May 13, 2013

The Mama Mix

Four generations of Bumparella women
So, let me tell you a modern day fairy tale.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who dreamed of one day meeting a handsome prince. (No, not that little girl; that one had to move to Denmark, live in a palace, wear designer clothes and learn to speak the notoriously difficult Danish language - how very dull for her . . .?)

Anyhoo, the little girl in our story met, instead, a lovely commoner and fell head over heels in love with him, even though he already had three children. So she married the man and became, not a princess, but a stepmother. (Oh, okay, she was a little bit of a princess too, but we all know you don't need a crown to be a princess huh?)

So by now, clever reader, you've figured out the princess-ish stepmother is me.

On my wedding day, I stood at the altar and looked at my new husband and my three new step-children and thought “Wow, I'm actually marrying four people. Hmmmm . . . how hard can Danish really be?!"

No, no, no . . . I jest! What I really thought was, “Oh God, let me be a good stepmother and create a happy home for them.” I thought it was the parents who do the teaching, not the other way round.

Well, those kids taught me a lot of things. I learned how to:
  • Put on a band aid, and take it off with only minimal screaming
  • Iron hair
  • Listen to a girl with a broken heart
  • Get out of a top bunk bed at 2am with a hot arm strangling me and a slingshot digging into my chin without waking a child
  • Have three-way conversations with a teddy bear named Paddington 
  • Bake birthday cakes in the shape of a football
  • Read every Harry Potter book out loud and do a pretty good Voldemort voice that’s not too scary
  • Cheer along at every sports event every weekend (on only one occasion to the point of embarrassment)
But probably the most important thing they taught me is that ‘mothers’ and their children can come in many different forms. You don’t necessarily have to be related by blood in order to be a mum or to love someone else’s children. They also taught me to be real. To be myself. Such a hard lesson to learn, when you're doing everything in your power just to be liked. I felt I somehow needed to make it up to them for being someone they didn't choose to have in their life. It took awhile for us all to realise that we were an "and" in each other's lives, not an "or".

Lessons about how to be a mum also came from my grandmothers.

My maternal grandma had eight children. Eight! Can you imagine? Clearly a good Catholic family. (Also, it was the 1940s. No television. Say no more).

Without going into too much detail, my unwed mother found herself in the family way at the tender age of 18. Now, in the 1960s, this often led parents to come up with solutions for their unwed daughters that these days we would find unacceptable. Banishment. Adoption. Sent to live with nasty maiden aunts. But my very Catholic, extremely devout grandparents never considered anything but supporting their daughter and welcoming their new grand-daughter (me!) with much love and understanding.

So from my maternal grandmother I learned what is probably the most important lesson in how to be a mum - how to give unconditional love.

My paternal grandmother taught me about the importance of a bosomy hug as a fix-all solution to any woe. She also taught me the art of Tim Tam appreciation and how to play poker. In this age of sugar reduction and political correctness, this may seem irresponsible but I'm telling you, Tim Tams still have their place in a mother's arsenal of bribery tools. Likewise, you shouldn't underestimate the ability to pull a good poker face.

My own mother has, of course, taught me a lot about being a mother. By 21 years old, she had 3 children under 4. I think she has selectively blocked most of the early years from her memory, but I haven’t. From her I learned these things:

  • When making a cake, let your children lick the bowl
  • Let your daughter wear a crocheted bikini when she is five but NOT when she is fifteen
  • Do not let a four year old watch the Wizard of Oz because the wicked witch of the west is really quite scary
  • Indulge your children in their fantasies when they’re young, even if they fall out of a tree pretending they were Queen of the Fairies and sprain their arm.
  • Read to your children every day
  • Let your daughter buy that old orange Mini that stops dead whenever it runs through a puddle because she WILL learn that buying a crappy cheap car is NEVER a good idea
  • If you barack for a team that is NOT the Sydney Swans, you will be disowned
  • Sometimes mummies need to lock themselves in their bedroom with a packet of scorched peanuts and a trashy magazine. And that’s okay.

Mum in 1969 - a natural mama, despite only being 19. Don't you love the 60s glamour?

