Its mothers’ day again which always gets me thinking about my own mother and how the passing of time changes our relationship. Over the last few years I have been having “Freaky Friday”- mother-daughter role reversal experiences.
As my parents are getting older, the hospital appointments start mounting and I am required to accompany them to hospital. Visits home have sometimes involved the adjudication of “childish spats” between my parents where both parents are sulking in different rooms in their house refusing to talk to each other. Then there was the incident with the phone bill.
My mother, who is now retired, kindly helps out with school pick-ups a few days a week when I am at work. To help me to be able to co-ordinate with her better, I purchased her an android mobile phone and a phone contract as she and my father were living in the dark ages of land-line and a Nokia that was never turned on. She was delighted and I showed her the functions and informed her of the contract of 300 free minutes call time. I had been reassured by my sister that that was sufficient because “Mum is sensible, she has a landline. She won’t need more than that a month on the mobile”.
A few months passed and the phone was working brilliantly. If I had a change of plan – “Big Sis has a play date – you don’t need to pick her up today” I could get hold of my mother straight away. Her phone contract was tied to my mobile phone contract and was paid monthly by my direct debit arrangement. As I rarely exceed my phone contract limitations, I rarely check my monthly phone bills.
Then one day, I decided to sort out my finances and go through my accounts. To my shock and horror, my mobile phone bills had gone from £24.00 a month to between £150 and £500 pounds a month! I went back to look through my on-line statements that I had not checked. There in full-colour, including helpful pie-charts were the breakdowns of the calls made from my account and my account for my mother. Let’s just say that someone was eating the lion’s share of that pie, and it wasn’t me. 300 free minutes were just the tip of the iceberg in my mother’s social life.
Helpful that mobile phone companies are these days, they also give you a full listing of every single number that had been called: several phone calls to Taiwan and several hour long conversations with various friends and family were all listed.
You can only imagine the conversations that followed, the net result of which was me frogmarching my shame-faced mother (“You said it was unlimited minutes”) down to the Vodafone shop to have her phone account transferred to her own name and most importantly billing account. Although I was not exactly pleased with the out-of-pocket expenses, the humour of the situation was not lost on me and it was my own fault to assume that my mother would be “well-behaved”, and comforting to know that far from being lonely and isolated as many retired people are, she has a very active social life!
I was a strange mixture of smug and shaken at the realisation that roles had been reversed. I was the “grown-up”, “responsible” adult now. I could “take care” of other people now, in fact, it was now my “responsibility”. Visions fast forward to a time when I will have to sponge bathe my parents and mush up their food as they can no longer chew, and other things that only doctors and elderly care-workers can really imagine (like the time when helping an elderly patient out of a chair she pee-ed on my feet in open-toe sandals).
Then, last week I was sick in bed with the flu. As all parents understand being “sick in bed with the flu” is meaningless to young children. It does not mean you can’t still be woken up at 6am by bouncing on your bed. It does not mean you can lie in bed and avoid the school run. It does not mean that you avoid helping them with their homework and stopping their squabbling and beating each other to a pulp. As a parent “being sick in bed” means that that’s where you should be, but you are in fact still doing everything that you are required to do at home only in a bad tempered manner and periodically shouting “Can’t you behave, I’m sick!”
On the third day of this, my mother calls.
I tell her that I am sick.
She tells me that she will pick up the children from school, take them to her house, give them dinner and bring them back in the evening. She asks me what I want to eat for dinner. She will cook it and bring it around when she drops the kids back.
That’s when I realise that there is no role reversal.
She is still my mother.
No one looks after you quite like your mother.
Happy Mothers’ Day!
Becoming a parent, makes you marvel for the first time about your own parents. My mother had frequently said as we were growing up “Wait till you are a parent, you’ll see it’s not so easy”, which I basically took as her excuse for not letting me have my own way. Now I can see myself parroting this to my kids. Banker is already practising in front of the mirror how he will deliver the immortal words “As long as you are under my roof…”
Before motherhood, I rarely thought about my mother having an independent life before me. She’s “just my mother”, and yet, as I became a mother myself struggling with identity, it made me think about my own mother.
