My mum: The mother's day issue

It's the hardest job, and the most important. Lucy Bulmer celebrates the many faces of modern motherhood in this introduction to our special report
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The Independent Online

It's the most important job you'll ever do - and the toughest. When you get it right, the rewards are immeasurable. When you go wrong - and you sometimes will - it can break your heart and leave you wracked with guilt. Motherhood. The biggest challenge in the world.

This weekend the shops, and every conceivable form of advertising media, have gone into pink-tinged overdrive. A glance at the cards shows there's something for everyone. There, next to "Champion, No 1 Mum" are cards announcing: "You're like a mother to me", "For you, stepmother", and even the comfortably vague "For my other mother". Cards were never like this when I was a kid. We all had to pretend our mum was the Oxo mum and that was that. But motherhood has come a long way since then.

With more than two-thirds of the UK's 7.2 million mothers of dependent children in work, with 1.3 million single mums, around 46,000 children fostered out and an estimated million stepchildren under 16, it's clear that the old rules can no longer apply.

Latest government figures suggest that only 2.2 million women are staying at home full-time to look after the children, living the nuclear family dream. These days, it's usually a positive choice - and thank goodness, because the truth is that back when every mother was expected to do it, many were quietly going mad behind the chirpy smiles, their inner selves cut off at the knees.

Our view of motherhood is one of extremes. "God couldn't be everywhere, so he created mothers," goes an old Jewish proverb. Contrast with Germaine Greer's acid observation: "All that remains to the mother in modern consumer society is the role of scapegoat." Of course, they're both right. So what, realistically, makes a good mother?

Child psychologist and author Oliver James points out that being plunged into motherhood is overwhelming for many women. "There's no greater threat to the mental health of a woman than the first six months of a baby's life. The demands are absolutely phenomenal," he says. "A good mother is someone who manages to create a context in which she doesn't go bonkers looking after her baby."

Interviewing the people on this page about their very different mothers, the thing that struck me forcefully is that it doesn't matter so much what the situation is. What matters most is the love and the understanding. No one said the best thing about their mum was her home-baked apple pie - they all said it was that she was there for them, they could talk to her, she loved them. Mothers don't all come out of the same mould, any more than the rest of society does.

In this News Review special, we celebrate the wonderful diversity of motherhood, all these women loving their children in so many different, sometimes very tough situations. It is happening gradually, as society changes. More and more women are calmly accepting of other women's choices. And we can laugh at how harshly we judge ourselves. What other sector of society could revel in a website called The Bad Mother's Club, which has the slogan, "In the aisle by the chill cabinets, no one can hear you scream''?

Looking back at my own childhood, I'm painfully aware that my mother was never allowed to express those feelings - yet as an adult, I know that she had them. And as a mother myself, I understand her better than I have ever done. Her generation was under so much pressure to conform to society's ideal. There was only one right way to bring up children.

We are free to make choices. We can face down judgement with a shrug. Our mothers had to be brave and rebel to change anything. Some of them did, and we should, as we drop our children off at the crèche, as we collect our tax creditsor share the parenting with our partners, thank them for that.

My working mum

Joanna Hansford, 31, from Rickmansworth in Middlesex, is the daughter of celebrity hair colourist Jo Hansford. Jo went back to work full-time when Joanna was one month old

My mum has worked full-time for as long as I can remember. I never felt there was anything missing - I just took it for granted that my brother and I would be looked after by the nanny. I certainly don't think working mums are selfish. If mum hadn't worked, I think she'd have been totally insane, instead of the lovely, happy person she is. It felt like we had more people loving us rather than less, because the nannies always cared about us. My parents were almost always there to read us our bedtime stories and put us to bed, and one of them always came along to carol concerts or netball matches. Also, I'm quite shy, and I think interacting with people outside the family from an early age helped with that.

I have strong memories of being together in the kitchen, her teaching me to make jam tarts and so on. In the summer we'd spend days in the back garden, me getting into trouble for picking her precious flowers or digging up the lawn to make a fish-pond. I also remember that she was completely unselfish, everyone else was put first. Twice she went on skiing holidays when she was petrified of heights and spent the entire two weeks inside bored to death because my dad and us kids wanted to ski.

