Nicola Brooks-Williamson (she/her) was born in London to a Jamaican father and a Trinidadian mother. She spent her childhood in the Caribbean before returning to the UK to study veterinary science at Liverpool University. She specialised in ophthalmology, married a Welshman, and became a mother to three children one of who has autism, epilepsy, and learning delay. She now lives in Surrey, enjoys pottery and gardening, and writes daily amid the chaos of her family and menagerie of rescue animals.
Her children’s novel The Little Witch from London was shortlisted for the FAB Prize 2021. She has had work published in poetry and short story anthologies, has written a monthly column A Mother’s Love, about motherhood from all angles, for Croydon Community Focus and her latest work can be seen in the third edition of Covert Literary Magazine.
She blogs on mental health and waterfalls on https://nickybw.wordpress.com and is on Twitter @onebreathatatim and Instagram and TikTok @nickyloveswriting
A few questions …
What has shaped your mothering or parenting philosophy?
So many influences shaped my parenting philosophy.
Age. This bringing different life experiences and desires. As a mother in her 20’s I was determined my life would remain unchanged. My sons would fit into my life. I climbed down cliffs with a baby on my back. Took them to gatherings of university friends where they, young and childless stared at these noisy beings in fascination. I flew abroad to party with girlfriends whilst my husband (happily I might add) looked after the babies.
Culture. Culturally and ancestrally, I am West Indian. That brings with it a strict disciplinarian philosophy (this does not mean corporal punishment which I do not condone for my family personally) and expectation of well-mannered children. Just because I adored them, did not mean the world would, so I taught them to tread kindly and with respect as they go through life.
Isolation. A special needs child brought distance from friends and family, but he made us stronger as a unit.
What do you want most for children?
I will answer this as what do I want for my children.
I want them to be happy every single day (a bit unreasonable I know) but at the same time understand and be strong enough to handle that sometimes life throws curveballs. You might not like a job, a relationship may end, all of these are part of life.
I want my ‘normal’ (i.e. not special needs) children to be financially independent, but not allow this need to crush their dreams. And to be flexible enough to change or step off their planned path if necessary.
I want them always to love and support each other, even when they disagree.
What surprises you the most about motherhood?
Everything. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, something new comes up. Just when you think they’re too old to need you, they need you more than ever.
And the love, the overwhelming, all encompassing, wonderful love you feel for them. Note, you will not always feel this, especially when they’re being nightmares or refuse to clean their cesspit of a bedroom. How gorgeous babies would smell. That scent of softness and talcum powder. I thought only puppies could smell that good.
The ferocity, strength, and protective instincts I have developed to fight for them. Before I became a mother, I was shy and still am to some extent (unless I know you and then I can talk the hind leg off a donkey). I still need to stand up for my own needs more, but when it comes to my babies, I will march in there and fight the world for them.
What do you find most challenging about motherhood?
My most challenging issues have been,
- not beating myself up over mistakes made,
- keeping calm so the mistakes weren’t made in the first place,
- and raising a disabled child.
In hindsight a lack of self-care, bringing work stress home and juggling too many things were a recipe for meltdowns. Mine, not the kids.
Sometimes when you’ve had a day of seizures, Sudocrem smeared on the walls and carpet, the dog covered in soap powder and poop being tracked through the house, it’s easier to have a meltdown rather than calmly dealing with the situation. But, beating myself up over every parenting fail means I am not celebrating the wins. I need to take a step back and look at my children. How are they doing? Fine? Then move on.
What are the highlights of motherhood?
Just as there are lows, there are also highs. Successful breastfeeding was a highlight for me, especially as my mother was not encouraging and found the whole process distasteful. In addition, I had had an emergency caesarean followed by agonising mastitis.
Seeing the world through my children’s eyes makes everything seem brighter. It’s as if I’m experiencing it for the first time. Children have a contagious sense of curiosity, awe, and positivity, and produce unexpected bubbles of joy. My disabled son told me I was awesome, and he liked my (terrible) singing. Another thanked me for his freckles. My youngest asked me to dance.
