anne’s mouth to hold the tongue together and stem the bleeding (‘excellent response’ according to the doctor).
The trail of blood in the house and garden that greeted John when he rushed home after receiving a garbled message from his receptionist made him imagine a severed limb and he almost fainted. (The tongue bleeds profusely!)
However, he too praised my quick action of racing to the surgery rather than ringing an ambulance or panicking. (That and delayed shock came later!)
Sometimes we amaze ourselves how we react and cope as parents.
Mary Jane’s birth in 1989, a more traumatic and dramatic story.
She arrived more than a week early and I barely got to Mordialloc Hospital in time for delivery, sending the nursing staff into a flap. To this day they know her as ‘the baby born during the tea break’ arriving less than fifteen minutes after I walked through the front door.
John and Dr Ferguson arrived at the hospital just in time for delivery and I’m sure if there had been more traffic police on duty in those days, both would have been booked for speeding – perhaps even reckless driving.
Adding to the drama, Mary Jane breathed the meconium and amniotic fluid mixture into her lungs while in the womb and was born with the umbilical cord around her neck prompting a nurse to say, ‘Oh, she’s dead.’
The baby rushed to an incubator, and the nurse reprimanded while everyone in the room paused for a moment taking stock of a miracle birth!
I went into shock and apparently kept asking John if I’d had a baby until they brought Mary Jane to me for cuddling and a feed!
Later, Mary Jane broke her arm in a ‘monkey bar’ accident at primary school but the seriousness of the fracture ignored by teachers who left her in Sick Bay while they tried to contact me or John and ‘ask what to do’ instead of taking her to a doctor or ringing an ambulance.
Our membership in the ambulance service and private health insurance on record and you can imagine the tongue lashing the administration of the school received from me.
Fortunately, a friend volunteering for reading duty noticed Mary Jane’s distress and demanded action; unfortunately, the delay and subsequent treatment at Sandringham Public Hospital during the upheaval of the Kennett years meant the arm badly set and needed to be re-broken weeks later – a specialist did this at Como Hospital, Parkdale.
Sadly, Sandringham botched another operation when MJ was in her 20s, damaging her bowel when they discovered endometriosis during a routine operation to remove an ovarian cyst. Who says lightning doesn’t strike twice??
Often at night, I close my eyes and recall the horror of seeing my daughter with multiple tubes hanging from her young body. Flushed, in pain despite high doses of morphine, and unaware of the emergency operation, she murmured through an oxygen mask, ‘What happened?’
The déjà vu of the multiple traumas she has suffered weighs heavily on my heart. I have often wished for a magic wand to reverse the hurts or give my daughters the happiness and pain-free world of fairytales.
Motherhood exposes your deepest fears and inadequacies but it also helps you gain courage and grow – as Sophocles said, ‘Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.’
Whenever my girls have been ill, in pain, troubled or suffering, I’ve wanted a magic wand to remove their misfortune or possess the ability to swap places and take away their discomfort. Instead, reality over fantasy, I’ve ‘gone into bat’ for them and fought school and government authorities, bullies, and anyone else who needed to be held accountable.
Like a lioness, I will fiercely fight to protect and defend. These skills and determination I learnt from own mother – she may have been barely five foot tall but her love and commitment to all six of her children taught me to be courageous and resilient regarding caring and coping as a parent.
‘A mother’s love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity, it dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.’
Motherhood – the most emotional and enlightened transformation for me. Everything I’ve read, shared, learnt and absorbed about other women’s experiences reveals no journey is exactly the same or can be predicted.
There are similarities, but it is a unique life-changing event filled with joys and sorrows, calm and turbulent seas, problems and solutions, holding tight and letting go, embarrassing moments and moments of pride and satisfaction.
‘The heart of a mother is a deep abyss at the bottom of which you will always find forgiveness.’
Honore de Balzac
Around the world, mothers worry about their inadequacies, feel overwhelmed and many like me who became a single parent because our partner died carry guilt about not coping or spending enough time as the ‘default’ parent.
(John died when Anne was sixteen and Mary Jane thirteen – I think most will agree parenting adolescents is tough with two concerned parents, with one, I can assure you, it is challenging and at times, very lonely!)
Frustration, financial stress, fear of failure or making mistakes – subjects often discussed between friends, family and sometimes counsellors.
Nurturing has never stopped from their early childhood…
From miraculous beginnings to challenging responsibilities, navigating hopes and dreams, disasters and near misses, parenting has been rewarding, scary, comical, confronting, but most of all fulfilling.
My life has had a purpose and I’ve experienced and continue to experience a wonderful mutual love.
I am so lucky my girls as young women still want to visit and ‘hang out’ with me, travel together, see movies, play board games, walk the dog, shop, discuss and debate, laugh and even party with me.
They are friends and my daughters, and often the nurturing role has been reversed – especially when I had breast cancer and now as I age and have lost some confidence about decision-making for the future.
At the beginning of my writing career, at the launch of my first poetry book, I said children were the inspiration and reason I wrote and also the reason I didn’t write because motherhood is time-consuming.
Over the years, especially caring for John, I can substitute family instead of mothering, but I wouldn’t really have a life any other way. Loving and knowing John and our daughters have enriched me and made me the person I am today.
I hope I’ve helped add two more productive, caring citizens to the community. I’m grateful that feminism has wrought changes in society and many of the preconceptions about women and their destiny are no longer peddled – my girls have choices their grandmothers didn’t.
My Mum won a scholarship to college in Northern Ireland but her stepmother wouldn’t let her continue with study and ordered her out to work. Then came WW2, the ATS, and nursing. Her stymied educational opportunities motivated Mum to encourage all six of her own children to study and seek suitable qualifications for what we wanted to be.
I was the first in my family to go to university and I only wish mum could have witnessed me returning to study at 57 years old and gaining a Masters of Writing and her two granddaughters earn Bachelor degrees.
My wish has always been for happiness and good health for both girls – to be whatever they want to be and find contentment and fulfilment in their choices.
We are so fortunate to live in Australia and have the privileges we do and I’m glad both daughters are aware they stand on the shoulders of those who have come before, that there are still hurdles to leap, and they will always strive to ‘go higher’ and seek equity for themselves and for so many others not as fortunate.
I am happy they will follow their mother as I followed my mother in fighting for social justice.
‘Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall;
A mother’ s secret hope outlives them all.’
Oliver Wendall Holmes.