They say a mother's work is never done — something these past 12 months have proved all too vividly, as mums everywhere faced juggling homeschooling and sustaining busy careers, while soothing their children's fears about the pandemic.
Truly, then, tomorrow is a Mother's Day to celebrate all mums — reflected by the flood of votes from Mail readers across the country nominating some of the most deserving for our Inspirational Mother of the Year Award, hoping to win them our star prize of a luxury two-night 'Great British Breakaway' for two at a four-star QHotel.
Today, we announce our exceptional winner, who'll capture your heart with her story of self-sacrifice — not to mention the worthy finalists who have also given their all in a year which demanded so much of mothers everywhere…
Our Heroic Winner: Nurse who put Covid patients before the children she adores
Returning home from an exhausting night shift caring for sick and dying Covid patients, nurse Rachel Sutcliffe longed to cuddle her daughters.
But that was impossible. Because for three long months last year the closest she came to seeing them — the youngest then just three — was through glass patio doors.
For fear of endangering her family through her vital work as an acute care nurse, in the first lockdown Rachel sent her daughters to live with her parents. And although her parents only lived across the road, it may as well have been miles for all she would see of them.
It was last Mother's Day when her four daughters — Sophie, ten, Olivia, eight, Hannah, six, and Evelyn, four — left to live with their nana Carol, a retired bookkeeper, and granddad Gary, a retired policeman, both in their 60s.
Covid-19 nurse Rachel Sutcliffe was unable to hug her daughters for three months as she helped treat people battling the virus. The closest she came to seeing them — the youngest then just three — was through glass patio doors
'Sending them off with their little suitcases was heartwrenching,' says Rachel, a single mum in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire.
'I explained Mummy had to work more because of all the poorly people and couldn't be with them for a few days.'
Because in truth, Rachel didn't know then how long they would be apart — nor how hard she would find it.
'I cried every day. I had no idea how much I'd crave all those little Mum things like being able to cuddle them and kiss them goodnight. I even took their teddies to bed with me because they smelt of my girls.'
But as a nurse with 16 years' experience, Rachel knew her skills were sorely needed. And as a single mum, the family rely entirely on her income.
'I couldn't let my colleagues and patients down,' she says. 'Yet I felt terribly guilty, both for my girls and for my parents. Mum and Dad also foster two children, so they ended up with six children in a three-bedroom house.'
The moment she got in from her 12-hour night shifts, Rachel would FaceTime her daughters. 'Every day they asked: 'Can we come home soon?' It hurt but I just had to keep saying: 'Soon.'
'They put notes on my car that I'd find on my way to work, saying: 'We love you, Mummy. We're so proud of you.'
Three times a week, Rachel stood in her parents' back garden and waved to the girls through the patio doors. 'Sometimes that made it even harder. Evelyn would try and open the door. I would put my palm against hers on the glass and go home and sob.'
Rachel's agonising decision proved to be the right one, however. In late April, she tested positive for Covid. Her breathing became laboured; her oxygen levels plummeted so low she had to be taken to hospital.
'I didn't tell the children I was sick because they would have been terrified.'
After a day in hospital and six weeks at home recuperating, Rachel returned to the frontline in May.
Only in June, when cases began to fall, did Rachel feel safe having the girls home.
The reunion was magical. 'As soon as the girls saw me, they pelted into my arms. We all cried. They spent the evening cuddling me and stroking my hair.
Although Evelyn was clingy for a few weeks, Rachel is convinced the girls have suffered no ill effects. So much so that they went to live with her parents again in November when cases rose.
As for being crowned Inspirational Mother of the Year, Rachel is characteristically modest: 'But I just did what all mums do. I put my children first. I missed them a million times a day. But I'm so proud of them and so grateful to my own wonderful mum.'
The crafty queen with six to teach at home
It's easy to imagine how people reacted when they heard Deborah Bowers-Street was homeschooling her six children — and looking after her five-month-old baby.
'People are aghast when I tell them I was surprisingly calm,' says Deborah, 43, the director of a building company who lives in Havant, Hampshire, with her partner Simon, 41, an electrician.
Deborah, who also owns Bramble Crafts, a business selling crafting templates and software, and had to juggle her own work around homeschooling, admits to having a secret weapon: 'I taught the children from a young age to make their own meals. They also each have one chore per day.'
Deborah Bowers-Street said she stayed 'surprisingly calm,' despite juggling her own business with homeschooling six children
Between them the children — Mollie, 16, Kinsie, 15, Matthew, 13, Sophie, 12, Aleana, eight, Aurora, seven — managed the vacuuming, loading and unloading the dishwasher, washer and tumble drier.
