Mum, how should I talk to my son about you?


When she gave birth to her son, Teddy, a few weeks ago, Robyn Hollingworth's first instinct was to share the news with her own mother - but she couldn't. Robyn lost her mother more than 10 years ago. So instead she wrote her a heartfelt letter.

Dear Mum,

It was a stiflingly hot July night when our son made his first cries in this world. We're still exhilarated, exhausted and bleary-eyed in our bewilderment.

The hospital ward is just yards away from where you and dad first met in Chelsea and the red-brick flat where you lived together as husband and wife.

I have to admit it was a difficult birth. Our glorious son Teddy arrived 12 days later than scheduled (hopefully not a sign of things to come!) He seemed more than content staying put so he had to be ejected by a kindly chap brandishing what looked like a set of giant salad servers.

I try to see you in him but I can't - but I can't see myself or Andy either. He is his own person already.

Image caption,
Robyn with her newborn son Teddy

Was my grand entrance on to the world's stage just as traumatic for you? I know that I appeared via the emergency exit and I did worry the same fate might befall my child.

I have so many questions and the online forums are frankly terrifying. Should I be feeling this? Should he be doing that? Should it really be THAT colour? What about dummies and formula and nappy rash?

I didn't think to ask you these things when I had the chance. I was in my 20s then and having a child was far from my mind. Plus in your final weeks it didn't seem appropriate to talk about myself and my future. Those weeks were focused on administering your medication, cooking meals you could barely eat and scheduling visits from friends and family all muffling teary goodbyes. Plus I was dealing with dad of course, who by that point was a real handful thanks to his dreadful friend dementia.

I've missed you both terribly at different times and in different ways and right now I'm craving your company, because if there's ever a time a girl needs her mum it's during these fretful first moments of motherhood.

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I am doing this all a little blindly, although I guess that's what you did too, raising me and Gareth in far-off countries like Kenya and Dubai. It was an age that had yet to dream up video calling or phone apps and you were forging your own way, aside from the odd telegram to your parents back in Scotland.

I wish I could hear all your stories about what we were like as young children. Gareth has an early memory of you bathing me in a yellow plastic tub by the kitchen sink. I do that too, though my tub is white.

Instead I must search through scraps of memories. Dad once told me he drove Gareth to a toy store in Dubai after I was born, to soften the blow of sharing his parents. Gareth chose a plastic guitar so that he could sing for me. I loved that story for the warm affection in dad's voice and because Gareth is utterly bereft of musical talent.

Image caption,
Robyn as a baby with her older brother Gareth serenading her on his guitar

Then there was the time you revealed that after a long day taking care of us in the blistering Middle Eastern heat, you would sit on the terrace and pour yourself a much-needed gin and tonic.

As I sit outside in a ferocious British heatwave I feel I am you incarnate. I take a sip from a tumbler while the heat from our scorched patio dries my tears and my motherly woes evaporate. Thank you for the boozy tip.

Mum, during my pregnancy I had this odd feeling that I was being watched, but it wasn't scary. I felt as if I was in the company of people who were not really here - both you and dad, who have long since gone in a physical sense, and of my son, who was yet to be of this world. As if I was a conduit between family members who would sadly never meet.

Now my son is here there is this gap, this chasm, this missing section that cannot be crossed. I don't know how I will deal with the inevitable questions that will arise when our son is able to ask about you, when he asks why I don't have parents, and whether we might die one day too.

You will never meet your grandson but I want to somehow make you known to each other. I do at least have Gareth who has already trodden this path. He says he really wished he could apologise to you and dad after he became a father. He'd say sorry for the late nights he caused, the tears and tantrums, the mess and squalor - and according to you he was the good child in the family!

Image caption,
Robyn holding her son Teddy. She's standing next to her brother Gareth and his son, with her husband far right

He has done a wonderful job with his son who, from a very early age, would point to pictures of you both and tell me that those were his grandparents. He knows who you are and he knows that you would have loved him.

Did you think I would make a good mother? I know I wasn't the caring sort as a youngster. Until I came home to look after you and dad I don't think I had ever really cared about anyone or anything. But that experience changed me completely. It proved to me I might be capable of that total unconditional love.