But most importantly, my mum has taught me the importance of support. Of always being there, even if it’s just at the other end of a phone, to get excited about a work promotion, or a new pregnancy, and to tell you you’re beautiful and amazing even when you’re feeling old, ugly and washed up. A mum who will get drunk with you in a margarita bar in Hong Kong is also a gal you want to keep by your side as long as possible.

There have been so many other women in my life who have taught me how to be a mother. My darling mother-in-law, who passed away last year, taught me the importance of listening with interest to everything your children say, of engaging with them and asking questions. She also taught me how to sew a neat French seam when she helped me with the ridiculously ambitious task of sewing my three bridesmaid’s dresses.

Some of the most precious lessons have been gifts from other mothers. The girls in my mother's groups, school mums, neighbours - I have soaked little bits of you all up! How else do we learn about the best sleeping bags, the benefits of screen-free time, how to sneak vegies into dinners and the tooth fairy's going rate?

My dear friend Elizabeth, another beautiful, inspiring mother, whose heartfelt words made me realise just how strong the desire to be a mother can be, urged me to try everything in order to have another baby. That conversation led me to an IVF clinic. Without that single conversation, little Francesca Barraclough would never have been born. Francesca's middle name is Elizabeth, after the woman who inspired her into life.

From my friends who are adoptive mothers I have learned how the power of motherly love can transcend blood ties, as they welcome a child into their homes and hearts with a love that is immediately and wholly unconditional. Where does that instinct come from? The power of mother-love blows me away.

And from friends who had to grow up without their mothers, I’ve learned about courage and strength. These women are among the most warm, nurturing mothers I know. They're doing something that comes naturally – being a mother is more than just what they've learned. It's been passed down to them in their genes by mothers who loved them so fiercely they fought their illnesses like crazy to stay on this earth and watch their daughters become mothers themselves. To lose the right to watch your children grow must have been scarier than death itself. Witnessing my friends turn their grief to love and pour it into their own children brings me undone.

Of course, I have learned the most about being a mother, not just from being a stepmum to three young people who were half grown, but from the two I had the privilege to know from birth - Jack and Francesca. From these five children, I have learned how the joy of motherhood is mostly in the little moments.
  • Watching the intent focus on the perfect, soft, unlined face of a young boy building a Millennium Falcon out of forty thousand small pieces of Lego, using a brain whose synapses are firing faster and more intelligently every day
  • Singing along to the Sound of Music or having suddenly-strong limbs leap upon you as boy becomes Spiderman
  • Lying on our backs on the trampoline in the afternoon watching the clouds change shape and discussing the finer points of goal kicking or whether teddy should wear a purple or green elastic on his ears
  • Getting man-sized hugs from boy-cubs grown into strong bears and stubbly kisses from once smooth faces
  • Out-of-the-blue text messages of love and appreciation from a gushy, gorgeous teenager grown into a warm, wonderful young woman.
The five people who have taught me most about being a mum

I’ve also learned, from being a mother, that the garbage truck will always, without fail, come around and empty the bins exactly ten minutes after you’ve just gotten the baby down for a sleep.

And where would a mother be without the father who contributed a special little something that helped produce the children and made being a mother possible. My husband John makes me a better mother by being my wing-man in this parenting business. I know for sure that I would be a more tired, grumpy, possibly hysterical mother if I didn’t have him to take the kids off for a hot chocolate on a Saturday morning so I can have a sleep in, or to consult with about that funny rash that appeared on a child’s arm and decide it’s nothing to worry about, or to pile us all in the car for a cheap and cheerful dinner down at the Dee Why sushi joint when he knows I can’t face another night of cooking three separate meals.

If it’s true that you never stop being a mother, it’s also true that you never stop learning HOW to be a mother.

So if you see me staring at you in the playground or on the beach or at the cafe, don’t worry I’m not stalking you. I’m probably just taking notes.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Michelle. A wonderful tribute to women. I also had the privilege of learning from my older sisters.
    But it is not just about parenting, we should try to learn from everyone we meet.


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