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Mothering Without Your Own Mother

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“Congratulations,” my doctor said as he walked into the chilly exam room with a smile and open arms. “You’re pregnant.” At that moment, which should have been one of pure, unadulterated joy, I suddenly and inexplicably understood what I’d refused to accept as the inevitable outcome of the previous two years: My mother was going to die. 

Until that raw November day in 1996, the idea that my mother might succumb to the Stage IV lung cancer she’d been battling for 23 months just didn’t seem possible. Of course, I was aware of her grim prognosis, but I had every expectation—or, at least, clinging hope—that she would be one of the “fewer than 1 percent” to survive. Denial can be a powerful thing. 

 My mother died three weeks later, and the ensuing months of my pregnancy, during which I was plagued by unrelenting morning sickness coupled with vacillations between euphoria and despair, were just the beginning of my often surreal odyssey as a motherless mother. It’s been 18 years since my mother died—my son is now a high school senior—and, though I’ve “learned to live with it,” like many motherless mothers, there hasn’t been one day that I haven’t longed for my mother, not one day that her death hasn’t impacted my own role and identity as a mother. As a motherless mother, I’m part of a sisterhood, one that only other “sisters” can truly understand, the proverbial club nobody wants to be a member of.    

We All Want Our Mommies

Bestselling author Hope Edelman, whose groundbreaking 1994 book Motherless Daughters and 2007’s Motherless Mothers explore the unique grief and challenges faced by women who lose their mothers, may be the best-known member of that club. Her mother’s death at age 42 from breast cancer when Edelman, now 50, was just 17, still impacts her profoundly. 

When her first child was born, “I had been without my mom for more than 16 years, half my life, so I had become accustomed to doing things on my own,” Edelman says. “But after I had my daughter, I really felt the loss.” 

Edelman remembers the renewed sense of loneliness and longing she felt for her mother, even though she had the support of family and friends. “My mother-in-law came for a whole month,” she recalls, “but it really didn’t have the sense of what I needed. I really needed companionship and encouragement. Basically, my mother-in-law was there for her son. It was like having a baby nurse—the baby gets whisked away and the mom gets left alone.” 

And the feeling of being “left alone” is just one of the many painful aspects of being a motherless mother. For some women, another mother—any other mother—can provide some semblance of comfort. But for others, a maternal figure other than one’s own mother can be a cruel reminder of the loss—particularly if the loss is new.

 Unlike Edelman, I didn’t want companionship, encouragement—or anything else—from anyone. I wanted my mother and my mother only. “Where are you?” I’d silently ask her as I cried in bed at night. “Why did you leave me?” 

Mothering Without a Net

When new mothers are grieving their own mothers, the physical and psychological stress can be overwhelming: You’re suddenly in the role of the person you need most—who’s no longer there. “You’re also mourning the loss of your child’s grandmother,” says Edelman. If you become a mother after your own mother dies, you’re mourning what might have been.

Edelman interviewed nearly 80 women and surveyed another 1,300 online for Motherless Mothers and found that motherless mothers share a number of traits. For instance, they tend to be overprotective, ultra-vigilant, and preoccupied with death. They’re also determined to give their children anything that may have been missing in their own childhoods. 

“It’s important for motherless mothers to be aware that these tendencies can be a problem, so that they can keep them in check,” says Mount Kisco-based psychiatrist Maureen Empfield, MD, who has worked with many motherless mothers. “Wanting to protect your children is normal. But there is a fine line between protecting and hovering. As a motherless mother, you want to shield this child from everything that happened to you, but you have to realize that this child is not you—this child has a mother. You want to shield this child that you love more than anything from the pain of loss and feelings of abandonment—and everything else.” But, Empfield explains, “you can’t fill every void. And even if you could, you wouldn’t want to. Children need to experience life.” 

In addition to being overprotective, motherless mothers tend to be strong and self-reliant; they often resist asking for help. Edelman’s research showed that 54 percent of motherless mothers got by without help from family, friends, or paid professionals—compared to only 15 percent of other mothers. 

