Once in my AS Politics class, my teacher told us that having children was not a right, but a responsibility. The class immediately protested – surely all women should be free to have children? It seemed so obvious that one should be able to fulfil a natural evolutionary process. But events around my flat in London recently have made me realise that actually, the teacher was right. It’s been evident in the way mothers in the local shop near my estate shout at their children to behave before giving in to their demand for sweets, only to wonder why they’re always so hyperactive; it’s been demonstrated by the loud swearing of some mothers in the mornings and its subsequent repetitions by their children; it was demonstrated when one of the kids kicked a ball at our ‘goal’ of a door, only to smash a window…
But it was mainly demonstrated during the time when, walking through Russell Square Gardens, I saw an overweight girl trailing behind her mother on the way back from school. The girl stopped at the fountain in the centre of the park to examine the ground curiously, as if wondering where the water came from. She looked at her mother expectantly, clearly wanting attention and an answer, but the mother dawdled on sluggishly, drawing in from her cigarette as she flicked down her iPhone lazily, with no interest in her daughter. I wondered what this girl’s aspirations were and where they came from, and I wondered what she would be doing in ten year’s time. Then I naturally compared it to my own childhood, where my own mother wouldn’t have dreamed of concentrating her attention on a screen over her child. To her, raising children has been something that she’s cherished, but she’s also believed it to be her responsibility to nurture us into ambitious, well-mannered human beings. Above all, she’s encouraged us to pursue our interests. And one of those key interests for all of us has been to travel.
Seeing these moments in London has made me feel even more grateful for the things my own mum has done for me. By that I don’t mean practical things such as buying treats or taking to places, but simply being available to answer questions about the world and passionate about helping me develop into a responsible, aspiring young woman. And for all the time she’s devoted to doing this, I really appreciate the faith she puts in me to use what I’ve learned from her to go off to foreign places by myself. After so many years of dedicated nurture, it’s a pretty big thing to step back and let one be independent. I should add that my dad has played a key role in influencing me to travel too, but there is something about the maternal bond that makes leaving a mother for the first time to go off travelling alone feel even more emotional.
This was demonstrated when I went off to Canada. Saying goodbye to my dad involved a hug and cheery ‘See you in five weeks!’ – probably even a jokey comment about losing my passport. There was no real tug at the heartstrings. But when my mum dropped me off at the airport and I went to hug her goodbye, I saw to my surprise that she had tears in her eyes. I hadn’t expected her to be so affected, but then I realised that for the last time, it was the first time she wouldn’t see one of her children for the longest period so far. The tears weren’t tears of concern for my safety – they were tears of emotional nostalgia; reflections on how time had flown and I was now no longer a little girl, dependent on her care. It’s the same emotion mothers get if their child goes off to university or moves out. But this was before that time and furthermore, it can still be expected that a child at university, even if abroad, could be easily contacted. A mother can have a vague idea of what their child is doing and their whereabouts. But here there would be times when mum would really have no idea where I was in the world or what I was up to.
When I’d flown all the way to Australia by myself a few months previously, mum hadn’t shown this behaviour, but that was because I was staying with family friends, so it was different. Here I would be completely responsible for myself. My mother was relinquishing her maternal authority and, like birds in a nest, letting me fly off to explore the world on my own. Upon seeing her like that, my stomach immediately somersaulted and that tingling rush surged up my nose, threatening to release the flow of tears from my eyes, as I too realised the significance of the moment. It was up to me to break off the hug, walking off without looking back before I started crying myself. Again, I wasn’t sure why I was so moved. Then it hit me that all my life, I’d travelled so many places with my mum. Whether it was on her back as a toddler during a walk on the moors back home, hand-in-hand walking onto a plane for a family holiday, in a long car journey to my Granny’s house in Sussex or to a travel lodge for a weekend competition, she had always been there. And the thought of not having her by my side as I travelled through this huge country initially felt unsettling. It was almost like starting school all over again, only this time I was the one choosing to go.
On occasions where I’ve stayed with families during travels, it’s been inevitable that I’ve always compared the mothers to my own, and warmed most to those with traits similar to mine. Observing teenage daughters around their mums has made me think back to my own experiences at that age, now being in a better position to view them from the perspective of a mother, to the extent that I’ve left feeling even more grateful for what mine has done for me, as well as guilty for how I may have acted at times. Homestay mothers have asked curiously about my own, often with the question of how she feels about me travelling alone. It was only when this was asked of me in Canada that I truly realised how my mum is probably one of only a small proportion who would allow their daughters to do so. And so it comes with the question of why – why is my mum happy for her daughters to do this, and why are we likewise happy to do so?
I found a vague answer when I was on a train in Germany, travelling through the Black Forest. Sat on the side opposite me was a mother with two young children, about 4-6 years old. The image was freakishly similar to my own childhood – I saw my own brothers as children in the young boys with their white-blond hair and cartoon-character t-shirts, waiting patiently with bright eyes as the mother, similar-looking to my own, took out some apples from her rucksack and cut them up into slices for the boys to eat. The father (if there was one) was perhaps at work, and she was making the most of a sunny day to take the children out of the house for a day of hiking – a day that would enable the children to experience something new and stimulate their imagination, whilst in her company. I couldn’t help but watch admiringly, my mind taken back to similar memories. The boys were so attentive and well-behaved, with genuine respect for their mother – a lovely contrast to some of the sights I see in London. These were boys who one could tell had great potential to grow up to be independent and driven, and whilst there was no daughter to be seen, I could imagine the same could be applied to her. The mother had chosen to do something that both gave her children the opportunity to explore somewhere new and allowed herself to be spending time with them, completely responsible for them and involved in what they were doing. And yet whilst in a context where her children would be highly dependent on her, she was not only encouraging them to, but also teaching them how to travel.
It was just the same for me growing up. For my mum, travelling provided a great context for teaching us about other people, the skill of organisation and the value of patience (mostly in the form of waiting for the toilet), and for stimulating our curiosity about the wider world outside our tiny hometown. Additionally, it allowed her to be with us regularly – a responsibility that she adored, but something that I didn’t see in the mother in Russell Square Gardens, who showed no desire to actively engage with her daughter, instead almost seeming to find being with her a chore. Once we grew up, my mum saw it as only natural that her children should take these values with them and go off to see the world on their own.
By this I’m not trying to suggest that there is a direct correlation between such mother-child activities and travelling alone in later life, but I think for me and my siblings at least, they definitely had a big influence. We were incredibly lucky as children to see some amazing places with our parents who, as keen travellers, chose to give us a taste of the wider world rather than spoil us with materialistic things. Both of them have always encouraged us to follow our feet to foreign places (so much that mum even told me they had accepted that we’ll probably all live abroad in the future). Dad inspired me with his adventure stories, but it was being around my mum as she calmly coincided the demands of motherhood with the processes of travel that instilled in me the values needed to cope alone abroad. Strange as it may sound, I doubt I would have been able to loosen the maternal attachment and go far away from my mother to foreign lands, were it not for her being close enough over the years to teach me how to.