No matter how prepared you think you are, no matter how many books you read or prenatal classes you attend, nothing can fully prepare you for the adventure that is motherhood. I found this out just over a year ago when my beautiful little boy Max was born. As a teacher, I’ve always learnt to be prepared and do my research, and I did this diligently, listening to podcasts on the way to work in the morning, devouring the pages of “What to Expect When You Are Expecting” and being the only person to take notes at the antenatal classes! (Much to my partner’s amusement.) And yet, when they placed this little wrinkly person in my arms for the first time, I realized I had no idea what I had let myself in for. I was a mother now, yet inside I felt about 10 years old, completely bewildered by the responsibility I now had.
Fortunately for me, my own mother was on hand.
You would be forgiven for assuming that perhaps I don’t have much of a relationship with my mum – after all, I moved 17 000 km away to the other side of the world! However, you couldn’t be further from the truth.
When I was a kid, like all kids, I assumed my parents would be around forever. I guess I took them for granted most days. But when I lost my dad in 2005 at the young age of fifty-seven, I came to realize that parents are very, very valuable things and we only have them for a limited amount of time. I’m very lucky that I always had a close relationship with both my parents but in the last ten years I have developed a particularly strong friendship with my mum, which I’m extremely grateful for. She grew up in a family of four boys plus her, and I remember her telling me when I was a kid how she desperately wanted to have two girls, not boys, because she wanted to have a friendship with her daughters that she felt wouldn’t be there if she had boys. That conversation lingered at the back of my mind and even through those difficult teenage years, I tried to maintain a friendship with my mum, and she certainly tried to do the same with me, despite our ups and downs.
When I told Mum I was moving to Australia, I was really nervous about doing it. I was planning to be away for two, possibly three years. I knew that this would be very hard for her. But she didn’t react badly. She was extremely gracious. She took some time to digest the news and then gave me her hugest approval, saying “Fantastic – I’ve always wanted a more exotic holiday home than North Wales to visit you in!”
Sure enough, she has been to visit me a number of times since I moved to Melbourne in 2010. And she came to accept the fact that not only that I am living here, but I have also chosen to start my family here. And although this must upset her deeply, she has never once said a word about how hard it is for her or displayed unhappiness with my choices, and I appreciate her hugely for that.
When I became a parent for the first time last March, it was a huge learning experience. I was so glad to have my own mother by my side throughout the whole experience of the birth and that first crazy, sleep-deprived month. I’m not sure how I would have coped without her. Her calmness, her knowledge, and her incredible cake-making were the things that got me through those early days. Saying goodbye to her at the airport when she had to go back was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
But despite the distance, we’ve always managed to maintain an amazing connection, thanks to Skype and Facetime. I can chat to her on the way to work, over breakfast or dinner, and even take her out jogging with me! When I talk to other people, I’m constantly reminded that I have a relationship that I should be grateful for and indeed I am, everyday, because I know that not everyone is lucky enough to have a close connection with their mother.
Mothers’ Day is always a hard one when you are so far away, but its also wonderful that I get to celebrate two Mothers’ Days per year now – the English one in March and the Australian one in May.
When I was pregnant with Max, I thought a lot: what kind of mother did I want to be? It’s a tough question because it’s all too easy to be idealistic about these things. Early on I pronounced that my child would only have wooden toys with no flashing lights and no awful tinny music. Yeah right – those are of course his favourite toys now!
As a teacher I have been very privileged over the years to get a glimpse of so many parent child relationships. There’s the pushy parents making all the decisions for their child, the laid back parents whose only ambition is their child’s happiness, those for whom their children are an inconvenience, and every part of the spectrum between. I don’t have rose-tinted glasses about parenthood. I know there are going to be tough times. But I also appreciate how many good times there are.
Photo credit: Lisa Cole
I look to my own parents, and particularly my mum, as my role models and I see these as her incredible strengths:
Caring and Compassion
She is a recently retired nurse, after a forty-year career in nursing. That lifetime of care and compassion comes through in her every interaction.
My mum has always been interested in everyone around her. She cares deeply about the lives of her friends. But she also cares for strangers, people who pass through her life for a short period of time – she will always take the time to make them feel welcome and important, and to learn more about them.
I have a younger sister. With only two and a half years between us there was a lot of rivalry as we grew up. My dad would often say that I was born with the brains but my sister got all the common sense! Lisa and I would often argue and fight over insignificant things which seemed so very important at the time. But my mum was always so fair in her dealings with us. Sometimes her frustration would come through but she would always be fair and kind, listening to both of us and trying to settle things amicably.
My memories of my childhood are very happy ones. I remember lots of holidays around England and Wales, and later into France and Spain. Those holidays were always filled with fun and laughter.