My mother was the 5th child of 8 (one of whom died in infancy), born to a primary school teacher and headmaster in Taiwan. Being one of the tiger economies that developed rapidly in the latter half of the last century, Taiwan 60 years ago was quite different from the urbanised and high-tech country it is today. Developing-world poverty, high infant mortality and child labour were still the norm. Luckily for my mother, teachers in the East are very highly regarded and as such, my mother was more privileged than other children. For instance, she and her siblings were the only children in her class to wear shoes. Despite this, when the school held a maths competition with a pair of shoes as the prize, she won it and became the only person in the school to own 2 pairs of shoes.
My mother had studied entomology at University. She had not done as well as she had hoped in her exams and therefore didn’t get on the course she wanted. Despite pleading with her father to re-sit, she was told by my grandfather that as she was a girl and therefore destined to become a teacher and then ultimately a mother, it didn’t make any difference what she studied at University. That’s how my mother, an academically and socially able woman became a reluctant entomologist and subsequently a secondary school science teacher and a mother. Choice didn’t come into it.
When my mother went into labour with me, my father had moved abroad to study. By then, labour was already old hat to mum as I have two older sisters. She hopped on to her moped and scooted off to hospital by herself. Through contractions she weaved through the traffic ever aware that third children have the habit of flying out due to the pelvic floor’s diminished function from prior encounters with large skulls. She got to hospital and out I plopped. No doula, no water bath, no-one else present – just pragmatism.
Later, she joined my father in the UK, bringing 3 kids, aged 3, 5 and 6 years with her on her first ever time on an aeroplane to start a new life abroad in a foreign country, knowing no one and speaking not a word of English. I struggle to take 2 kids abroad on holiday despite being a seasoned traveller!
In the UK, we were poor. As a family of 5, we lived off my father’s PhD funding. We did not have a washing machine or enough money to visit the laundrette and my mother washed all our clothes by hand on a wooden washboard. She knitted our clothes and as shops in 1980s South Wales did not sell “exotic foodstuffs” like noodles, she would make noodles from flour and water by hand and hang them to dry off broomsticks in the kitchen. Occasionally she ventured into strange western cuisine by trying her hand at a packet mix “Blancmange”.
At our birthday parties, we had no entertainers or bouncy castles. My mum and dad bounced my friends and I up and down on a taut blanket. That basically sums up my mum: a fun, resourceful woman with a can-do attitude. Although we were poor in childhood, she ensured that we ate free school meals with pride, we never felt inferior and we never knew deprivation.
I never wondered if she had dreams and aspirations that had not involved her children. Shamefully, even now, I expect her life to be focused on me and her grandchildren and I have a spoilt brat attitude to finding out that she has her own social life. What about me? Such is the way of great mothers that they appear always available for you, and sadly much taken for granted. The “wind beneath my wings”.
Sometimes I wonder what my children will think of me when they are adults. To be sure, they will not be thanking me for:
the pain of squeezing their ginormous heads through my birth canal
the cracked nipples
the sleepless nights
the being victim to their projectile vomits
the bottoms wiped
the temperatures taken
the bruises kissed
the sandwiches made
the homework checked
the meetings cancelled
the playdates arranged
the sports days cheered
the play lines rehearsed
the books unread
the body neglected
the shelved career plans
But if my children regard me with an ounce of how much I regard my own mother, I will be very happy indeed. A friend, whose father has recently suffered a stroke reminded me of the fragility of health in people of our parents’ age and the urgency in making time count. It is with this in mind that this Mothers’ day, I want to say a big “Thank you” to my mum. And with regards to my own motherhood, to remember sometimes, it’s not the spoken “thanks” but the little things that make it all worthwhile.
HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY EVERYONE!