When my first two children were very small I had a best friend called Mellie. We got on extremely well despite being very different.
I was an always-in-control type person. As well as liking an organised and spotless house, I liked my children clean and tidy and always presentable. Hair ribbons were good too. I encouraged my children to sleep and eat at regular times and I loved empty plates.
In contrast, Mellie was a very relaxed and comfortable-with-herself type person. Her children ate what they liked when they liked. They wore whatever they liked too. Mellie never shouted, “Where’s your jumper? It’s too cold to run around in just a T-shirt.” She trusted her children were the best judges of their own needs. Mellie’s house was never organised. It was a children’s adventure playground from one end to the other. Her children didn’t need to worry about damaging the carpets or making a mess. They could spread their games from one room to another. They had fun.
Fun? Yes, sometimes I wondered what Mellie thought of me. Did she think I was too restrictive, too bound up in unnecessary rules and regulations? Did she think I wasn’t a very fun mother at all? Now Mellie didn’t say anything. I just looked at her ways and compared them to mine, and I wondered.
Several times a week, Mellie would drop her small son Jack off at our house. I would look after him while she worked. One day, Jack arrived with a bag of toys. Soon he was sharing the contents with my daughter Felicity. Both children were 3 or 4 at the time. Out came a toy car, a big stone, a pencil, a bear and … a lipstick.
My first thought was, “Oh no! Lipstick! That’ll make a lot of mess.” I was just about to demand Jack hand that pink stick over when I stopped. I thought, “If Mellie thinks it’s okay for children to play with lipstick then perhaps I should let them keep it. I shall be a fun mum for once. We can clean off the mess later.”
So I sat back and watched. Jack drew all over Felicity’s face and she drew over his. “It’ll wash off,” I reminded myself as I itched to grab the stick. They giggled as they drew patterns on their arms and legs. I suggested some paper and they filled a pile of sheets with swirls and crosses. Both children’s eyes were bright with enjoyment. They had huge grins on their faces. They were having a fantastic time. I was absolutely certain I was a really fun mum.
When Mellie arrived to pick up Jack she looked at her lipstick-decorated son, but she didn’t say a word. I ignored the mess too. “See you on Thursday!” she called out as she left. The lipstick was never ever mentioned.
We moved house and Mellie and I drifted apart. Every now and then we’d exchange a letter, but it was years before we had the opportunity to meet up in person. Then a couple of years ago, Mellie and her husband Mark came to visit.
Soon Mellie and I were sharing memories. “Do you remember this…” and “Do you remember that…”
“Do you remember how I liked to be in control of everything?” I asked Mellie, laughing but also wincing a bit at the memory. “I always wondered what you thought of me. We were so different. I always admired your relaxed mothering style and wished I could be like you.”
Mellie laughed. “Oh I think I was too relaxed at times,” she admitted.
“But you were fun. Do you remember when you let Jack bring that lipstick to our house? I wanted to take it off him, but I decided I was going to be a fun mum like you.”
Mellie opened her eyes wide, was silent for a moment, and then a huge laugh spilled from deep within her. “I didn’t let Jack bring along that lipstick. I didn’t even know he had it.”
“When I saw Jack covered with lipstick, I was horrified. I wondered why you hadn’t confiscated it. I thought you were a really irresponsible mother… but I didn’t want to tell you.”
So I hadn’t been a fun mother after all. I’d been irresponsible. Twenty years later, it didn’t matter. I laughed too.
A fun mum? What makes someone fun? Is it letting everyone do as they like, or is it just letting go of the things that aren’t really important?
I ask my children – my children who no longer have to empty their plates or wear matching clothes (though I still like ribbons!) – “Do you think I’m a fun mum?”
“Oh yes!’ they all say.
I think back to the day of the lipstick disaster all those years ago. I remember Felicity’s and Jack’s bright eyes and the sound of their giggles. Irresponsible? No. Despite Mellie’s opinion, I am still absolutely certain, on that particular day, I was a really fun mum. I think Felicity and Jack would agree.