Mothers on the Front Line

Sophie Tweedale meets the mothers going the extra mile to make a difference to the world around them.

THE PHOTOGRAPHER

Caroline Irby, 39, is a photographer and mum to Laszlo, six, and Elodie, four. The author of A Child From Everywhere, recording displaced children from 185 countries living in the UK, her work has been shown at the Royal Festival Hall and the G8 summit. She is married to Tom, 47, a psychotherapist, and lives in Queen’s Park, London.

She says: “I’ve always felt driven to go out into the world and explore. I come from a non-conventional family – my grandad was the founder of the SAS and my parents met in a nightclub in Tehran, so I’ve always been fascinated with diversity. I love telling stories that open up other people’s realities.

“In 2009, I’d been doing a column in which children I photographed talked to me about what concerned them – from God to divorce to roller-skating! When I was asked to do the book, I jumped at the chance.

“Documenting the lives of 185 children was a major undertaking and took 16 months, but it was a moving and wonderful experience. I met children whose parents come from every walk of life, from refugees and cleaners to ambassadors, with every story imaginable.

“I’m proud of the book. When they’re old enough, I hope my children will love it. I live by the mantra you should engage with the world and try not to tread a narrow path.

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“Before kids, I would only come home long enough to have another set of jabs before jetting off to the next project, so I’ve spent the past six years being a mum and it has made me more engaged with that’s going on in children’s lives on our own doorstep. I love what I do, and think that has rubbed off on my daughter. She slings my camera around her neck and takes pictures whenever I turn my back! I recently photographed refugees in the place they first felt free, and my children met some of them. It’s all part of their normal and I’m teaching them people can lead very different lives and not to be scared of that.

“I grew up with a Filipino nanny who had children she never got to see. It made me aware of how displaced lives can be. She was my inspiration to do the book. Some of the stories I hear are sad, but I try not to become too weighed down by them. Even if you don’t want to change the way you live, getting a sense of how other people live makes you more grateful. We should all lift our gaze beyond our own orbit.

“I love being a mum, but getting out of the routines of motherhood is good for me. When I come back I appreciate what I have more. “This month, I will be photographing child refugees in Europe for UNICEF, and I plan to do a follow-up of A Child From Everywhere, visiting the children 10 years on. It would be amazing to see how their lives have developed.”

 

THE SHEPHERDESS

Amanda Owen, 41, is mum to Raven, 15, Reuben, 11, Miles, 10, Edith, eight, Violet, six, Sidney, five, Annas, three, Clem, 18 months, and Nancy, six months. She has never taken maternity leave, and is a shepherdess to a flock of 1,000 sheep in Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales. She is married to Clive, a farmer.

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She says: “I have nine children and run a 2,000-acre remote hill farm. We are 50 miles from the nearest large town and I’m a full-time shepherdess with over 1,000 sheep. I never dreamed I’d be doing this one day, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.

“My days start at 6am. My eldest has to leave by 7am to get to secondary school 30 miles away by bus. It’s a logistical nightmare, but it’s all they know and they just get on with it. The children are independent because of it and have learnt to sort themselves out.

“Clive starts on the cows, pigs and chickens, and by 8am, everyone’s clothed and fed. I put the baby in a waterproof onesie, pop her in the backpack and off we go. Every day has challenges, but I enjoy feeling part of the seasons and do everything from herding and feeding to clipping, dipping, rescuing and lambing. We go up and down hills, and I walk about five miles a day with the baby on my back. Winter can be tough, but in the summer I feel so lucky to do this job.

“I grew up in Huddersfield, a real townie, but once I met Clive and came to the farm, I felt a huge sense of responsibility to this place.

“Being a parent is the hardest job in the world. But if they are loved and well fed, what does it matter if they run wild sometimes or are grubby? What’s more important is teaching them how to care for the land.

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“Every night, I fall into bed at 10pm exhausted and look at my ruined hands! But I have a feeling of satisfaction that I’ve done something worthwhile every day.

“I am no superwoman – there’s always straw in my lounge and laundry piled up, but children never remember how tidy things were. Instead, they’ll remember how we used to bring lambs in during the winter to warm them up.

“I hope our dedication teaches the children responsibility towards others and the planet. We’re leaving our mark on the place by putting things back, planting trees and watching them grow for the next generation.

“I love that in 50 years time, someone’s child will be looking up at that tree and enjoying it. Life here can be hectic sometimes, but it’s so rewarding.”

 

THE SINGER & BLOGGER

Bethie Hungerford, 36, aka @hungermama, is a singer, blogger and mum to Charlotte, six, and Peter, three. She lives in Dulwich with her husband, Jason, a lawyer. She has grown her hair for five years to donate it to charity.

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She says: “I’d just discovered I was pregnant with Charlotte in 2010, when we were hit with the bombshell that my 14-year-old nephew, Alex, had cancer.

“He was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer. I literally fell to the ground and cried, I was so devastated at the news.

“I am very close to my sister, so it was the most terrible feeling. Alex had been skateboarding when he’d fallen and hurt his back, but a routine X-ray revealed his spine was being eaten away by cancer.

“I held his hand as he went through nine months of gruelling chemotherapy and spent each day thinking: “What can I do?” As well as being a mum, I am also a professional singer and have a blog about meal planning. I wondered what I could do to fight the feeling of sheer hopelessness. I’d donated blood in the past because I’d always believed one small hour out of my day could save someone else’s life, so I thought: “Why not donate my hair too?” I had a very short pixie cut at the time, about two inches long, so it has been a long five-year project and I’ve finally done it. I will really miss my hair – I adore braiding and curling it so much, as does my daughter, but I’ll be donating 10 inches and end up with a bob.

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“I started talking about it on my blog and Instagram page, and had a huge response. As a result, women from around the UK and the world have offered to do it with me. It has turned into a mini-army of fundraisers, and that makes me very proud.

“This summer, at Camp Bestival in July, I’ll be having it cut off live on stage with any other donors who want to join me. The money raised will be for Little Princess Trust as I want to help kids with cancer feel confident. The aim is to have around 50 of us doing it!

“Fortunately, my nephew recovered and is currently cancer-free, but my aunt was hit with Stage 4 breast cancer not long after him and is still very poorly. I am doing this for them and everyone else like them. I don’t like to make a fuss, but I know they’ll be touched by it. It is such a tiny thing to do, compared to the suffering my nephew experienced, and the upheaval and heartache those who cared for him went through, but I’m capable of doing something that might make a difference, however small.”

To donate, visit justgiving.com/fundraising/hungermama

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