The Sunday EssayMay 14, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Having a Cool Mum


She bought me my first (and last) pack of cigarettes and took me to family planning. I had nothing to rebel against.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Illustrations by Pablo Espinosa.

As a teenager in Dunedin, I was surrounded by friends who snuck out after dark to meet their boyfriends, lied about driving to parties, and swallowed quasi-toxic quantities of toothpaste to hide the smell of cigarettes. Had they told their parents what they were really up to, my friends would have faced boyfriend bans, crazy curfews, and getting grounded for the whole of high school.

Me? I lived in a house where my mum brought home cigarettes for me and my twin sister to try. I’ll never forget the first time I “lit up”. Standing in the kitchen trying desperately to channel the glamour of Hollywood’s smoking starlets, I awkwardly balanced a Benson & Hedges between my lips. My mum, herself a committed anti-smoker, must have been in stitches on the inside as she watched me wrestle with a plastic lighter, my thumb all but blistering as I tried valiantly to spark a flame. Not surprisingly, when I finally managed to light the damn cigarette, my first inhale was also my last. Sputtering, hacking, and unglamorously gagging through tar-induced tears, I declared I’d rather choke than smoke.

For most mothers, it would have been a classic “I told you so” moment – but not for my mum. Instead, she handed me a glass of water and a box of tissues. Without a word, she took the pack of cigarettes and placed it on the uppermost shelf of the crockery cupboard, out of reach and out of sight to everyone but me. For years to come, that pack of Benson & Hedges sat there, untouched but not forgotten – a silent reminder not only of the foulness of smoking but also the wordless wisdom of my mother.

Although she knew better than to try teaching me to drive herself, my mum happily paid for my professional driving lessons – though I had only just turned 15. We lived a 20-minute drive from town and buses were infrequent at best. Still, it came as a shock to come home from school one day to discover a third-hand, pale blue Mazda 323 in the driveway. It was small, it was basic – but that “Wee23” was for me and my sister to share.  

A couple years later, my mum allowed – actually, welcomed – my high school sweetheart to sleep over. Hell, she even took me to the family planning clinic when I announced one night at dinner that said sweetheart and I were going to “do it”. My friends couldn’t believe how lucky I was. They were openly jealous of my über liberal mum. And even though I was grateful to be trusted behind the wheel, and I was happy to not have to sneak around to fool around, part of me felt I was missing out on a teenage rite of passage. I had nothing – nothing – to rebel against.

My mother was cool and that wasn’t cool. In fact, it was mortifying.

Sunglasses and psychedelic patterns.

Of course, I realise now that my mum’s actions were all about the ultimate form of mothering: child protection. She knew I would hate the taste of cigarettes, but she also recognised I needed to be able to tell my peers I had smoked…and that’s why I was choosing not to do it. Equally, she knew my inevitable socialising and canoodling were way safer being done inside the family home than while driving around town after dark or at someone else’s house. Plus, she wasn’t ready to be a grandmother.

Fast-forward to my late teens when our family moved to the United States, and I started university. It was there that I began to see my mother in a new light. Every couple of months, she would drive an hour and a half from the rural family home to visit me on campus. My varsity friends adored her. They would flock to my dorm room to seek her relationship advice, fashion tips, affordable recipe ideas, and book recommendations. 

In one particularly galling incident, my uni ex drove himself, uninvited, to the family abode and ended up staying for dinner. When I found out, I was apoplectic. I rang him and demanded to know what on earth he was thinking. We’re broken up, for God’s sake! “I missed your mum,” was his simple reply. As my anger subsided, I understood what he meant. Slowly but surely, I was coming to terms with having a cool mum. I started to feel like a lucky daughter. 

When I was in my mid-20s, I got engaged. He was a good guy, a nice guy. But I knew in my gut he wasn’t my guy. Still, my mother seemed to adore him – and if she did, so could I, dammit. On my wedding day, feeling simultaneously like a princess and a fraud in a cloud of French white linen and lace, I buried any doubts about my betrothed and tied the knot.

Two-and-a-half years later, as I faced the grim reality that my marriage was in tatters, my overarching fear was telling my mum. I knew she would be shocked at the news and disappointed in my failure to make the relationship work. She wasn’t either of those things. In fact, a month after I told her, she flew across the US to collect me. We packed up my car and hit the road. Over four exhausting days, we drove east, covering nearly 4,000km. Knowing my mother hates long-distance car rides, I packed a library’s worth of books on tape. We never turned on the stereo. Instead, I talked and she listened. Mums don’t get better than that. 

A car and psychedelic patterns.

A few months later, after recovering (rent-free) from my marriage breakdown at the family home, I knew it was time to return to New Zealand. I can only imagine the mix of emotions my mum felt as we hugged goodbye at the airport, not knowing where this next adventure would lead me.

Today, 23 years later, I’m still here. I’m the proud mum of a teenage boy. And after spending most of those years without family nearby, my mother now lives down the street – the only silver lining of Covid-19 and Donald Trump’s America. 

As we go about our daily lives, I feel eternally grateful for my mum’s proximity. After living so far apart for so long, it’s a pleasure and a privilege to have our lives intertwined. We share a car, trips to the supermarket, weekend walks up our local maunga, and in the juggle of school holidays, we share care of my son.

It’s the emotional closeness that I cherish most. It warms my heart to see my teen interact with my mum, his Grammy. I know he loves her sharp (and sometimes wicked) wit, and I’ve heard him boast to his buddies that his grandmother is sweary. He also loves her creamy chicken with cranberries, her laid back approach to bedtime, and her endless supply of warm hugs.

For me, I love that I get to ask my mum in person about her experiences mothering me. Was I as picky about green veggies as my boy is? (No). Did you ever get so mad at me you had to leave the house? (Yes – she once climbed out a bathroom window to escape my tantrum). Were you as proud of me as I am of my son? (Of course – that’s the very essence of being a mum).

As my teen’s independence grows, I wonder: Will I give him reasons to rebel? I try to imagine bringing home a vape for him to try, free from peer pressure. If they tasted like tar rather than Tutti-Frutti, I might be able to do it. But given his sweet tooth, I’m not going to risk it. Sorry, kid.

Instead, I try to keep my lectures about the dangers of inhaling short (Don’t smoke or snort anything that goes directly into your lungs or brain!). I am quietly thankful that the driving age has been raised to 16 – and even more thankful that we live close to decent public transport. Plus, I can (and do) track him when he’s out and about with his phone. As for romance and sex…well. That time will come. When it does, I know I’ll have to dig deep, swallow my fears, and trust my child to do the right thing in love and in life –  just like my mum did with me.

Keep going!