In this three-part series of interviews, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick look at motherhood and the many forms it can take. Here, the second instalment of portraits that celebrate motherhood at its most inclusive.
Mother’s Day, in its popular form, inevitably excludes people. What about women who aren’t mothers, who don’t want to be or can’t be? Or those who don’t look like the stereotypical mum, women in same sex relationships, the gender fluid, young mums, older mums? Women whose motherhood is layered with medical complications, or for whom the mother role extends to dependents who aren’t their children? Not to mention people whose mothers are no longer here.
Elena and I set out to find women with different, under-represented stories and were amazed by the responses. We have spoken to and photographed just nine of the many who wrote to us. There are holes in our selection, and there are many more deeply-moving stories than we could feature, but hopefully this set of women - published in three sets of three in the coming weeks - gives a taste of some of womanhood’s many possibilities.
Motherhood - or rather, being a woman itself - can look like lots of different things. That is what this series celebrates: Mother’s Day at its most inclusive.
“I’m surrounded by women having babies, trying to get pregnant, or who can’t have a baby. But no one’s talking about the people who choose not to.”
This year I turn 36, and I have zero inclination to start a family. I see my friends becoming pregnant with their first, second, eleventh child: the Instagram posts of scans, the gender reveals, the women holding their bumps in dresses – and I feel no FOMO. Instead I kind of feel dread, fear and anxiety.
I didn’t realise how much I was affected by it all until one of my closest friends told me she was pregnant. It triggered something, an awareness of this insane pressure I feel. People look at a woman’s life and they think something’s missing: she’s got a career, she’s got a partner, surely a baby should come next?
Everyone says “you’re never ready to have a baby” – but it’s not about readiness for me: I simply don’t know if I want it. When I’ve mentioned this to people, they sometimes say “well maybe you’re with the wrong man”. But I’m in a really fulfilled relationship, actually, he’s my best friend. Why should I question that just because I don’t want to have a baby.
I wish my partner could have the baby sometimes. But then I realise it’s not being pregnant or my body changing that worries me. It’s being a mother itself: that massive commitment.
People might imagine that I feel this way because I had a negative experience of my own mother. But there’s nothing about my mother – good or bad – that’s ever stopped me from wanting to be a mum myself. I’m very close to her, she’s my best friend, and I always thought I would be just that to my own child. The desire to do so just hasn’t come, though.
I’m surrounded by women having babies, trying to get pregnant, or who can’t have a baby. But no one’s talking about the people who choose not to. As young women, we are conditioned to fear getting pregnant. Your life will be over! Don’t let it happen! Then all of a sudden you hit your thirties and everything reverses. When are you going to have a baby? Do I hear the patter of tiny feet?
I run a restaurant in Margate, and sometimes I think my work invites maternal feelings in its own, different way. I lead and nurture a team of mostly women, and on the side I run a positive action initiative called Ladies of Restaurants to address the gender pay gap in hospitality.
Not having a baby does not make my life less. But feeling this way is isolating. It feels cathartic to talk about it - I didn’t realise how passionately I felt about not wanting a child until I started to open up.
“Sometimes the feeling of being everything to everybody is heavy. I’m a carer and a mother.”
When we found out I was pregnant, my husband Rob and I felt we’d been given our future – but with a capital F. Our son Grayson has brought a beautiful bit of normality to our world.
Rob and I had been together for just under two years when we went on holiday to Sydney in 2014. It was our first big trip together and started with a conversation about what lay ahead for us as a couple. We fell asleep, a cross-stitch of limbs in each other’s arms. It felt too good to be true.
I woke up the next day to Rob stumbling around in the dark and clutching his head. When I opened the blinds, his scream was earth shattering.
Rob had a brain haemorrhage and a stroke of devastating proportions. Doctors told me that no one had ever survived a bleed that big before, so technically none of what has happened since was possible. When he came round from his coma, I was worried he wouldn’t recognise me. He did – but that’s when the hard work started because his speech was affected, and he couldn’t swallow or chew. It was like having a six-foot baby.
