On Mother's Day: how to be an unconventional mum

I never wanted a child. But now I am a double mother: to my own mother as she copes with Alzheimer's, and to a son I didn't give birth to.

Laura Bridgeman
4 March 2016
Laura Bridgeman mother.jpeg

The author and her mother: Laura Bridgeman (center), her mother (left). Credit: Laura Bridgeman's personal collection.

This weekend it's Mothering Sunday: Mother's Day in the UK. All week, I’ve been bombarded by adverts. My inbox is full of images. Many depict 1950s mothers in aprons with rolling pins. The women are all white, sane and eternally smiling. I delete them without question. I can’t see their benefit – for me or any of us. I turn off my computer and turn to my day.

This year, instead of writing Mum a card, I’m signing a form. In it, I state that she no longer has capacity. Mum will be 80 in October. She has Alzheimer’s and lives in a nursing home. For the first time, I have Power of her Attorney. Since Mum receives no benefits, beyond the Nursing Home Fund and the Attendance Allowance, we’ve paid £450 for the service. Soon, I’ll receive a cheque book, a bank card and full access to Mum’s finances. Because my family is small – Dad’s dead, I have one surviving brother and Mum’s an only child - the process was pretty effortless. 

No-one contested.  

I walk to Santander. There, I sit with the personal banker, and gawp at my new responsibility. When I look closer, I question some of Mum's Direct Debits - the water charge, the internet charge - attached to her previous apartment. 

“Mum hasn’t lived there for over a year,” I say. “She shouldn’t be paying.”

“Wait till everything’s in place,“ the banker says. “Then you can ask for a full refund.”

As I wander through Hackney, weighted down with forms, I picture running away. Taking Mum (and her money) with me. In my mind’s eye, we’re climbing the Himalayas, quaffing cocktails on a beach, crossing the tundra to the Northern Lights. In reality, I clock the Mothering Sunday tulip and chocolate display in Marks & Spencers, and remember my inbox.  When I get home, I phone my son. He’s at Luton airport en route to Marrakech. We talk and promise to Skype on his month away.

He asks about my operation, to remove an extensive fibroid. I tell him I’m waiting on a date, and promise to “Keep him in the loop.”. 

My son will be 27 in May. Last year, he had lymphoma, and after being treated at Bart’s hospital, is now cancer-free. Not that his illness is relevant, in the fact of him being my son. But illness is an interceptor of time. Of his. Of Mum’s. And now, latterly, of mine. As my son bolts to his boarding gate, I drop the Power of Attorney details on my desk. Then a realisation dawns. Even though Mum sometimes calls me Mum, and my son calls me Lou, I’m a new kind of Mother. My son is my stepson – not my birth son. And Mum is well... my mum. But what does that mean? If you go by the Oxford English Dictionary, it’ll tell you Mother is a noun and a female parent. 

This is what I am.

But two-fold now. Like a double Mother. 

Parent of my son and parent of my parent.   

When I supervised the sale of Mum’s apartment, she stated this in a voicemail: “Hello Mum, this is Mum.” Even though I’ve never adopted my step-son - I no longer tie his shoelaces, or scoop out his ears, we’ve been close for 24 years. I act in loco parentis, embarrassing him at parties, and cooing as he boils an egg, or whisks another partner home. This Sunday, I do expect to send Mum something, and receive something from my son. Even if it’s via Facebook.  

After Julia Ward Howe declared it in 1870, the American social activist Anna Jarvis campaigned for an official Mother’s Day. It began in 1907, but Jarvis grew concerned at its commercialism – wanting a day of sentiment and not profit. Today, Mums are under constant attack - breastfeeding babies in public, driving (not walking) their toddlers to school, and feeding them saccharin and sugar. It’s hard to get anything right.

In literary terms, De Beauvoir wrote on mothers’ manipulation in The Second Sex and called for society to collectively raise a child; Margaret Atwood in The Blind Assassin described mothers as fictions of our own making, “Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins in”. In Rachel Cusk’s autobiographical A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, she documented her loss of identity, “It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion.” and was heavily criticised for her comments. More stoically, Maya Angelou’s protagonist in 'Our Grandmothers' defies every attempt at destruction of her freedom, her children, and her God, with the repetition,  ““I will not be moved.” Neither will I.

In terms of the role’s complexity, the mothering gig is the toughest. And gender’s not always a given. One of my friend’s husbands does most of the child rearing, and his wife describes him as a “better” parent, more patient, easier to talk to. Now, in the age of surrogates, trans parents, and single sex parent families, the Oxford English’s “female” seems stretched. 

Last year, I worked on the theatre piece, 'The Butch Monologues', with Vital Xposure and The Drakes. I took global testimonies from butches and gender rebels. One birth mother stated: “People thought it was strange, me being me, having a baby.” The sight of a 501-wearing, shaven-headed pregnancy was too challenging.  Where were the smiles and rolling pins? In another testimony, a parent movingly encouraged their son to call them “Daj”: Romany for Mother, acknowledging their heritage and their masculinity.  

As for my operation, it’s an odd one. Despite being doctor-phobic, for the last month, I find myself repeatedly with them. Being prodded and poked and accessed. Doing blood tests and scans. The cause of my ongoing discomfort is 11 cms. It comes in the form of a fibroid or a womb barnacle. My consultant tells me 1 in 3 women get them; and mine needs to come out. 

“There’s pressure,” she says. “On your kidneys.”

“I know,” I say. “I feel full of wind. Or beer.” 

As I wait for my operation on the NHS, I consider that body part. There. The reproductive space. I think about me coming out of Mum’s womb, and my step-son not coming out of mine. Why should it be filled? I never wanted a birth child. It’s weirdly internalising to be confronted by my unborn baby’s first house. Its home.

While my abdomen makes Jurassic sounds and my blood’s leached of iron, I think outwards - consider Mum’s Alzheimer’s and direct debits, and my son’s arrival in Morocco. I think about Anna Jarvis’s day of sentiment. Then I get sentimental too. Maybe my fibroid is the result of my double-motherhood. My parenting two-fold. The pleasure and the pressure.

Maybe before it’s been cut from my insides, I’ll celebrate this Sunday, not by blowing Mum’s money on fictitious holidays, but by sabotaging some unmentionables. The stuff of commerce and profit. Don’t be surprised to find me obliterating my inbox and overturning the tulip and chocolate display in Hackney’s Marks and Spencers.

Laura Bridgeman is the author of the Kindle bestseller, How Was The Party?: A Year Living With Alzheimer's.

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