Mother's Day: The seven ages of motherhood

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To mark Mother's Day, Joanna Moorhead meets seven women who illustrate how having children really is a life-time commitment. She shares the trials, tribulations, joy and love

First-time mum

Sophie Mackay, 37, is mother of six-month-old Victor. She lives in east London

Becoming a mother is exciting, but also very scary. You've known this person was in your tummy and then suddenly – he's here. And there's no handbook, just this tiny thing, and yet he's not really a tiny thing. He's a whole separate individual, and you're acutely aware of that from the start, and of what a huge responsibility you have in raising him.

It's changed how I think of myself. It's not what I need for me any more; it's what I need for him. I wouldn't say it's given my life a purpose – I already had a purpose – but it's given my life a new dimension that's wonderfully, distinctly joyous. The physical side of motherhood is really a challenge: in the early days, just getting out of the house seems to take about five hours. But it's already easier, because as the months have gone by I've got better at it, and he's become more predictable.

You couldn't imagine, before it happens to you, how much time you're going to end up discussing things like the colour of their poo. I know it won't always be like this, but at the moment it's incredibly intense, all-consuming and constant. And it's amazing, because he's amazing – he changes all the time. You can't imagine, before you have a baby, how much you're going to love them, and that your love is just going to grow and grow. Even when Victor hasn't slept and I've been up all night with him, I'll look at him and he'll smile and it just makes up for everything.

Experienced hand

Kathy Kielty, 46, is mother of Hannah, 13, Joey, nine, and Peter, six. She lives in south London

At the stage of mothering I'm at, a lot of it is about logistics and practicalities. When you're working and raising children, there's a lot of juggling and it feels like a constant struggle to get the balance right. There are so many activities and events to get them to, and, of course, there's school, and there are so many things you have to go to at school. I was trying to find time in my diary to see a client the other day and it's so difficult to fit it in – there's a school play one night, a parents' meeting another night, so much to get to.

But, amid the busyness, I try to remember that it won't always be like this. I have to try to enjoy it and keep in mind that this is a wonderful time for a mother, the time when they're growing up and they need you so much and there's so much going on.

It's exhausting and hugely demanding, but it brings wonderful moments, moments when your heart melts and you absolutely know what it's all about. The other day, we went out for dinner for Peter's birthday and during the meal he whispered in my ear: "Mummy, the most important thing in the whole world is my family." It's times like that when I realise what it's all about, why all the stress and difficulties are worth it.

Empty-nester

Joan Healy, 56, is mother of Cormac, 21, and Soracha, 18. She lives in Kingston

With Cormac in his final year at university and Soracha about to go off this year, I feel I'm in a transition phase. I'm not a traditional empty-nester, in that Cormac is planning to come back home after he graduates, so as one goes another will return. But I'm very aware that it won't be the same as it was before he left home: he's been managing his own life for a long time.

This is a time to step back and let go. I think it's what your role as a mother is; right through their lives I've been making calls on how much they can do for themselves – and now, at 21 and 18, I know they really are grown-up. But I'm very aware, too, of how much I want to stay engaged with them and with their lives. It's a balance – you know they have to separate from you, and you know they have to do that without feeling guilty. But I want to carry on working on my relationship with them, to carry on being connected with them.

Partly, it's about thinking about what might work for them. The other day, we were talking about holidays, and we said we'd like to go to Italy; slightly to my surprise, both the children said they'd like to come as well.

One thing you're aware of at this stage is their potential. Until now their lives have been very structured. But now you're on the sidelines, wondering what they're going to make of it.

Grandmother

Patricia Onions, 62, is mother of James, 37, Edward, 34, Anna, 32, Raychel, 25, and Elisabeth, 21. She lives in Wolverhampton

My first grandson was born very prematurely, so it was a difficult time for everyone. But I remember how proud I was of James: I was proud of how much he was doing for his baby. He would phone me up to tell me what was happening with the baby and to ask for my advice, and that was lovely. I felt like a point of reference, someone who could be useful.

I've only got my youngest daughter at home these days, but I love it when the older children are back. I always remember standing on the station when James left home. I felt absolutely gutted, but I also knew that if he was flying the nest, it meant I'd done something right. But when they're back I want them to stay as long as they possibly can. When they're little, and you're so busy and exhausted the whole time, you'd give anything for a bit of time to yourself. Then you get it, and you realise that the busyness was so much what your whole life was about.

When they're older, giving them space is important. I want them to spread their wings and to soar. I'm very aware that they have to be able to cope on their own because I won't be around for ever. Now I'm getting older, I think about that more.

The widow

Gretta McGuinness, 74, lives in East Kilbride. She is the mother of Clare, 54, Jacqueline, 51, Caroline , 49, and Lorraine, 45

My husband died a year ago and my daughters were a great support. But now my youngest has just been diagnosed with breast cancer – and another daughter had it five years ago. I'm there for them as much as possible, but you have to try not to make too much fuss. That's not what they want. But, of course, I worry. They're my children – and they have children themselves.

Three of my daughters live very close to me, and the other is in St Andrews, so I see one or other of them at least every other day. What starts to happen around my stage, though, is that the tide turns a bit and they start bossing you around a wee bit. So, for example, I'll mention something's a bit wrong and they'll say, you should see someone about that. They're caring for me now. But they still come to me for advice, especially about their children.

I'm very proud of all my girls. As well as the daughter who had cancer and the one who is battling it now, another daughter had a son who was in a very serious accident, and I was so proud of how she got through that difficult time. Most of all, I'm proud of how they've raised their own children – because that's the work you do as a mother, and you see it go on through the generations.

The older grandmother

Brenda Savage, 81, lives near Sheffield. She is mother to Eric, 56, Stephen, 54, and Stuart, 51

The boys – they'll always be the boys to me – know they can come to my husband, Charles, and me for anything, and if we can possibly help them, we will do. We live very close to Stuart and Stephen, and they'll often call up and ask us to let out the dogs or help them in some other way. I like still being called on – we all need to feel wanted.

I've always tried to mother my children, but never to smother them. I'd never ask awkward questions about their finances or their relationships. I think mothers of sons can overwhelm them, and I've tried very hard not to be like that. And my daughters-in-law mean almost as much to me as my sons.

The boys respect us, always have respected us, and that's very important. There might be some swearing elsewhere, but none of them would ever swear in front of me – and I value that. They're living their own lives now and they're happy and self-sufficient, and that's wonderful to see. I feel lucky to have them, and I feel lucky to have my grandchildren, too. And all the love and care you've given out come back when things are difficult. Charles had open-heart surgery a few years ago, and my boys cared so much and looked after me so well. It made a real difference.

The 93-year-old mother

Mary Clough lives near Halifax. She is mother to Kathleen, 67, and Duncan, 61

I live on my own, so at my time of life there are a lot of hours to fill. I often sit here and think about my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. I think about what lovely people they are and I think about what kind of things they'll be doing that day, wherever they are. I'm so grateful for them: I think how empty my life would be without them to think about.

And then, of course, they come to see me and that's wonderful, too. Kathleen lives near me so I see a lot of her. Now I can't get out on my own so much she takes me shopping and looks after me, because the pendulum swings and they end up looking after you.

In some ways, things never change: you're always worrying about them. I do hope I go before them. You never want to bury your children.

Being a mother is the single most important thing I've done in my life, and I feel very lucky to have been able to do it. I suppose, looking back, that the nicest time of all was when they were small. But the wonderful thing is that the babies keep on coming: I've had grandchildren, and now I've got great-grandchildren. The generations stretch on down through the years; that's another thing I think about, when I'm here on my own.

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