Of all the handmade cards my kids bring home from school, I think their Mother’s Day cards are the ones I will cherish the most.
Your Easter and Christmas cards, adorned with dauby potato-print chicks or wobbly Christmas trees, are precious, but it’s the cards that bring them home on that special day, covered with colorful tissue paper flowers or the bright crayon lines of a rainbow of spider-like writing inside , expressing heartbreaking love that will make me cry. And these strange, very specific tears of motherhood are unlike the tears I shed for anyone, as they are composed of melancholy as well as joy and pride.
I believe they are the tears of the most absolute love.
People tell you lots of things about motherhood, like what sleep deprivation feels like, or which stroller to buy, or what baby-led weaning is, but nobody really tells you that the very specific way you love your kids is a source is deep joy. but it also hurts.
My children are five, seven, nine, 18 and 21. Nothing has made me more aware of the fragility of life and the frantic speed at which time flies than motherhood.
Even when my kids are standing right in front of me and asking me to take note of the drawing they did in school on a picture of an alien, to see the moves they learned doing gymnastics, or put some money in their account for Transferring their bus back to university, I’m aware they’re changing, changing, changing, right in my vision.
It’s beautiful and incredible because I want my kids to grow up, I want them to be their own people, but every time they do that I also feel like they’re getting away from me. That knowing of the passing of time hurts, and that kind of love hurts.
With 16 years between my oldest and youngest child, I have experienced many seasons of motherhood. I had my oldest son, Jimmy, when I was only 24. That confuses me a bit. I was only three years older than him now.
Lester, my youngest, who is five years old, was born when I was 41 and the experience of being a mother over those decades has absolutely transformed and shaped me. I suppose I’ve been a mom my entire adult life so all I’ve ever done was with my kids in tow. I don’t know what it’s like to be an adult without thinking about a handful of kids at the same time.
When people ask me how many children I have and I answer five, they often respond with a mixture of astonishment and sympathy. Are you mad? they will answer. Or didn’t you have a TV? Wasn’t two enough? Why so many? I don’t really have an answer to that, other than because I wanted to, and while, yes, you’re right, it’s messy and muddy and tiresome, it’s also a kind of chaos and chaos that’s familiar, that I can believe in .
Like my youngest son, Lester, I am the youngest of five children. I am 15 years old with my eldest sister and like my mother I have two sets of children with two different fathers although I always think of them as one big family.
Growing up in this large group we were close, although there was an age difference between my older siblings from my mother’s first marriage, so my sister Nell, two years ahead of me, was the sister I spent my formative childhood years with.
We learned to talk side-by-side in tiny twin beds and had that intense, sometimes violent bond that happens when we’re two little kids, sharing the same bathwater, wearing the same pants, and fighting over the same toys. We lived in each other’s imaginations as only children can.
I see it now in my two youngest sons, Lester and Dash. They are so close together that sometimes, knotted in your sleep, your blond hair almost matted, you can’t get a fine piece of paper between them. It also means they fight with a special kind of ferocity.
Sometimes I envy my mother, who was a parent the way she was in the 1970s and 80s. It’s hard to imagine that it wouldn’t have been a little, well, more relaxed? I don’t think my mother put pressure on herself as a mother; All I remember is that she came to a parents’ evening and if there were after-school clubs and activities at the time, the driving to distant gymnasiums and waiting by sweaty pools that those clubs entailed was not something she ever did for had done to us.
Today’s parents are encouraged—even expected—to be very involved, but unengaged was my mother’s parenting style that I remember most clearly. She wouldn’t have sat on the floor and played dollhouse with us or made our messy kitchen table even messier by covering it with paint and glitter. Craft was a concept that was completely alien to her.
No, instead my mother gave us her presence and her love. Because although she may not have spent hours building dolls houses for Nell and I, she was always in the room when we played. And while I don’t have a single memory of her sitting down to create something out of egg boxes and tissue paper, I do know that she was always there, cooking a cheese sauce for lasagna or pounding basil she’d picked for pesto while Nell and i made more mess with colors around them.
