Mary, Anna, Sarah and Elaine have 14 children and 21 grandchildren between them. We spoke to them about their experiences of being mothers and grandmothers – especially now that their children have grown up. They share their insights into motherhood, and how their role has changed over the years.
Becoming a mum...
All 4 mothers had their first child in their early 20s, and remember how different things were back then compared to the experience their own children have had today.
‘Being a mother wasn’t talked about – it was just what you do’, Elaine remembers. ‘There wasn’t the range of opportunities to talk to other young mothers that there is now. You were reliant on advice from your mum and older women. Now there are much more pro-active groups.'
Mary, who had her first child not too long after the war, agrees: ‘It wasn’t easy – we didn’t have anything that they have today. I probably was nervous - you don’t know how to handle a first baby really, you don’t know what’s going on. But the midwives were very good; they came round to the house and made sure you were okay.’
But Anna wonders how today's younger mums manage to juggle everything: ‘I had temporary jobs when I raised my children and I was hugely involved in local community and local politics, but I had no career. I don’t know how you do it now and afford childcare.’
What happens when the nest empties?
The prospect of all your children leaving home might seem daunting, but all 4 mothers recall the experience being made easier by how busy they were:
‘I felt bad, I suppose, when everyone left home,' Mary remembers. 'But I’ve always looked after my grandchildren, right up until the last couple of years. I looked after all of them! I was always busy with children.'
In fact, having children return is sometimes more difficult than having them leave, as Elaine recalls: ‘The holidays were always an adjustment - you have to remember that they aren’t little anymore. You can’t lie awake all night worrying where they are!’
Anna adds, ‘I think it’s actually kids that don’t leave which is becoming a problem – when kids keep coming back. It’s a bit dire! You’ve been looking forward to some time to yourselves; it’s nice to have that time.’
Keeping the faith...
And what are the responsibilities now, as a parent to adult children?
‘You still worry that nothing will happen to your kids now or that nothing will go wrong. That never goes away’, Mary reflects.
‘At our age there’s a little more disposable income so you can help out. But I don’t feel as though I have more responsibility – they are grown up and responsible for themselves now. My role is - if you need me I’m there’, says Anna.
Elaine believes that ultimately it's about trust. She comments: ‘In the end you have to trust that you brought your kids up and they will make choices accordingly. My tactic is to think “what was I doing at that age” and it calms me down.
'I think about my mother acting like I do, and how I would feel at that age. I would have been furious if I felt like she was interfering! I want to be there for my kids, but I don’t want to interfere now they are grown up.’
‘You can hand them back at night!’
As well as being mothers, all 4 women are also grandmothers now. They each reflect on how that experience differs from the experience of being a mother.
‘I have a huge amount of fun’, says Elaine. ‘I feel like I can afford a different kind of relationship because I don‘t have the ultimate responsibility. As a mother you learn all the time; as a grandmother you’ve learnt what experiences won’t harm them so you can let them play in the mud, have the occasional sweet. You can be less strict.’
Mary agrees: ‘You don’t have the same responsibility – you do have a responsibility of course - that nothing will happen to them - but it’s not the same. You can hand them back at night!’
Challenges for grandparents today..
Although Mary, Elaine, Anna and Sarah are very close to their grandchildren, they live a long way from where their grandchildren live, and the distance can be a problem.
‘People never used to move but now you could be half way around the world’, Anna explains. ‘It’s tough. You have to keep a conversation going, that’s the key. I’m not Skyping yet, but I’m on Facebook. My kids can see what I’m doing, and I can see what they are up to as well. My kids even use it to keep in touch with people they used to know in Canada too. I think that’s brilliant.’
‘Motherhood is still undervalued in society’
Our mums don't envy some of the challenges young mums today face:
‘Motherhood is still undervalued in society,' Elaine comments. 'We still haven’t understood the role of a parent.
'Investing in good parenting is so important. There’s excellent childcare out there, but it’s not the same. You don’t have children developing that familial relationship within the home and I think that’s a sad thing really.’
Sarah agree that today's mothers need more support: ‘Mothers have to juggle so much and the competitiveness between "working" and "non-working" mothers is unhelpful and divisive. Childcare is expensive and this government's austerity policies hit parents hard today, especially single parents. But so many lovely children are still being brought up well despite all the challenges of society today.’
So, after all their experiences, how would our mums describe ‘motherhood’?
‘It’s about the circle of life. You see your future – it’s a way to make your mark on the world,' Elaine reflects. 'I don’t have a faith so that’s what is important to me: to put people into the world to carry it forward, hopefully in a positive way.’
‘It means putting some people into the world, who will be responsible within a society, hopefully - who will be useful and who will change the world when it needs changing’, says Anna.
‘I think it’s important that your kids know about the world and the political word – to see further than their own neighbourhoods, to see the outside world around them and understand they are a part of it and believe they can do anything to change it.’
Mary concludes, ‘I wouldn’t have anything if I didn’t have children. I wouldn’t be without them.’
A message for today’s mothers...
After all their years of experience, our mothers have some wise words to pass on:
‘Spend as much time as you can enjoying your children and playing with them. More "yes you can!" and less "no you can’t!" ', Elaine insists.
Anna agrees: ‘Try not to miss your kids growing up; it’s a lot of fun. I’m a feminist, but I think that being there for your kids is important. You’re the most important person in their life. You set the tone.’