Being a mum is both the best and worst job in the world.
I remember exactly how it felt when both my sons were born and deposited onto my chest. Their big eyes full of wonderment and confusion, locked on mine instantly, in fear and expectation, and the bond was formed. I was exhilarated and exhausted – feelings which don’t diminish with time but rather, intensify. Am I doing it right is the first and last question I ask myself each and everyday.
It’s not until your children are born that you realise the responsibility. That sense that this little person is dependent on you and for you to make the right choices at the right times from birth until you are no longer able to provide for them. The weight of that responsibility is enormous and while love – unconditional, heart bursting, lung stopping love – envelops you, so does the guilt, ever present, worming away, making you question, doubt and fear the decisions you make and must continue to make.
To do the right thing. At all times. There’s no training, no route map and you can only ever do your best: being good enough is more than enough. If only we were reminded of that regularly rather than exhorted, pilloried and sometimes even pitied.
If you’ve lost your mum, then today will be bittersweet – you’ll have memories of good times but also a huge gaping hole. In absence, you probably appreciate her more now than you might have done while she was alive. There’s no shame in anger or tears, in ignoring today and doing something completely different or giving yourself over to it completely and lamenting the loss of one of the most important relationships you’ll ever have.
Day in and day out, we, as individuals, families and communities, rely on mothers – and godmothers and grandmothers – to make good decisions. I often wonder if this is what makes women the most cautious about independence.
Mums know that big change carries with it big responsibilities and often, big upheaval. Whether it be the aftermath of a glitter and glue session, the loss of employment, a house move, the arrival of a puppy, the failing of exams, the eking out of a limited income to provide a week’s worth of meals, the packing for a holiday or the nuptials of a grown-up child – arranging, clearing up, managing and making order out of mess are what mums do, and are expected to do.
Women cope, largely with whatever life throws at them. For many, that involves debilitating circumstances – poverty, abuse, violence, trauma – but still they do what they can and few give up completely. Rather than denigrating them, our society needs to do more to support them, to instil confidence and competence, so that they believe they are good enough and can be so.
Very often, mothers are required to be the driving force in their families, the ones expected to make decisions happen, who feel responsible for making things go smoothly and who bear the burden of sorting things if decisions fail. But few ever get to feel totally in control of their own destiny – they are often at the mercy of others’ decisions, rules and obligations, large and small.
Ask any young woman about to make her way in the world about equality and she’ll nod enthusiastically that women have the just the same rights and opportunities as men. Ask the same question of the same young woman ten years later, after the arrival of a baby or two and at the very least, she’ll hesitate before agreeing. It is often only when you become a mother that you realise just how unequal and unfair our society still is for women.
Motherhood is a struggle. To be good enough. To make the right decisions. And I think this daily dilemma is at the heart of women’s reticence about independence. The worry, the responsibility to do the right thing, not just for your own family but for the country, is almost overwhelming. Far easier, then to stay put with what we know.
And when everyday is about attempting to create equilibrium in your family’s life, you can understand why many mothers might opt to stay as we are, than turn everything upside down by voting yes. They are the ones apparently most receptive to the messages about fear and uncertainty, so how do we make sure they also see and sense the hope and opportunity?
I’m fairly certain that they are not buying the blithe assurances of things staying the same as now. They know there will be upheaval and no doubt, struggle along the way. They know that they might have to, nay will be expected to do a lot of the heavy lifting. They are yet to be convinced that it will all be worth it.
Yet, just as a spring clean involves a lot of work, hauling everything out, getting rid of the clutter, hoovering under the furniture and washing and wiping to get rid of lived-in stains, there’s something deeply satisfying about creating an environment that is spick and span, that you’ve made more orderly by your own efforts and know that you’ve created control where before there was unruly chaos.
Independence won’t be – can’t be – a panacea. Independence is a chance to take charge, to stop being at the mercy of others’ decisions and to feel more in control of all the decisions which affect us. It’s an opportunity for women – mothers in particular – to create a different environment in which to live.
There’s no doubt there will be struggles: no one likes taking off their comfy slippers to hirple about in shiny, new shoes. But just as new shoes get worn in, so our discomfort as a nation will pass, especially if we seize the opportunities independence offer. To trust ourselves, to use all our instincts, guile and craft to make change happen, putting our shoulders to the wheel in a collective effort.
For things to be better than good enough, if we decide to refuse to settle for that. Not just for mothers, godmothers and grandmothers. But for the next generation of mothers, godmothers and grandmothers. Do we want them to have to put up with the same struggles as we have, the same glacial, incremental change?
If you’re a mum who is undecided or is contemplating voting no, think back to the moment of your child or children’s birth. Remember how it felt and what you promised to do and be for them? On 18 September, we can turn the weight of lifelong responsibility into a life-changing moment of liberation, confident we are up to the task of fashioning better and different, for our families, our communities and our country. But only if we are prepared to see hope rather than fear and sense opportunity rather than struggle.
We just need to imagine how and what we’d like our lives – and our children and their children’s lives – to be in the future and then think hard about how that might best be achieved. By staying in our comfy slippers and voting no or trying on the new shoes and voting yes?