Watching the wonderful individuals they are becoming. Recently, my son went paddleboarding and came back with his board loaded with rubbish. No one asked him to. It was as natural as breathing. My other son saved someone’s job when no one stood up for them. Incidents like these are the rewards and highlights of motherhood.
About your writing …
In your article in Covert Literary Magazine – Summer 2023 you include the bold statement ‘Maternity leave was never an option I gave myself.’ Can you say more about this?
There were three reasons for this.
Having lived in different countries, I was not used to the generous UK time allowance, so it wasn’t something I’d set my mind on.
Self-employed, and having purchased our first house barely before I gave birth, we couldn’t afford the drop in pay.
And from the view of a young Black woman in her twenties who had been told she was not good enough, I was determined to prove I was. I could have that emergency C-section, breastfeed but still work 12-hour shifts and do night duty. Insane.
You write too about pumping breastmilk during the drive to a 12-hour shift and pumping again before a night shift. We rarely read about expressing milk. Why do you think this is?
The short answer is cultural differences, longer UK maternity leave, and influential marketing of formula. But I could write so much more. This should be normalised, openly discussed and spaces set aside mentioning expressing in their accessibility literature. Expressing is much more the norm in the States- sadly lack of protected maternity leave mean mums return to work at or before the baby is 6 weeks old- and with paid healthcare, you tend to get an IBCLC, advice and support.
Not every mum needs to express, but some do. I returned to work when my son was weeks old. I wanted to continue breastfeed. Others express to donate milk, during cancer treatment, tongue-tie, or to include others in the feeding regime. For countries that don’t have access to clean water, electricity, or breast pumps, they routinely hand express. A technique that is never mentioned in the UK.
It’s 2023 and the majority still use American YouTube videos for reference. Has anyone told you if you have high lipase your baby won’t drink your expressed milk? (It tastes sour.) Or that the type of pump makes a huge difference. Any advice given on techniques? I hope this changes in the future.
In your short story ‘Diaspora Tabanca’ published in ‘With Our Eyes Open: Book a Break Anthology 2017: Volume 2’, pregnant Abella ponders where home is. ‘Would home soon be the place she brought up her children, where she rested her head at night? Could anyone nowadays call one place home?’ Are the thoughts of this character semi-autobiographical and how has becoming a mother affected your definition of home?
Yes, Abella is semi-autobiographical.
Defining home since becoming a mother has been a roller-coaster of emotions. From the initial crash course in the culture and habits of the environment I was in, to confusion and then acceptance. A bit like the motherhood journey itself.
I brought up my boys in Devon. I still remember my dismay and feeling of rejection as a proud new mum, at the pub sign, ‘dogs allowed, no children’. Born in the UK, I spent my childhood in the Caribbean where social gatherings tend to be all ages, and children welcomed with open arms. This expectation led to some awkward birthday parties. Initially, I opened my house to parents and siblings, serving adult food and wine. Parents left the invited child with a wave and barely a backwards glance. Only my French bestie understood my confusion as she too expected all age inclusion. I quickly learnt sausage rolls, crisps and jelly were more the norm.
This culture clash meant initially I did not feel comfortable, but things improved. Mothers are universal and someone with a young baby is absorbed into the mummy network and accepted faster into a new community. Advice given, clothes shared, it’s lovely and began to break down the barriers I felt.
Over time, as I watched my boys grow and feel at ease in this space, the differences between countries lessened, the niggles became less painful, and I finally felt at home.
More on motherhood …
Working mum guilt and changing support networks
By the age of thirty-two, I had three boys under five.
I needed help.
A support network is an essential part of parenting and don’t beat yourself up or weep if this changes over time. Friendships do. It took me a long time to recognise and accept that. The old saying is apt. Friends for a reason, friends for a season and friends for life.
My first support network was the antenatal mum group. So close, sharing baby milestones, I thought we would be friends forever, but geographical and life changes meant we drifted apart. So, what next?
