Sophia Money-Coutts: ‘I’d rather sort out my mum’s love life than my own’

In the second of our revealing new series exploring the unique relationships between mothers and daughters, novelist and journalist Sophia Money-Coutts and her mother Lucy Deedes discuss divorce, dealing with cancer – and dating in different decades.

Sophia and mum Lucy
Sophia with her mother Lucy in 2018.

Sophia’s story

Sophia Money-Coutts, 35, is an author and former Tatler journalist

Mum is a rather wonderful mixture of homely and glamorous. To me, growing up in the West Sussex countryside with a plethora of dogs, chickens and ponies, she was always very beautiful and stylish but at the same time, the kind of person who would carry a pheasant egg round in her bra to help it hatch. That amalgam of posh but eccentric sums up my childhood.

Looking back, it was all quite Mary Poppins: my dad Crispin worked long hours in the City, leaving Mum at home with me, my sister Rosie, now 31, and brother Drum, now 33.

I don’t think it was always easy for her and when I was eight my parents separated. They both did their best to shield us from the fallout, though when I was ten my Mum moved to the Scottish Borders with her second husband, which meant the upheaval of moving and a
new school where I didn’t settle.

I know Mum felt guilt when her second marriage broke down when I was 18 – that somehow, she had messed up her kids twice. I’m definitely sceptical about marriage myself and am still single aged 35. But while I’m sure a therapist would say it’s down to growing up under the umbrella of two divorces, I see it less as a shortcoming than a helpful pragmatism.

But the upside of those two divorces is that Mum emerged on to the dating scene at about
the same time I did – albeit her in her late 40s to my late teens – and over the years, there have been many bonding hours spent dissecting our dating disasters. It was a whole new world to Mum. She’d got together with my dad when she was 18, so she had never had to go through that terrible business of ‘Is he ever going to text me back?’ It was a huge learning curve for her.

It’s never felt remotely weird – we’ve always been open about sex and relationships. In fact, as a family, we discuss sex in the sort of detail that some people would find extraordinary.

I have found myself feeling protective, though. I say to people that I would rather sort out my mum’s love life than my own, and I felt that particularly strongly when she was ill.

When I was 25, Mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer – the first of three diagnoses over the next few years. On the third occasion it had spread to her lymph nodes.

Of course, being the stoic character that she is, Mum completely played it down. She once
compared her cancer to an officious carrier pigeon who kept coming back. There must have been moments when she was terrified but she never let us know. She was so brave that the rest of us had no option but to be the same. Luckily, she emerged on the other side, and since then she’s had this sort of second wind and has become a flowering portfolio career woman – writing books and articles, making curtains and marmalade, all sorts.

My earliest memories of wanting to be a writer stem from her. While there’s a strong journalistic tradition in the family in the form of my maternal grandfather (the newspaper editor and former politician Bill Deedes) and uncle (the writer and former Telegraph MD Jeremy Deedes), ever since I can remember Mum has always written lovely lyrical columns and magazine articles about the country.

We’re constantly sending each other books and I’ll WhatsApp her on a daily basis asking if she has read one piece or another. If I get a touch of writer’s block, I often imagine what I
would say if I was emailing it to Mum. In return, she’s my biggest champion – I only found out recently that she’s got a folder at home in which she keeps copies of all the articles I’ve written. I was so touched, although it also makes me feel guilty as I am pretty sure that had circumstances been different, she would have wanted the career that I have had. But she was a different generation – busy raising three children who came along in quick succession and then my younger half-brother Henry from her second marriage.

When people say I’m quite similar to her I take it as the highest compliment.

Sophia and mum as a baby
Sophia, aged around one, with her mum in 1986.

Lucy’s story

Lucy Deedes, 65, is a writer and the daughter of the late former newspaper editor Bill Deedes.

Sophia – or Soph, as I call her – was my first child. I’d had a series of miscarriages beforehand, so she was extra precious and I was rewarded with a very easy, lovable baby.

Of all my children, Soph was the most prone to tears but also the studious bookworm. Once, when asked what her interests were, she said reading and writing. Her siblings, of course, never let her forget it as they thought it was so dull. It was no surprise to me that she became a successful journalist. Not just because she grew up surrounded by people tapping away, but because she’s always had huge drive.

I do feel bad about putting them all through divorce not once but twice. The only compensation is that it has made them exceptionally close as siblings.

It helps, too, that we’ve never struggled to share our feelings – or been squeamish about sex. I remember explaining the facts of life after they saw a mare being covered by a stallion at a friend’s stud farm. None of them turned a hair, so I broke it to them that this sort of thing wasn’t confined to horses. All of them were slightly horrified, but it set the tone for a generally matter-of-fact – and frequently raucous – exchange of love and dating stories.

READ MORE: ‘Being a pop star meant nothing’ Shirlie and Harley Kemp on the bond that saw them through the toughest of times

We are very open about our dating catastrophes, and having found myself meeting all sorts of people in my late 40s and 50s, it’s been helpful having my daughters steer me through the morass of modern dating. Soph is particularly intuitive; she just seems to know when I need a phone call.

When it comes to love, Soph and I are quite similar – we wear our hearts on our sleeves, fall hard and possibly make fools of ourselves. I know one day she wants a husband and family and when I see her holding a beloved godchild, I feel a pang on her behalf. It’s the one thing you can’t help your children with, of course.

I’ll confess, there are times when I have been a little envious of her. If I had my time again, I’d do what she’s done: get myself a proper career and wait to get married rather than have a family then muddle along professionally.

What I admire about her most is her ability to just get her nose down and to get on with it. Last Christmas the whole family rented a cottage in Norfolk. We joined the crowds to watch the Queen and the rest of the royals attend church at Sandringham on Christmas Day as Soph was reporting on it. As she scuttled to the coffee shop to write her piece it made me think about how much my dad would have approved of her dedication. I’m very proud of her.

Sophia and mum Lucy in 1985
In 1985.

Sophia and Lucy in four

Describe each other in three words.

Sophia: Tenacious, witty, kind.

Lucy: Brave, funny, intuitive.

Their worst habit?

Sophia: Losing her contact lenses.

Lucy: She’s a huge sock thief.

When you’re together…

Sophia: We drink way too much wine.

Lucy: We talk nonstop.

Your favourite memory of each other.

Sophia: The letters she wrote to me when I was at boarding school. Ninety per cent were about how the animals were getting on.

Lucy: The kids made this book together called About Our Mother, full of pictures cut out from magazines. One of Sophia’s contributions was a page called ‘What my mother likes to do’ complete with a picture of the sun, a dog and a bottle of wine. It makes me smile every time I think about it.

Sophia’s latest book What Happens Now? (HQ, £7.99) will be published in paperback on 16 April.

As told to Kathryn Knight