I started writing this post on International Women’s Day, a mere three days before Mothering Sunday which may or may not be coincidental – I’m not sure whether early March has been designated as the key time that women of child-bearing age and older need the most recognition. No matter. My twitterfeed was awash with inspirational quotes and references to ladies of distinction and a few days later was swamped with ‘Love ya Mom! UR the GREATEST!!’ so I was forced into contemplation. During an extensive period of soul searching (the drive back from work) I realised that this year my own dear mum would be spending her first ever Mother’s Day in a care home. It was quite a critical realisation, made more poignant / distressing by the fact that it hadn’t even occurred to me until I was deciding how many people the roast chicken would need to stretch to for Sunday lunch.
The eponymous absence on Mothers Day was not a permanent state of affairs – mum had not checked out of the family home for good. It was merely a reflection of the once more curious timing that juxtaposes Six Nations Rugby matches against Mothering Sunday – a time for celebrating motherhood whilst recovering from hangovers and preparing for another four to six hours of solid TV-watching broken by occasional shouting / running up to the screen / fist pumping / sobbing depending on your nationality and your team’s ability to move a ball through a swamp. Dad was in Paris for the France vs England match where it was established that the French were far better at moving the ball than the English. My sister and I had been planning to share some of the respite care but both of were out on the Saturday night and due to a recent deterioration in mum’s ability to navigate stairs and toilets it was felt that the four nights would be best spent consecutively at a single venue rather than repeated migrations to the corners of the county.
As a result, this year I did not see or speak to my mum on Mothering Sunday. I expect there have been years in the past where we have not been together but it is likely that these were spent apart for more jolly reasons – often because mum and dad would have been on holiday for the weekend. Spending Mother’s Day knowing that my mum was in an institution was a first (Alzheimer’s being marked by many firsts, few of which are cause for celebration). I found myself wondering what the staff in the nursing home think when someone ‘comes to stay’ for an important weekend – whether they have guests who only arrive at Christmas, Easter or during the summer holidays, rather like boarding kennels. Do they assume that my mum has no children, or maybe that we live very far away and are not involved in her care at all? Or do they honestly not give a toss about the whys and wherefores and just resign themselves to getting through another day infused with that distinctive aroma of overcooked food, bodily fluids and disinfectant? Mum is after all, just another resident, remarkable only due to her relative youth – care home staff are usually diligent and kind but they are also often transient and unlikely to form a lasting bond with someone who spends three days very slowly walking along corridors looking vague before she goes home again. I expect they don’t give it much thought, would it matter if they did? Does it matter if they judge me, my sister or my dad for abandoning mum on the one day of the year she can call her own – particularly since she has no idea of what constitutes a significant day, in fact no grasp of the concept of days full stop?
No. It doesn’t.
So, if we’re all in agreement on that fact – and we’ve chosen to march on relentlessly into Mother’s day unencumbered by actual mothers – are there alternatives (aside from the joys of being a mother oneself obvs) that make up for the loss? I have a few friends whose mum’s have died, some in more traumatic ways than others. There is nobody I know who is in exactly the same situation as me but there are people who have grown apart from their mums or who were never that close in the first place. And to all these people I would say a clear YES! There are other options for female support and nurturing: Welcome to The Sisterhood!
The Sisterhood – a guide for the uninitiated:
I am fortunate to have the Gold Standard of sisterhood arrangements – I have an actual sister. Not only that but I have a sister who is close to me in age, close to me geographically and most importantly, is a wonderful human being. I’m not going to say any more than that because I don’t want to make her totes emosh when reading this but in all honesty I don’t know how I’d cope without her. So it is fair to say that number one on your list of surrogate mothers / providers of female companionship is your sister. Even if you don’t get on that well, there is nobody else who has known you as long or who shares as many of your genes, which may come in handy one day when you need a kidney.
If you don’t have a sister, or if you have one and you really can’t bear her, then there are Aunties, Nieces and Mother-in-laws. I’ve talked before about my Mother in law – she is a superstar – again, no further embellishment or explanation required.
Aunties are a funny lot. Some, like my mum’s sisters, are a bit distant (the one in Canada can’t really help this to be fair). These aunts are perfectly nice human beings but it would be an overstatement to say that they are involved in our lives now. They clearly find mum’s diagnosis distressing and this has made contact more limited than previous but to be honest, they always did have a lot more shit going on in their own families than we did in ours and this resulted in a low grade resentment, which has not been compensated for by the fact that our family life is now shittier than theirs (don’t forget, it’s always a competition).
But then you have other aunts, like my dad’s sister, who came to look after mum last year. These women are wonderful hybrids of all the best bits of your family. This particular aunt died a few weeks ago and her loss is like a gaping hole in our lives – she was the most jolly and kind woman I have ever known – always giving her time and energy to others but not in a way that made anyone else feel inferior or patronised. Much as the sadness about her loss persists there will always be a part of me that is eternally grateful that she was ever in our lives in the first place. Her cancer first arrived on the scene when she was a mere 38 years old but then buggered off (with medical assistance) leaving her entirely unscathed (apart from missing an eye which she was characteristically hilarious / unpretentious about). She was in remission for another thirty years before it reared it’s ugly head again, this time whipping her away sharpish and leaving everyone reeling. This aunt was genuinely a woman who I could have phoned for advice about anything, without fearing judgement or censure (not that I really did anything worthy of censure). This characteristic was alluded to during her eulogy with a story about a friend of my cousins who, as a teenager, had held a house party when her parents were away. As is the way of these things, the house was trashed and the girl was beside herself. My aunty spent the day re-wallpapering the lounge before her parents came back so that she wouldn’t get into trouble – I mean who does that?! For someone else’s child?! She also took in foster children (despite their house being a pretty modest seventies semi already housing their own three kids) sent Christmas shoeboxes filled with presents to hundred of children over many years and didn’t mind another of my cousins growing pot in the greenhouse (although maybe she didn’t know about that). You get the idea – she was great.
If you haven’t got a great aunty (or event a great Great-aunty) kicking about, then you might have a lovely niece, cousin, step-sister or similar. There’s a lot to be said for blood relatives (I refer you back to my previous point about kidneys). But there are some women out there who don’t have any close family (geographically or emotionally) and even for those of us that do there is a major branch of this sisterhood as yet unmentioned – the mates. I can’t possibly do this group justice tacked onto the end of such an already enormous post because you will all be asleep by now, so next up – The Sisterhood – Part 2 (where I consider the other main branch of female solidarity – your bezzie friends – and why I feel a bit sorry for blokes)