In this three-part series of interviews, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick look at motherhood and the many forms it can take. Here, the third instalment of portraits that celebrate motherhood at its most inclusive. 

Mother’s Day, in its popular form, inevitably excludes people. What about women who aren’t mothers, who don’t want to be or can’t be? Or those who don’t look like the stereotypical mum, women in same sex relationships, the gender fluid, young mums, older mums? Women whose motherhood is layered with medical complications, or for whom the mother role extends to dependents who aren’t their children? Not to mention people whose mothers are no longer here.

Elena and I set out to find women with different, under-represented stories and were amazed by the responses. We have spoken to and photographed just nine of the many who wrote to us. There are holes in our selection, and there are many more deeply-moving stories than we could feature, but hopefully this set of women - published in three sets of three in the coming weeks - gives a taste of some of womanhood’s many possibilities. 

Motherhood - or rather, being a woman itself - can look like lots of different things. That is what this series celebrates: Mother’s Day at its most inclusive. 

GEMMA BELL

I have felt left out of a club, a club which most women automatically enter.”

When people assume I have children, my response depends on how I feel in the moment. Sometimes I’ll laugh it off, other times I’ll say I’ve never wanted them. I don’t like to make people feel uncomfortable – and have never known when, in a friendship, to tell somebody about my situation. 

At 16, I still hadn’t started my period and had a pre-pubescent body. Doctors found that I had a condition called pre-ovarian failure: I had one ovary, no eggs, and was very low in oestrogen and progesterone. I was put on HRT to make my body develop and have been on it ever since. At times, the combination of hormones and my feelings towards my body, about how it has failed me, have brought about periods of depression. 

I have felt left out of a club, a club which most women automatically enter. Something has been taken from me, with no reason, no explanation. The persistent question – “why?” – has followed me around. 

Over the years, I have thrown myself into other things. Into my business, into volunteer youth work, into church. It can be heartbreaking, seeing my friends as mothers and the relationships they have with their children. I won’t ever have that. I have lots of godchildren and nieces and nephews, though, who I adore. The eldest is 20 and at university. I saw her two or three times a week when she was growing up and I feel ever so proud of her, so privileged to have played this role in her life. It does make up for something. I strongly believe that it takes a village to raise children. 

In their embarrassment, people sometimes ask about IVF and adoption. But they don’t understand the enormity of what they are saying, the huge implications for all involved. My husband and I have of course had many deep conversations about it. I was always resistant to IVF – I couldn’t imagine my body working for me, accepting a fertilised egg into it – and, having done a lot of youth work, we know what a huge undertaking adoption would be.

I’m in my mid-40s now and too old to have kids. After years of wondering whether we should try this or that, it suddenly feels quite final. I think that’s a good thing. I’ve worn this condition for so long, and made it so much a part of me, that I’ve not allowed myself to be anyone else.

Someone once asked me what acceptance of this all would feel like. “Freedom,” I said. Freedom from jealousy of what others had, freedom from my own self-loathing, freedom from pain and anger, freedom to live life. I shocked myself when the words came out. But it was a turning point. I do feel much freer now. Yes, not being able to have children is a part of me, but it’s not who I am. I am more than that.

MISTI TRAYA

“You lead a very different existence when you’re a single mom, especially a young one.”

My mother and I sometimes talk about “when we were little”. She was 15 when she got pregnant, the daughter of Southern Baptist missionaries in Hawaii, and had grown up in a house where girls and women only wore dresses and secular music was prohibited. News of her pregnancy did not go down as easy as cream soda. Her parents wanted her to give me up for adoption. I thank my lucky stars that didn't happen.

When I was seven, we moved to Los Angeles. My mom had her sights set on becoming an actor. Initially, money was very tight. Mom would come home from sets with hard-boiled eggs and packets of mayonnaise to feed me with. Growing up with her was always very fun, and there was an aspect of us having a childhood together. But the day I was born was also the absolute end of hers.

