Being a mum but not having a mum

About to have her first baby, Tanya Sweeney reflects on her youth and her late mother whose maxim was 'don't make me a gran'

When you get pregnant, you hear a lot of very nice platitudes. “You’re glowing.” (That’s not a glow, that’s a life without wine.) “You’ll be an amazing mum.” (What exactly are you basing this on? I write about porn and threesomes.)

That said, I’ve received particularly lovely texts from old friends of my dearly departed mum. “She would be so chuffed and proud and excited,” is the general gist.

It’s lovely to hear, but my instinctive reaction is always, “Hm. But would she though?”

She was never anyone's idea of a granny (whatever that means), so it's weird and a bit sad for me to think of her as such. Because of her death in 2011, we are frozen, suspended in aspic. She at 62 and me at 33. In the last couple of years of her life, she went to see Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen live, and even managed to get to Stamford Bridge to see her beloved Chelsea play. I cannot conceive of her embracing grandparenthood. For many reasons.


As is the case in every teenager’s home, the general refrain in our house was, “don’t ever make me a gran”. I took this to heart and to this day, my biggest regret is the lack of teenage sex I had. So many bedsits. So many beautiful boys. Not nearly enough nookie.

In my 20s, my parents divorced, ushering in another refrain. "Never, ever give away your heart," my mother intoned repeatedly through bitter, spirit-sapped tears. I took this as gospel, and for a great many years I didn't, petrified it would leave me a grey-skinned wisp of a person, chain-smoking with the curtains permanently drawn, in front of Deal Or No Deal.

The only other regular catchphrase I can remember now from my late 20s, oddly, is: “Imagine this one ever being in labour.” Because whether period pain or migraine, “this one” doesn’t do stoic and makes a full-blown fandango of any minor ailment.

And throughout her cancer journey, the dynamic we’d found ourselves in hardened even further. Me: brittle, matter-of-fact, needing and wanting no one. Her: hypersensitive, kind, vulnerable. My bedside manner in those years left plenty to be desired because I selfishly wanted to be at festivals and lock-ins, not washing pyjamas and changing bedclothes.

“Nurse Ratchet,” she would call me, only half-joking. Parental death forces you into the role of parent, yet even at times like this, I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, summon a maternal cell in my body. And I was too overwhelmed or afraid to have a conversation about the possibility of me ever becoming a mother. It would have finished her off totally, in any case.

Weird parallel

There’s a weird parallel to being pregnant and having a dead parent. I go to my mum’s grave and stare at the pebbles and flowers, looking for answers. On some level, I know she is 6ft away, yet there’s always that head-scratcher. “Where exactly are you though?”

Similarly, you see a tiny foot or elbow scrape the inside of your belly and realise your child is physically only a few inches away, yet it might as well be happening in another universe. You end up talking to both the dead and the unborn in the same way; not really believing they can hear you, but it’s what you’re supposed to do, as a good daughter or a good mother.

On top of that, I had a strange realisation recently: if a baby girl is born with all of her eggs, it means that this baby or mine was once, after a fashion, in my own mother’s belly. It’s a mad feeling.

When I talk to friends who have become parents after they have lost their mothers, they give a slight shake of the head. Parenthood is profound, but experiencing it when you thought a mother-child relationship was off-limits to you forever is another matter entirely. Some were hit afresh by an unexpected wave of grief. Others long for their mums to be with them now. Some feel like warriors, going it alone. I think we’re all a little sad about the lack of free babysitting.

When you lose your mother, you go through the world without your very first moral compass. It makes you feel like a survivor, a warrior. When things go wrong in your life, you don’t worry about how your mum will react to the news. You get Mother’s Day back to yourself (fine, it’s one afternoon, but you find the silver linings where you can). In some ways, it can be very freeing.

So staring into the possibility of a mother-child relationship opening up to you all over again is, well, lots of things. Daunting. Exhausting. Exciting. Enlivening. You feel every kick and hiccup, and appreciate the sort of love and wonderment your own mother might have experienced before she even met you.

I’ve started to think about the times my own mother taught me left from right, tying shoelaces, the difference between ‘their’, ‘they’re’ and there’. The most basic and quotidian things, doled out in moments of selflessness and sacrifice (because the shoelace thing, when you think about it, must have been tedious as hell). And then, the Nurse Ratchet barbs start to ebb away a little bit.

Maybe it’s time for me to become a different kind of warrior.

Tanya Sweeney's pregnancy series
Part 1: More chance of Bosco getting pregnant
Part 2: First came the shock, then the advice
Part 3: I'm pregnant and have a glass of wine
Part 4: People have never seen me like this
Part 5: Baby bump makes a woman so visible
Part 6: No more well-meaning advice
Part 7: Facing the financial shock
Part 8: My last child-free Christmas
Part 9: Being a mum but not having a mum