Shelley Harris: The Secret Life of Mothers

Shelley Harris: The Secret Life of Mothers

Clearly, to him, I am always and forever mum, no matter who I’m talking to. And that includes his dad, the man with whom I ran off to Paris after we dumped our jobs and house, the man I’ve known since I was seventeen and (very) foolish, the man who’s been with me for almost all of my life’s big adventures. To that man, he reckons I’m mum.

It’s a nice illustration of the very thing that was nagging at me as I began writing Vigilante: once you’re a mother, and particularly once you’re a mum, it’s assumed you’re permanently (and naturally) soft and cuddly, a machine programmed to nurture, nag and approach life in the most conventional way possible.

And it’s not just the kids who assume it; there’s a whole culture supporting the idea. Think of films like Knocked Up, where a one-night stand leads to a pregnancy. The woman falters briefly, before stepping smoothly into her new role. The bloke? Well, it’s a lot tougher for him, a lot less ‘natural’, and his boy-man struggles take up the entire narrative arc of the film.

Honestly, I wanted to chuck things at the screen.

This dull-but-safe version of motherhood is so dominant that I wondered if I was the only one who wanted more. I felt compelled to write Vigilante, but all the time I was doing so I feared I might be alone. Maybe it was just me who felt wicked adventure pushing from inside, who yearned to break out. In the novel a mother does just that, taking to the streets of her small town dressed as a superhero, trying to right wrongs. It’s liberating, intoxicating – and addictive. Soon, she finds it exerting a stronger pull than her ordinary life.

So: was I alone? Not a chance. Since the hardback came out I’ve had dozens of ‘I feel just the same way!’ conversations with other women. I’ve come to realise it’s true of all of us; every mother has a secret life and that life begins, of course, with who we were before we were parents.

Mothers are people who used to be in bands, who spent weekends dancing in strange fields. They are round-the-world travellers, one-time ravers. A few months ago, researching the feminist movement, I watched a documentary which began with footage of a gay rights march from the mid-eighties. There in the centre of the screen, punching the air and hollering war cries, was a friend of mine: a mum-of-two who, with her wife, now embodies the rights she helped to win by making packed lunches, checking homework, and doubtless seeming thoroughly dull to their two children.

What is true of us is true of our own mothers – however alien that may feel. Mine left her native South Africa as a young woman and travelled Europe with her friends in a beaten-up camper van. Just outside Madrid, they were involved in a collision with an old Spanish man and – I kid you not – the van came off worse. The girls limped into the first campsite they could find while the vehicle was being repaired. In her travel diary, Mom records that night: ‘We met some English chaps. One of them knows an awful lot about bullfighting.’

He did not know an awful lot about bullfighting. But full marks for trying, Dad.

And what happens after birth? How many women keep a secret, magical part of themselves alive amidst the parents’ evenings and shoe-buying expeditions? Not enough, I’d argue. Part of my research for Vigilante was to don a mask and cape, and patrol High Wycombe trying to do good deeds, reaching inside to feel what my hero, Jenny Pepper felt. Yes, it was an odd thing to do. Yes, I felt terrified every time I did it. But it was also extraordinarily liberating, and almost as addictive for me as it was for Jenny.

As soon as the mask went on, I knew I could do incredible things. That other me came to the surface once more: the adventurous, spontaneous me I’d started to forget ever existed. And since finishing the novel, the feeling has remained. Maybe that’s why, as a lifelong klutz with two left feet, I volunteered in the autumn to join a dance troupe for a charity event. There we were, in our blue dresses, sequinned and fringed and lipsticked to the nines. We danced for four minutes and drank Prosecco for two hours in the dressing room afterwards, astounded that we’d done it. Astounded to find that this was really us.

So I’m not just mum (and for the record I don’t want a devorce). Now that I’ve started living my own secret life, I find I can’t let go of it. I heartily suggest that you start living yours, too. Who knows where it will take you?

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