I could feel the pedals spinning under my feet. Screaming over my shoulder, I yelled for help as tears began to fall down my cheeks. But then my six-year-old self felt my mum’s hand on my shoulder – steadying me, coaxing me into trying once more. Just like that I was off again, wobbling down the path on my new bike, no stabilisers.
Years later, I was on my gap year before starting university – enjoying a different type of freedom – and it was my mum doing the cycling, having joined a local club. But there was no guiding hand behind her, and one day she was hit by a car and killed instantly. I was 19. This time, there was no one to tell me it was going to be OK, because it wasn’t. And no one would ever make me feel steady, like she did, ever again.
As I sat in the family room in the hospital, deep in despair and earth- shattering shock, I remember one of the very first thoughts that came to me: ‘This is going to be so terrible when I have kids.’ Thinking about my future, giving birth without her there seemed catastrophic.
Now, aged 27 and recently married, people assume we’ll be starting a family soon. But for me, years without a mother has made me want to be one less and less.
Though many will say I’m still too young to be sure about that decision, the feeling that I don’t want to be a parent has only gained strength. In losing her, I find myself contemplating, over and over, what being a parent really means. The totality of the role terrifies me. Though he’s always wanted a family, my husband says he understands.
Since Mum died, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on her life and everything she missed out on. She was an incredible mother: fiercely protective, funny, honest, kind, all while holding down a media career, eventually heading up the press team for our local police force.
She instilled in me a single-minded attitude for which I’ll always be grateful. After she died in such an abrupt way, I’d often tell people that she’d be so bitter about it, if she could be. How could her life just be taken away like that, at the age of 52? It was so painfully unfair.
Her loss came at a time when, after many years, my mum had come to the decision to leave her marriage to my dad. She’d moved out, rented herself a cottage in the countryside and begun to make new plans. Exactly what she wanted from her new life, I’ll never know – but she had started travelling more, spending time with friends and doing more of what she loved the most – cycling.
Back then, it had been hard for me to understand why she wanted to leave. I knew she was unhappy, but the reaction that seemed most comfortable to my teenage self was to be angry, resentful and ferociously protective of my dad.
When I think of her life, I keep coming back to one thing. To me, she was just my mother. That’s all she ever was to me, despite also being Cath – a wife, friend, daughter, lover, talented sportswoman – so many other things I never really recognised. And although I firmly believe, even more so since her death, that being a mother is one of the most exquisite things a person can be, I just don’t know if I could be that one unchanging, permanent entity to somebody else.
That’s the trouble with loss – it makes you see things you might never have considered before. I often wonder if my mum regretted her choices in life, or would have if she’d known her time would be up so early. I think about her making that huge decision – to leave her marriage and start afresh, despite the angry protestations – and if she saw it as her opportunity to finally be selfish.
Being a mother is the most selfless thing you can do. But to me, while she was alive,that’s all she amounted to. Could I play that role for another person? One who would rely on me for every day of their life?
Perhaps I’m just not ready to have children. Or perhaps it’s because I never got to that wonderful moment in life where your mother becomes not just your parent, but your friend. We had, I imagine, the most common of mother-daughter relationships during those last years. I would throw insults at her and moan about her to my friends, only to give her a long, tight hug every time I saw her and sob down the phone to her when I was having boy problems.
I just didn’t see her as someone other than a person who was there only for me. And so, it’s not the big occasions when I miss her most, but in everyday moments when I am suddenly floored by her loss, unable to comprehend how I can’t pop over for a coffee or have a chat on the phone. In having children, I fear I would only be reminded of the best friend I will never have.
Admittedly, it’s easy to fantasise about the wonderful relationship we would have if she were still alive. Perhaps predictably, I’ve become more and more like her as I’ve grown older – independent, complicated, determined, feisty – yet despite my unyielding pride and overwhelming gratitude for the mother she was to me, I still fond myself so unwilling to become one myself. It scares me. I’m scared that I won’t end up travelling, in the same way that she didn’t, will find myself unhappy, like I worry she did, or will lose out on a life I’d planned for myself.
Of course, I know deep down that my mum was so much more than just my mum. Even at her funeral, when hundreds of cyclists turned up in Lycra to ride behind her coffin, or her police colleagues carried her through church in full uniform, I was overcome with pride for everything she had been.
Maybe it wasn’t her death that brought me to my decision not to have children. Perhaps it was her life. Her way of teaching me to be myself and never be ashamed of it, and to be true to what I want, was unwavering. She showed me how to be unapologetic about my choices. For that, I’ll be forever grateful. And keeping myself steady, just about.