Long Reads

Love, loss and a PHD: our mums on life before they were mums

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Members of the Stylist team interview their mums about life before and after having children, and ask what it means to them to be mothers today.

Jane, mum of Kayleigh Dray, editor at stylist.co.uk

Back when I was five years old, my dad and I were standing outside Queen Mary’s Hospital in Roehampton. My dad looked across the road at Froebel College and suddenly announced, “You’ll go there one day and be a teacher!”

That memory stayed with me forever and it was always an idea of mine to be a teacher. As a young girl I wasn’t particularly ambitious about my future, I just wanted to find Mr Right and have a family – or to be more specific, have three daughters. Being loved and having a family to love were more important to me than having a career, expensive cars or travelling the world.

I did marry young, to the blue eyed boy who walked to school in the opposite direction to me everyday. Somehow, we saved up enough money for a deposit for our first home in Telford. We couldn’t afford to buy locally as house prices had gone mad in 1988, but we didn’t let that put us off. We were really excited to start our adventure as a newly married couple and soon-to-be new parents. 

The day our firstborn, Kayleigh, came into the world was amazing. This little red faced, blue eyed scrap was put into my arms and I felt absolute love and amazement. I had never held a tiny baby before and was shocked that this little baby was already a little person, who was looking at me as if she knew all about me. I was terrified that I wasn’t up to the job of being her mum but luckily, straight away I said something that made sure her dad was also transfixed by this little bundle. As soon as I said, “Oh, she is your mirror image!” her dad couldn’t wait to hold his little mini-me. He fell totally in love with her the moment he looked at her. It’s a precious memory that I have, of Kayleigh being held for the first time by her daddy. 

We loved being a family, and eventually having a sister for Kayleigh. Although we had little money we had lots of fun and plenty of time for our little ones. For me, my proudest moment was becoming a mum and I always felt that my life truly began when I had my children. I did everything a little bit back-to-front you see, and did go on to night school and university to gain a degree and PGCE, eventually becoming a teacher just like my dad had promised.

My girls always supported me and were proud of their mummy studying to become a teacher. Although it wasn’t much fun for them they would come to school with me on INSET days and do jobs for me in the classroom. I’m so proud of everything that they have achieved as they have been through a lot seeing me go through horrible cancer treatment. They never used this as an excuse not to get on with their homework and always tried their best.    

And I was the proudest woman in the world to attend both of their graduations. I’m so lucky to have such wonderful, empowered daughters.

Jenny, mum of Sarah Biddlecombe, features editor at stylist.co.uk

The picture above shows me ready to celebrate New Years Eve 1986/7 at a party for expats in Istanbul.

Sarah’s dad and I were married at the end of September 1986, but separated after a weeks honeymoon so he could take up an overseas appointment in Turkey. This ‘opportunity’ was sprung on us two weeks before we got married and we immediately said ‘yes’ despite it meaning we would be apart for the first three months of our married life.

After all, we didn’t have any other commitments to think about. The move meant that we wouldn’t live in our new house that was being built, and we were leaving family and friends temporarily behind, but it was an adventure! We could explore a new country, immerse ourselves in a new and alien culture and make new friends. The hospitality allowance we were paid was more than sufficient to supplement our lifestyle, and we could be completely selfish and choose to do whatever we wanted without having to consider anyone else. We were legitimately cut loose!

Fast forward two years. I am pregnant with Sarah and have realised that even the very best private medical care is a poor substitute for the NHS being on tap. My unborn child’s safety and welfare was more important than continuing the adventure, so I returned home six weeks before Sarah was born.

I have never thought of myself as a ‘natural’ mother. My own mum, whilst kindly, took a distant, hands-off approach, both while I was growing up and when I had my own family. I didn’t have a role model to copy, or someone to guide and support me.

Having a child of your own engenders a unique, overwhelming type of love, which cannot be imagined or copied. The focus of your life is no longer your own and you will find yourself putting your own needs on the back burner if they need you. This is a lifelong commitment to which you are a willing participant!

As your children grow up you take back pleasure in the simple things in life. They look at things with an enquiring open mind, which can make you realise how jaundiced or tunnel vision-ed your own views may have become. Life becomes more complex (and expensive!) but the sacrifices are more than amply rewarded by much simpler pleasures – a giggle, a smile just for you, a tiny hand held in yours for reassurance, the first day at school when you won’t be there to stand up for them. The list is ongoing and changes as the years go by.

I couldn’t love my two daughters anymore. I am immensely proud of them as individuals and of their achievements, but just as importantly how they have dealt with failure and learnt from it to move forward as better and more confident women. I hope I have had a hand in instilling this resilience and steely determination to ride the storm of disappointment, but crest the wave of opportunity that will surely follow.

Jane, mum of Moya Lothian-McLean, editorial assistant at Stylist

The above picture was taken in 1988 in Bali, Indonesia on my third and final visit to the country. I was 33 and staying with a boyfriend who was working there. I’ve chosen it because it reminds me of being young and having the freedom to travel; before having children I lived and worked in Germany, France, the British Virgin Islands, Canada and America, as well as visiting Spain, Greece, Australia and Indonesia. 

The next year I bought a house and travelled as I had a mortgage and was working as a university lecturer, whilst also starting a PHD. I didn’t expect to become a mother at this point — I hadn’t met anyone I wanted to settle down with or have children with.

At 41 I gave birth to my beautiful daughter, Moya, and 18 months later, her equally gorgeous sister, Sara. I met their dad during my sabbatical year but soon became a single mum. I gave up my teaching job; I couldn’t juggle two small children, a full-time job and a PHD, and still stay sane. 

I swapped having exotic holidays and a house on the south coast for my old family home in Herefordshire. I became a yoga teacher so I could organise work around the girls’ lives, bringing them up with help from my current partner, Bill, and my extended family. I have a lot less money but a much richer life. I love being a Mum and watching my talented girls become strong, beautiful, independent women making their way in the world. 

Oh, and I did finish that PHD!

Main image: Mitchel Lensink