All six children would come downstairs for breakfast at 8am, start schoolwork at 9am and finish at 3pm.
'I'm very lucky my older four kids are smart, studious and happy to work independently' says Deborah, also mum to five-month-old Grace.
Mollie is at college studying A-levels in psychology and sociology and a BTEC in health and social care, so had assignments to complete, while the other three elder children are at secondary school, with work set online together with live lessons.
In testament to Deborah's care and finely tuned routine, the children thrived at home.
'Tasks that take an hour at school were often completed in 20 minutes at home. So Matthew took it upon himself to study for a diploma in computer programming to fill the time. Meanwhile, Sophie initiated her own project learning about Henry VIII.'
While the eldest powered through their lessons, Deborah would teach Aleana and Aurora, often while holding Grace.
Smooth as it might sound, Deborah admits the first few weeks of the latest school closure proved very stressful. 'I have a garden office that I often retreated to during the first lockdown to spend time alone, but didn't feel the need this time — amazingly!'
Special needs takes a special kind of love
Caring for three children — two with special needs — is tough at the best of times. But it takes a very special mum to steer her family through the last year when help has disappeared, and still emerge smiling.
Rhiannon Burden's two-year-old daughter, Ivy, has Down's syndrome while her stepson, Jagger, 13, suffers from a severe muscle-wasting condition called Duchenne muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair.
Tragically, in January, the family also learned that Jagger's life is now severely limited.
'It's really ramped up the pressure to ensure every day counts,' says Rhiannon, 37, a former office manager who lives in Romsey, Hants, with her fiancé James Curtis, 45, a businessman. They also have a daughter, Evie, aged nine.
it takes a very special mum to steer her family through the last year when help has disappeared, and still emerge smiling, but Rhiannon Burden has managed to
Somehow, on top of everything else, Rhiannon is also studying remotely for a Masters degree in psychology of science.
The couple's flat has no special adaptations, which makes life doubly hard as Jagger needs help with everything from dressing to bathing. Meanwhile, Ivy cannot be left unwatched.
'I'm not sure I've managed to go to the loo alone this entire year,' Rhiannon says. 'My days start at 4.30am with Ivy shaking me awake to play with her.
Rhiannon and James decided to homeschool Jagger and Evie during lockdowns. Covid restrictions meant swimming and physio sessions were cancelled.
Undeterred, Rhiannon set up a gym and a boxing ring.
'We turned the garden into an obstacle course and had regular sports days,' recalls Rhiannon.
'Few children with Jagger's condition live into their 20s. In January, the family got the devastating news that his heart is starting to fail.
'But when he asked me how long he had left, I told him none of us know how long we have, and promised every day would be special.'
'This year has been exhausting but it has been a privilege to spend more time with the kids.'
Four kids, 4,000 pupils... now that's a handful!
Homeschooling two children would be enough for many.
Add to that the care of not one, but two babies born a year apart, and most of us would turn grey.
But include a highly demanding day job as managing director of a chain of some 19 private schools and nurseries, providing education for some 4,000 children in the middle of a pandemic — and, well, you can see why we felt Libby Nicholas was a worthy finalist in our awards.
Libby Nicholas was a worthy finalist in our awards after she homeschooled her two children, while raising two babies and coping with a highly demanding day job as managing director of a chain of some 19 private schools and nurseries, providing education for some 4,000 children
Ex-headmistress Libby, 41, lives in Surrey with her partner, Benedick Ashmore-Short, 44, and children Isabella, 13, Hero, eight, Beaumont, 19 months and Benedict, seven months.
While giving birth last July in the pandemic was stressful enough, Libby had only given birth 12 months previously.
Also, Libby, as managing director of Dukes Education, was responsible for the learning for thousands of other children.
Despite being regarded as vulnerable during her pregnancy, Libby regularly toured 'her' schools. She was back in class in September last year — two months after Benedict's birth.
'Teachers have been total heroes. Everyone's gone the extra mile,' says Libby.
She was even in school on New Year's Eve to train parents to supervise Covid testing.
'I would have one baby in my arms and another crawling at my feet during Zoom meetings,' she says. 'Then one of the girls would ask for help with a lesson.'
The whole family are hugely proud of Libby's dedication.
'I worry I am shortchanging my own children,' says Libby, whose day starts at 6am.
'But a few weeks ago Issy told me: 'Mum, we are fine. We understand you have 4,000 others to look after.''