I went on a round-the-world trip with my brother when I was 19 and I remember mum encouraged us. I never even thought about her missing us, it was all too exciting. But when I got back, one of the ladies who worked in the salon said mum hadn't stopped crying for a week after we left. It made me feel very loved but also I felt a tremendous respect for her as a person, for being able to let us go so generously.

Now that we're working together, I'm probably closer to mum than I've ever been. I'm expecting my first baby in July, and I intend to be a working mother too, although maybe not full-time. I like my work, and I want my child to have all the things I had - a fabulous education, wonderful holidays, a beautiful home to live in and lots of happiness. There was nothing more I could have asked for in my childhood.

Jo Hansford was nominated for the Everywoman business awards this year

My adopted mum

Larry Baker, 17, a student, from Great Yarmouth, was adopted by Jennifer Baker when he was two

I didn't have the best start in life. I was born 14 weeks premature. The only know- ledge I have of my birth mother is a picture of me in an incubator and her lying beside me. I was the accidental result of a one-night stand.

A couple of years down the line her life was a mess. She was a drug addict and could no longer cope with me. I do know that she was on drugs and alcohol while she was pregnant and being born premature left me with brain damage which means the left side of my body is weaker than the right. I used to limp quite badly and was registered disabled, but I just wear a shoe-lift now.

When I was two, I was adopted by my mum and dad, Jennifer and David Baker. I don't remember anything about it, but I was brought into a big family. They had already adopted two older girls, then after me came a foster sister and another adopted brother.

As far back as I can remember, my mum has just been my mum. I couldn't have wished for a better mother, a better family. I had a wonderfully happy childhood growing up in Norfolk. Even though my parents split up when I was about eight, they stayed friendly and dad is a still a big part of my life.

I can't remember a time when I didn't know I was adopted, it was always just taken for granted. It has never been an issue. I've read and heard of adopted children saying they never quite felt they fitted in.

I don't feel that way - for me, being adopted makes you know that you're a really, really wanted child. I'm lucky I also look quite similar to my mum, so people don't automatically assume I'm adopted.

Of course, I've always wondered about my birth parents, but I don't think I want to find them or find any more about them just yet. There's a lot going on in my life with college and everything, and it's just not top of my priorities.

The best thing about mum is that she's just always there. She's always willing to listen and help you. She looks after us but she has so much time and energy for other people too. I feel really proud of her.

Larry is a spokesman for the British Association of Fostering and Adoption,

My grand mum

Antonia Lowe, 18, is a student in Winchester. She was brought up by her grandmother Elizabeth

I lived with my grandmother from when I was about three. I have no memories before that - I know that my mother became ill and was unable to look after me and my grandmother took custody of me with social services. My granddad had died two years before I was born so she was doing it on her own. I think it was very brave. In her fifties, on her own, she was plunged back into this world of young mums and toddler groups.

I've always called her Elizabeth, because for a while, before I went to live with her, I was with a number of foster families and there were all these nans and grans and it got really confusing. Then she came, and she said "My name is Elizabeth", and it just stuck. I felt so loved and secure when she said I was going to live with her from now on.

My earliest happy memories are of being with her. She was old-fashioned, but I liked it. She'd always correct my speech and table manners. I gained a lot of skills. She took me to visit National Trust properties, and taught me traditional things, like a love of gardening, how to make a room look nice, and old-fashioned cooking. I know how to make gravy.

Elizabeth has always been young in her outlook. We did lots of stuff together. We used to live on Hayling Island so we'd go for long walks on the beach, and to the park and so on. I still know and love my mother, and when I was growing up she often visited, but I never wanted to go home with her because I understood that she was too ill to look after me. My grandmother was more of my real mother, and I was very happy with her.

Elizabeth Chapple is a director of the grandparents association,

My stay-at-home mum

David Room, 31, is an operations manager in the City and lives in Lewisham, south London

My mum was a stay-at-home mum until I was 15. I was the youngest of four, and I think it was a very positive thing that she was always there before I went to school and when I came back. I certainly remember my pre-school days spending all day with her, playing at home and going to the park, going off swimming with other mums and children. I think it makes a lot of difference in that age group.