I'm not perfect. Just as I used to lose patience with dad when he put phones in the freezer or try to order chicken chow mein for breakfast, I now find myself snivelling when washing out yet more baby poo out of bed clothes.

How I miss the banter from you and dad. I want you both to tell me how much worse I was, how much easier I have it, how it really isn't that bad and I ought to just dry my tears and enjoy the wonder of motherhood while I am covered in bodily fluids and at the end of my tether.

But most of all I want you to see him, to feel him, to meet him. I want you to love him like I love him and I want him to love you like I love you. There can never be too much love in this world, or the next.

Robyn Hollingworth is the author of My Mad Dad: The Diary of an Unravelling Mind.

Photographs owned by Robyn Hollingworth.

Here are a selection of your comments:

My mother died when my eldest son was one years old and before I was pregnant with my youngest. We talk to our sons about her and visit her grave whenever we're back in our home town - they call her "granny in the field". Beverley

Struggling through adolescence without Mum was at times incredibly hard, but never harder than when I gave birth to my baby boy. I felt so alone and needed her so much. I only held it together because I knew she'd want me to stay strong and I needed to be there for my son. I tried to model myself on Mum. I always tried to think what Mum would have done. If I ever felt overwhelmed, I felt this awful feeling that I was letting her down. It took me a long time to realise that I idolised my Mum and I could not keep comparing myself to her. I am not perfect, but I am the best Mum I can be. Kristina

It is the worst pain, and sadly it never ends. You just try to learn to 'deal' with it... by focusing on being the best mum you can be whilst remembering the one you were so lucky to once have. Mumless

My daughter (who starts school on Monday) was three when we had this exchange (over a random breakfast): "Mummy... grandma is daddy's mummy." Then with a definite sideways look: "So who is your mummy?" Taken by surprise I mumbled something about an angel, to which my daughter laughed and said: "You don't have a mummy," (as in I was joking and couldn't possibly ever have had a mummy). I got away with claiming to be a wizard for a little while, but there is no avoiding that the absence on my side and natural curiosity have taken the conversation in ways that are difficult. On the anniversary of my mum's death this year I was trying to answer, "did your mummy just die on her own - did somebody kill her?" - whilst crammed into a very small cafe loo. I wish that, as well as so many other things, were just not like that. I feel under pressure to deal with it in a way that doesn't pass my sadness on to her. SmKr

My mum got the cancer diagnosis when my son was was a week old and died 7 weeks later. That was two years ago. Everything Robyn said in her letter resonates with me. Endless questions: "Was I like that?" "How do I deal with this?" But moreover, it's the support, the physical and emotional support that I miss. I have since had a second son, and they are still too young to tell about Gran, my mum, and I'm not really sure what to say... but knowing that they will never know her, what they're missing out on and that she will never know them, is devastating. Aileen

My Dad passed away 19 months before my twins (boy and girl) were born late last year. He was ill with undiagnosed motor neurone disease and I had to help look after him for the last 18 months of his life. I agree that sort of experience helps you prepare for looking after others rather than just yourself, but also that the sadness at him never having the chance to meet them, to spend time and to enjoy seeing me as a parent is always there. We always feel they were his parting gift to us. Jeff

My Mum died in 2009 and my Dad in 1996. I was 29 and 16 respectively. I thought I had done my grieving, little did I know it would re-emerge with force upon the birth of my son. I have so many questions about my past and I want to know so much more about my parents then ever before. But from a non-selfish point of view in terms of I want to know what it was like for them. Though the biggest sadness and pain comes from knowing they will never truly know each other. I actually look forward to the day Ezra asks questions about them. I look forward to having them back in our family, if only through tales and anecdotes. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my Mum & Dad, or should i say Ezra's Nan and Granddad - that feels nice to write. Scott

My mum died aged just 54 when I was 26. I had my son at 34 and I felt my mum's loss through my pregnancy and after my son was born. My husband's parents were both dead and my sister and her family lived 60 miles away. My sister gave me a blanket my mum had knitted and through that my son has a link to his nanna (he's always called it nanna's blanket). He's 19 now and still treasures it. Jackie

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