Sara Pas­coe on her mother


ELLE (UK) - - Contents -

The mo­ment the stand-up comedian re­alised her mum was more than just a taxi driver/cleaner/chef

There is a young woman op­po­site me on the tube. She is drunk­enly lolling, skirt rid­ing up, head lean­ing on the glass be­hind her. Her wedges are rain-splashed, on her leg a streak of crusted mud. She’s got green in her hair, braces on her top teeth. She might be 14, she might be 20. I’m filled with ma­ter­nal in­stinct, de­spite be­ing nearly as drunk as she is, and I stay on past my stop to guard her like an egg. I didn’t sit on her – I’m not a weirdo. I’m just a nor­mal 35-year-old woman star­ing creep­ily at a sleep­ing stranger, ready to snarl if any preda­tors move too close. But the egg hatched with­out in­ci­dent and jumped off at High­gate, leav­ing me head­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion, wondering if she lived near the sta­tion and hop­ing she got home OK.

How am I me and not her any more? When I was 14, 15, 16, I lived for clubbing. I grew up in Rom­ford, a 20-minute ram­ble from Hol­ly­wood night­club (fa­mous be­cause Mar­tine McCutcheon might have been in there once), Pulse (where the bounc­ers had no lower age lim­its – se­ri­ously, a teenager could bring her baby), and Time and Envy (two clubs for the price of one, with a stair­case that ev­ery­one fell down on the way out). I never had any money but I knew how to get drinks (ask men in suits), how to hitch a lift (ask men in cars), and I took short­cuts through parks (how was I not mur­dered?). And be­fore you as­sume my ran­cid so­cial life was the re­sult of lax par­ent­ing or ne­glect, I didn’t have per­mis­sion to go. My mum fought hard to keep me in: she hid clothes and dou­ble locked the doors, she con­fis­cated shoes and din­ner money. But she had to sleep some­times and, when she did, out I’d run. Climb­ing down drain pipes and squeez­ing through win­dows, re­triev­ing copied keys and wear­ing my sis­ter’s too-small plim­solls. I was an in­tensely com­mit­ted bur­glar, steal­ing my own free­dom.

Through scream­ing rows, as my mum begged, cried and de­spaired of me, I fought back as though she were my kid­nap­per or some hy­per-emo­tional prison war­den. I thought she hated me and was jeal­ous. Why else would she want to stop my fun? ‘Just you wait,’ she

yelled once as I fell nois­ily into the bath­room at

4am hav­ing en­joyed pound-a-pint night at Pa­cific Edge, ‘un­til you have kids.’

It’s the sort of thing all par­ents say to their thought­less off­spring, along­side, ‘I was your age once’ (how could that be true? She was so old now) and ‘Don’t treat this place like a ho­tel’ (I’d never been to a ho­tel but I knew they didn’t lock you in and hide your shoes). ‘When I have kids, I’ll go out clubbing with them,’ I protested stroppily. ‘And

I’ll buy them drinks and dresses be­cause I’ll never for­get how it feels to be a teenager. But I’ll never even have kids be­cause it clearly makes peo­ple so up­tight and mis­er­able!’ Sorry, Mum.

I’m now the same age she was then, and I ap­pre­ci­ate her so dif­fer­ently, as a woman in her own right rather than as a care­giver alone. A woman who gos­sips about Em­merdale char­ac­ters as if she knows them, who’ll put on a ball­gown to vac­uum (‘I’ve got nowhere else to wear it’), a woman who hasn’t know­ingly eaten carbs since 2002. I feel guilty about the years I treated her as a chef (much crit­i­cised) and taxi driver (one star: too much nag­ging and Michael Bolton), as a cleaner (‘Where is my out­fit? I left it safely on the bath­room floor’) and per­sonal shop­per (‘I’m not wear­ing that’). Her life, her per­son­al­ity, her needs and her wants were all ob­scured by my own. That is, un­til I turned 18: the age she was when she be­came preg­nant with me.

