Music has the ability to transport me to a very specific point in time. Often all it takes is hearing the opening bars of a song, or notable lyrics from a chorus, and I’ve instantaneously travelled back in time to a moment that might previously have escaped my memory. One such instance happened to me only this week when I heard the melody of a song I hadn’t heard in decades. A song that evoked feelings of safety, warmth and love when I heard it. The song is “Morningtown Ride” by The Seekers and it’s one that my mother would sing to us as children. As if I were watching a scene from a movie the moment unfolded before me. I could see my mothers face as she sang to us while we travelled home to Tipperary after visiting family in Dublin. I must have been about 5 or 6 years old. It was night time and my Dad was driving the car. My sister and I were tucked up in the backseat with Mam as she sang and gently stroked our hair and faces and we quietly drifted off to sleep. This is a very special memory of a time when I felt relaxed, loved and cared for. It got me thinking about other moments throughout my life when I felt that way, because these were the times I was learning to self soothe.
Another memory sprang to mind. A memory of my mother arriving home from work one evening, she was feeling unwell and needed to lie down. I can’t be sure what age I was, but I suspect around 10 maybe. I followed Mam down to my parents bedroom where she lay on the bed and closed her eyes. I went and sat on the bed beside her and stroked her face like she would do for us to help us sleep. I remember thinking that it felt nice to help her feel better too. I remember her telling me that she had a headache as she showed me where to apply pressure on her forehead to help relieve it; the area between the brows that most of us instinctively rub when we are feeling a headache coming on. This was another special moment of connection between mother and daughter and that was my first time ever giving a massage treatment! Decades later, here I am working fulltime as a spa therapist (pre-covid that is) and my mother still tells me whenever it comes to Christmas or her birthday or Mothers Day that all she wants is a massage treatment from me.
Recalling these memories has led me down a path of reflection this week, with International Women’s Day and Mothers Day on my mind too. Reflection on my relationship with my mother and all that I learned from her, how it shaped me as I navigated my own experience of womanhood and the ways I learned to self soothe and self care too. So I sat down (on Zoom) with my mother for an interview of sorts to talk about it all. My mothers experience has been different to mine in many ways, most notably that she was married and had 4 children by the time she was the age I am now; I am not a mother, nor married. We also grew up at very different times in Ireland. My mother was still in secondary school when the marriage ban was lifted in Ireland in the 70’s, after which she went on to study Pharmacy in Dublin. When I asked her about how life was for her at that time she said “I came from the era where you got a job, you settled down, you got married, that was it. There was no room for dreams, there was no room for anything outside of that.” She went on to say that at that time the focus was on being able to support yourself through education and hard work. That was something that was very much passed down from her parents; the ‘Sheridan work ethic’ she called it. My mother worked a 6 day week as a Pharmacy Assistant for years, all the while keeping our home running and 4 children reared. What saddened me as we spoke however was the extent to which that workload took its toll. The basic needs to keep the bills paid and food on the table were an overwhelming struggle. My Dad was also working at the time but it was my mother that was the breadwinner in our house. When talking about this period in her life my mother said “I felt like I was a workhorse, I wasn’t a person, I wasn’t a woman.” She continued “I didn’t think of myself, I can honestly tell you. I remember cutting my hair really short, because I said to myself if I cut it short I won’t have to mind it. I won’t have to take care of myself.” Hearing my mother speak this way broke my heart. I had always known her to be an incredibly strong and hard working woman but I hadn’t known the extent to which she struggled for so many years. I respect and admire my mother for her attitude and approach towards all that she has overcome. For all that she had to endure. When she reflects on it all now she seems content and happy saying “Some people think that me being on my own now is a huge big thing, that it must be very difficult, but I find it very easy”.
My experience of womanhood on the other hand has been very different indeed. I have been afforded the luxury of changing my career path on multiple occasions, travelling and living in countries outside of Ireland, attending full time college twice, working towards what I believe to be my purpose and dreams largely in part because of the women that came before me like my mother and grandmothers. That is not to say that I lived without hardships, but there is no denying the contrast between our experiences. There is however the shared experience of being a woman, and in our learning to care for ourselves as much as we care for others. I was curious to know more about my mother and the life she lived, the ways she found comfort and the lessons she learned. We spoke about the women in her life who influenced her. She mentioned her own mother and also my fathers mother in particular. She spoke of their strength, determination and resilience and how much she admired them for those traits. These are the same traits I see in my own mother, these are the same traits I admire and respect in her.
