In this three-part series of interviews, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick look at motherhood and the many forms it can take. Here, Mina introduces the project followed by three of nine portraits that celebrate motherhood at its most inclusive.
Every March in the UK, across the real and virtual worlds, celebrations of motherhood flood our senses – bouquets, afternoon teas, photo sharing.
Before I had my children, I would never have questioned the purity of all this, ever at the ready to raise a glass to my very deserving mum. But motherhood is a thorny topic, something I have learned first hand, and I recognise now that Mothering Sunday can be triggering for those whose experience isn't conventional or the fairytale.
This will be my third Mother’s Day as a mum, a role which has been complicated for me, full of subverted expectations and biting anxiety - but also gratitude and beauty I would never otherwise have known. My daughter was diagnosed with a life threatening blood disorder when she was four months old, and will be dependent on hospitals throughout her life; my son was delivered early in isolation, his mum on oxygen, his dad not there (I was Covid positive and the baby was putting strain on my lungs).
I am so grateful to be a mother - and I am reluctant to put into words what it means to me, for fear of further hyping those ubiquitous cliches - but it has not been simply the milky love bubble sold to us on Instagram, and there have been desperate moments.
Mother’s Day, in its popular form, inevitably excludes people. What about women who aren’t mothers, who don’t want to be or can’t be? Or those who don’t look like the stereotypical mum, women in same sex relationships, the gender fluid, young mums, older mums? Women whose motherhood, like mine, is layered with medical complications, or for whom the mother role extends to dependents who aren’t their children? Not to mention people whose mothers are no longer here.
Elena and I set out to find women with different, under-represented stories and were amazed by the responses. We have spoken to and photographed just nine of the many who wrote to us. There are holes in our selection, and there are many more deeply-moving stories than we could feature, but hopefully this set of women - published in three sets of three in the coming weeks - gives a taste of some of womanhood’s many possibilities.
Motherhood - or rather, being a woman itself - can look like lots of different things. That is what this series celebrates: Mother’s Day at its most inclusive.
"There isn't a dad, there are two mums and a donor."
I always thought I’d be a mum, but I didn’t start identifying as a lesbian until my early twenties. I remember people alluding to my sexuality standing in the way of having children, but it didn’t worry me then – I was just delighted to be out and dating girls.
When my wife, Danielle, and I got married, we both really wanted to create our own family. We didn’t have much understanding of what the barriers to having children might be, though – or the options and processes for getting there.
Around the same time, I read Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts, which explores motherhood and queer parenthood side-by-side. It showed me that those things could go together (there had been no role models in public life in the ’80s and ’90s), but it also taught me that conceiving a child might not be as straightforward as I’d assumed.
It took almost four years to get pregnant with our first son. He was conceived via IUI treatment using donor sperm. We have two boys now – Blaise is two and Wulfie four months – and I'm overjoyed and so grateful. But I’m also exhausted by the emotional labour that goes into being a queer parent. Most of this is in the day-to-day, from fielding people’s confusion to moments of self-censorship – we rarely hold hands in the street now.
Several people have asked who their dad is, and I wasn’t prepared for how upset that would make me the first time it happened. It just shows how little information is out there: there isn't a dad, there are two mums and a donor.
As parents, Danielle and I do everything equally. I often think we are privileged because we’re not having to battle historic gender roles within our parenting dynamic. Sometimes people tell me how lucky I am to have a wife, but I feel that attitude doesn’t give men the opportunity to step up and be as involved as mums traditionally are.
When he was a few months old, we took Blaise to Pride in London. I breastfed him as we marched into Trafalgar Square and we were cheered for being lesbian mums. I felt such solidarity from the community. It was one of the most uplifting moments of my life.
I’ve been a queer activist for many years – attending marches, curating exhibitions that look at queer identity – but when I had my first baby I suddenly felt conflicted. Did I still want to put myself on the line if it meant putting him at risk? I realised I absolutely did, because if I didn’t, then my children and all those that follow won’t have a blueprint for having same sex parents.
"Some years, Mother's Day makes me feel a double dose of grief – this year, I'm choosing light."
They first saw something at my 20 week scan. I heard the sonographer mutter something about congenital diaphragmatic hernia (CDH), and that diagnosis was later confirmed by doctors.
