Side Stepping Shadows



Somebody observed, not long ago, that I oughtn’t do what I do – live in not-so-splendid-isolation – if it makes me unhappy; that more than anything children need happy mothers.

They do. I agree.

So, briefly, I am stung by the remark. I want to be a good mother; does that mean I must be happy 24/7? That unless I am, I have failed?

I worry for a bit. Feel niggled in the way you might when you are trying to remember something you fear you have forgotten.

But my mother was not happy 24/7. And she was, is, a good, a really good, mother.

She might even be a better one because her own happiness has sometimes been mercurial quicksilver slick so that you – she – can’t tack it down dependably and know exactly where to look when she needs it. Growing up with a mother who wasn’t able to hang onto happiness despite gripping white-knuckle tight to the last fleeing frayed ribbons of it with both hands, taught me two things:

Happiness isn’t a dead cert.

And you need the shadow to recognize the light.




Light shone on snow so that it dazzled diamond brilliant and I had to squint and rummage deep in my bag for sunglasses. Ten days passed in a blur, so fast that they merged and morphed oneintoanother so that now, a week later, I can’t remember: which day were we in Bath? When did we go to Cambridge?




A good ten days. A happy ten days. And I did what I promised myself I would do: I let my daughter decide.

Where do you want to go? I asked, once the choices had been viewed and considered and carefully analysed. She collected a sheet of paper and a pencil. Right Mum, she demanded, pros and cons? And better shopping is NOT a pro, she teased.

We sat up until midnight, my elder daughter and I, deep in conversation, in our pajamas. ‘Shut the door!’ a trying-to-sleep Hat instructed crossly. We giggled. And did as we were told.

My daughter chose. And I gave up better shopping and wrote to the school in question, ‘We would be delighted to accept the place, thank you’ and I said to Mum, ‘not, perhaps, the choice other people would have made’. Good, she said shortly, ‘you rarely do what other people do, why start now?’

And I smiled. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. But she made it sound as if it was. Is that what good mothers do? Endorse their children’s choices? The cab driver, on the way back to Heathrow, imparted uninvited wisdom: ‘people who go against the grain but have money are Eccentric’, he said, ‘Without attendant wealth you’re just crazy. Touched.”

I, alas, cannot claim Eccentricity.




I think I wondered, wonder, sometimes, ‘What is it I do?’ Often, it is that – that lurking, questioning, doubt-riddled redundancy – which makes me …. Discontented. Frustrated. Lonely. (Unhappy is not quite the right word). But after that, after our snowballing, snowmanbuilding, schoolvisiting sojourn I think I am, briefly, a little more confident of what it is I am doing even when I appear kickingheels superfluous and Outpost bound.




I think, for now, I am doing the best I can for my children. Sometimes I think I find it hard.

I keep their dad company. Sometimes I do it with grace. Sometimes I don’t. Occasionally I spit and snarl and my forced smiles paralyze as grimaces. I keep my children’s father company whilst he earns the wherewithal to send them to the schools I help to choose.

Is that enough?

Sometimes you need to step outside of yourself. To be able to see precisely what it is you’re doing. Sometimes yardsticks are only available one big, wide step and a long reach to the side.

Before my sidestep, I had worried, ‘Is Hat really OK?’. For I often feel, fret, think (and there is much too much time here for that – for thinking) that I am not. OK.




But I watched her, with friends, en route home (a journey that took three and a half days, just to prove how far flung our Outpost really is), a surprise birthday party (her eyes welled big bright glad tears, ‘Aw, thanks mama’) and I thought, ‘Yes. You’re alright, I really do think you’re alright’.




And then I came home and I heard my husband say ‘I missed you’. And I watched his face and I thought, yes, I think what I’m doing, for now, is the right thing to do.

There is light and there is shadow and sometimes you need to step into the shadow to feel the warmth.

Anyway. That’s what I think.

26 Responses to “Side Stepping Shadows”

  1. Kit Says:

    Very poignant but so true. It is a tremendous burden to put onto anyone, child or mother, to expect them to be happy all the time. Better by far to show them that it is OK to be not so happy sometimes, but still survive, still enjoy the good times, still grow as a human being and do your best for yourself and them. Being on cloud 9, day in day out, is unrealistic and slightly suspect!!

    Glad your daughter found a school that she was happy with and the decision is made.

  2. Dumdad Says:

    Lovely post.

    “Happiness isn’t a dead cert.” That’s for sure.

