Sometimes a single event shapes the rest of your life. For YouTuber Louise Pentland’s, this when her mum died of cancer, when she was just seven years old. She writes exclusively for Glamour on how this has impacted her own experience of Mother’s Day, now she’s a mother herself.
I remember so much of time my mother died, as if it were yesterday: sitting in the waiting area of my school office wondering why my mum was late to collect me, feeling surprised when my dad walked in instead, telling me mum was waiting in the car, worrying that they’d broken the rule by parking in the teacher’s car park. In my young mind, nothing could be more important than this, but I was about to find out how wrong I was.
In the front of the car, I remember mum sitting with the door open, tears streaming down her face. Instant panic washed over me, I remember thinking, ‘But adults don’t cry.’
They sat me down, right there in the teacher’s car park and told me, ‘Mummy’s been to the hospital. She’s not very well and has a disease called cancer. The doctors are doing their best to find the right medicine but it’s very hard’.
You’d think hearing that and the subsequent discussion about it might only be, ‘Daddy and LouLou’ one day in the future, would have been earth shattering. But weirdly, it wasn’t. I took what was said in a really matter of fact way and remember thinking, ‘Ok we’ll just get on with it then’.
Reality started to set in when mum’s headaches intensified and she spent a lot of time asleep upstairs. My parents had maroon curtains at the time, so the light shone through making the room a deep red which really bothered me because it made the walls look like the colour of blood. Mum was moved to the general hospital in Northampton and eventually to a hospice, so she could reach the end of her life in relative comfort. We visited a lot. Most days after school my dad would drive us up to the hospice and I’d spend time chatting with mum, talking about all the things we’d do when she came home. I do remember sitting in the Dr’s office with wooden panelled walls and him telling me about how as ‘Mummy gets closer to the end of her life, things might change like her skin colour and her breathing,’ but I didn’t take it in. I thought that would happen and then her life would start again with us all at home together. It didn’t.
I remember the hospice being a very happy place. The nurses and other patients were kind and we did a lot of activities like pizza parties and colouring in. I’m crying as I write this, because now I’m a mother myself to an eight year old and a two year old, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for my sweet mum. She knew these were her final days with her little girl and she held it together so bravely. We talked a lot about things in the present, not the future. We had little jokes and games and lots of cuddles. I’d do anything to go back, just for a few minutes to have those moments again.
We said goodbye to mum five days before Christmas, by now I was seven years old. Mum was only 37.
The following years were worse than a young child could ever anticipate. I felt so, so alone. It was a sort of alone that I couldn’t really communicate, so I just spent a lot of time playing little games in my bedroom or sitting by myself in the playground. It wasn’t a sad loneliness, more of an acceptance that I was without something. Shortly after we buried mum, someone came into my life and did things no person should do to a child. Or adult. The next decade was pretty bleak, something I find hard to talk about.
After a few years, my dad remarried, we moved house and life carried on, but not in a ‘normal’ sense, though who knows what normal is anyway? On the outside I came across as a really bubbly young girl, but this was just to mask how empty I felt. I didn’t want to have to answer questions about how numb things were. Everything was hollow. Nobody came to my school plays or sports days anymore. I was jealous of the girls in my class whose mums’ took them to Boots at the weekend to buy makeup or magazines. I wondered what it would be like to have someone like that in my own life. My step mum wasn’t exactly maternal towards me, to put it very lightly.
Eventually when I was 15, my new half-sister was 4, my dad and his new wife divorced and life really started changing. Joy returned, I went to university in Liverpool and fell in love with another student there. We lived together in Liverpool for a couple of years then dad told me mum had left me some money to put a deposit down on a house. By this time my boyfriend had proposed and although we were still in our early twenties, we wanted to start a family. We moved back home to Northampton because I missed where I grew up, got married and had my first baby, a little girl called Darcy. I was 25 when I married and almost 26 when Darcy was born and I was so, so happy. For the first time since I was a young child, I didn’t feel hollow anymore.
I loved Darcy with every fibre of my being, but surprisingly, motherhood brought with it a deep loneliness that I could never have anticipated. It wasn’t like the loneliness of my childhood though, this was a practical loneliness that so many mums feel, but isn’t talked about nearly enough.
When you have that tiny baby and it’s just you and them in the house, it’s tough. You have to schedule outings around feeds, naps and changing nappies. You have to lug bags, bottles, car seats and pushchairs around. You’re probably quite sleep deprived and this is all without your haywire hormones and milky breasts to consider. Motherhood is the best and worst job I’ve ever had in my life. I was 25, none of my friends were at the baby stage and I’ve never felt more like I wanted to call my mum to have her over for a cup of tea.
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Her sister Judith was amazing, bringing round meals and telling me it’s normal to cry at nothing, but I would have given anything to be able to talk to mum. My heart felt like it was breaking again for a second time over, now over a new loss. Not having a mother to able to feel the weight of my new bundle in her arms. Judith didn’t talk too much about mum during that time because I think her heart was breaking too. I look back and wonder if those tears were all hormonal or maybe a new wave of grief that I hadn’t prepared for. How can you prepare for something like that?
We muddled through thanks to wonderful friends and family, but sadly my marriage to Darcy’s dad came to an end when Darcy was three and we separated.
By this time I’d started my blog and YouTube channel and was just beginning to write my first book, so I kept myself busy juggling my new status as a single mum and trying to grow my business, so I could support the both of us. Although that was definitely a rough few years where I suddenly had to learn a lot of life skills (like where the fuse board is or what days the bins go out), it all reminded me how strong I can be when I really needed to. Darcy and I had a lot of fun. We took a few trips over to see my friends in Seattle and she often came to London with me for work meetings – my little buddy. Fast forward eight years and I’d met my new partner Liam on Tinder, fallen in love and we were about to have our first baby together, Pearl. Life had certainly changed again!
I found that being a mum for the second time was slightly easier. I’d grown accustomed to my mum missing the baby milestones, and not being able to show her pictures of the things Darcy had painted at school. But it still stung when Pearl was born. Being a mum while missing makes me feel empty. I’m not sad every day. I don’t feel that white hot rage of injustice that grief can force over you. I feel like I’m leaning into a void where I should be leaning onto my mother. I can never call her and ask her how to cook something or what that weird rash on their arm is, or how old I was when I first walked, so I can compare.
I can’t tell the girls we’re going to granny’s house and have her show them all the marvellous things she makes (she was very crafty). Instead, I tell them to wave at the wall of the cemetery as we drive past and they cheerily wave, ‘Hello granny!’, like it’s normal.
Darcy has known forever that granny lives in heaven, but will sometimes ask why the doctors never found the right medicine. My response is ‘she was such a special person that God wanted her to be an angel early,’ which is the same thing I’ll say to Pearl when she grows up and asks, because the reality of it is too painful.
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On days where I feel the lump in my throat I remind myself of two things. Firstly, it’s not ‘goodbye’, it’s ‘see you soon.’ I have faith that we’ll all meet again one day and when we do, it will be all the sweeter.
Secondly, it’s my job to live with joy for the both of us, mum and me. I cherish all the small moments and try to find the positives in everything. She died too soon and missed out on so much, so I’m going to live my life with all the happiness I possibly can and be grateful for each moment I have, because I know too well what is looks like to have these taken away.
One way or another, life goes on. It’s our job to make the very best of it and that’s what I intend to do. This Mother’s Day I’ll be honouring the amazing mother my mum was and enjoying being spoilt by my own gorgeous girls with flowers, and a lie-in. I can’t wait!
Louise Pentland is a supporter of the Cynthia Spencer Hospice – www.cynthiaspencer.org.uk