Mum without a Mum

Local Mum Suzi describes her moving experiences of becoming a mother after the tragic loss of her own mother when she was only 14.

It's just a chopping board. A round, unremarkable piece of wood, with scratches and nicks from countless knives. It bows slightly in the middle so the chopping action makes it rock against the work surface and go tk-tk-tk. Vegetable stains pattern the centre. It isn't really big enough and sheds bits of pepper and carrot over the side whenever I use it.

I have had this chopping board for over twenty years and despite owning many other better, less wonky and more spacious boards during that time, still I cling to this one and use it on a regular basis. It was my mum's chopping board and when she died it was among the great haul of her belongings that I decided to keep. Through young adulthood and into my twenties I lived among old furniture, books that never got read, ornaments with no home, collections of postcards from people I didn't know; literal baggage from the cataclysmic event of her death. And like any other baggage, it weighed me down.

It took a long time to reach the stage where I felt able to get rid of most of this stuff, when I started seeing it for what it was - just stuff. Books that had sat on my shelves for more than a decade went to the charity shop for another chance at being read. I smashed up the furniture with a hammer - very therapeutic! The paper baggage - old letters, photos of her friends and places she'd been, unfinished pictures - clung on a little longer, but by the time my second child was born it was all gone. And it wasn't just her stuff; I spent the first day of 2012 going through my photo album, binning the pictures of people and things that had lost their meaning or their place in my life. Making space for the life I live now, in the present, with my husband and the family we've made.

Stuff is a very real weight upon our shoulders. It anchors us to a place, a self, but what happens when that place or that self are no longer relevant? Our stuff can pin us somewhere that we might not want to be. It becomes an escape from responsibility, abdication of the power we all have to seize control of our lives and take them where we want to go. I hope I can teach my children how to sort the truly important from the incidental, in less time than it took me to learn.

But if this is true, how can my chopping board be truly important? A blank circle of wood with a chunk taken out of one side? What stayed my hand every time I thought I should throw it away?

When I was buried under the weight of my mother's things, I thought I could find the vanished woman in her letters and keepsakes. It was hard to admit that she wasn't there. The memories of her weren't in those things. All they contained was the memory of her death and the awful changes that followed.

But each time I use my chopping board to cut fruit for my children, I remember being a child and watching my mum cut fruit for me. I remember my brother sawing the chunk out of the side one bored afternoon and mum trying to stay cross before giving in and laughing. I remember being in our sunny kitchen, being together, learning skills that I still use today. The action of use is a minor act of love that brings her into the present with me and makes me marvel at how I am now the mother. It reminds me that I did not forget her, and that my children will absorb their own memories of me.

When I was fourteen, my mother killed herself. It was very sudden, very unexpected, as if she had simply been erased from the world overnight. I'm 36 now, which means I've lived longer without a mum than with one. I don't really remember what it feels like to have one.

On the penultimate day of 2007, I discovered I was pregnant with my first child. This was wonderful, amazing news, something much longed for over the previous twelve months. But the sight of those blue lines on the pregnancy test also sparked an unexpected fear: how could I learn to be a good mum, without a mum to model my behaviour on?

Of course, I am far from alone in being a mum without a mum. Whether through tragic circumstance, difficult relationships or plain old geographical distance, there are plenty of us out there slogging away without the support and good sense that idealists claim is the bedrock of every mother-daughter relationship. To some extent I suppose every new parent is finding their own way, groping blindly through the maze of sleep deprivation and conflicting advice to find out what kind of mum or dad they are.

But without my mum to turn to, it has sometimes felt that little bit harder. From the first days of my first pregnancy, I was awash with questions that would never be answered. What kind of symptoms did she have? Did she feel scared, excited, bored? How was her antenatal care? Did she get the birth she wanted? Did she look at us the way I looked at my children in the moments after their birth - a heady mix of fear, awe and total recognition? And as my children have grown, there have been so many times I have wanted to ask how she would have handled a particular situation...basically, to ask "Am I doing it right?"

How I found the answers, or made peace with the fact that there are no answers, will form the basis of this blog. As parents, we all want to do the best job that we can and a lot of our anxieties are universal. But without the bedrock of our mothers shoring us up, that anxiety can sometimes become overwhelming, creeping into the oddest corners. Learning to trust ourselves as parents is one of the hardest jobs without a secure foundation to rest against now and again. Sometimes you have to get creative! And sometimes, believe it or not, it can be very liberating.

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