How my mother taught me about bravery, identity and human rights

Lyndsey Sambrooks-Wright,Lyndsey Sambrooks-Wright has been working as a criminal and family barrister in London since 2008. She was shortlisted for Jordan’s Young Family Barrister of the Year award in 2012. Lyndsey has more recently begun working as a family mediator alongside her legal practice and writes on both topics. She is keenly interested in protecting human rights (particularly women’s rights and transgender rights).

I spent a lot of time when I was a child doing handstands.

In the swimming pool, against the wall of our house (inside our house when I could get away with it) and in the school playground. Our school uniform was a standard 80s get-up: striped cotton pinafore dress in the summer, skirt and jumper in the winter. Neither combination is conducive to handstands, unless a chubby child is particularly keen to display their stomach – replete in M&S knickered glory – to a bunch of unforgiving seven-year-olds.

As a child, I was therefore left with two options. Forgo handstands in favour of a more ladylike pastime (braiding each other’s hair, for example) or tuck my skirt into my knickers. The latter won out and I continued my handstands uninterrupted for some time.

Unfortunately, as the years ran on and pre-pubescent self-consciousness took over, the knicker trick failed to suffice. It seemed like handstands were done for – paraphernalia of childhood that were no more salvageable than bedtime stories and the tooth fairy (and I didn’t give up that without a fight).

It hadn’t escaped my mother’s notice, however, that half of the playground didn’t have this problem. Half of the playground was able to hang upside down off climbing frames, turn cartwheels and do handstands wherever they chose. That half of the playground was able to wear trousers. My mother decided that there was no reason why my long hair and chromosomal make-up should stop me from wearing the same.

It took my mother some time to convince the other school governors to agree. Even when my mother succeeded, I was the only child to take up the offer: for the entire year, I was the only girl in my school to wear trousers. But I did manage some truly epic handstands.

My mother didn’t stop there. As a clinical psychologist, she undertook therapeutic work in inner city Liverpool with mothers and children in often desperate circumstances. Many mothers facing the removal of their children by Local Authorities have my mother to thank that their children remained at home. Conversely, children in the saddest of situations relied on my mother to ensure that they did not grow up in abusive conditions or inappropriate care homes. These women and children have identities stretching outside the outline drawn for them partly due to my mother’s actions.

At times, the system seriously failed some of these children. When that happened, my mother looked after them herself. My siblings and I were some of the first fee-paying children from the posh Merseyside suburbs to attend an inner-city nursery. Because of my mother’s work, we would sometimes find playmates joining us for Christmas or a few months of respite. One girl never left our family and became my foster sister.

Because of my mother’s links with some of the most deprived areas of Liverpool, she was particularly concerned when the Toxteth riots broke out in July 1981. Arising from the heavy-handed treatment of the black community by Merseyside police, rioting broke out on Friday 3rd July. Over that weekend, pitched battles took place between police and rioters in which petrol bombs and paving stones were thrown and property was set on fire. Police baton charges were ineffective and police reinforcements were drafted in from forces across England.

Toxteth at that time was heavily populated; there was an abundance of council housing, the streets were narrow and difficult to navigate. During the riots, many streets were barricaded by burning vehicles or blocked by ongoing street battles. My mother received a telephone call from a friend who lived in central Toxteth. The rioting was getting closer and she was scared. My mother’s friend was white, her daughter was mixed race; not always an easy combination in Toxteth in 1981. My mother drove alone into the middle of the riots to bring her friends to safety.

Most importantly, my mother has helped women find their identity when many others would deny them their right to do so. The advance of human rights for transgendered people has been slow in the United Kingdom and continues to be problematic. My mother was responsible for the only NHS transgender clinic in the North-West for over 25 years. During that time, my mother supported and assisted countless men to transition to a female gender.

Whilst it may seem minor in comparison, my mother was also the only married mother I knew at school who kept her own surname. Nearly 40 years later, she still receives letters from friends and family who seem to think that she uses my father’s name in secret. Incidentally, when I left the anti-handstand primary school, I changed my name by deed poll to include both my parents’ names. It didn’t seem right just to choose one.

What is a dangerous woman? I believe that it is a woman who helps others to find their identity, especially when that sense of self does not conform to convention. A woman who swims against the mainstream, confronts a patriarchal hierarchy and enables other women to do the same.

My mother doesn’t accept that she has done anything special. She is rather embarrassed that I’m writing this at all. But she has helped me to form an identity that I will never lose. As a barrister, my name is my reputation. The bravery that I hope to have learnt from my mother is my livelihood.

And should I ever get married, I will not be changing my name.


One thought on “Upending convention

Comments are closed.