I woke up last Saturday night to do the middle of the night pregnancy pee, and I could not go back to sleep. This is abnormal for me now, but a long time ago, when my mom was sick, and I couldn’t sleep, I developed a number of strategies to help me eventually relax. Ironically, my all consuming thoughts that Saturday night had to do with family, and in particular my mom.
My mom died when I was 16, though sometimes the story I tell myself is that she died when I was 14. After spending a couple of years going to doctors to no avail with complaints about ringing in her ears and headaches, my mom had a seizure. The MRI revealed that she had a brain tumor the size of a baseball, and the doctors recommended immediate surgery. The MRI results and the surgery happened in such quick succession that it seemed to me to be on the same day.
All I know is that one day, I had my mom, and the next day, I met someone who was an alien form of my mother with six months to live. My mom never recovered fully from the removal of all that tissue from her brain because of the location of the tumor. She was always someone strange and distant from the woman I had known all of my life. That was when I was 14.
One and a half years later, after much anguish, pain, sadness, longing, guilt, and fear on my part and probably on hers too, my mom finally died.
This January, after reading a memoir, The Kids are All Right by Diana, Liz, Dan and Amanda Welch, about how four kids dealt with the death of their mom after the death of their father for a book club, a friend of mine asked me if I felt like I missed my mom more now that I am pregnant. At the time I wasn’t able to answer. The question hit too close to home. Deep down, I knew that the answer was yes, but I didn’t know how to describe it.
Becoming a motherless mother is a lonely and difficult thing. I’m sure that there are many commonalities between a woman who has an estranged relationship with her mom and a woman who has lost her mom, though I will not try to convey that because I cannot speak to them. What I can say is that both circumstances are complicated.
At specific milestones, particularly childbirth, “a mother’s absence is painfully obvious. Either consciously or subconsciously, we once imagined these occasions and expected her to be there…The daughter mourns not only what was lost, but what will never be,” says Hope Edelman in her book Motherless Daughters. This mourning is a kind of relationship: A relationship that transforms through the changes in life. Perhaps this relationship is a dream, a hope, a mirage, but it is there, and it is important.
Now that the birth of my baby is looming closer and closer, I can see how this particular milestone is very significant. My mom is not here to answer my questions. I want to know about her birthing experience, about the struggles she faced as she transitioned into motherhood and how she dealt with or wished she dealt with them. I want her comfort and support.
There is no one else who can fill her shoes. This is the harshest reality for me. I have wanted so badly for other women in my life to be able to be my mom. But no one can tell her stories the way that she could. No one can tell me how not to make the same mistakes as she did with me or share the joys of what it was like to raise me and my sister.
The kind of relationship I have with my mom is a kind of longing. In describing her own experience, Edelman says that
I suspect that I’m longing more for a mother than for my mother, for the archetypal woman who would swoop into my household at exactly the right moment, bearing a scrubber sponge in one hand and a tube of diaper cream in the other. ‘Go lie down,’ she’d say. ‘I’ve got everything under control. And when you wake up, I’ll show you how to do it all.’
I relate deeply to what Edelman says. Even before my pregnancy, I had experienced this deep desire to have someone take care of me and to ease my burden. When my mom got sick and then eventually died, I had to start learning to take care of myself differently. Though my dad and stepmom were there providing support, I had to learn to soothe myself as a mother would. I have no idea what my relationship with my mom would have been like as a teenager, so I dream. And now I dream that my mother figure would come and comfort and hold me and tell me it will all be all right.
After having her own children, Hope Edelman wrote Motherless Mothers, a practical guide of sorts for the motherless mom through the experience of having a baby and raising a child. While I have only read the first couple of chapters, I have been struck at how the content has helped me to handle the fact that I miss my mom, and that I have not fully mourned the loss. In her first book, Edelman points out that we never fully recover from having lost someone.
It’s at these milestone moments that we feel the loss the most. The birth of the first baby, she says, can be the most difficult because “you can’t mourn as a motherless mother until you are a motherless mother.” In all honesty, this has freed me up to feel the pain of not having my mother here, to recognize that it will be hard and that I will feel alone as I face this new relationship without the support of my mom.
Having said that, I have a lot to look forward to. Edelman goes on to say that
One of the biggest paradoxes of the long-term mourning process is that when you allow yourself to feel the pain of separation and loss, you often wind up feeling more connected to the lost loved one when you’re done. That’s one reason why a missing mother can feel so present and so absent at the same time. Longing for her brings memories spent together into sharper focus, and she’s in the forefront of your consciousness once more.
The bottom line is that if I allow myself to mourn, I will heal and have a deeper connection to my mom though she is not here. So my relationship with my mom is complicated in one way and simple in another. And though she is no longer here, she is still with me.