    I don’t think anyone can be happy all of the time. Sheer happiness is fleeting like laughing at a joke. I mean, properly laughing in an uncontrolled, unexpected way.

    My son was watching an episode of Fawlty Towers for the first time and seeing and hearing him explode with laughter filled me with joy. I felt there was a connection: he enjoys some of the same things as me.

    But as parents we will always worry about our children. Every day, for ever. That’s being a good parent, a real parent; the rest is details.

  3. Cheryl Says:

    What a wonderful, heartfelt post!

    My mother was rarely happy and so I struggle not to let the apparition cover me. I believe we must find happiness in every day life… in the little things. Perhaps it is watching the birds in the backyard rummaging through the feeders, watching my dog snoop around & explore the smells left from the night, and watching my dear husband do his dear husband things. Yes, life is good, but we do not have to be on the upper rungs of happiness to enjoy it.

  4. Hadriana Says:

    I agree with everything said so far by Kit, Dumdad and Cheryl. I enjoy your writing very much, RM. “There is light and there is shadow and sometimes you need to step into the shadow to feel the warmth.” Wonderful line and for me it encapsulates so much about life: its highs and necessary lows.

  5. kitschen pink Says:

    I think a mummy who is always happy might possibly be taking vallium!
    You are doing the best thing – you’re doing what seems right to you! t.x

  6. Potty Mummy Says:

    So glad she was able to make the decision she felt was right. And what more proof do you need that ARE a good mother, RM? You have a daughter who felt comfortable and confident enough to do so. And, just as importantly, you were able to stand aside and let her do that. Brilliant.

  7. janelle Says:

    ah very beautiful post anthea! and GORGEOUS pics. wow. all that snow. of course a mama is never happy all the time. not too long ago, i found myself sitting at the dinner table, with my head in my hands and sobbing. and sobbing. and sobbing. (about nothing in particular it must be said???)my children gathered around me and said sorry mama. kissed me. then quietly cleared up the dinner. brushed their teeth and took themselves to bed. the kitchen was spotless….so i though, AHA, they CAN do it, you see??? but yes, this is how they learn emotion. honest emotion. dying to know which school was chosen! glad you’re back safe and sound…xxx j

  8. working mum Says:

    And children need to learn that it is not possible to be happy all the time, otherwise they have unrealistic expectations as an adult.

  9. R.Sherman Says:

    Methinks there is a difference between being happy and being content. The former cannot be achieved 24/7 and it is the belief that it can which actually causes most of the unhappiness in our lives, in my view. That is, we tend to become depressed when we are unable to obtain/attain everything we desire.

    Contentment, or better acceptance, of one’s situation, however, does not require a giddy countenance. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of one’s blessings as they exist. This doesn’t mean we stop striving. It means that we take the time to live in and appreciate the “here and now,” as you demonstrate in your story of giggling late into the night with your daughter.


  10. rosiero Says:

    I too think we an only appreciate happiness if we sometimes have the lows to compare it with. It sounds to me like you are doing a good job as a mother. Don’t let someone else’s comments make you doubt it.

  11. lakeviewer Says:

    What a beautiful, thoughtful post. Your questions hit the heart of the argument, the essence of our lives. What makes us happy is not always obvious in that moment. What gives us satisfaction is more about creating and being part of something bigger than us.

  12. Rob Says:

    Lovely photos. Only a scattering in these parts, barely enough for a snowball. There is a saying that the key to good mental health is to settle for disorder in lesser things for the sake of order in greater things, and therefore, be content to be discontent in many things.

  13. Expat Mum Says:

    Good post, as usual. As long as you look at what you are doing, from time to time, you’re a good parent. There is no manual. we can learn from our parents’ mistakes but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it perfectly. And anyway, to my knowledge, no one has defined perfect parenting.

  14. More than Just a Mother Says:

    Well done on making such a hard decision. No-one is happy all the time, and we mothers have the weight of their children’s woes on their shoulders as well as our own, making eternal happiness ever more elusive. I worried so much that my grief and depression over my lost son would prevent my surviving children from being truly joyful. Now I realise their little lives are much more simple than that, and that when they are older and able to see my sorrow for what it is, I will be able to teach them that it is possible to survive the worst kind of sadness, and be happy again.

  15. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Kit. Yes, I think children need to understand that unhappiness is not a permanent state. That is can, like lots of things in life, be fixed.

    Thank you Dumdad. I loved that: i loved that you acknowledge that real parenting is about perpetual worry. And that the rest is detail.

