Sara Pascoe On The Woman Who Helped Her Survive, In More Ways Than One

'Her life, her personality, her needs and her wants were all obscured by my own.'

There is a young woman opposite me on the tube. She is drunkenly lolling, skirt riding up, head leaning on the glass behind her. Her wedges are rain-splashed, on her leg a streak of crusted mud. She's got green in her hair, braces on her top teeth. She might be 14, she might be 20. I'm filled with maternal instinct, despite being nearly as drunk as she is, and I stay on past my stop to guard her like an egg.

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I didn't sit on her – I'm not a weirdo. I'm just a normal 35-year-old woman staring creepily at a sleeping stranger, ready to snarl if any predators move too close. But the egg hatched without incident and jumped off at Highgate, leaving me heading in the wrong direction, wondering if she lived near the station and hoping she got home OK.

How am I me and not her any more? When I was 14, 15, 16, I lived for clubbing. I grew up in Romford, a 20-minute ramble from Hollywood nightclub (famous because Martine McCutcheon might have been in there once), Pulse (where the bouncers had no lower age limits – seriously, a teenager could bring her baby), and Time and Envy (two clubs for the price of one, with a staircase that everyone fell down on the way out). I never had any money but I knew how to get drinks (ask men in suits), how to hitch a lift (ask men in cars), and I took shortcuts through parks (how was I not murdered?).

And before you assume my rancid social life was the result of lax parenting or neglect, I didn't have permission to go. My mum fought hard to keep me in: she hid clothes and double locked the doors, she confiscated shoes and dinner money. But she had to sleep sometimes and, when she did, out I'd run.

My mum fought hard to keep me in: she hid clothes and double locked the doors, she confiscated shoes and dinner money. But she had to sleep sometimes and, when she did, out I'd run.

Climbing down drain pipes and squeezing through windows, retrieving copied keys and wearing my sister's too-small plimsolls. I was an intensely committed burglar, stealing my own freedom.

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Through screaming rows, as my mum begged, cried and despaired of me, I fought back as though she were my kidnapper or some hyper-emotional prison warden. I thought she hated me and was jealous. Why else would she want to stop my fun? 'Just you wait,' she yelled once as I fell noisily into the bathroom at 4am having enjoyed pound-a-pint night at Pacific Edge, 'until you have kids.'

It's the sort of thing all parents say to their thoughtless offspring, alongside, 'I was your age once' (how could that be true? She was so old now) and 'Don't treat this place like a hotel' (I'd never been to a hotel but I knew they didn't lock you in and hide your shoes). 'When I have kids, I'll go out clubbing with them,' I protested stroppily. 'And I'll buy them drinks and dresses because I'll never forget how it feels to be a teenager. But I'll never even have kids because it clearly makes people so uptight and miserable!' Sorry, Mum.

I'm now the same age she was then, and I appreciate her so differently, as a woman in her own right rather than as a caregiver alone. A woman who gossips about Emmerdale characters as if she knows them, who'll put on a ballgown to vacuum ('I've got nowhere else to wear it'), a woman who hasn't knowingly eaten carbs since 2002.

I appreciate her so differently, as a woman in her own right rather than as a caregiver alone.

I feel guilty about the years I treated her as a chef (much criticised) and taxi driver (one star: too much nagging and Michael Bolton), as a cleaner ('Where is my outfit? I left it safely on the bathroom floor') and personal shopper ('I'm not wearing that').

Her life, her personality, her needs and her wants were all obscured by my own. That is, until I turned 18: the age she was when she became pregnant with me.

When I was 18, I moved out of home. I decided to try to be an actor, so took myself off to slum it with nine humans and a million mice in a red Leytonstone house. I was skint and emotional, I was ambitious with no self-belief. I could barely function as an adult; I slept through alarm clocks and lost train tickets mid-journey. I discovered flatmates are even less understanding about red wine puke in the kitchen sink than relatives. I could barely keep myself alive.

How had my mum managed all this with a baby as well? As I got older, I continued to contrast my life with hers. The holidays she hadn't been on, the nights out she'd been denied.

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By the age of 25, my mum was bringing up three girls by herself with no financial support (Dad moved out to be a jazz musician and live with other ladies). When I was 25, I was still thinking long and hard about what I wanted to be when I grew up. Luckily for me, I had most of those thoughts while sunbathing on Australian beaches.

Only now do I appreciate the long hours my mum worked in comparison to my own laziness. I have friends who are single mums and I see the support they need, the life-juggle necessary to get their kids to school, themselves to work and prevent anyone from starving to death.

Only now do I appreciate the long hours my mum worked in comparison to my own laziness.

I was baffled by my mum's exercise rituals as a child. Who does voluntary PE? Who would choose to get up early and run around a field in the cold? Who says they'd go crazy without the release of a swim or a step class? Me, 10 years later, that's who.

It was the same with her studying. I hated school and didn't believe that a single thing the teachers said had any relevance to me and my future pop career (a pop career that is still in the future –I just haven't picked an outfit yet). Many of my memories of my mum are of her in the bath with a book, utilising her limited spare time by simultaneously washing and studying. She left school with no qualifications and now has a PhD. If I seem like I am bragging about this, I am.

She inspired my ambitions, not by telling me that I could do anything, but by showing me. If I love reading now (and I do), it wasn't nurtured in lap-sitting story time, but because my mum demonstrated how knowledge is strength and a weapon. Knowing more than your work colleagues is a strategy for success, gaining qualifications is the only way out of poverty (unless you're a character in a film, in which case some guy with a square jaw will be along in a second to save you).

The more you learn, the more becomes possible in life.

But what I feel guiltiest about – where I judged my mother most harshly – was her relationships. I berated her for having no friends, all the while not realising she simply didn't have the time. I hated her boyfriends and I hated her for inflicting them upon me. I swore at them, spat in their teacups and hid their car keys. The perfect karmic punishment for my teenage rebellions against Tim, Roy, AJ and Geoff (I don't know why she only fancied guys with dogs' names) was that I became her.

Of course I did: now it is me who defends the cruelty of emotionally unstable men because I love them (all of them, bring them to me). Now it is Mum telling me that I can do better, that I deserve more. So I'm trying to be stronger, I'm trying to be OK on my own. Just like she was, and now is.

Women in films might need good-looking men to save them, but we don't. We can save ourselves.

Women in films might need good-looking men to save them, but we don't. We can save ourselves.

There is a wonderful part in The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, where she contemplates that all of us, every single person who survived childhood, did so because a diligent caregiver made sure we didn't choke on anything. For each of us, someone cared enough to fish things out of our mouths and save our lives daily. It's such an ordinary and profound thing to think about. Being vulnerable before we knew it.

My protestations of 'I didn't ask to be born' as a teenager were because I didn't want to be grateful. My mum said, 'You'll understand when you have kids', but I haven't (so ha, I still win).

Our relationship is good now, the kind of healthy, unconditional friendship you can only have with someone who has seen you at your worst and cleaned up the sick. I don't have kids, but I know that you don't have to be a parent to feel maternal.

Becoming an adult and living life ourselves teaches us what we owe them, those parents we didn't realise were people.

Sara Pascoe: Animal is on tour 10th March - 29th April - see sarapascoe.com for details.

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