My mother was a complicated person in life and in death. She died when I was nineteen, after a long battle with breast cancer. Actually, calling her struggle a “battle” isn’t entirely accurate because she never once saw a doctor. A Southern-raised African American who became a hippie in the 1960s and 70s, she didn’t believe in Western medicine. So, when breast cancer ravaged her body, over the span of a decade, she relied on ineffective herbs and natural healing practices to fight the metastatic cancer.
My teenage years were spent caring for my mom at home, at the same time I tried to live a “normal” teenage life. I’d leave the house after helping to feed my bedridden mom or change her bedclothes. Then, I’d get dressed and try to live a regular teenage life. I hung out at the beach with friends, I went to high school. As you can imagine, my mind was a million miles away.
I waited until my mid-thirties to have my first child, in part because I was terrified of having a baby only to leave it motherless. It’s not that I think my mom intended to die; she wanted to live, but on her own terms. I knew I’d never want to put my own kids through the trauma of losing their mom. The only way to prevent that was not to have kids. Even more complicated was the realization, in my adulthood, of the fear and sadness my mom must have felt as she lay dying, leaving a husband and two teenage daughters behind. For a long time, I assumed I was so damaged that I probably wasn’t meant to be a mom. How could I be a motherless mother?
After years of extreme self-sufficiency: college, work, graduate school, I proved I could take care of myself and convinced myself that was what really mattered. Then, I met my husband, and for the first time, I began to have fleeting thoughts about being a mom. I’d see images of us as a family with kids. But, those images would exit my mind just as quickly as they entered. I never told him about my fears. I was too afraid to share such dark, painful thoughts with anyone. So, I kept everything to myself. I think we may have talked vaguely about having kids before we got married, but I can’t be sure. I think he assumed I’d want kids like he did.
Becoming a motherless mother at a young age is a fairly unusual circumstance. In her authoratative book on the subject, Motherless Mothers, How Mother Loss Shapes The Parents We Become, Hope Edelman writes about how motherless mothers experience unique anxieties. Like me, Edelman says that the immense responsibility of parenthood unnerved her. She writes that if her first child hadn’t arrived as a surprise, she might never have had a child at all. “It takes a lot of courage for motherless daughters to have kids,” Irene Rubaum-Keller, MFT, says in the book. She lost her own other at age seven and now has a young son. “Because it is a means of saying,‘We’re going to live.’
If I hadn’t gotten pregnant immediately, I might have changed my mind. When I realized the pregnancy test was positive, I sobbed uncontrollably. My husband was both thrilled and worried. What could possibly be wrong with me? “Don’t you want a baby,? He asked. Though my tears, sitting on the bathroom floor, I looked at him and said “yes, but I’m so scared.”
Becoming a mom was frightening not only because I was a new mom, but also because I didn’t have my own mom there to guide me. I wondered if I could trust my instincts, if I had any at all. And, of course, I worried constantly about dying and leaving my two kids motherless. What does a motherless mother do to overcome the staggering loss, the longing for her mother than never diminishes? How do I explain my mother’s death to my kids, now 8 and 11? How do I parent my kids without the help and advice from my own mother?
Slowly, tentatively, I’ve built a life centered on stability and optimism. The stability part comes naturally to me. The optimism piece is more difficult and sometimes forced, particularly when I’m plagued with anxiety. My husband is the opposite of me. He’s self-assured, confident and unafraid, all traits I admire deeply. I look to him when I’m feeling unsure about a parenting dilemma. I ask my friends what they would do in when it feels like everything is falling apart. I tend to overreact, probably because the worst has happened once, so in my mind, it could happen again.
I was able to find the inner strength to have kids, to mother them, to love them immensely, for two reasons: the memories of my mom and the realization that she would have wanted me to live a full life, complete with a family and all the immense happiness having children brings.
My mom taught me how to be a unique, mixed-race girl in a mostly black and white neighborhood. She taught me about healthy organic food and the meaning of giving back to my community. She introduced me to classic literature and the value of a top quality education. She comforted me when mean girls bullied me in middle school. She pushed me to be more independent, probably because she knew she didn’t have much longer to live. I didn’t know it at the time, but she was helping me to get ready to survive without her. I cannot imagine her sadness, her grief, at knowing she’d leave two daughters without a mom. I cry when I think about her sense of loss. How do you plan to leave your teenage daughters in this world without you? With grace and dignity in the face of the most undignified circumstances one can image (paralysis, blindness, a cancer ravaged body). You leave them each a sum of money for college. All these tokens of my mom’s love have helped me keep going, when it didn’t seem possible.
Like author Hope Edelman, I will always be a motherless mother. I will always do everything I can to prepare my kids for the possibility that I might die young. It’s the one thing I instinctively know how to do.
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