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A mother's heart: Tanya Sweney looks back on her first year of motherhood

When she had her first child, Tanya Sweeney found that the grief she'd felt at losing her own mum was reignited. A year into her motherhood journey, she reflects on her realisation that sadness and happiness can live side by side

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Tanya Sweney and her mum

Tanya Sweney and her mum

Tanya Sweeney with baby Isola. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Tanya Sweeney with baby Isola. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Like mother, like daughter: Tanya as a baby, with her mum

Like mother, like daughter: Tanya as a baby, with her mum

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Tanya Sweney and her mum

Birthdays and anniversaries do funny things to the mind. At my daughter's first birthday recently, I felt transported back to a year previously throughout the day. At midday, I recalled the very first moment I saw her, screaming, purple and covered in vernix, for the first time. A few hours later in the afternoon, the time where I shouted across a ward full of babies, "this is absolutely mad sh**, this!" (painkillers might have been involved). More than anything, I remembered feeling that strange sort of terror mixed with the elation.

I looked at my year-old wobbler, clapping her hands and playing with her new toys, and marvelled that we'd made it this far - and in one piece. It has been the longest year of my life, and a transformative one at that. All day, I couldn't push one thought out of my mind, despite being surrounded by family; someone else should be here.

It was a very different one to the first anniversary of my mother's death, nine years ago. All day, I relived the awful moments of that day anew. Having to abandon writing a column midway through, when I was told I was needed right away at the hospice. Tom Waits playing low on a stereo in the corner. And the moment, oddly, where I ate a sandwich and flipped through Heat magazine outside her hospice room, about 40 minutes before my mother took her last breath.

The first year of becoming a parent is as wonderful as the first year of grieving a mother is horrendous. Both moments teach you so much in different ways. And now for me, they'll be linked forever.

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Tanya Sweeney with baby Isola. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Tanya Sweeney with baby Isola. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Tanya Sweeney with baby Isola. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The first thing you realise about parenthood is just how much damned work goes into it. You are literally creating a person from the ground up and inside out, like an architect on a basic plot of land. This is your 'project' to thrive on, or mess up.

Every day, after feeding, changing, burping, clothing, unclothing, bathing, reading, playing and soothing, I would close the door on my daughter's room. I was utterly spent, like a flight attendant who had just waved off the last customer on a long-haul flight. Tired, jetlagged; but knowing that the next batch of customers were coming, and you had to refill the supply of pretzels and little Coke cans. The work of a mother is unrelenting, monotonous and thankless. All that selflessness. All that sacrifice. And it's only now that I realise just how much my own mother did for me.

I'm reminded of the tiny things. How I learned to put a jumper on the right way around. How I was taught to tie my shoelaces. How my mother used to tell my brothers and I a story about three little children who were left on a mountain top because they wouldn't eat their vegetables (it was a valiant attempt on my mum's part, but two of us still refused to cave). New 'big' words taped to my bedroom wall every week. Tennis lessons. Sunday swims. School uniforms clean and ready in the morning. And like most kids, I was none the wiser of any of it. I certainly wasn't grateful for it. We were probably more prone to take it all for granted. That was mum's job. It's what mums do. I didn't ask to be born, etc.

And we definitely tried her patience; so much so that she would threaten to ring the local children's home to get them to collect us.

"Not the orphanage!" we'd scream as she calmly picked up the phone and dialled. The effectiveness of same only lasted a short while. We knew we would never be given away. Of that, we were sure. And really, what a luxury to have as a child.

One of the most awful realisations of this year has been not telling my own mother how grateful I was for all of the work, and it really is all work. The practical stuff. Keeping me alive. Giving me every opportunity she could. Not chucking me out a window when she felt like it.

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Like mother, like daughter: Tanya as a baby, with her mum

Like mother, like daughter: Tanya as a baby, with her mum

Like mother, like daughter: Tanya as a baby, with her mum

The guilt, too, about not being a better carer on her cancer journey, gnaws away at me.

When she got sick, I became the brittle, matter-of-fact one. My mother the vulnerable one, thinking only of others. At 32, I was more than irritated that my life of festivals, parties and gigs had been interrupted by pyjama washing and hospital appointments. It became clear that in this new caring role I'd found myself in, I didn't have a maternal cell in my body.

And yet, I can already feel myself turning into my mother. I have used the 'show-me-your-tongue-it's-black' lie detector on several youngsters already. Last week, I asked The Wobbler to come get her nappy changed. She clung on to the sofa, mischief dancing in her eyes. Knowing full well that she wasn't doing what she was told, she gave me a naughty smile. Oh boy, I thought. It begins.

I counted to three, then made a move for her. She startled, knowing she couldn't move as quickly as I can. I nearly laughed, thinking of mum.

After nine years, you think that you've done the hard yards on your grief journey. That - per Elisabeth Kubler Ross's stages of grief - you have reached a place of acceptance. What you don't bank on is becoming a mother, and having that entire idea upended. You are back to where you started, as raw and hurt and confused as on that first anniversary.

Initially, I refused to let it in. I told myself that my mother wouldn't have been all that excited about becoming a grandmother; she had spent most of my teenage years and early twenties telling me not to make her one. This wouldn't be her scene, I told myself, buying little clothes and coming to ultrasound appointments (the truth is, of course, she'd have made an amazing grandparent). And when people melted when I named my daughter Isola Gabrielle, after my mother, I refused to get emotional then, too.

But this couldn't last forever. There comes a point when you really, truly feel the loss of your own mother. My insides turn to cold liquid when a friend casually mentions that her mum comes to "help out" a few days a week. All that free babysitting!

One evening, our daughter fell ill. As I sat in the hospital, all I could think about was how much I wanted my own mother in that moment. As a nurse, we kids were lucky enough to grow up feeling that nothing could ever really go wrong with any of us. My partner Brian's sister and Isola's godmother (another nurse) is an incredible support to us, but I still, guiltily, feel that loss.

Does every new mum, whether they have lost a parent or not, feel the same way? I am terrified of losing my daughter; of having to face into the sort of loss I know I couldn't possibly be strong enough to shoulder. I am terrified of being a bad parent. I am terrified of dying and leaving her motherless.

I never knew that sadness and happiness could live side by side - almost moment by moment - but it can. Grief unlocked chambers inside me that had never existed before, making me feel a sort of despair, helplessness and exhaustion I'd never known. But motherhood has done something similar. Parts of my brain have been excavated and dusted off, finding reserves of joy and gratitude. Would that have happened without the darkness of grief? It's hard to tell.

In some ways, it's lovely to be back in The Club. After my mother died, I hadn't been part of a mother-daughter relationship for years. Parenthood is profound at the best of times, but experiencing it when you thought mother-child relationships were off-limits to you forever is the next level up.

I'm reminded of Mother's Days previous: there was the time I brought my mother a pint of neat vodka in bed, complete with a sugared rim (no judgement; she liked me to fix her a little cocktail on Saturday nights, and this was a special occasion).

A year after that, we cleaned out the fireplace, one of her most hated jobs. We got the hairdryer treatment when ash ended up on the ceiling, behind the TV, everywhere. Another year, when I was about 10, we insisted on bringing her out for lunch in our local pub, only to look blankly at her when the bill came ("what, did you think we would pay?").

For the last nine years, Mother's Day was just another day in the calendar. The cards, the brunches, the flowers were for Other People, and that was fine.

In a few short years, it will be my turn for cards and messily made breakfasts in bed. Now, finally, I get to celebrate again.

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