Grief & the healing power of motherhood

I recently started reading Hope Edelman’s book “Motherless Mothers”. I am always in search of connections with others who have gone through similar experiences of loss. I am especially interested in hearing about other women’s experiences with the loss of their mothers during a transitional time in their lives when their futures were starting to take shape, like my own was when my mother died. I was 25 and newly engaged.

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Recently having become a mother myself, I really connected with the following excerpt from the book. It’s interesting how Hope weaves grief, motherhood, and healing together. She talks about the healing power of motherhood and the effect it has on a motherless daughter. It’s too early for me to tell what the true effect of motherhood will have on my grief, as my baby girl is only three and half months old. I don’t know what the future holds for my grief, but I do know that it has taken on a new shape.

“…What is it about motherhood that’s so healing for a motherless daughter, mending something inside her in a place deeper than scalpels or medication or therapy can reach? Many of the women interviewed for this book spoke of motherhood as an experience that restored their equilibrium, their self-esteem, or their faith. “Having my kids is like discovering the missing link,” explains thirty-five-year-old Sharon, a mother of two who was eleven when her own mother died. “There’s a completeness in my life that wasn’t there before.” 

“The first time my son put his hand in my hand when we were walking,” remembers thirty-eight-year-old Corinne, who lost both parents by age eleven, “and the first time he ran to me and threw his arms around my neck, showing that he preferred me over anyone else, for him to love me back so uninhibitedly and unconditionally, filled some part of me that I didn’t expect would ever be filled again.” 

It paints a rosy view of motherhood, but there’s more than just a simple idealization going on here — although God knows our culture tacks enough of that onto mothers these days. For these daughters, motherhood is the final repair in their process of mourning and recovery from early mother loss. What was broken in their pasts is once again made whole; what was subtracted has been added back again. 

When motherhood interfaces with the long-term mourning process, the result is exponential. Becoming a mother can give a motherless daughter access to a more enhanced, more insightful, deeper, richer, and, in some cases, ultimate phase of mourning for her mother, one that may initially be painful but eventually leads her to a more mature and peaceful acceptance of both her loss and herself…”

 

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Not having enough time to eat is a thing.

As a new mom, I would say that the biggest lifestyle change for me has been the complete disappearance of any “me time“. And by “me time” I don’t mean indulging in some kind of fabulous pampering like a massage or manicure, I mean anything that is not directly related to my baby’s needs. Long, hot showers – I miss you!

In true new mom style, I anxiously wait for my husband to get home every weekday so I can hand him the baby and disappear for a few minutes. The problem isn’t that I am not given the opportunity for “me time” anymore, but that “me time” isn’t the same anymore. I hurry in the shower in case my baby gets hungry. I skip painting my nails in case my baby needs me to hold her. My every decision is carefully thought out and balanced with my baby girl’s needs.

 I have become one of those women, those new moms who I was sure were exaggerating when they said that they did not even have time to eat! There you have it – not having enough time to eat is a thing!

I was thinking about the day I went into labour three and a half months ago. I was sitting on the couch watching some guilty pleasure reality TV when my water broke. The flashback of me, in all of my nine-months pregnant glory, lounging on the couch makes me smile. It feels like another lifetime ago. My daughter was not here napping sweetly beside be, but in my belly. Our living room wasn’t messy and cluttered, but quiet and tidy. But the craziest thing of all? I was watching TV! For hours! Alone at home! In the middle of the day! Who does that!? I did. And people without babies I guess.

Will “me time” ever return? Probably, but it will never be the same again. Will I ever have two hours that are mine and mine alone? Probably, but the way I choose to spend them will be different. I cherish being my daughter’s mother. I am blessed and honoured to have this little  girl depend on me. 

When my anxiety about the future creeps in and I feel overwhelmed at the thought that my life is no longer my own, that thought actually ends up being the thing that comforts me. Life’s different now, but good different.

 

Virginia Woolf’s Guide To Grieving

As a proud English lit nerd, I really loved this article. It’s incredible how an early loss can shape a woman’s life and relationships.

via Virginia Woolf’s Guide To Grieving.

