Sunday 4 December 2016

Losing my mum, becoming a mum

Trying to be the perfect mother is one thing; doing it while still coping with the loss of your own is a whole different game, as Helen learned when her son was born

Helen Lintern

Published 17/01/2011 | 05:00

Pushing grief aside: Helen with her young son Ben (one), whose birth both reminded her of and forced her to cope with the the death of her mother several years before. Photo: Hannah Maule-Ffinch
Pushing grief aside: Helen with her young son Ben (one), whose birth both reminded her of and forced her to cope with the the death of her mother several years before. Photo: Hannah Maule-Ffinch
The perfect parent: Helen with her mum, Pat, in 1977.
A photo taken in 1982. Pat died following a routine procedure in hospital

When we found out we were going to have a baby I cried. Like a baby. Uncontrollably for quite a while and it seemed to me at the time a completely over the top reaction.

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We were two 30-somethings, happy and in love, in a steady relationship and it had been carefully planned. It was expected but I lost the plot nevertheless.

Then I realised, like so many other times over the past 10 years, my hysteria was the reaction caused by the well-hidden grief of losing my mum.

No one could have asked for more in a mum. In every respect she was, to me, perfect and I loved her with all my heart and still do. We had our moments too. I shaved my head circa 1994 and the ensuing argument could be heard for miles around.

As a very small girl I can remember trying to be just like her -- my ultimate role model. In mid-December 1980, aged three, there is photographic evidence of me parading around the house pretending to smoke a small red crayon.

By Christmas that year my mum's 20-a-day habit had come to an abrupt end and a cigarette never passed her lips again. As I said, the ultimate role model: she would never run the risk of passing a bad habit on to me.

As I matured ungracefully it is fair to say we didn't always see eye to eye. A trip to Belgium aged 15 to see Lenny Kravitz with a boyfriend was (unsurprisingly) vetoed and at the time I remember huffing and puffing about the inequalities of life whilst stomping my ugly Doc Martens firmly on to her kitchen floor.

Freedoms

But she was fair when it came to matters closer to home and allowed several wild parties and countless sleepovers. I felt smug as a teenager at the freedoms I felt I was granted but now I see that she was just playing a clever parenting trick: keeping my bad behaviours close to her awareness and reigning me in when necessary.

She was always right and that infuriated me. What huge shoes to fill now that I was to become a mum myself.

So with pregnancy swelling all around me and my life, everything started to change. I was forced to start thinking of myself as the most important person in someone else's life, the way my mum had been in mine.

In hindsight these thoughts did not make me doubt myself. In fact rather arrogantly I assumed that because I had lost my mum I would be so much better equipped because I could hold her up as a shiny beacon, knowing exactly the sort of mum I wanted to be. With such a great role model I surely couldn't go wrong?

The big day rolled around and a long, exhausting labour came to a close with the professionals crowding my bed trying to convince me that an emergency caesarean was the only way to go.

The last time I saw my mum was in an operating theatre where her exploratory and routine procedure had, in fact, found a fatal thrombosis and there was nothing anyone could do for her.

The bright lights, stainless steel instruments, slow eerie beeping and a bed with cold metal sides provided the backdrop to the last of my mum's life. I said goodbye to her under the glare of those bright lights with my dad sobbing behind me.

So, whilst everyone was trying to get me to theatre for the "happiest moment of my life", all I knew was that I would be returning to the setting of the saddest moment of my life.

Fear gripped me along with the contractions, but my mother-in-law was magnificent in her role and calmed me down to the point of reason. Shortly after I was wheeled in for the fairly routine and utterly fascinating C-section.

Within minutes I became a mum myself. And quite frankly I don't think anything works as well at pushing grief and fear down into second and third place than a newborn baby boy and all the challenges that come with him.

As any new mother will tell you, my baby consumed me completely. Ben's needs were all I could focus on. But at the same time a desperate feeling of needing my mum welled up and threatened to break me.

Like never before I needed her to hold me and tell me everything would be OK; that I was doing fine in my new role.

In those first weeks guests came and went with their pastel blue helium balloons. Guests that needed feeding and at least a vacuumed floor. Mums feed you. It's what they do, right? And they feed everyone else. Often with their own food brought conveniently to your house in Tupperware. Then they vacuum the floor.

I had been aware of other mums doing this for my friends but in those initial weeks it just reminded me of my loss even more and on several occasions I found the realisation overwhelming.

Thankfully I've increasingly found that this kind of self-indulgence is something a new mum can't allow herself. There simply is no time.

As things started falling into a routine, the middle of the night feeds both delighted me and broke my heart in equal measures. I'd hear my little boy crying out in his familiar "feed me" squeal and I'd automatically head to his bedroom across the landing.

I loved this time. No matter how tired I felt, it just didn't feel like a chore. I'd stare at his face and see her every night. Not that Ben looks anything like my mum. It's just in those dark, silent moments when the world around us seemed so unimportant, I felt her close by.

Having had my son I now understand how utterly relentless it is being a parent. Because my mum isn't around to argue to the contrary, I assume she glided through motherhood.

As every good mother, she didn't allow me or my brother to see her flapping, crying in the bathroom, consumed with guilt, anger or frustration. She went about her motherly and household duties, seemingly so content, never complaining, and provided a safe, happy, problem-free life for us all.

I'm sure there were problems but she never allowed us to know about them. And I'm sure she didn't enjoy clearing our mess up, day in day out. But I don't remember her complaining. I'm trying to do the same for Ben but I don't make it look as easy as mum did. My cracks are much more visible.

When do I miss her most? At the swings watching his joy as he is pushed higher and higher. Recently, when he successfully consumed an entire bowl of porridge by himself. She would have delighted in these moments.

But more often than not it's when tiredness is almost crippling me, or the relentlessness of each day, every early start, the constant clutter to clear, meals to make, mess to sweep and mop makes me want to give up. Those are the times that my grief is compounded.

Guilty

A knot of sadness adds to whatever baby-related burden is already weighing me down. At his first birthday party a little while back, her lack of presence made me feel guilty for celebrating at all. Sometimes I am forced to run and hide (toilets are best) and let myself have a meltdown, much like my baby. And much like babies it doesn't last long.

I'll find myself wondering if she can see what's going on. If I speak directly to her, can she hear? Is she proud of what I'm doing? What sort of mum I am? Is she proud of Ben?

I'm always certain of her response to questions and I know, without doubt, she wouldn't tolerate more than a minute of self-indulgent grieving, so as quickly as the loss of her not being around hits me, it disappears and after a deep breath to steady myself I reappear.

I remember discussing our mum dying with my brother. I talked and cried for an hour as he listened awkwardly before summarising, "yeah, it's crap, but there's nothing we can do about it". End of discussion.

At the time I was angry with him for being so blasé but having my baby has made me realise that he was right. Nothing will bring her back but I have a good reason to get busy and simply cope without her. Now I'm a mum myself, what else can I do?

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