This is not an article on what it is to be female, but rather an article on learning to care for ourselves as women. I learned what the template of a woman looked like from my mother, I learned from observing her and following her example. My mother felt though “If I was back rearing all of you again I would do things so different! All of the things you learn now after the kids are gone, if you only knew it when you had them”. I reassure her that I think we turned out fantastic, so she must have done something right! We joked and laughed in this manner throughout our conversation no matter how heavy the topics got but I don’t want to present an unrealistic picture of our relationship as mother and daughter. It is far from perfect, there have been so many times over the years where I’ve been fully convinced that not only are we not on the same page, nor the same book, we are speaking entirely different languages! We have had disagreements, disappointments and disputes but ultimately we do not hold grudges and we will always talk things out (eventually). We both fondly recall the countless conversation that were had on a Sunday morning over a cup of tea at the kitchen table. Nothing was off topic at that table and to to this day, I can honestly say there is very little I haven’t confided in my mother.
Today, when I think about what brings me the greatest comfort and the ways in which I self soothe as an adult it’s directly connected to my childhood and what gave me comfort then; music and touch. Both of which have been passed down to me from my mother, along with that ‘Sheridan work ethic’ of course. Music has always allowed me to connect with my mood and my feelings, and as a child it provided a backdrop to all of my happiest memories. Playing records and dancing around the house with my parents to the likes of Bob Marley, Michael Jackson, Madonna and Fleetwood Mac, thinking about that still elicits feelings of pure joy. I felt cared for and seen when Mam sang to us, and to this day I still feel a sense of calm when I hear her sing Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou in particular. I admired her when I saw her onstage and on tv on so many occasions singing and dancing. I now see that music allowed us to connect often when words failed, and I’m so thankful it still does.
One of my favourite things, even still, is having my hair and face stroked. It is the most relaxing feeling in the world to me and its probably the reason Indian Head Massage is my all time favourite treatment to receive. It dawned on me that in my own playing with my hair I was doing it to self soothe too. There’s an obvious association with being that child in the car with my parents feeling safe and loved and calm, and having my hair and face stroked. I believe that is why I am so passionate about my career as a spa therapist, the value of space and time dedicated to therapeutic and mindful touch is not lost on me. It’s something I strongly believe is essential for our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. Our bodies know instinctively how to protect us and how to help us cope in the short term, but our bodies will also give us signs and signals along the way, to remind us that we cannot continue in a stress cycle of overwhelmed, exhausted pressure indefinitely. Our bodies will give us signs in the form of headaches, muscle pain, digestive issues, fatigue, irritability, restlessness, insomnia, anxiousness, the list goes on and on. We fob these symptoms off instead of paying attention to our bodies, why? In my experience it is because of a belief that we do not deserve to be cared for by ourselves. A belief that everyone else is more deserving of our care and compassion and understanding than we are. There’s also a long list of reasons that extend from the socio-economic to the political but I’m certainly no expert on that. I do know, as a woman, that I’ve personally felt and continue to feel the pressures and expectations put on me, and it would appear, so did my mother.
This wasn’t something I consciously thought about until I sat down to work on this piece. But it was truly a worthwhile experience. What I’ve taken from this conversation with my mother is that while our lives and our story’s are so very different, there is a commonality in our seeking to do our best, and to improve, not just for ourselves but for tour loved one. In recent years that commonality came in the form of learning the importance of not running ourselves into the ground, and in having compassion and empathy for ourselves as well as for those around us. We remind each other of this in a variety of different ways and we love a good mother daughter spa day too of course! The strength of the women I know and love, especially my mother continues to inspire me. It is why I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of self care, and often why I probably harp on about it all too much! Multi-tasking, sacrificing, strong-willed and gutsy are just some of the ways I would proudly describe my mother and the women I know, deserving of the same care, attention and affection they adorn those they love with. I’m on a mission I guess, to remind them, and myself in the process, that it is possible to be all of those things while also caring for ourselves along the way too. That to be strong does not mean that we can’t also be soft, that to be resilient does not mean we don’t also need a break and that to be independent doesn’t mean we can’t ask for help.
While I unfortunately did not inherit my mother’s singing voice, I have learned so much from her, both in this conversation and the decades of conversations and experiences we have shared. I learned strength and resilience from witnessing her embody those qualities. I learned how to self-soothe from the gentle ways she cared for me when I was a child. I learned the importance of talking and expressing our inner feelings from our Sunday morning table talks. Now as we go forward as women my hope is that we will continue to celebrate our strength while also taking time to show kindness, love and compassion to ourselves as well.
The lyrics of Helen Reddy’s 1972 hit “I Am Woman” strike a chord for me when I think of my mother and all the women I know and love. I believe they are as poignant as ever and a beautiful reminder of what it is to be a woman.
I will leave you with these lyrics today . . .
“Oh yes, I am wise, But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman” — Helen Reddy