I know she was always there and there was something far more precious surrounding both of us than the ability to craft or play imaginatively, which was an overwhelming sense of love.
I’m realizing more and more that love is an active verb. It’s easy to tell someone you love them, but manifesting that love, living that love, and showing someone you love them rather than just saying it takes action. There are many different ways I love my children that I learned from my mother and some of them are easier to live and be than others.
The easiest way to love my children is when they are asleep. I don’t feel bad, lazy or selfish in saying this as I have heard many other parents – usually mothers – express the same disbelief at the extraordinary love they feel for their children as they sleep watch.
After a long and tiring day of stripping babies of their breakfast-covered clothes, baiting toddlers into their shoes, or preparing endless snacks and nonstop removing splatters of milk and putting paint on the table and then clearing them up, they get up when they’re deserted , reading the same picture books about puppies and chicks over and over again, cooking the same cheese noodles all over again and barely finding time to sit down for a cup of tea themselves, that moment when your children finally succumb to sleep is a particularly beautiful.
There’s something otherworldly and otherworldly about children when they’re asleep, their slightly sweaty hair plastered to their foreheads, their lips looking redder than normal, their features blissfully magnified in a way. The most stubborn and noisy child looks like a perfect angel when they are asleep. That kind of love is easy.
But the work that goes into the other kind of loving—the work of mothering while loving—can be exhausting. It’s repetitive and can be boring. It is very tiring. It tests me in ways I didn’t think I would be tested: when I was younger I wanted to be tested on my bravery, my resilience, or my talents, but not my ability to keep a good mood while I was practicing multiplication tables with my daughter or resolving an argument over one of my sons tiny piece of lego or trudging through the laundry my grown son brought home from uni.
But the longer I’ve been a mom, the more I realize that the little acts of love, the presence, the “showing up” I do day in and day out for my kids are what will really matter to them later when they may be parents themselves and can remember how I loved them. And I truly believe that presence and the love it represents is the most valuable thing I can give my children.
This is the quality of love I learned from my mother. This love was also what helped me survive and move forward despite some profound losses I have experienced throughout my years.
When I was 16 my mother had a terrible horse riding accident and was severely brain damaged, unable to walk or speak or take care of herself or ever speak my name again until her death 22 years later in 2013. I am me not sure how I would have weathered this ongoing grief if I hadn’t been absolutely loved as a child.
And recently I lost Nell too. My beloved sister died of breast cancer in 2019. She was 46 years old, the same age as I am now.
I was completely devastated by her death and now, a little over two years later, I still feel a certain disbelief that she won’t walk through the door or we won’t meet up with our kids for Sunday lunch or something. I can’t call and just talk about anything and everything like sisters can.
But her death also made me realize how powerful and enduring and absolute love is. Because it was our mother’s love that enabled Nell and I to survive and thrive in the long and terribly sad years following the accident and her eventual death, and now it’s that same strong, enduring feeling of love that Nell has and I shared as sisters that allows me to move on despite her death.
And it’s also love—golden and alive and so precious—that I hope to pass on to my children.
There’s something comforting about that. I am reminded again of the cycles of life, the fact that time really does go by as fast as my children growing up swarm me and that ultimately what we embrace in life is love. It’s the love that drives me after another long day as a mother, and it’s the love that inspires me when I think of how I hope one day my children will remember me the way I do remember my mother and my sister now.
Nothing else really matters.
Clover Stroud’s The Red of My Blood has been published by Doubleday, £16.99 and available now
https://www.independent.ie/life/family/family-features/clover-stroud-mothering-is-a-familiar-kind-of-mess-and-chaos-that-i-can-believe-in-41487802.html Clover Stroud: “Motherhood is a familiar kind of chaos and mayhem that I can believe in”