Mother's Day for the motherless. Amanda Cassidy pays tribute to all the mother figures who have nurtured us along the way.
I pull the sections of hair tighter, not so much as they hurt her scalp but just enough that I can braid them into a not-so-terrible french plait. Younger daughter is next - I smooth down the floaty blonde fuzz that frames her face and cross the plaits evenly over each other, crisscrossing again and again. It is a daily ritual that I enjoy more than I should. It is because it reminds me of my own mother neatly plaiting our hair every morning, her warm fingers making quick strokes through my own hair, deftly weaving strands together as she babbled, cooed and chided. The memory of a moment, jumping down a generation. No words remembered - just that soft hum of mothering familiar to us all.
My mother's face fades slightly now. I knew it by heart. When I was 10, I remember telling her I'd never love anyone as much as I loved her and she laughed a little sadly and told me she was sure I would. Now I look at my children and wonder when mothers are supposed to stop kissing their faces off? What day is the last day for those fierce kisses that I am sure I can't ever live without? That's why all the Mother's Day cards say 'Special' (beside the pink tulips and behind the cute hugging bears).
Motherhood is all kinds of deeply complicated, exhausting, frustrating, amazing and yes, special - bearhug special. But it is not only those who birth us that we celebrate this weekend. I've found nurture from all over and been mothered by many – a gift that's even more remarkable because of the ease with which it's offered.
I was left physically fatherless in my early 20s. It meant I also became effectively motherless. An emotional orphaning of five children in their formative years. It was my sister who stepped in and mothered her siblings while our mother was stricken solid with grief. Buddy up, she bossed – mind each other. Those first few days, she made sure our brothers had black ties and that we didn't run out of tea. On the morning before the funeral, I found her ironing his burial outfit. I watched her flatten the boxer shorts with the steam from the iron and neatly press his socks, taking some kind of control over an uncontrollable situation despite her own private devastation. That deep admiration I had for her remains today. She's still my best port in a storm.
To hold the ship steady is now my own role as a mother. But motherhood is about more than just nurturing – it's about understanding that you are the centre of their tiny universe. In later years, the mother-shaped hole in my life was filled by my quick-witted and kind mother-in-law. She has the kind of wisdom no college can teach, a knowledge borne from caring and listening. I still tend to gravitate towards her when I need a little minding of my own (or a full night's sleep with the guarantee of a hot water bottle at the end of the bed).
The mothering community has also offered solace during the early haze of second-guessing the job you didn't realise you'd signed up for. I scroll through Instagram relieved that there are fellow mums who have beans and waffles on occasion and have been caught without wipes. Over cups of tea that turn into wine, we lament our mum bods and cackle about those 'chocolate or poop' moments. The sisterhood of motherhood gets a bad rap but we see online 'mummy shaming' for what it really is, hollow and petty, fuelled by sleep deprivation and misplaced fear. Besides, we have others who need our attention more – friends drowning in the peaks and troughs of motherhood, pals navigating the strains of having children with learning disabilities, lost pregnancies, another negative test...
We may not all do things the same way but there is a unity in coming out the other side of childbirth that sticks your mummy tribe together for life.
And then there are the things I whisper to my children. I hear them repeat them to their dolls, their friends and hopefully their future selves. I've got you. I love you. You're my whole world. Nurture begets nurture. The delicious hugs I wrap around my son and daughters are for me as much as them. We hold on tightly. I'll always be in your heart, I tell my children when they are nervous to do something alone in the world for the first time. Even when you can't see me, I'll be there.
That, to me, is what motherhood is all about – knowing that you will be fine, no matter what, because somewhere, no matter where – you will never stop being loved by your mother.