"You don’t look like a mum." Really? That’s probably because I’m swigging beer in an east London pub, it’s midnight and I’m asking where we’re all going after closing time. Not back to mine, I hasten to add, because my little boy is soundly asleep in his cot. And guys, he’s not on his own. Grandma and Granddad are there and they’re probably watching him breathe. They’re like that – obsessed with him being alive.
Since becoming a mum, I’ve felt judged. People think you don’t look like a mum, they think you look too mum, and the worst: "You look cool…for a mum." I feel I’m always looked at through the lens of ‘mum’. When I got a tattoo recently I was ‘mum in a tattoo shop’, when I’m doing my job I’m ‘a working mum’, even last night having dinner with friends I was ‘Mum’s out!’
There’s a thought that is perpetuated in today's media and goes back as far as the Bible: The Madonna/whore complex. Where women are reduced to two states – a mother or a whore. It sounds extreme but even right now, in film, female characters are often oversimplified, with mothers boiled down to motherly qualities, perpetuating a mum ideal that is seemingly mutually exclusive of anything fun, sexy or selfish. This means every time I do something you wouldn’t normally associate with a mum, like wearing a leather mini or running a company, I feel a sense of shame.
I want to channel the most badass of all the mums: Serena Williams, who won this year's Australian Open while pregnant. I want to project the cool serenity of Beyoncé and her glossy post-birth thigh. But despite these role models, the shame and guilt I feel when I try to do anything not wholly related to being a mum persists. The legacy of Bisto mums, Princess Diana maternity dresses and the biggest putdown of the last decade – ‘MILF’ – haunt me daily. Very normal things like having a job, friends or a beer have caused me angst. Tight chest, not-being-able-to-breathe angst, where I feel cloaked in shame and failure.
"You need to locate your inner mum," says Dr. Rachel Andrew, co-author of The Supermum Myth, "and bring together the two parts – the inner mum and the part where you’re most yourself." I’m selfish. I take risks. I’m ambitious. I find rules tedious. I sound like a delightful mum, don’t I? Dr. Andrew suggests I go through old photos of my mum to connect with the mothering I most enjoyed.
My mum was a rebel mum. On holiday in Greece she once had my brother and I scaling walls with her to break into a posh hotel pool and have a midnight swim. I first hitchhiked with her as a teenager. We’ve slept on decks of ferries together. My all-time favourite memories are of my mum pushing me out of my comfort zone. She was never irresponsible, she just got a kick from not being boring. She was laughing at the mundanity of the school gate mums way before Sharon Hogan coined them ‘The Mombies’.
The truth is, I don’t want to be a boring mum. Thinking about my mum makes me realise I don’t have to be. She bucked the stereotype and I’m so glad she did. When my little boy was eight weeks old we took him on a month-long road trip around California; so many people would say "But what about his injections?" or "The sun!" It wasn’t until a friend pointed out that wherever I took him in the world – India, Morocco, California – babies were born there, too. When he was just eight weeks old, I still had one foot in my old world.
He’s now nearly two and I’ve felt my old self eroding with the pressures to conform as a mum. Perhaps it’s the judgmental looks and small passing comments. If you think you’ve never judged a mum – try this. On a hot, sunny Saturday at 2pm, a woman is strolling through London Fields in Hackney pushing a pram. She’s barefoot and sipping from a can of Kronenberg. Do you a) tut slightly and scan from her can to her feet, b) say something about ‘that mother’ to your friend, or c) think nothing of it – she’s probably just left the picnic she’s at with her friends to push her baby to sleep. Of course that woman is me. Having a beer while your baby sleeps (can’t believe I feel the need to clarify that he’s wearing a sunhat and in the shade) isn’t a crime, but even in metropolitan London it can be made to feel that way.
"When I first became a mum I thought, 'Where are the mums who look like I want to look?' And now in this new era I feel grateful every day that there are mums sharing their lives and being honest online." I’m chatting to Clemmie Telford, whose Instagram account charting life with her two sons is hugely popular. I love following Clemmie, she makes me feel completely normal even when going against the status quo of how a mum should behave. But here’s the crux: online there are mums showing other mums that it’s ok to be yourself, but it’s an echo chamber where it feels like we’re only really educating other mums. The rest of the world still thinks Sunday morning’s soft play is the highlight of our week.
There was a really poignant moment in writing this piece where I spoke to Dr. Anita Abrams, a clinical psychologist specialising in relationships. She’s retired and has grandchildren. I posed my problem to her, that I’m finding it difficult to still feel cool (read: relevant, interesting, present, assured, confident) since becoming a mum. At one point in our conversation, she started laughing, a proper cackle; when she regained her composure, she explained: "We’re always too pessimistic of the future. You think the best is over in your life. But speaking from retirement and as a grandma, I can only laugh at that, you have so much more fun to come, you haven’t even seen the best bits yet."
This really stopped me. It made me realise that of course the previous me isn’t the coolest she’s ever going to be. Life only makes you cooler and now I have a little sidekick to share it with. I’m making a promise now to share the real me with him. I’ll always keep him safe but I’ll keep him entertained, too, and I’ll never pretend to be boring to fit into a mum box.