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Today, more than on any other Mother's Day, I appreciate my mum | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett | Opinion


We emerged from isolation yesterday to post Mother’s Day cards, the short walk around the corner to the postbox offering a degree of novelty I never thought I would come to crave. I chose Matisse’s Woman in Blue: a red-headed woman who looks like a queen. Fitting, for my mum.

I once had an editor who didn’t like the word “mum”. Maybe she thought it was, I don’t know, mumsy, a word that is often used in a derisive tone. Mumsy is defined as “giving an impression of dull domesticity; dowdy or unfashionable”. How unfair that, on top of all the bum-wiping and wound-dressing and tucking-in and spoon-feeding, mothers should have to contend with an image problem for frequently performing those tasks.

I think “mum” is a warm word, capturing the way so many of us feel towards the women who raised us. “My mother” may sound more erudite, conveying a sort of refined, intellectual distance, bringing to mind – like the use of the term Mothering Sunday – a less touchy-feely type of human relations. Mothering Sunday, of course, used to be the day off that servants were given so they could return to their “mother parishes” to see the women who birthed them, gathering wildflowers along the way.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking of the mums a lot this week, especially my own, who is up north while I am down south. I’m not sure when I’ll see her again, and that in itself is strange. The mums must be in overdrive at the moment, whether their children are young or grown up. Children must be entertained and fed, now schools are closed. Extra hugs are needed, the kettle almost always on. Their phones are likely to be ringing off the hook; with thousands and thousands of calls from people imploring their mums to stay inside. Because, for the lucky majority, a mum is a precious person, she must be kept around for as long as possible. The mums will also be fielding calls from anxious adult children worried about their own health, the health of other people in the family, and what they’ll do for money. People don’t stop needing emotional support when they cease to be a child. The work of mothering continues, and becomes especially important in times of crisis.

Much of that work is hidden within the domestic sphere, or taken for granted. Beneath the sickly sentimentality and all the marketing gubbins, Mother’s Day is an opportunity to simply say “thank you” and “I love you”. Naomi Stadlen’s beloved book What Mothers Do: Especially When it Looks Like Nothing was a much-needed corrective to that phrase “I got nothing done all day” – a common refrain of new mothers, who are too hard on themselves. There is still no real lexicon within a capitalist system for the nameless feats of caring that mothers continuously achieve, such as the offering of comfort, in the face of constant interruption.

I’m wary of falling into a gendered trap when writing about mothering, because so often women and men are shoehorned into an emotional/intellectual dichotomy, even though our mothers shape us intellectually too. Words like mumsy detract from that fact; there’s a notion that the domestic sphere cannot intersect with the intellectual – a false dichotomy that is steadily being demolished by writers such as Elena Ferrante, as well as an upcoming generation of thinkers. In Liz Berry’s poem, The Republic of Motherhood, she calls the multifaceted gifts that mothers bestow “a whole wild fucking queendom”. We all know mothers who are geniuses, mothers who are polymaths, mothers who are great wits, mothers who are hard as nails, mothers who get things done. Despite the myths that swirl around mothers, they are ultimately just people with children, performing a role that is often thankless, while fighting to maintain their other many identities. Even in 2020, with so many feminist advances, that remains a challenge.

When I visualise my mum, I think of her standing in front of an easel. There’s opera on the record player, the sort I used to whine about when I was a child, covering my ears, and now sometimes find myself enjoying. She is painting a canvas in bright, abstract colours. Around her is all the domestic chaos of my childhood home. The walls are covered in scribbles. The Thomas the Tank Engine soundtrack comes blasting from the next room, where my brother is building towers. In this vision of the past, I’m reading a book somewhere, trying to ignore the yowling cat. Our tea’s in the oven, after which she’ll put my brother to bed, sing him to sleep, and cuddle up to me on the sofa. For me, she was, and remains, the still point of the turning world.

I’ve watched my mum caring for my severely disabled brother over the years, always putting her children first while managing to maintain her need to think and create, and my main feeling is one of awe. I know my friends feel similarly about their own mothers, whether it’s the retrospective realisation in adulthood that she somehow fed a family of five on less than £30 a week, or the sudden understanding, after losing a much-wanted baby, of the miscarriage she suffered. As we grow we have these watershed moments where it hits us: “She lived through this.” Mums are beacons of wisdom and experience. They are often humans of unquestionable strength, who never make a meal of how resilient they are.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a mum who is still around, and some will be lost or already have been lost in the human tragedy of the coronavirus pandemic. There are others who have never been given the gift of mother love, whether from absence, abuse or neglect. To have experienced it is a privilege. I understand that even more as this current crisis escalates. I may not be able to hold my mum close this year, but I want her to know that I understand, and that I’m grateful. I always will be.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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