He still needs a lot of cognitive support. He is re-learning to read and write, and only has the use of one hand. I've been teaching him to draw again, too, which has really opened up his world. I’ve become used to all of this being our reality, but I know it sounds extreme. Intimacy post-stroke is different too, which made Grayson’s appearance so unexpected.
My labour went on for three days and ended in forceps. I had Rob, my sister and a doula with me. When Grayson arrived, it felt like I made sense. I think I had always felt that something was missing.
Sometimes the feeling of being everything to everybody is heavy. I’m a carer and a mother, and I have to do a lot for myself. When Grayson was a newborn, Rob couldn’t take him round the block so I could have a rest, or cook me a hot meal. He actually had a seizure when the baby was four weeks old. It was the first time I had to leave Rob in the hands of the hospital, because there was someone else who needed me. The balance had shifted.
Carrying on is an art. I’ve learnt to celebrate myself with little treats here and there. A Friday night solo dance party, a pair of dungarees, nice cheese. I have lovely friends and support around me, but no one can take the pain for me. It’s isolating. I’m not in a position to afford therapy, so I’ve resolved to talk about my story more to build a community.
Our unconventional family life is bonkers and beautiful. It’s also a team effort. Nineteen months into his life, I see how Grayson’s presence spurs Rob on to keep making progress. Seeing them both learning and developing together is pretty special.
“My mum dying is not everything that I am. It’s not made me harder, but it has made me stronger and more thoughtful.”
Around Mother’s Day, it seems that every time I open a magazine or look at social media, there’s a shiny influx of pink and roses and celebration. I don’t feel a part of it, although I don’t resent it. The roses are prickly – it’s a complicated time of year.
My mother, Maria, died when I was small. I don’t think she thought she’d have children – she met my dad quite late – and I am her only child, born when she was 45 by caesarian section, during which they also found the pancreatic cancer that would kill her four years later. As a nurse, she will have known how bad her prognosis was.
I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral. In 1968, taking a child just wasn’t the done thing. When I was much older, my father took me to the church where her ashes are. He was very English, and couldn’t bear to talk about her.
I don’t remember her physically being in my life. But despite never really knowing her, I always feel she is a part of me. I’m told I sit the same way as her, and photographs tell me I look uncannily like her. People remark on it. This imprint – the genetic transference of identity – is immensely important to me. When I look at my kids, I see her in them too. Above all else, I believe I am a strong woman because she was one.
My mother started her career in sexual health nursing before specialising in paediatric care at Great Ormond Street. Many years later, I took her granddaughter for an appointment at that same hospital and fell upon some pictures in a corridor that looked strangely familiar. They were from a set of press photos in an article about GOSH nurses. My mother had featured in them and I had copies at home (one featured below).
A children’s hospital is not the sort of place you want to be, but I suddenly felt a sense of connectedness and comfort in that link. There’s also a comforting circularity to what my daughter is now doing; she’s interested in reproductive rights, part of a team for Back Off Scotland, which campaigns for women not to be attacked at abortion clinics. I think that would make my mum proud.
I’ve had moments in my life when I’ve felt quite low and wobbly. As a teenager, I was searching for reasons why I’d lost my mum – I grappled with the injustice of it. I also craved talking to her. I think I realised later that my mum, the force that she was, wouldn’t have wanted me to have spent my life feeling mournful.
Now – pandemic aside – I am an events florist. Generally, flowers bring happiness to people and celebrate big life events. I love to surround myself in celebration, in living well. It’s been important to me to show my kids how to find things that bring them joy, and how to live a good life.
My mum dying is not everything that I am. It’s not made me harder, but it has made me stronger and more thoughtful. When I reached the age that she was when she died, I really started to embrace life fully. That’s why I’m talking to you now.
We wallpaper over death in this country, but I thought that if someone who’d lost their mother, or experienced a similar loss, could read that things can be okay, that would be worthwhile. You find your toolkit. Small things will make you laugh again, and you’ll be able to smell those prickly roses.
Interviews by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.