    I think, Cheryl, that that – that seeking some kind of happiness – in the tiniest things is both a necessity for life and a gift. I felt the cat shimmy up against my back shortly after I got home, she is so imperious ordinarily, this was her aloof way of telling me she was glad I was back. That made me happy.

    Thank you Hadriana: highs and necessary lows. How very true. Without the lows how would we scale the highs?

    that made me laugh, Kitschen. Your comment both funny and ironic: i had just been prescribed valium thrice daily for a muscle spasm in my neck. I ditched the prescription and invested in a hot water bottle instead!

  16. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you Potty. Really. Thank you x

    Janelle, what a dear, sweet story. I think if children recognise mamas (and papas) can appear devastated with sadness and can recover, as i have frequently seen my own darling mother do, I think they learn that life is about loss and healing; that even the grownups have banged knees that need kissing better.

    working mum: you’re right: measured expectations and the expectation to occassionally be disappointed in life are probably a better lesson.

  17. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mr Sherman, how lovely to see you. And what glorious, grounded wisdom; thank you.

    thank you, rosiero, thank you lakeviewer: yes – without the lows we would not have the perspective to scale the highs x

    Ah Rob. How wonderful. And some of yourself in there, perhaps? in the acceptance of disorder? Is that, I wonder, what gives you your extraordinary and evident strength?

  18. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Expat Mum – i bet there’s a title at amazon “Perfect Parenting”? – amongst other books to be burned at the stake of those of us who aspire simply to muddle along.

    More Than: how beautiful and how poignant. Yes, you will be living, loved example to your children of how to survive the worst kind of sadness. And learn to smile again.

  19. Mapesbury Mum Says:

    If you were happy all the time you wouldn’t know you were happy! – and you wouldn’t know how to deal with any emotional or physical hurdles that come your way…In years to come I expect you will actually look back at these years with fondness and your children definitely!

  20. BC Says:

    I don’t remember how or when I first came across your site, but I wander back now and then to see what’s going on. Your voice is touchingly, sometimes maddeningly real, when so often I am only offered the online persona, the mask. I sense a genuine person across the ether, simply telling her story. So, thanks. You give me hope.
    Oh…the fact that you question your mothering skills is one of the best signs that you’re a “good” mom. Faith in our own certainty only blinds us to our failures. So, Mom, you definitely get my vote.

  21. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Mapesbury … thank you xx

    BC – thank you very much. I think some people might call that, the way I write, wearing my heart too obviously on my sleeve! ”Faith in our own certainty only blinds us to our failures”. I love that. I shall remember to be careful of certainty.

  22. paradise lost in translation Says:

    HI RM, great to have you back. Consciously appreciating those small things, that’s a key for me. It really helps me each day. Happiness becomes much more complex once we have children I think, because it is always a 2 sided coin, with worry on the flip side, knowing that those who can bring us this much happiness can also cause so much pain, anxiety & who are so vulnerable, & so, therefore, are we. It’s the shadow cast by the sunshine of happinesss.

  23. nuttycow Says:

    No, we can’t be happy all the time. As you say, if we didn’t have periods of lonliness or pain or sadness, then the good times wouldn’t seem so sweet, so good. I’m feeling that at the moment. I know I’m sad now but I realise that if what had been wasn’t so wonderful, I wouldn’t be feeling so bad now. And good times will come again. Sometime.

    Chin up. You’re doing a fantastic job. x

  24. Susanna (A Modern Mother) Says:

    No one is happy all the time. In fact, you sound happier and more balanced than most of the mums at the schoolgate!

  25. carol Says:

    Love it Anthea – think you are a great Mum – I hope so anyway as you’re my role model!!! You can’t be happy all the time – no one can – and I think it’s ok for your kids to see that – means that when they feel sad that they can talk to you and know that it’s ok to feel sad sometimes. Katie told me the other night that “all her happiness had fallen out” – it turned out she was very tired and fed up with me because she hadn’t had a friend over to play!

  26. Polly Says:

    What a disappointment, what a lesson in betrayal (albeit it “benevolent”) for a child to grow into young adulthood and to realise that their mother had been feigning happiness and providing them with a disneyworld family scenario. All the years of missed essential skills. All the years of fairytales turned sour or bland at best. Out job as mothers is to equip our children to encounter and take on life as competent, loving, open and inquisitive human beings. They need a realistic picture of life for this – appropriate of course to their age – not a biscuit-box picture of smiling mums, puppies and rosy-cheeked children – and a mother who shows them how to live it – with all of its ups and downs. Light and shadow create harmony, depth and meaning. Polly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: