Motherhood has not been a transcendental experience for me. I have moments when I absolutely love being a mother and other times when it feels like a parade of tedious chores and mini frustrations. But this is who I am now. I can’t go back and wish for another life, and I don’t want to. I have no regrets about becoming a mother, but perhaps I can take the experience for granted.
This came into absolute clarity recently when I listened to a mother speak about losing her son. This was no ordinary mother and no ordinary death. This was Doreen Lawrence, mother to Stephen, a black teenager who was killed in a racially motivated attack at a London bus stop in April 1993.
To people in the UK, the name of Stephen Lawrence is unforgettable. I wasn’t even living in London when the 18-year-old was killed, but the name has been seared into my memory because of what happened after his death. The police led a corrupt investigation into his murder, which ultimately allowed five suspects to walk free.
As a result of the Metropolitan Police Force’s bungled investigation, the Met became the subject of an in-depth inquiry. The Macpherson report, released in February 1999, found the Met to be ‘institutionally racist’. As a direct result of the report, the double jeopardy law changed in this country. As of 2005, you can be tried twice for the same murder if compelling new evidence comes to light.
Eighteen years after Stephen’s death, a new trial based on forensic evidence was called. Two of the five original suspects were convicted of the teenager’s death in January 2012 because of blood and fibre samples taken from their clothes.
Two years later I am listening to Doreen Lawrence recall some of these events in a session called In the Eye of a Media Storm. She is interviewed by BBC journalist Mark Daly, who reported on the murder case. He also presented a special programme called Time for Justice, which followed Doreen for 12 months.
I am not much taken by famous celebrities, but I am in awe of Doreen’s quiet dignity. She considers each question carefully before answering and keeps her emotions in check. There is no crying and yet sometimes I feel as if the tears are only just below the surface. She talks about losing her identity (‘sometimes I don’t recognise myself’), the break-up of her marriage under the strain (she’s now single) and how she found the media attention to be a ‘nightmare’ at times.
She explains how she is by nature a private person driven into the spotlight because of wanting justice for her son. ‘I didn’t want the attention,’ she tells Mark. ‘I do things because I know I need to do them.’
Despite her socially disadvantaged background, Doreen refused to allow people – some of them with imposing jobs and titles – to brush her off. She kept asking questions of people in authority. ‘I was able to speak in a way in which people listened to me,’ she says. This included demanding an inquiry into her son’s murder and the investigation that followed.
In what is an emotional moment, the journalist asks Doreen why this case achieved such prominence when others like it have been forgotten. She answers simply: ‘Because Stephen had me. I knew I would never let it go.’ It doesn’t come across as a boast, only the plain truth.
Mothers make sacrifices, small and big, all the time. For Doreen, however, the sacrifice was enormous. She lost herself in the 19 years she spent trying to bring her son’s killers to justice. She lost her marriage and perhaps gave up on things she might have wanted for herself.
I’d like to think I’d have the strength to do the same for my children, but I simply don’t know. The person you become after a tragedy is something you can never know until it happens to you. I certainly never want to find out what it’s like to bury a child and, worse still, lose that child in a violent crime. But I take great solace in this mother’s love for her child. You don’t have to be a parent to respect her indomitable character or to understand her immense bravery.
Doreen is now a Baroness with a seat in the House of Lords. She says she is going to use her voice to help those who don’t have one. ‘Everybody should have a voice,’ she says at the end of the session.
And wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone had a mother like her too?