CDH happens to about one in 5,000 babies and they don’t know why. There’s a hole in the diaphragm, allowing the abdominal organs to move into the chest during foetal development. It is usually lethal. I was told that my son had a 25 percent chance of surviving if he reached term.
After a 72-hour labour, Ademide was born in just two pushes. I didn’t have the chance to hold him – he was whisked away to an incubator immediately – and he didn’t cry because his lungs were so under-developed.
This was just the beginning of the journey. Many interventions followed – highly specialised surgeries, life support machines, intensive care units – attempting to mend the large hole in his diaphragm and address complications with his heart and airways. There were moments of hope. I quickly learnt, though, that when you have a child in NICU, things can change fast.
Four months into Ade’s life, I was told we needed to make a plan. The doctors had got to the end of what they knew to do for him. We took him off the ventilator on 6th August and he died in the early hours of the 7th.
During this period, I missed my mum so much. She died of breast cancer when I was 13. My grandmother told me she didn’t want to see me cry because I needed to stay strong for my younger siblings.
Nigerians don’t do well with grief, especially when a child dies. Traditionally, the parents aren’t allowed to go to the funeral or to know where their child is buried. It’s seen to be going against the natural order of things. This was a big thing for my family, because I insisted on being present at his funeral.
Everything in my life is filtered through the lens of Ademide’s loss. I’ve had two more children since he died. In the first year of my elder daughter’s life, I felt the only way that I could be a good mother was to know all her data in case she needed to go to hospital. I measured the milk I pumped, recorded how long she breastfed for, took pictures of her nappies.
After Ademide, I found out about other women in my family who had lost children. It would have helped me so much to have known about them before. I felt like the only person this had happened to and it was so lonely. When you know someone who has found a way through, you see that there can be light, that you won’t always be in this place of pain.
A couple of years ago, Mother’s Day fell on Ademide’s birthday and I just went to bed. The double dose of grief I felt, for my son and for my mother, was overwhelming. This year, I’m choosing light. It’s a privilege to talk about them both. I try to live in the moment now and spend as much time as I can with my girls. I know life is fleeting.
"The mother-daughter relationship was quite burdensome for me, but with my sister I've never felt safer – or more loved."
I think about the mother-daughter relationship much of the time. I only had it briefly. My mother was extraordinarily intelligent, a staunch feminist, also volatile, audacious, amazingly argumentative. Things were fights. As soon as I could speak, we started bickering.
She was diagnosed with a brain tumour when I was four (and my sister, Tabitha, even younger) and died just after my 8th birthday. She had struggled with mental illness, and then she had an illness in her brain.
I’ve not always dealt with her loss very well. There’s been lots of hurting those around me, especially my sister. I think perhaps I’ve been jealous of her not having had the difficult experience of Mum that I had – and she’s been jealous that I did. Boundaries have often been crossed, usually by me.
Things between us have changed a lot in the last year. During the pandemic, we have been house-sitting near Hampstead Heath together, and during a period in which I was particularly unhappy, and probably abusive, Tabby booked me in to see a psychiatrist who found me the diagnosis I’d never had.
She’s helped me come to a place of understanding why I feel so sad. I have never felt safer or more loved. When I was in isolation, she’d bring spaghetti bolognese to my room and sit with me while I ate it, five metres away. And when she had an infected wisdom tooth recently, I made her a batch of chicken soup. It’s been a series of little things over many months, but when I look back on them collectively, the change has been extraordinary.
And I’ve never felt Mum’s presence more. I had always hated going to her grave. She is buried in Kensal Green, by the canal with the giant gas cylinders. But when you can’t do anything, you’re suddenly compelled to do lots of things. I went during the first lockdown and saw a guy sitting by his mother’s grave with two cans of Guinness, having a chat. I thought that was the nicest thing I’d ever seen. I suddenly wanted to do the same.
I used to think that I couldn’t be a mum because I had no idea how. But does anybody? I didn’t have a full example of a mother, and what I did have was quite burdensome for me. There’s probably also some inbuilt misogyny. I’d never want someone to call me “mum”.
It’s frumpy, dependable, has no edge. Even the word has no edge.
There are so many ways in which the mother-child relationship can be interrupted. Mine and my sister’s story has solidarity with so many others, and I’ve found that comforting in the face of something upsetting.
Interviews by Mina Holland.
Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.