Ahead of Mother’s Day, InStyle explores how women are navigating motherhood in 2018, from the role of the pregnancy selfie to new legislation empowering the working mom.
“My mom always says, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,’” says Lily Allen, sprawled out on a sofa in the lobby bar of New York’s Bowery Hotel. She’s wearing fringed denim, with her rose-tinted blonde hair pinned into a twisty updo, and I realize that the British singer’s distinct stage look, which can best be described as ‘90s grunge kid goes glitter unicorn, is actually just her look. She tilts her head back and lets out a staccato laugh. “I think it’s a good life lesson—if not a bit defeatist.”
Allen, 33, is in New York to promote her fourth LP, No Shame, out June 8. The album, and what the singer is willing to say about it, feels far more personal and raw than her previous work, possibly because of what was going on in her life while it came together. Since her late 20s, Allen has gotten married; suffered a stillbirth; welcomed her two daughters, Ethel, 6, and Marnie, 5; battled substance abuse; dealt with a stalker who broke into her home and threatened her; recently divorced the father of her kids, Sam Cooper; and come out of all of it okay—in love, even.
“I’m still trying,” she says of adjusting to her new identity as a single mom. But being able to turn to her own mother, who went through a similar transition years ago, has made it manageable. “I think that I would’ve been a lot more nervous about walking away from my marriage if I hadn’t seen her do it—and do it so successfully.”
Allen grew up seeing little of her father, actor Keith Allen, who walked out on their family when she was 4. Her mother, film producer Alison Owen, worked long hours to support her children, which left Allen feeling isolated at times. “She had her struggles and it wasn’t always easy. She wasn’t around that much when I was little because she was working so hard, but it pays dividends and she’s into what she does. She’s definitely given me confidence to be able to stand on my own two feet.”
Now, as a working mother herself, Allen worries how the demands of her own career might affect her kids. On the emotional track “Three,” written from her daughter’s perspective, Allen sings, “You say you love me, then you walk right out the door / I’m left here wanting more.” She describes the lyrics as “possibly projecting my own stuff onto my kids or just assuming that they would feel the same way about their mom, that feeling of helplessness. But [I’m] also trying not to beat myself up about it because this is my job and I have to make money to provide for us.”
In that sense, the dissolution of her marriage gave Allen newfound empathy for her mom. “I definitely eased up on her, when you realize how difficult it is to navigate on your own,” she says of their relationship now. She also recognizes that the loneliness she felt during childhood equipped her to be more sensitive to her daughters’ needs as she tours.
The key? It’s all in the goodbye, Allen says. “Communication—making sure they know where I’m going and why, and that it’s got nothing to do with them. Giving them stability and confidence.” She’s also careful not to be an overbearing presence when they do spend time together. “I think if you smother your kids, the contrast of that with the leaving—they can internalize it. If you’re saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ so much and 10 minutes later you’re out the door without proper explanations, then they would just be like, ‘But you just said you loved me and now you’re gone? What have I done?’” The advent of FaceTime also helps.
Allen has learned to be protective of her family unit, partly as a result of being traumatically stalked for seven years by a mentally ill man who accused her of plagiarism and broke into her bedroom while she was sleeping (he now resides in a mental health facility). That’s when her mom’s motto about preparing for the worst resonated most. Allen moved out of her house and beefed up security. And for a long time, she was anxious about being outside on her own. “I was very affected psychologically by it, and the court case came with a lot of anxiety,” she says, “not just for me but for the safety of my kids.”
But with that chapter behind her, Allen seems to view this as a lighter, more joyful moment. In her song “Pushing Up Daisies,” she croons about being deliriously in love, presumably with boyfriend MC Meridian Dan.
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“In romantic relationships, I definitely struggle to find my own identity and isolation. I become like an extension of my partner,” she admits, adding that she and her mom share that trait, Allen with regard to romance and her mom with regard to her children. “I think I definitely get that from her. We’re both quite co-dependent people. We live our lives through over people.”
Love as a stabilizing force is a newer concept to Allen. But the night before we meet, in a packed Music Hall of Williamsburg, she gave a shout out to her happy, healthy relationship, to a supportive roar from the audience.
She’s heeding her mother’s cautions—but it reads less as defeatism than as a rolling-with-the-punches optimism. “She’s a [positive] person and she’s also aware and is always putting safety nets out there for herself, and for us,” Allen says of her mom. “It’s like, 'Don’t get too excited.'”
With that she smiles, talking about watching her daughters “in their element,” as they grow into their personalities. But she doesn’t expect the whole single motherhood thing to be a breeze. “I mean it’s one, big, long learning process,” she says, laughing. “You never get it right.”