Over the years I have spoken with so many other women who have also lost their mothers, and so this post is dedicated to them, my motherless sisters, those who parent in uncharted territory alongside me.
I lost my mom to cancer just over twenty years ago. In fact, this will be my twentieth Mother’s Day without her.
And yet some days the pain of it revisits me with such intensity that it feels like it must have happened yesterday.
I was barely 16 when she died of lung cancer. A cancer that had gone misdiagnosed for too long and was eventually diagnosed as stage 4. Terminal from the moment of diagnosis. She was given 6 months to live but lived a year and a half, and for the first year you never would have guessed she was sick. My mom was an amazing woman. If you judged by her funeral alone it would have seemed she somehow connected with every person on our small island. And I believe she did. She wore so many volunteer hats, from the PTA to community boards, and continued to lead my Girl Scout troop even after I got “too cool” for it.
She died and I mourned, but not in the way people expected of me. I remember family friends talking to my dad about how I wasn’t handling it well. How I wasn’t mourning. I always said we’d mourned together throughout her illness. And that was true. I’d had a year and a half to come to terms with her death before she died. But I had no idea that my true mourning period was still over 10 years away, my grief lying dormant until the birth of my first child.
I knew becoming a mother was going to be some kind of turning point. I bought the book “Motherless Mothers” and got about halfway through it while pregnant with my first baby. But it was put aside and forgotten in the chaos of those early days and weeks. And despite my attempt at preparation, the hole in my life that should have held my mom seemed to grow exponentially when I held my tiny daughter for the first time. Her absence became palpable. Understanding my new role as mother opened a whole other side of grief- the knowledge of what it must have been like for her to leave me behind. I was a new mother who wasn’t being mothered. I didn’t have my mom to call when I was so exhausted from being awake all night. Or to ask about what I was like as a child. My sounding board wasn’t there. I charted the new territory alone. And I feel like I made so many mistakes, though I think this is a common theme amongst mothers, whether they have lost their own mothers or not. I devoured parenting books, but was ridiculed for how much I relied on them and not my own instinct. But that instinct didn’t exist yet, and I didn’t have a mother to guide me there.
I was an only child, and friends of my mom have often described our relationship as “you were her whole world.” I remember our Saturday morning ritual of sitting next to each other on the couch eating ho-hos. I remember her embarrassing me by belting out the 4 Non Blondes song “What’s Going On?” at the top of her lungs in the car. I remember whenever I asked her to hold on, her grabbing her breasts & declaring “I’m holding on!” I remember her always being the mediator between my dad and I.
I’ve forgotten the negative stuff. Which might seem like a good thing, except that in my role as mother I deal with the negative stuff on an almost daily basis. Which leads me to constantly question whether I can ever be as good of a mother to my kids as she was to me. I have three kids, she had one… how am I ever supposed to divide my time so my kids will someday know that they are my whole world the way I was my own mom’s?
And yet motherhood, as hard of a road as it is, and as often as it has made me revisit my grief, has changed me for the better and has offered a way to heal from the loss of my mom in a way I couldn’t at 16. In Motherless Mothers, author Hope Edelman says about the women she interviewed, “these women understand what I mean when I tell them that motherhood has done more than mature me. It’s repaired and restored something essential inside me.”
There’s something about becoming a mother that bookends the tragedy of losing a mother early in life. Before, my life was divided into “before my mom died” and “after my mom died,” and just as Edelman says in her introduction chapter, I defined myself by that. When people asked me about myself it would often include “my mom died when I was a teenager.” But becoming a mother has added a third chapter. It’s placed brackets around that grief and turned it into a chapter in my life instead of the defining event of it.
Then I find myself, 20 years later, re-reading Motherless Mothers and crying. Not the big sobbing tears of raw grief, but quiet unending ones of old wounds. The loss never goes away. The hole will forever exist. The pain ebbs and flows like the tide. Some days I miss her so much that it’s all I can think of. When I look at my kids I think of how proud she would be, and what an amazing grandmother she would have been. Or when my third, who looks so much like her, smiles, and for a brief instant my heart cracks open with the joy of seeing her face again. But most days I’m just mom, not mom missing mom.
I’m thankful for the grief when it does visit. I don’t have a grave to visit or a sibling to reminisce with. My grief is my only concrete connection with her. I don’t talk about her much, but I know that both her life and her death have defined me in deeply rooted ways. I’m a strong, outspoken woman because of her. I’m a volunteer because of her. I’m fiercely independent (to a fault) because of her death. And I’m a huge believer in trusting my intuition and maybe just a little mistrusting of western medicine because of how her illness played out. I am who I am because I am without her.
I would probably be a very different person if I didn’t have the huge defining event of mother loss to shape me. And maybe I wouldn’t like that other me, but I sure would like to still have my mom around. So I will continue to live a life that would make her proud, to embrace the grief when it visits, and to be thankful for each day I get to spend with my own kids in my role as mom, even on the hardest of days.
To my fellow motherless mothers, whether you lost your mom young or old; before you had kids or after; we will likely all spend this holiday that is now ours remembering the woman who once was, who we called mom. This day will always be a little bittersweet. But I hope you can celebrate it in joy. For the woman who made you you. For the mother you now are. For the children who make you mom. Happy Mother's Day.