When two childhood friends became first-time mothers they found the experience as challenging as it was joyful. Helping each other along the way, Sophie Taylor and Shelley Lawrence decided to reach out to other women and ‘hi mama’, a digital library of letters written by mothers to themselves, was born. Lisa Millard meets the mamas.
Listening to Sophie Taylor and Shelly Lawrence chat about their friendship is heart-warming and comes with a soundtrack of laughter. Meeting in a dance class at secondary school in St Neots, the pair have gone through the stuff of life together. “She’s always just been there,” says Shelley.
“We’re part of a group of nine close girl friends who have known each other since school and although all spread out geographically we are all very much in each other’s lives.”
Shelley, a marketing consultant and mum to Belle and Elsie, was the first in the group to have a child. “I hadn’t known him for long,” she says of now-husband-of-seven-years James. “We fell madly in love and decided it was a good idea to live in Australia. We had a lovely apartment there, sponsorships for good jobs and then I fell pregnant. Originally we planned to have the baby there but I was 24 and I just couldn’t do it without my friends and my mum so we came home.”
“Your life changed so much,” says Sophie, a communications manager at the University of Cambridge. “But it was great when I had Felix as you were that little bit ahead and I could ask you anything.”
After getting over the shock of childbirth taking unexpected turns – Shelley had invested in the idea of an all-natural yoga-breath birth but got two emergency C-sections under general anaesthetic, and Sophie had a quicker-than-expected and unplanned home birth – the friends found themselves struggling to cope at times and wondering what had happened to them.
Both say they found the first few years of motherhood more challenging than anticipated. “I hadn’t really considered it at all,” says Sophie. “I just thought how lovely it would be to have a child.”
And of course it has been lovely. But there has also been doubt, loneliness and fear. Felix, now 3, was slow to take to solids, has a peanut allergy, was breast fed for 18 months (despite Sophie thinking it would be impossible) and has not yet slept through the night. “I’d done NCT and it was all nice and fluffy but there was nothing that could have prepared me for the reality.”
Shelley had complications during her second birth that led to her being separated from baby Elsie for the first six days. “It was tough,” she says. “I’d not done anything the right way and just felt a complete and utter failure on all fronts. It took me a long, long time to get over that.”
While their experiences of motherhood were entirely different they both felt lacking. “And that’s partly why we set up ‘hi mama’,” says Shelley. “We realised there is no one way of being a mum. You do your best and that means you are a good mum. We hope to relieve that feeling of failure for other mums by showing that there are so many different versions of motherhood and that there is no ‘right way’.”
‘Hi mama’ was launched on Instagram and as a website in 2017. Sophie has a ballet-shoe box and Shelley a Jaffa Cake tub full of letters the friends have written to one another over the years and these in part inspired the format. “It’s the long form,” says Sophie, “a beautiful and considered way of writing.” ‘Hi mama’ invites women to write a letter to themselves, often revisiting and reflecting on a time when they were struggling. The letters vary and reveal a diverse range of experiences, from being a disabled mum, being a mum with a chronic illness, changing relationships and mothering without having a mother, to stillbirth, a baby’s illness, post-natal depression, miscarriage and being a single-parent mum. They are poignant, engaging and often beautiful; I opened one letter and found myself reading many others, sometimes teary-eyed, immersed in a narrative of soothing ‘hi mama’ voices.
“We would never try and suggest a solution,” says Sophie. “And we turn commenting off so the letters stand alone. It is a space of no judgement. I think that is really important. And we publish every letter we receive.”
Letters are written and read by women all over the world (170 countries and counting) and Hi Mama has published 138 letters to date, posting on average one or two a week. Some come with a picture and a name while others remain anonymous.
“It’s not only a resource to read but offers a cathartic experience for women to write about their thoughts and feelings which then helps women going through that challenge now,” says Shelley. “People are trusting us with really personal letters and we appreciate every letter we receive.”
“The first time I saw that people were reading the letters in the middle of the night I was so pleased,” says Sophie, who knows the 2am loneliness having a baby who won’t sleep brings. While the friends would like to expand the ‘hi mama’ concept – perhaps a book, perhaps a podcast – the heart of mamas stays the same.
“It’s a source of strength and solidarity,” says Sophie. “And we hope it makes women feel less alone.”
See more at instagram.com/hi_mama_letters/ and hi-mama.co.uk