You lead a very different existence when you’re a single mom, especially a young one: you’re ostracised wherever you go. At my school, she was once asked which grade she was in. Through it all, she’s been so graceful. 

My mother's world is full of magic. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to come home from school and find a baby coyote with a broken leg or a baby squirrel that had been thrown out of its nest. She has a singular way of giving anima to the inanimate. Everything has an emotional life. Every year we'd have the saddest, droopiest Christmas tree, which we’d decorate with candy canes and oranges to build up its self-confidence. 

Our identities are so tied up in the other. I moved to England when I met my husband, and that separation from Mom has been really difficult. I’m in touch with her a lot, probably more than most 39-year-old women are. What I find really sacred and holy is our 8am, 4pm coffee and tea time. We do it every few days.

Simply being a mother does not mean you're good at it. I think this is what is so special about my mama. She entered motherhood when she was a child, but nurturing was easy for her. She was born to do it.

JULIA TAYLOR

"I’m in the extraordinary position of learning how to be a mum and a stepmum at the same time."

I am a mum, a stepmum and a motherless mum.

When I met my partner, I was on the brink of choosing a sperm donor. I’d reached my late-30s, and knew I wanted to be a mum. A sudden yearning for family and a safe home environment hit me after my mum died, and in the absence of a man I had decided to go it alone. 

Once we started dating, I had to be upfront with my partner very quickly; I didn’t have time to waste on a relationship which wouldn’t give me kids. He has two children from his previous relationship – they are ten and eight – and, nine months in, we started trying for a baby. Wnow have a 16-month-old boy and I’m expecting again. I’m in the extraordinary position of learning how to be a mum and a stepmum at the same time.

Stepmothers are given a rough time and it’s a very difficult path to tread. I am constantly questioning my own judgement; the love I have for my little boy is completely different to the love I feel for my stepkids. I was unprepared for the depth of feeling I’d have for my own child – it can be overwhelming. He seems like a piece of me, which I suppose he is, and my love for him is abundant and fierce. 

I have to work much harder to feel connected to my stepkids. I feel guilty about that. We live as a family for half the week but there is often a separation between my son and I, and my stepkids and their dad. It’s an uncomfortable reality, which was more acute before my son arrived – he has definitely been a binding force for us all.

As their stepmum, I think my role should be one of encouragement, to champion their successes and joys. I’m not their mum (they’ve got one of those and completely adore her), nor am I their friend. But I hope they like me, trust me. I have to shelve my own insecurities for them. We focus on how they feel. Do they feel safe? Loved? Secure? Sometimes I get that right, sometimes I don’t.

It’s early days so we’re still figuring out things like discipline. What the children have to eat has been an interesting one. It really, really upsets me if I put something on the table and they don’t like it. Food is my way of expressing care and love, but I have to accept that they have outside influences and that not wanting to eat something I’ve cooked isn’t a rejection of me. There’s lots of holding my tongue, but that comes with the territory of step-parenting. 

Sometimes it amazes me that I’ve replicated my own mother’s story. My mum married my dad when he already had two children from a previous marriage. I wasn’t looking for someone with kids, but I guess I was open to it because of my family background. When I was growing up, there was both a sense of togetherness and a split in our household, between me and my full brothers and our half brothers. Like my situation now, it’s just one of those things that you have to hold and observe. I do wish my mum was still alive though, and that I could talk to her about how she navigated all this.

Interviews by Mina Holland. 

Photographs by Elena Heatherwick.

Read part one and two for six more portraits looking at motherhood and the many forms it can take. 

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1 comment

I have really enjoyed this whole series and the diverse aspects of motherhood that you’ve encompassed and explored. I strongly identify with Gemma here…when strangers ask whether I have children, I always answer ‘sadly no’ hoping that they will understand the subtext without further explanation. Love to mothers and other nurturers everywhere.

Rachel 4 months ago