When I was 18, I moved out of home. I de­cided to try to be an ac­tor, so took my­self off to slum it with nine hu­mans and a mil­lion mice in a red Ley­ton­stone house. I was skint and emo­tional, I was am­bi­tious with no self-be­lief. I could barely func­tion as an adult; I slept through alarm clocks and lost train tick­ets mid-jour­ney. I dis­cov­ered flat­mates are even less un­der­stand­ing about red wine puke in the kitchen sink than rel­a­tives. I could barely keep my­self alive. How had my mum man­aged all this with a baby as well? As I got older, I con­tin­ued to con­trast my life with hers. The hol­i­days she hadn’t been on, the nights out she’d been de­nied. By the age of 25, my mum was bring­ing up three girls by her­self with no fi­nan­cial sup­port (Dad moved out to be a jazz mu­si­cian and live with other ladies). When I was 25, I was still think­ing long and hard about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Luck­ily for me, I had most of those thoughts while sun­bathing on Australian beaches. Only now do I ap­pre­ci­ate the long hours my mum worked in com­par­i­son to my own lazi­ness. I have friends who are sin­gle mums and I see the sup­port they need, the life-jug­gle nec­es­sary to get their kids to school, them­selves to work and pre­vent any­one from starv­ing to death.

I was baf­fled by my mum’s ex­er­cise rit­u­als as a child. Who does vol­un­tary PE? Who would choose to get up early and run around a field in the cold? Who says they’d go crazy with­out the re­lease of a swim or a step class? Me, 10 years later, that’s who. It was the same with her study­ing. I hated school and didn’t be­lieve that a sin­gle thing the teach­ers said had any rel­e­vance to me and my fu­ture pop ca­reer (a pop ca­reer that is still in the fu­ture –

I just haven’t picked an out­fit yet). Many of my mem­o­ries of my mum are of her in the bath with a book, util­is­ing her lim­ited spare time by si­mul­ta­ne­ously wash­ing and study­ing. She left school with no qual­i­fi­ca­tions and now has a PhD. If I seem like I am brag­ging about this, I am. She in­spired my am­bi­tions, not by telling me that I could do any­thing, but by show­ing me. If I love read­ing now (and I do), it wasn’t nur­tured in lap-sit­ting story time, but be­cause my mum demon­strated how knowl­edge is strength and a weapon. Know­ing more than your work col­leagues is a strat­egy for suc­cess, gain­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tions is the only way out of poverty (un­less you’re a char­ac­ter in a film, in which case some guy with a square jaw will be along in a sec­ond to save you). The more you learn, the more be­comes pos­si­ble in life.

But what I feel guilti­est about – where I judged my mother most harshly – was her re­la­tion­ships. I be­rated her for hav­ing no friends, all the while not re­al­is­ing she sim­ply didn’t have the time. I hated her boyfriends and I hated her for in­flict­ing them upon me. I swore at them, spat in their teacups and hid their car keys. The per­fect karmic pun­ish­ment for my teenage re­bel­lions against Tim, Roy, AJ and Ge­off (I don’t know why she only fan­cied guys with dogs’ names) was that I be­came her. Of course I did: now it is me who de­fends the cru­elty of emo­tion­ally un­sta­ble men be­cause I love them (all of them, bring them to me). Now it is Mum telling me that I can do bet­ter, that I de­serve more. So I’m try­ing to be stronger,

I’m try­ing to be OK on my own. Just like she was, and now is. Women in films might need good-look­ing men to save them, but we don’t. We can save our­selves.

There is a won­der­ful part in The Arg­onauts by Mag­gie Nel­son, where she con­tem­plates that all of us, ev­ery sin­gle per­son who sur­vived child­hood, did so be­cause a dili­gent care­giver made sure we didn’t choke on any­thing. For each of us, some­one cared enough to fish things out of our mouths and save our lives daily. It’s such an or­di­nary and pro­found thing to think about. Be­ing vul­ner­a­ble be­fore we knew it. My protes­ta­tions of ‘I didn’t ask to be born’ as a teenager were be­cause I didn’t want to be grate­ful. My mum said, ‘You’ll un­der­stand when you have kids’, but I haven’t (so ha, I still win). Our re­la­tion­ship is good now, the kind of healthy, un­con­di­tional friend­ship you can only have with some­one who has seen you at your worst and cleaned up the sick.

I don’t have kids, but I know that you don’t have to be a par­ent to feel ma­ter­nal. Be­com­ing an adult and liv­ing life our­selves teaches us what we owe them, those par­ents we didn’t re­alise were peo­ple.



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