Photographer Ronan McKenzie is well known for her exquisite, emotive and searingly beautiful portraits. She has an openness that allows her to engage with the people she shoots in a unique way. You feel like they trust her implicitly and are in the moment with her when she captures the shot. Her captivating personality isn’t something she just turns on for work and it isn’t something she has just arrived at over night.
Ronan, alongside her brothers and sister, Jay, 28, Marcel, 26 and Siobhan, 29, have been the life’s work of Margaret, their mum. It has been her approach (along with the support of super dad, Roy) to raising her children that has allowed them to the flourish into the people they are today. They remain a tight-knit family that has just got tighter as Siobhan, the oldest sibling, has found her way back home to raise her son Eli under the nurturing guidance of Margaret.
Ronan got her mum and Siobhan together to ask them about how their different childhoods impacted both of their approaches to motherhood, how they’re finding this special time of caring for Eli together and what motherhood has taught them about life.
Ronan Mckenzie: Mum, let’s start with you. Is there anything that you’ve taken from your childhood that informed your approach to motherhood?
Margaret: My childhood was very disciplined. I didn’t have any particular affection or warmth from anyone apart from my grandmother. My upbringing was very Victorian, children were supposed to be seen and not heard. When I became a mum, I looked at how I felt and how I wanted to be treat as a child. That was a big influence.
RM: What was one of the biggest challenges of motherhood for you?
M: The biggest challenge was not replicating my upbringing. It was shifting my perspective from myself to Siobhan (her being the eldest). To focus on what she wanted, what her needs were as opposed to the conditioned way that I was brought up. Basically, what does this child need and how can I help facilitate her to get the best out of life?
RM: So, when you were approaching motherhood did you have an idea of the kind of family you wanted to nurture or did you go with the flow?
M: Well initially I didn’t really want any children. I didn’t even really want to get married.
RM: Oh great!
M: When I was younger I wanted to be rich enough to have an orphanage and give children that needed a home, a home. But then once I did get married and I decided that I did want to have children then it was more of an organic way.
I watched Siobhan as she grew. I just really worked with her as she went along and saw what her needs were and I thought, “Okay this is what she needs now.”
RM: Siobhan, what lessons did you take from your childhood that have helped your approach to motherhood?
Siobhan: Wow. Lessons are kinda the wrong word. I’ve picked up more of a general ethos to being a mother. It has been more mum’s no-nonsense strategic approach to life that I’ve adopted. Always be prepared but also have fun with it.
RM: And Siobhan do you think that’s how you’re gonna continue with Eli or do you have an idea of how you would like to parent and how you would like to approach being his mum?
S: I feel like the way mum brought me up was to empower me to make my own choices and decisions. She gave me some discipline and structure like bedtimes, but in general it was a very empowered childhood. I would like to do exactly the same for Eli. To have a child-led approach to bringing him up so that his personality is allowed to come up naturally. A way where you’re not to trying to restrict them or put your expectations onto them, you’re just trying to give them space to let their personality blossom. That’s what I’m trying to do and how I was brought up.
RM: And do you think that in learning these things and structuring that life for Eli it’s changed the way that you are, or changed your outlook on life?
S: Yeah definitely. I’m a lot less willing to put up with nonsense because I don’t have space to put up with it anymore. Before Eli I have felt that I was a very autonomous person but there were areas of my life that I wasn’t actually very autonomous and I was just going with whatever was happening. Now I feel I’m the same across all areas of my life. I feel like more of a complete person.
RM: Do you agree with that mum? Did motherhood influence the rest of your personality?
M: Oh, definitely. Before children I would generally let people have more control over what I did. I tended to give people more control over my feelings and things like that. But, when I had Siobhan then obviously when you and the others came along, I realised that you only had me and your Dad to fight your corner. It made me less tolerant of people pushing me around and people taking advantage of me because I had to be strong enough to stand up for my children.
RM: And how was the physicality of motherhood? Having four children and being really active and playing with us and carrying books and toys and things like that? When we had things at school like skipping you would always be there leading the skipping workshops.
M: I just loved it. I loved it. I’ve gotten to the stage now I realise it was an honour and a privilege to have four lovely children. You are in essence my gift to the world. So, I loved it. I was dog tired as Siobhan is experiencing now…
S: Beyond tired!
M: When you don’t have a child you just do not understand how tiring it is. But it wasn’t thrust on me, it was something that I wanted to do. I just went with the tiredness. There was never a moment when I thought, “Oh I don’t want to do this.” I loved every moment of it. That is the truth, it’s been a very rewarding experience.
RM: Siobhan, how is it for you having mum so close now you have Eli?
S: Me and mum are very close but it’s also gone to a whole new level. I’ve actually been able to experience Mum as an adult, as in how she would have been when I was a child, that’s how I’m experiencing her right now. Whilst I was a child I didn’t really appreciate or know anything, I was just like, “Okay I guess that’s where food is coming from.” But now truly appreciate her, I truly appreciate her.
RM: And is there anything from our childhood that you would change or that you won’t do with Eli that mum did with us?
S: It’s a strange one. I kinda feel like every aspect of how I was brought up, I would do the same with Eli. The focus on exploration and education in an enjoyable way, not like learning how to do algebra or pass you’re A-level, more learning about whatever part of life that you want to.
I remember mum, the mum who would make me stay at the dinner table finishing off my work sheet—I wasn’t allowed to watch Blue Peter or something in the evening until I’d finished all of my work. I remember the same mum would patiently let me mould my bread into a fantastical creation because she didn’t want to squash my creativity. So, even though there was a sort of disciplinary side and focus on education she also let me be who I wanted to be. I definitely want to do exactly the same for Eli.
RM: And mum how have you found motherhood change as we’ve grown up? Have you found it difficult to take a step back or have you enjoyed watching us grow and develop and turn into adults and people that can teach you things as well?
M: The empty nest syndrome is a true experience. All my energies went into looking after the four of you but then all of a sudden, I had to think, “What do I want do?” You all have the ability and your future is in your hands now. So, for me now it’s about working out what I do with the rest of my life.
RM: And how do you feel now being a grandmother? How does it feel watching your first daughter become a mum and helping to care for her and your grandson?
M: They say that you only know how well you bring your children up once they start having children so basically, I realised that okay I didn’t do a bad a job with Siobhan!
RM: Siobhan what’s the one lesson that you want Eli to learn from a young age?
S: Trust himself.
M: Yes, trust himself. When Siobhan first went to school I said to her if you are standing and everybody’s going in one direction and you feel you want to go in the opposite direction but nobody’s going in that direction, just go on your own. Don’t follow everybody else because nobody is going in the direction you want to go in.
S: I love that lesson now.
RM: Was there anything else to do with motherhood that you would like to share with one another?
M: I would basically say that it is one of the hardest but the most rewarding tasks, but it’s very important to remember that you, your actions have an impact. The way that I brought Siobhan up isn’t just going to impact Siobhan, it’s gonna impact on El, and then it’s gonna impact on any children he may have. It’s a rolling thing that you’re doing and it’s very, very important to remember that because you’re giving something to the world. My actions are gonna come through my children.