In 1895, when Virginia Woolf was 13, her mother, Julia Stephen, died suddenly — influenza turned to rheumatic fever, and in short order she was gone. Young Virginia had a moment to kiss her mother as she lay on her deathbed; as she left the room, Julia called her daughter by her nursery nickname, saying, “Hold yourself straight, my little goat.”

In 2000, when I was 11, my mother died suddenly — an aortic dissection caused her to collapse at my grade school spelling bee, and by the time my brothers and I were brought to the hospital, as we thought, to see her, she was gone. The last time I’d spoken to her, before my competition began, she’d given me a hug filled with encouragement and musky perfume.

A decade later, as an English major turning over potential thesis projects for my senior year of college, I gravitated toward Woolf. I hadn’t read her until junior year. I wasn’t a modernist, a huge fan of stream-of-consciousness or experimental structure, and to this day I haven’t finished a full book by James Joyce. But when I first picked up Mrs. Dalloway, I’d fallen madly, impractically in love.

I wrote my thesis on Mrs. Dalloway, To The Lighthouse and The Waves, analyzing how Woolf uses floral motifs in each. Having grown up on Austen and the Brontës, I relished Woolf’s showy style, crafted to be unpacked and unpacked and examined from all angles. Even the most narrow-minded men in my literature classes could agree that Woolf was worth reading in her own right, not just as a concession to the feminist agenda. She was serious, scholarly, the profound emotions in her work guarded round with fences of respectable technique. 

Meanwhile, the entire time I worked on this serious-minded Woolf thesis, and for several years before, I was stumbling through an extended, deeply misunderstood emotional breakdown.

I had a college boyfriend I loved very much; we broke up, got back together again, broke up again. Even when our relationship seemed temporarily stable, I’d spend hours crying on his shoulder about an awkward run-in with an acquaintance. My sprouting social anxiety was like a dark-tinted pair of sunglasses that placed every encounter behind a murky, paranoid filter. Making female friends, which had always been my source of social strength, became a struggle. 

I felt alone, and I felt desperate not to be alone, and I felt terrified that my few intimates would figure out how desperately I needed them and pull away. I wasn’t always wrong. All the while, Virginia Woolf was there beside me, going through very much the same thing, and I didn’t even notice.

All the while, Virginia Woolf was there beside me, going through very much the same thing, and I didn’t even notice.

Here’s the thing: Losing your mother when you’re a preteen throws things off, developmentally. You remember her, but not enough to feel like you really knew her — just enough to grasp how much you’re missing. You never went through a teenage separation from her, so she exists in a state of perpetual perfection, if not semi-sainthood, as haloed to you as she was to your little-girl self.

You have zero capacity to deal with any of this, of course, because children are emotionally illiterate. You laugh when everyone else is crying. You’re buoyed by trivial victories, like getting a condolence card from a crush or finding more fresh doughnuts left on the counter by a sympathetic church member. Grinning, you challenge your friends to a rousing game of Clue at her wake, leaving them tentative and frightened. But you also sleep as much as possible to avoid those times when you’ll have to occupy yourself either laughing or sobbing. When your grief-stricken father tries to talk about your mother with you, you change the subject. You do this for years, until he stops trying, until everyone stops trying. You don’t know how to talk about it without completely falling apart. You don’t know falling apart is even an option.

Years pass, and people move on, but your grief is a bulb germinating in the earth. By the time the pale shoots nudge the soil aside and peek out, you’ve forgotten anything was planted there. You don’t remember what it is. It seems like a weed, wafted in by an unfortunate breeze, to be battled with medication and harsh uprooting. 

A couple years after college, a friend recommended a book called Motherless Daughters to me. The book explores the grieving processes of women who’ve lost their mothers at all ages. As I read, I cried with relief and anguish, as if the words were lancing some long-festering infection. I was reading about myself — my emotional college years, defined by dependency and fear of loss; my closed-off teen years, when I rarely willingly thought of my mother at all. I’d been blaming myself for all of it, but it turns out I’m not so special: I’m just like all of the other motherless daughters.

