Can a mother really be best friends with a woman who doesn't have children?
After presenter Christine Lampard - a step-mother to ex-footballer husband Frank's two daughters - said she had no problem being friends with mums even though she's not one herself, Belfast Telegraph writer and mum-of-one Helen Carson and her sister, Dawn, talk about how having - and not having children - has transformed their lives.
‘Pierce didn’t divide us, he made us into a great trio’
Helen Carson (50) lives in Belfast with her son Pierce (16). She says:
From an early age I knew I wanted to be a mum. While both Dawn and I grew up playing with dolls and prams, the choice to be a mum was one I always wanted to exercise.
As a teen, parenthood was something I was certain would be part of my life. In fact, it made me incredibly sad to think about the prospect of a future with no children.
When I found out I was expecting Pierce it was simply the happiest moment of my life and I couldn't wait for him to be born. I loved being pregnant and fortunately it all went well for me. When I gave birth to Pierce in Belfast's Royal Victoria Hospital he was brought up to me and when I said "hello" to him he held out his hand to my face.
Bringing him up would not have been the experience it has been without all my family and his late dad, Seamus. But when I was in the maternity ward the person's reaction I was most looking forward to was Dawn's.
I knew she would be fiercely protective of him without encroaching on me as a mum. As a child, many others had felt her wrath if they annoyed me and I knew she would have the same attitude to Pierce.
And when his dad passed away five years ago, she kept an even more vigilant eye on Pierce and me.
Working full-time and being a mum is demanding, but I am so lucky to have both my mum, Phyllis, and Dawn nearby.
Pierce was babysat by his auntie on many occasions when he was smaller - when I ventured out for an evening, had to go to the hairdresser or just do a supermarket shop. I have always trusted her ability to look after him, as well as being grateful for that support.
It simply never entered my head that Dawn couldn't manage Pierce in my absence because she doesn't have children of her own. It would be easy to stereotype Dawn by not expecting her to either feel as connected to Pierce as I am or understand the demands of motherhood, but that is just not the case. In fact, there have been times when she is more focused on him than I am.
On a recent weekend break Pierce ordered a sandwich and when it arrived it had cheese on it, which he never eats. Dawn was going to have it taken away and replaced, but I just told him to eat it up. She felt he should have what he wanted to eat and that it was important, while I really didn't. To be honest, I didn't even notice it was wrong as I was paying more attention to what I was eating.
On Pierce's birthday and at Christmas she always goes to great lengths to buy him a thoughtful present, like sci-fi or fantasy books or the latest Doctor Who annual, which she knows he will like, whereas I just hand him money or take him out somewhere.
And when we went out for dinner when he was younger she always watched him and reminded him of the importance of manners because as his mum I was probably a bit too blasé of any petulant behaviour.
I agree with Christine Lampard that the idea that women who are not mums cannot relate to those who are mums is nonsense. The suggestion that women with no children have no idea how to care for them is simply not true. For Dawn and I, Pierce is the common denominator rather than something which leaves us with less in common.
Christine is a step-mum and while the two girls have a biological mother, she is still able to lavish love and care on Frank's children. The fairytale image which has demonised the stepmother has a lot to answer for. The truth is you don't have to give birth to a child to parent it.
My sister and I always socialised as teens and twentysomethings and that is exactly the same now, going on holiday together with Pierce and enjoying birthday celebrations together too. Recently, when Pierce got his GCSE results, all three of us went out for cake and ice-cream. Dawn and I also get dragged into starring in Pierce's films that he makes for school.
Rather than creating a divide between our sisterly unit, Pierce's arrival has turned us into a really interesting little trio, which has made life the better for all of us."
‘Our relationship now is as strong as it has ever been’
Dawn Carson (52), an administrator, lives in Belfast. She says:
When I found out I was going to become an auntie I was very excited and couldn't wait to see the baby and meet the new little person who was coming along.
While I grew up in a female-dominated family I didn't care what gender the baby was. I just wanted it to be healthy and for the birth not to be too difficult for Helen. Although when Pierce arrived I thought it would be very different with a little boy running about.
The first time I saw him I couldn't get over how small he was and also couldn't quite believe he was actually here. I had to get used to him being here.
I love being an auntie and it has been great seeing him growing up. Obviously he is very different now as a teenager.
The best age for me was when Pierce was about three and he was always running about telling stories about things that happened to him, or hadn't actually happened to him. That was the time I could see his personality starting to come out.
One time my mum and Helen had to go out so I looked after Pierce. I thought to myself 'This will be easy. I'll put a DVD on for him to watch and that's all I will have to do'. However, from the moment they went out the door he got up and sat on my knee, was face to face with me, and talked non-stop the entire time until they came back.
Being an auntie is different to being a mum. While he is not my biological child, I am part of his family and I do feel that maternal instinct towards him. I do feel protective of him and if he is looking for something, whether that's someone to confide in or something else, it is my duty to help him or give that guidance as if he was my own child.
Helen and I have always been close and good friends, so essentially that relationship is the same and as strong as it was before Pierce was born. We both have our own lives, homes to run and jobs to maintain and Helen has Pierce to bring up.
Despite all that we still have that close bond regardless of having busy lives, and if either of us has a problem or wants a chat we will always be there for one another, so in that respect it still feels the same. When we were younger we had more time simply because we didn't have any responsibilities.
Even though we are both older we still have that family closeness. I do think about Pierce's future, I want the best for him and I can see he has lots of interests and feel there is so much potential there.
When he was younger and all three of us went away and were staying in a hotel and Helen had to do something, I was capable of stepping in and taking control of his welfare and monitoring his behaviour. I always enjoyed being involved with his upbringing and it was fun for me too - it added another dimension to my life. I enjoyed it so much, especially when he was younger.
It's still fun now but in a different way. I will always feel a sense of responsibility to him. I imagine that will not change. It's that adult thing when you always see the child, no matter what age they become, as a child. And I always want to be in a position to help him if he needs it.
He still tells lots and lots of stories and that will probably not change. I want to support him in whatever he wants to do and I hope he ends up doing something he really enjoys doing."