I think for most people, if they were asked who has been their biggest inspiration in life, their parents would rank pretty highly on their list. However, I suspect that there are very few who, like me, could take that question and very quickly turn it into a script for a weekday afternoon docudrama…
My mother is ridiculous. And before you get mad at me for being disrespectful, please know that I say this based on 35 years of empirical evidence (and plenty of anecdotal evidence before that). She is bonkers. Certifiable. A card-carrying, fully paid-up member of the monster raving loony party.
Uh oh, I probably shouldn’t have said that. Politics is about the only career move she hasn’t made. No doubt, now I’ve planted that particular seed, she’ll be out canvassing for the Harrow by-election come Monday morning, brandishing rosettes and attaching a loud-hailer to her car for campaign speeches delivered in the form of poems.
My mum had me when she was 18. Pretty unusual in those days and a bit of an extreme way of getting out of her A-level exams. But she liked me so much that she ordered another three girls from the stork over the next seven years. As you might imagine, there’s a smidgen of competition between me and my sisters for the title of no. 1 daughter, but there can be only one winner and, unfortunately for the other girls, it’s mine by birthright.
We get a lot of jokes about “four girls, eh? A house full of women. Your poor dad, how on earth did he cope? Ha ha ha.”
… Err, by leaving us… Not laughing now, are you??
Mum brought us up on her own at a time when being a single parent was incredibly rare. When I was a newly-qualified lawyer, working crazy hours, she used to ring me and tell me how worried she was about me. What a difficult time I was having. How on earth did I manage it? I found her concern hilarious. I’d remind her that at the same age (27), she was divorced with 4 children under the age of 8. “Oh yes”, she’d say, “so I was. How terrible”.
the wonder years
We didn’t have much money, but mum made up for it with with sheer craziness. If the great British summertime was a washout and stopped us playing outside, she’d just put down towels in the living room and set up the paddling pool indoors. It must have taken weeks for the carpet to dry, but I guess when your parenting is essentially crowd-control, you do whatever it takes to keep ’em occupied. And we loved it.
Christmas in our family is still THE major event of the year. My mum’s house is a two-up, two-down terrace, yet we have a christmas tree to rival the sort you’d find in most town squares. It’s standard for us to have to lop 2 foot off the top to fit it in the lounge. Our style of decoration is known as “explosion in a Christmas tree factory”. Our tree lights cause a power surge on the National Grid and I believe that we have single handedly kept the lametta industry in business. Does anyone else even know what lametta is??
Mum insists on buying us hundreds of presents. This last Christmas, we didn’t eat lunch until 7pm because it had taken us 9 hours to open them all. And then there’s Second Christmas. Which is where we get all the presents that didn’t arrive in time and the presents she didn’t get time to wrap… They tend to be the panic buys. Mine included a date stamp. For my business.
One year I begged her not to get me any presents. I had a good job, I didn’t need anything. She was horrified. So I suggested that she bought me a goat for charity. She relented. And then bought me a goat, 3 chickens, a donkey, a well and 15 bags of grain. So I didn’t feel left out when the other girls opened their presents.
Discipline was non-existent. She used to try to pretend otherwise, but it’s just not true – she once tried to ground one of my sisters when we were teenagers, probably for bunking off school. My sister, through her tears, said scornfully “you can’t ground me, you’re hopeless at grounding”. And she was right. Mum just couldn’t see it through – she felt too sorry for us. So she just let us off.
interesting career choices
Mum was always desperate to be a doctor. So she went back to school to do her A-levels when I was doing my GSCE’s. No specialist college for her. Nope, she just joined the local sixth form. And she was doing sciences. A 30-something, mother of four in a class full of spotty 17 year old boys. The physics teacher said that she added an extra dimension to the class. One of the wags piped up “yeah, sheer bloody mass…!” Fun times.
The Royal Free Hospital turned her down for a place at their medical school. Losers. They said she needed better grades. So she retook her A-levels. And then took them again. She and I tried the other day to calculate how many A-levels she racked up in the end. We think it’s somewhere around 20… I keep telling her she should sell off some of the earlier ones…
Her career path has taken some interesting turns over the years. She did an undergraduate degree in photographic sciences (and graduated just at the time that traditional photography gave way to digital. Oh. Dear.) She helped produced a short film for an eccentric wealthy Italian, subject matter: the omega centuri star constellation. My uncle gave it the best critical review: “at 25 minutes, it’s about 20 minutes too long”.
She gave that up to become a carpenter. Yep, you read that right. My mum, with her 32 A-levels, went on a local YTS scheme and became a chippy. She worked on building sites, where they swore at her all day, and she f***ing loved it. The day that we made her put her power tools in the loft, a little part of her soul died. She still carries a retractable tape measure in the car…
One Easter Sunday several years ago, we were all having a lovely lunch at my youngest sister’s. Midway through, my mum said: “there’s something I need to tell you girls”. We put down our cutlery. She continued: “It will explain why I’ve been acting a bit weird and crying a lot over the past few months”.
My younger sisters started to cry. We collectively assumed a terminal illness. Probably only weeks to live.
“I’ve been accepted into medical school”, she said.
Now, the reason that this came as such a surprise to us, is because she hadn’t mentioned the whole lifetime-ambition-to-be-a-doctor thing for years. We had absolutely no idea that she was even still thinking about it. And unbeknownst to us, she’d gone all secret squirrel on our arses and decided to give it one more go. And she got in. And not just into any old medical school, but one of the top schools in the country. UCL.
So, once we’d got over the trauma of thinking that she was dying, we went and bought champagne and congratulated her in the only way we know how. Whooping.
you have got to be kidding me…
And then we wondered when she’d had time to do all of this. And here’s where you should probably reach for the tissues.
Because it turns out that she sat her medical school entrance exams the day before she donated a kidney to my sister.
Freeze Frame. Rewind. Close up shot of sister lying in a hospital bed, her anxious mother by her side…
Yep. My mum gave up one of her kidneys, so that it could be transplanted into my sister. And the day before that operation, she sat some very important and difficult exams. And she didn’t tell anyone.
As I said at the beginning: ridiculous.
Now, anyone who might have wondered how it is that I can give up my job, bum around and generally lack in anything approaching ambition? I’m guessing that it’s starting to become a little clearer. My mum is the most phenomenally courageous, barmy, lovely person that you’re ever likely to meet. So it takes the pressure off. I’ve got nothing to prove. Never gonna get anywhere near that level of greatness, so I don’t need to worry about it.
She’s in her second year as a junior doctor now. I wish I could tell you that it’s a dream come true for her, that she’s loving every minute and it’s everything she ever hoped for.
But remember, this is an afternoon weepie, so it’s never quite that simple. It’s the NHS and she may be the oldest junior doctor in town, but she’s still a junior doctor. So it’s punishing hours, terrible pay, zero support and stupid managers pushing even stupider made-up targets.
But that doesn’t stop her being a brilliant doctor. All of that bonkers life experience has come together to create the best beside manner at Chase Farm Hospital. Her patients and colleagues love her. And we know it’s only a matter of time till she finds her niche and really starts to enjoy herself.
And if not, well, she can retire in 11 years…
If you want to know how proud we are of her, this little video should do the trick. It’s her graduation ceremony and my sisters and I provide the soundtrack. I suggest you turn the volume down.
Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.
Ps: Girls – I see you your mother’s day cards and I raise you. Read it and weep, sisters.