Late in life, Woolf wrote an autobiographical essay called “A Sketch of the Past.” In it, she shows herself to be not so different either, from the other motherless daughters. She felt deprived of her memories of her mother, conscious of never having been able to see her fully as a human. She viewed her mother as a distant but essential deity. She spent her whole life obsessed with her mother, craving her approval though such approval could never come. 

Rereading this essay now, my heart pulls painfully toward Woolf. Even the oddest little details seem beyond coincidental: The way “a desire to laugh came over” her as she was ushered in to kiss her newly dead mother (how crushingly like the moment, when my dad told us she hadn’t made it, that I started to giggle). The transcendent lift she felt seeing a fiery sunset through the glass of the train station as she accompanied her brother, Thoby, home after their mother’s death (how like the unforgettable pinks and golds of the sun setting through the clouds as my father walked me home from the hospital that night, too sick from crying to ride in a car).

“My mother’s death unveiled and intensified,” she wrote, “made me suddenly develop perceptions, as if a burning glass had been laid over what was shaded and dormant.” How rawly one remembers those days, as if any membrane between the world and you has been ripped away, while the memories of the mother you loved begin immediately to slip through your fingers.

“There is the memory,” she wrote,” but there is nothing to check that memory by; nothing to bring it to ground with … the elements of [her] character … are formed in twilight.”

She struggled to piece together her mother by tracing her biography, the men she loved, the people who loved her, the jumbled memories Woolf herself retained. When you lose your mother before you’re able to see her clearly, as a person, finding out who she is becomes a treasure hunt, a research project, a detective expedition.

When you lose your mother before you’re able to see her clearly, as a person, finding out who she is becomes a treasure hunt, a research project, a detective expedition.

In her fiction, the loss of her mother ripples silently. To the Lighthouse, perhaps the greatest novel on maternal loss, was written as a tribute to Julia Stephen, but Woolf’s grief can be found everywhere. The longing for connection, blended with the certainty of unpredictable loss, marks her mapping of human relationships. (“If you have any kind of triggers around sudden death,” Christopher Frizzelle wrote on LitHub last year, “you should not read Virginia Woolf.” I remember playing charades with family not long after my mother’s death; we tensely skipped over the card for “sudden death,” feeling her collapse in the room.)

All closeness is temporary; all love is dangerous; and in the end, even the love we find is often a hollow substitute for that which we believe we were meant to have. Woolf’s fiction isn’t comforting or optimistic, and why would it be — after her mother, she quickly lost her elder half-sister and surrogate mother, Stella Duckworth, as well as her cherished brother Thoby, when he was in his mid-20s. 

It’s this hard-won despair that spoke to my soul when I first read Woolf, though I lacked the capacity to admit it then. To move through grief, to live with it, you have to let yourself feel the howling of the loss all around you, and every line of her writing vibrates with that cry. You have to accept that you’ve lost that which was once everything to you, and that the hole can’t be filled with AP classes or long naps or recalcitrant boyfriends or anything at all.

“She,” Woolf wrote, “was the whole thing.” I know. I know.

 

The new mama, guilt & a night out

I had dinner and drinks with a new friend this week at a nearby restaurant. It was someone I had met at a course and we had made plans to get together, do a bit of brainstorming and chat about our mutual industry and careers. I left my baby girl and her daddy with plenty of milk and her bedtime PJ’s and sleep sack laid out ready for her. This was the second time in three months that I was going to miss a bedtime. I felt like I needed a much-deserved break. I did my hair, wore non-stretchy pants, and looked forward to some vino & girl talk…almost feeling like my pre-baby self.

I missed my baby girl all night. I kept looking at my phone, expecting a text telling me I was needed and should come home. I kept wondering if she would be okay going to bed with a bottle of milk instead of nursing. Driving home, I felt sad and guilty. I thought to myself, how could anything take priority over my sweet three month old’s bedtime routine? What was I thinking?