I decided when I was five years old that I wanted to play the piano. Mum and Dad went out and bought a cheap second-hand upright piano which I adored. They assumed it would be a short lived fad but I persevered with it. When I started piano lessons, my mum was keen to learn alongside me. So as a little six year old, I would come home from my lessons and sit Mum down beside me to teach her what I had just learnt, sowing the seeds for my future career. Of course, I loved showing off to my mum, especially when I stared to play two handed and she was still struggling with one hand. I guess that shows that I wasn’t such a great teacher at that age!
As I grew, I got interested in music on a wider basis, and I successfully auditioned for a County Choir. This meant my parents had to run me to rehearsals all over the county of Kent, and then up to London and beyond for concerts and performances. Yet they never complained. They were always my greatest supporters.
I never did sports; in fact I spent many years actively avoiding them! So my parents never had to stand on the cold, wet sidelines to cheer me on, but they did attend pretty much every concert I ever did as a kid, often at great cost to themselves. At one stage I was having piano, bassoon, clarinet and singing lessons every week, plus music theory classes, orchestra, choir, regular tours and school productions. My parents were like my own personal taxi service! And yet they never complained.
Even when I went to university, if I had a big concert with the orchestra or choir or any of the other groups I played in, my mum would often take time off work to drive up to Wales which was a seven hour car journey, just to support me. There were very few other students there who had parents who would travel across the country for them like that, and I remember a number of friends who asked Mum if she would adopt them so that they could feel like they had a support team too!!
These are the qualities that I try to reflect in my day to day interactions with my son, as well as in a wider context.
Mum always claimed Dad was the artist of the family. He loved to paint and use his carpentry skills to make beautiful items like the wonderful music stand that he carved for my eighteenth birthday, yet she was always busy creating in her own way. Her cakes have always been legendary in our family. She is the maker of choice for all wedding, christening, birthday and anniversary cakes. She has passed this talent on directly to my sister who has become an amazing cake artiste as well. Sadly I didn’t get the cake gene but what I learnt from her cake making were the skills of perseverance and dedication – I remember watching her get very frustrated with the royal icing on a wedding cake when she was adding the tenth layer of icing and it still wasn’t sitting flat, or pulling a cake out of the oven just too late and having to make a new one to replace the burnt cake. But there was never a sense she was going to give up. That perseverance is something I am always trying to emulate. The sense that nothing is insurmountable, that there is always a way around things – it’s very inspiring.
Laid out like this, it all makes my mum sounds a little saint-like. That would be an inaccurate portrayal. I don’t believe any of us are saint-like. And certainly not me! Mum enjoys a bit of gossip and loves to chat. She enjoys a glass of wine or two, and sharing a cheeky joke. She will have a good moan when something is annoying her but she always manages to return to a positive state of mind and she is always on the end of the line for a friendly word, encouragement or advice – or whatever I may need from her.
Photo credit: Lisa Cole
So what have I learnt since joining this elite club called motherhood?
I quickly learnt that everyone has advice and opinions to give on being a mum and how to bring up your baby. Working in a large school with so many staff, many of whom are parents or even grandparents, meant I received a lot of advice! Some was useful such as “Don’t even think about coming back to work after 6 months” which was my original crazy plan, while some advice was less helpful such as “I found the best way of dealing with a crying baby is to drink lots of wine”! And of course the unknown gender of my child caused big debate and the dusting off of lots of old wives tales – so many people swore they just knew Max was a girl … oops!
I learnt that your life and your home cease to be yours. Children dictate everything! No more lie-ins, no more spending a few leisurely hours over lunch in a café, no impromptu trips to the cinema, no more late night salsa dancing. And my house, which was always so very minimalistic, is now a homage to the joys of primary colours and multiple plastic beeping toys.
I learnt to never ever leave a child lock off a kitchen cupboard – disaster will follow within moments!
I learnt that I can survive on far less sleep than I ever thought possible.
I learnt to never wear something nice and then pick up the baby – always a recipe for disaster.
I learnt that no matter how many times I read Dear Zoo or Cow Says Moo, it will never be enough and my little one will always demand it again! I have to confess I have sometimes resorted to hiding those two books just so the other books can get a look in – and I get a break!
I learnt to prioritize and be flexible. I am a lists person and I like to tick things off and get them done. I now have to let things slide and just focus on the really important stuff.
Most importantly , I learnt that there is no right way to parent. Even the professionals will all give you different ideas and theories on how to raise a child. I am learning to follow my instincts.
I recently came across this quote allegedly by John Lennon, and I hope I can one day be as wise as John Lennon’s mum was.
When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.
Becoming a mum has brought me immense happiness and love. And its wonderful to sense so much happiness and love between all the parents and children here this morning. Happiness is the key to life.
I hope you all have a very happy Mothers’ Day.
Susie Kelly is a diverse musician who plays and sings Salsa, Pop, Classical and everything in between to her one-year-old son in an attempt to get some sleep. In her spare time, she also teaches VCAL at Salesian College!