During my pregnancy, I relied heavily on What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff, but I still had a million questions for my mother, from mundane things like how warm to make my baby’s bathwater to serious issues like whether or not to have an amnio. 

Irvington resident Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, had similar questions for her mom. “I felt I was parenting without a net and without that ready source of advice,” she says. 

Murkoff’s follow-up, What to Expect the First Year, became my bible when my son was a baby, and, later, being around other moms in mommy-and-me groups and at the playground did help a bit. I started to trust my intuition, and found I was able to answer many questions on my own: No, it’s not okay for him to eat grapes at 2 because another toddler does. No, I’m not going to let him “cry it out” until he falls asleep from exhaustion—no matter what Richard Ferber (clearly not a mother) says. 

Grief Is Cyclical, Not Linear

Adapting to being a motherless mother is an ongoing, often uphill, battle. “Grief is a very personal, individual process,” says Edelman. “It’s not a linear process that we experience only once. It’s cyclical.” Many people, she says, “get hung up on this thing that there are four or five ‘phases,’ and that you must go through all of them or you’re doing something wrong. In my opinion, there are two phases: The first one is when you’re feeling really bad; the second is when you’re feeling better.”

Still, grief triggers can appear for years—even decades—after the loss. Edelman found that caring for their new babies often brought up powerful “emotions from the past” in women who’d been caretakers for their sick mothers, regardless of how much time had passed since their mothers’ deaths. 

Edelman says that STUGs (subsequent temporary upsurges of grief) can emerge at your own life changes—a divorce, an illness—and your child’s milestones—first steps, losing a tooth, graduating high school, getting married. “Birthdays, anniversaries—times when families get together” are when STUGs often occur, says Empfield. “That’s why people who’ve lost a loved one often dread the holidays.”

 But it doesn’t take a major event to trigger a STUG. I’ve been driven to tears by the sight of a can of Aqua Net, my mother’s hairspray,  on a shelf in CVS. “Grief is based on memory,” Empfield explains. “Without the memory, there’s no grief. We don’t understand the brain chemistry of it, but we do know that certain things can trigger memories, and they’re not always obvious things. It can be a smell or a sound or a physical sensation. Think of Proust—one bite of a madeleine triggered memories of an entire childhood.” 

A mother’s grief doesn’t necessarily affect children adversely, says Empfield. “But your children can’t see you in despair; it’s just too hard for them.” Often, she says, the need to protect their children is what keeps grieving mothers going—they can’t give up because they have to take care of their kids. Grief counseling or therapy can help, and “if it is really potent grief, you should have someone else—their father, a friend or close relative—be with the children for a while so you can have some time to grieve on your own without feeling like it is going to affect your children,” she advises. 

Healing Is Possible

Keeping your mother alive by sharing stories and memories is “critically important,” says Gilbert, not to mention “easy and free.” For younger children, “say ‘your grandma’ when relaying a story, since kids think about the world as it relates to them,” Gilbert suggests. Empfield says that family rituals and traditions are also positive ways to continue your mother’s legacy. 

My son knows more about my mother than he does about some of his living relatives, because I incorporate stories and traditions into our day-to-day lives. When he was a baby, I’d sing lullabys from my childhood and tell him, “Your grandmom used to sing this to me when I was little.” Today, I might make one of my mother’s recipes and say, “Your grandmother used to make this on Sundays.” 

Even after many years, Empfield says, “you still say, ‘I wish my mother was here.’ But it’s less painful. With time, the more positive things emerge—not just the illness or injury or death. You eventually end up with more positive memories than negative ones,” and the searing pain gives way to a mellow ache. 

Like Edelman, my mother’s death has left a void inside of me that can never be filled, and that seems to be the general consensus among motherless mothers. The loss, Edelman says, is always there. “It becomes a part of who you are, but not all of who you are.” 

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