The next stage is usually the school mum network. You lock eyes at the school gates. The stay-at-home mums, the working mums, the glamorous mums who make you wrap your coat tightly over slippers, joggers, and food-stained T-shirts, and wonder if you fit into any of the cliques.
For me, working as a vet, different schools, and my middle child being disabled, meant those relationships were difficult to sustain.
Perhaps when you have ‘normal’ kids it’s hard to visit someone with an autistic child that has daily seizures and learning delay. Or maybe it was just too hard on my part to maintain these friendships amid the continuous round of medication, hospitals, hoping your child doesn’t die, and absence of family support.
Ah, family, I haven’t mentioned the grandparent or extended family support have I. That’s because it wasn’t there. One side of the family lived abroad and stated clearly when they visited, they were here for a holiday, not childminding duties. I guess that’s called setting boundaries. To me their visits were just extra, unwanted work, piled on top of my never-ending to do list. Exhausted, I cried myself to sleep on many occasions.
The other branch of the family was distant, still unsure of this whole mixed-race grandchild concept. Many had never met a Black person. I kid you not. (For those not in the know, my husband is white, Welsh ancestry and I’m Black, Caribbean ancestry).
At the time I resented those families with loving grandparents. I would cry in the car on the way to work after I saw those ‘perfect’ families at the school gates.
I spent much of those early days angry and wracked with guilt.
That my children didn’t have the extended family I had growing up.
That one ate too much, another not enough and the other was dairy intolerant.
That the house wasn’t clean enough.
That I was neglecting my youngest.
Each time I went to breastfeed the baby, his special needs brother would poop behind the curtains or throw a plant pot off the balcony. Any distraction so I would hug him instead. Breastfeeding inevitably ceased for my youngest. At seven months this was earlier than his older brothers. Instead of patting myself on the back for my achievement, I worried he did not get the attention that his older siblings did.
I hired au pairs to help. Some were great. Even the teenager who, fed up with my special needs son soaking her whenever she bathed him, poured a bucket of cold water on him. To be fair, bath time was much more peaceful after that. Some were more of a hindrance. I remember one relaxing in an armchair on her first evening and asking what I was cooking her for dinner! Having had a day from hell at work and then coping with three lively boys, I cannot print my answer. Then there was the one who started dressing like me and telling me she wanted a husband like mine. I thought it was hilarious, my husband less so and he took to hiding in his room whenever she appeared. A pity, she was great with the kids.
As the kids grew older and babysitting was no longer required, the need for help didn’t stop. I just had different questions.
I found online support in a group of like-minded mums. We all work in the veterinary industry. The internet plays a valuable role for those who can’t physically meet up as much as they’d like, and someone is always awake. They cover everything and anything, from the best robot vacuum to how to leave an abusive relationship. Only they can understand that the childminder closes at six, but a collapsed dog needs surgery now. Some of these extraordinary women have operated with the baby in a back carrier, the weight forgotten in the focus on saving a life.
I’ve been called out at night and taken the baby. Strapped into his car seat, sound asleep, I’d lock him safely in a kennel and get to work. I have pumped breastmilk on the morning commute, added the pressure of extra travel and studies to become an ophthalmology specialist, and been called supermom, whilst I was overwhelmed and drowning.
Perhaps at our lowest we have that lightbulb moment. Mine was when my youngest at eight, got left outside school, alone, the doors locked, and teachers gone. It was winter and dark. He’d been left until last previously when clients walked in and demanded to be seen just as I was rushing out the door. That particular day, my son phoned me and the first thing he said was don’t worry, I’m home. He should not have to reassure his mother and more seriously, he took a lift with a stranger. Another mum, but still. I will never forget that nauseating fear, that sick feeling of what could have happened.
I switched to a school with an afterschool policy, and my son got used to doing his homework (or playing on his Nintendo DS) in one of the larger kennels. That day was a valuable lesson, and I began to move towards a better work-life balance. I didn’t always get it right, but I can now look back and begin to let go of that guilt as I see my boys turn into wonderful, young people.