If I try to picture my childhood without that, being at playgroup or in a nursery, I really appreciate the security I had having mum at home. And there was real security - I have a very vivid memory of going to the playschool at the local church one day when I was about four. On the way, I said I didn't want to go. I remember being very sure that I didn't want to go in there with all these people I didn't know. So we just went home. I suppose being at nursery could have advantages, like learning early social interaction, but I never had any problems when I went to school, I was happy there. Mum was always waiting at the corner afterwards to pick me up with all the other mums. It was like a network of stay-at-home mums.

Now my mum is both a friend and confidante. I'm not the sort of person who rings her up every day, I'm a typical bloke in that respect, not one for nattering. But I'm still close to her. Me and my girlfriend often go out with mum and dad for Sunday lunch.

There are so many good things about my mother - she's always loved me and looked after me and worried about me - all the things that mums do. I think my mum being around that much when I was young forges a bond that never goes away.

My step mum

Lisa Woollaston, 32, a fundraiser for the charity Refuge, lives in Hove in East Sussex. She went to live with her dad and step-mother as a teenager

I was 13 when Vicky came into my life. My parents had divorced three years before. I was at boarding school and mum went to live in France, so I went back to Vicky and Dad at weekends and holidays. To be honest, we had quite a difficult relationship to begin with. Dad and mum had three kids and Vicky had two of her own, so we were five children, pushed together at similar ages and that created friction. I didn't resent Vicky for marrying my dad or feel jealous, but I couldn't really understand how everyone fitted into the new scenario.

I was your average difficult teenager and gave her quite a hard time. I'd run away to London to see my boyfriend, I smoked and went off to house parties. But from university onwards we started to become really close. My mum lives in South Africa now, and I've been lucky that Vicky's taken me on as her own. I get as much love and support from her as her own daughter does, and there's no animosity there from my stepsister about her mum.

Vicky's a mother-figure but she's also a friend. I can talk openly to her. She's given me great advice in the past about boyfriends and she's always thinking of ways to help me at work, who to contact to raise funds, helping me sort out free entertainment for fund-raising events and so on. When I picture Vicky she's always got her diary out, organising everyone for the next date. She loves to arrange occasions - trips to the Albert Hall, the theatre, or meals, holidays. It's very important to her to get the whole family together to celebrate. She's so supportive.

My own mum is great and I love her dearly, but Vicky lives close by and is loving, caring and supportive. I'm married and pregnant now. It's a new phase of my life, and Vicky's around to do the "mum" stuff - we talk a lot on the phone, we often go home to her for Sunday lunch, and I love to meet her for shopping.

I don't have to worry about my mum being miles and miles away because I have someone who's here for me in a fantastic way. I love both my mums, and there's room in my life for both of them.

My disabled mum

Paige Denmark, 13, from Oxfordshire, is one of 750,000 young carers in the UK. She helps looks after her mother Sonia, 34, and her younger brother and two sisters

My mum has several different types of arthritis, chronic pain syndrome and has also suffered depression. I was nine when she was diagnosed. It was very difficult because before that she was fine, she could run and do things with me, she was just like any other mum. But now her spine is crumbling away.

On a normal school day, I get up at 7am and I'm ready by 7.30am when my brother and sisters wake up. Dad and I help them dress and with their breakfast. After school I help to get the dinner and clear up, help my brother with his homework, play with the girls and help get them bathed and put to bed. I also help mum - get her crutches, help her walk, massage her back, bring her dinner or tablets to her.

Then I do my homework. I want to be a midwife when I grow up, but sometimes it's hard finding time to study. My dad had to stop work when mum was diagnosed. He looks after my mum and little sisters all day so when I come home I take some of it off him. In some ways, I do feel like I have to mother my mother, but dad and me work as a team.

I do feel like I've taken more on than my other friends. Sometimes they ask me out shopping, but if mum needs help I have to stay home. I know that other children just don't understand how my day is compared to theirs. But I'm much more upset about my mum being in pain than about having to do stuff. That's a good thing in a way, because it's made me grow up more quickly, I've had to take on more responsibility and I can be more independent.

I love my mum, and I can always go to her for advice, problems at school or if I just need to talk to somebody. She talks to me about clothes and shopping, like any mum. Sometimes she does my hair for me but because her hands are swollen it can cause a lot of pain. She often makes me laugh, and we fool around like any family, but the best thing about her is that I can talk to her. She's still the best mum in the world.

Paige belongs to a young carers group run by the Children's Society,