‘Why I’m leaving my sons an “emotional will”’
My older son turns 12 this week. And aside from wrapping presents and organising his birthday trip to the cinema, there is one more annual task before the big day – writing him a letter.
The letter might not be read for years to come but is written each year and filed in digital and print form. I do the same for his 10-year-old brother and one day, when I’m gone, I imagine them dipping into these birthday files as and when the urge takes them – drawing comfort and guidance from my words when I am no longer there to say them face-to-face.
This year, I will record my son’s enthusiasm for starting secondary school and his ease in making new friends, and remind him to be softer and less impatient with his younger brother. And of course, I will tell him, like I always do, how much I love him.
To some, this may seem unnecessary; a touch morbid, perhaps. After all, I am 47 and, thankfully, healthy. When BBC radio presenter Rachael Bland, who died in September, revealed she’d wrapped 18 years’ worth of birthday presents for her three-year-old son, Freddie, and written a memoir containing a lifetime of advice for him, that was understandable. She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
But leaving a spiritual legacy or ‘emotional will’ for my children, where I note down my boys’ individual character traits and strengths and record any significant childhood scrapes or acts of kindness, is something I feel I need to do. Because after my mother died three years ago, I was left grasping for something – anything – personal from her to me.
My mum was a wonderful mother. She left my four siblings and me a rich legacy simply in the way she blazed a trail through life. It’s because of her that we entertain and cook and open our homes with a warmth and ease she gave us. She is the reason we love dogs and can sniff out a sweet cantaloupe melon from one that tastes like a potato. She’s also why we travel, work tirelessly to create pretty window boxes and eat peas straight from the pod.
But my mother’s legacy is not an individual one. It is shared between the five of us equally, with no private words or life lessons whispered into my ear alone – something I began to long for in the weeks and months after she’d gone. When you lose a mother, you lose a part of yourself, for a while at least. A mother gives birth to you, feeds you, nurtures you and guides you; no one can know you or love you unconditionally quite like she does. She is the lens through which your early years are lived; the storehouse for your memories. And without her, you stumble.
When I leaf through family albums today, stupidly ignored for so many of the years she was alive, I ache to have her beside me so I can ask her all the questions that spool through my mind. What was I like growing up? Were my siblings and I always so close? And two years ago, when I was going through my divorce, I’d stare at a picture of her sitting beside me on my wedding day and wonder what advice she’d have to give now. But there are no answers. Just silence.
Like so many mothers raising children in the 1960s and ’70s, her mothering was more in the doing than the talking. And so I am trying to do things a little bit differently, by building a wall of words and memories for my boys to lean on should they ever need it, one birthday letter at a time.
Lauren co-hosts It’s a Grown Up Life!, a podcast for midlife women, available on Apple Podcasts
Above Lauren with her eldest son on his fourth birthday