OPINION: Applauding CEO mum who's taken leave to support student son

Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food. Picture: Howard Barlow

Jo Whitfield, chief executive of Co-op Food - Credit: Howard Barlow

“A mother is only ever as happy as her unhappiest child,” said a friend as we discussed what was going on in our adult children’s lives.

Never a truer word spoken. Among all those tips at multiple ante-natal, post natal and parenting forums is a big glaring hole for “prepare yourself for a lifetime of angst.”

When you sign to register your children’s birth, you are signing an invisible contract for lifelong worry even when they’re old, successful and far more capable of looking after themselves than you are.

And even when everything is hunky dory for them, you will worry about the time it might not be. This is the way, however hard you try to make it different.

So, when the Co-op’s CEO Jo Whitfield revealed that she was taking four months unpaid leave to support her sons though their GCSE and A-level exams, I got it.

I didn’t want to. I wanted to say, 'oh, get over yourself. They’ve got to do stuff by themselves. Are you going into the exams with them? Take their driving test with them? Coming over all mumsy smotherer is making far too big a deal of exams. Let them stand on their own size 10s. Cut the apron strings, woman.’

That’s what I wanted, and tried hard, to think.

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What I honestly thought was: Good for you, Jo. Lucky boys and lucky you to have the chance to make them your total focus for four months, supplying wholesome food, a listening ear, stress coping mechanisms and just being there in the background if things get too tough.

It’s what being a parent is about as children grow older. Being in the background for when you’re needed.

After all, her children are those who have felt the worst impact of Covid and will this year face real exams for the first time in two years after losing crucial chunks of normal teen years.

It’s not about molly coddling, it’s about support, guidance and love - wouldn’t every parent prefer to be with their children to help them through tough times if they could?

The thought of a child or young adult in the throes of anxiety and feeling overwhelmed – and young people’s mental health is shot through like never before – and being absent when you’re needed is the worst feeling for a mother.

And, I imagine, if you’re the Co-op CEO, shelving everyday stresses of the office at the end of the day to deal with exam worries times two, and testing answers for A-level physics and GCSE English isn’t the best mix.

I’ve suffered the double exam hell so speak from experience. I remember having to dash home from work after a “disastrous” A-level exam and cancel an old friend’s hen weekend in Whitstable to support my then 18-year-old focus on the rest.

Whitfield might be accused of putting too much store by exams, but if she feels her children need her support, she’s doing what she believes is right for them.

If it had been a dad CEO, he would have received national plaudits.

We all speak about a mother’s guilt. There is no father’s guilt, which speaks volumes.

Whitfield will find that the maternal cauldron of worry continues to bubble long after they’re grown and flown.

Happy when they make their way in life, the worry never leaves. My younger son, living and working in Russia, in itself a concern with the currently political situation, has been unwell this week.

Trying to gauge what “agonising” stomach pains are on a WhatsApp call with an adult who is never ill was worrying enough without trying to fathom what access he had to Russian health care, then dealing with this worry about “letting down” his employer by taking time off, and missing out on pay.

Then, older son living the London life is anxious about successfully swerving Covid before his flight to to Beijing to work at the  Winter Paralympics, the chance of a lifetime.

I’m worrying in tandem, aware of the disappointment he will feel if he can’t go.

Does the raw worry about our children’s life being best it can be ever subside?

And do we want it to? Isn’t that the mother’s special bond?

All Whitfield is doing is saying her children come first, come what may, and it’s a privilege.

I have Covid, but thankfully I am jabbed and healthy

A week ago, I believed I was one of those untouchable ‘never Covids.’

Today, I received another “It is a legal duty to stay at home and self-isolate. You could be fined if you do not" text messages.

After what feels like a billion lateral flow tests, one finally showed positive last Friday and I became a statistic, triggering the onslaught of dictatorial NHS messages, the equivalent of the old loudspeaker on top of a van yelling:" Stay at home. Do not leave your home."

My only thought as I lost days in headache, fever, sore throats, with no sense of taste and ear ache was what the heck would it feel like if I wasn’t a triple jabbed and a fit and healthy 57 year old?

And Omicron is the mild version.