I was hurrying towards the train station, the handle of the plastic shopping bag I was carrying cutting into my wrist. Inside was a tub of cookie dough ice cream and one of Asda’s infamous ‘build your own’ deli pizzas. Since my mum and I left her husband – my then stepdad – it had become our signature Thursday night meal. Following their separation we coined silly phrases, claimed songs as our own and developed daily routines that wouldn’t have been accepted during our life with a man. This defiant and calorific dinner was one of them.
Some of those rituals we created consciously, others sprouted organically. Either way, they felt significant because they were just ours. It had been almost two decades since I last had my mum to myself. Together, we were an impenetrable force. Without one another, each of us felt independently vulnerable.
I was in a rush because I’d just clocked out from a late shift and Mum had called to tell me she’d narrowly escaped a date with a creepy guy. Between our house and the train station was a winding, poorly lit path. It was notorious for being the site of most of our town’s assaults so there was no chance I was letting her walk it alone, tipsy in her ‘out out’ get-up. Armed with the classic keys-between-fingers defence.
I had a pathetic excuse for a torch to guide me down the lane that led to our house: a tiny, Lego Chewbacca keyring with lights pointing out of his feet. Mum bought him for me when we got the keys to our new house.
Mum had been a different person since her divorce. She stayed out late, flirted with guys and once got a little too drunk and ordered a food shop of entirely Prince-purple items while singing “Little Red Corvette” (our diet the following week was Frubes, Cheestrings, plums and a lot of laughter). It was Freaky Friday-esque. She had regressed. I was 15 verging on 16 years old; Mum was 33. Somehow, we’d traded places.
Mum had been a different person since her divorce. She stayed out late, flirted with guys and once got a little too drunk and ordered a food shop of entirely Prince-purple items while singing ‘Little Red Corvette’.
In some ways, I enjoyed the new Mum. She let me swear, decorated the house with fun murals, wallpapers and artwork (something she would never have done under our old family set-up) and sang Meat Loaf songs to me and our collie. She was vibrant.
In the middle of the lane, Mum spotted me and rushed towards me. She was awkwardly bouncing from foot to foot in heels that were too high, wobbling like a child who hadn’t found the knack for hopscotch yet.
“He was an absolute weirdo,” Mum half laughed, half sighed with disappointment. “He was clearly trying to get me and himself drunk. He was trying to make us both miss the train so he’d have to come back with me!”
“Which way means ‘piss off?’” she’d asked as she got to grips with swiping.
“Left,” I replied. “Right for the ones you fancy. But you’re not done with your bit yet – you should put a joke in your profile and link your Instagram. You need to look like a real person.”
“I am a real person!” she said, indignant and naive as to why this was important. You don’t encounter catfishing when you’re married for 13 years.
Inadvertently, sharing the experience of being single while at very different stages in our lives created an environment where we could talk about anything. While most of my peers were sneaking around, hiding boyfriends, concealing condoms in hollowed out teddy bears and swearing to their parents that they were still virgins into their 20s, I could call my mum with any problem. And I did.
She has picked me up from a guy’s house when things have gone haywire. She has answered my calls at 1am when I’ve been booty called by someone I was secretly, painfully in love with. She’s taken my phone and written a breakup message for me, as any friend would. She even cried with me through the moment when I realised that the relationship I’d been working hard to save was, in fact, an abusive one that I should leave.
While I felt forever forced to explain myself to friends, teachers and boyfriends, I could always rely on my mum to accept me, to offer comfort and solutions rather than meeting me with questions. She understood because she’d been there too – not just when she was a teen but right then, alongside me. We were learning how to be women in the world together, sharing the tools and hacks we picked up along the way. She became my cheerleader, approving first date outfits and telling me which boys weren’t good enough (all of them). Her unwavering support kept me afloat.
It’s ‘gross’ to think of your parents having sex. From a young and formative age I was forced to confront that. It was vital for my development, enabling me to understand and empathise with Mum’s desire for physical intimacy.
I did it for her, too. I told her to cry it out after the same fool broke up with her three times and reminded her what a catch she is whenever people failed to notice.
I wasn’t always kind, though. It’s only now that I realise how our shared experiences challenged me to recognise her as a woman as well as a parent.
At times I felt annoyed that she lived my lifestyle alongside me. I’ve given myself a free pass for being a teenager but, however unknowingly, I internalised a lot of deep-rooted sexism about mothers and their roles in society, which I inflicted on my own mum. In our society, mothers are put on a pedestal but, at the same time, their experiences beyond motherhood are denied. Women who have children quickly lose visibility and have to fight for any further existence because, in procreating, they’ve fulfilled what society sees as their purpose.
It’s expected for children to be repulsed by the idea of their parents as sexual beings. It’s ‘gross’ to think of your parents having sex. From a young and formative age I was forced to confront that. It was vital for my development, enabling me to understand and empathise with Mum’s desire for physical intimacy. I see her now not just as my mum but as a woman. In fact, she’s the woman I try to embody when I navigate the weird and complex world of sex and dating.
In reality, my mum needed everything that I, a teenager, needed. Friendships. Nights out. Love. Sex. Opportunities for self-exploration. She didn’t have the time to explore it when she was a teenager because she was busy raising me instead. She had me at 17.
Sharing the highs and lows of dating, whether it was her hit or my miss, eventually drew us closer together. I learned to admire her strength as she overcame the weird men who sent her creepy poetry videos in the night, guys who suddenly had to drop off because they had a secret child (yep) and, of course, her divorce.
As Mum meandered through potential suitors and found her way to her now-husband – her big dating success – I got to see firsthand how my caregiver and biggest inspiration would approach the challenges of dating. Whether it was cheating, being stood up or just bog standard bad dates, watching my mum refuse to compromise and uphold her worth set a huge standard for my love life. I got to watch the events unfold and hear the stories in real time – something most kids do 30 years later as they flick through old Polaroids and hear the ‘how I met your father’ story at Christmas. Though I still cringed occasionally at hearing the gory details of her dating life, it was a privilege to learn together.
I’ve grown to appreciate her support. What an exhausting and demanding task it must be for any mum, to teach their child how to be a person while navigating the world themselves. My mum’s still pulling me along today, and I’m 24.
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