I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Guilt is one of the main barrier’s to a woman’s happiness throughout her life. Women struggle with guilt much more than men do. I remember my mother feeling so guilty over this and that, never fully letting herself have faith in her decisions. I came home that night and apologetically said to my video-game playing husband, “I feel so guilty that I wasn’t here for her bedtime. Thank you for taking care of her.” He gave me a strange look.

Going to bed that night, there were two things that I couldn’t stop thinking about:

  1. The guilt factor – Why was I feeling guilty? I have been happily and lovingly caring for my baby girl from the day she was born. I nurse her on demand and meet, I hope, every one of her needs. What exactly was wrong with needing some time apart? Would this somehow equate to me loving her less? Me wanting to be away from her? Me not embracing my new role as a mother? Was I worried about what people think? Did I take my new friend’s comment at dinner, “Where is your daughter right now?” too personally? Was it weird to other people that a new mother is without her child for an evening, doing something that has nothing to do with her child? All of a sudden, it seemed completely absurd to me that I was at a loud restaurant on a Thursday night doing something that was purely for me.

  2. The equal responsibility of parenting – My husband is an amazing , hands-on father to our baby girl. He is happy to change her, play with her,  cuddle her, and soothe her when he is home with us. He is perfectly capable of caring for her and he is the only person I trust 100% with this tiny, fragile, beautiful little being. He wasn’t doing me a “favour” by taking care of our child that night. He is an equal parent in this journey. Why did I feel the need to thank my baby’s father…for being a father?

 

When others love & spoil your baby, but all the attention just makes you sad.

This is something I am really struggling with. We are so very blessed to have family and friends who adore our baby girl. She has been showered with so many toys, clothes, and special gifts since before she was born. Visitors come to our house and can’t wait to hold, cuddle, and give her kisses on her little head. My heart swells with joy seeing how loved she is.

But, there is something else. Something that troubles me and casts a dark, confusing cloud over the happiness I feel at seeing my little one being loved and spoiled. All the attention makes me miss my mother even more. I can’t help thinking how much she would have loved this little girl. My mother was the perfect grandmother, although she didn’t live long enough to actually become one. She had more patience than I could ever hope to have. She had a nurturing and warm personality and a hug like no other.

We had a visit this morning from a wonderful friend of mine and her mother. They brought my baby girl some beautiful and thoughtful gifts. They loved seeing her smile and enjoy her new toy.

I am so touched by people’s generosity, both during my pregnancy and after the birth of my daughter, but negative emotions do creep in once in a while. I feel jealousy towards friends and their mothers who are grandmothers or one day will be. I feel bitterness that my own mother cannot hold my daughter and give her little kisses on her head. I feel guilty that I cannot fully, wholeheartedly embrace all the love my daughter receives from others, who aren’t me or her daddy.

And the hardest part? My mother’s own words of advice come to me. “Accept it” she used to say. “It’s out of your control. There’s nothing you can do.” No, there isn’t.

 

 

On Being a Motherless Mother | Claire Bidwell Smith

via On Being a Motherless Mother | Claire Bidwell Smith.

I absolutely love this piece. It captures so beautifully the complex relationship between love and loss. My favourite part is the way in which the writer, Claire Bidwell-Smith, leaves us with a sense of acceptance. There is acceptance of the sadness and of the loss, but there is also acceptance of the intense love she has for her children. Sadness can exist alongside happiness – and that’s okay.

One of my favorite memories of my mother probably isn’t one she would want me sharing as often as I do, but it so perfectly sums her up that I can’t help but revisit it.

In the memory, I’m about 13 years old. We’re living in Destin, Florida, and we’re headed to the mall. I am an only child, and my mother and I are close. Things I love to do with her: hang out in the kitchen while she cooks, hang out in the bathroom while she gets ready for an evening out and go shopping with her.

All of those are pretty basic mom-daughter activities, I know, except my mom wasn’t your basic mom. She was messy and creative, uncommonly beautiful and stylish in an utterly head-turning way. She was also incredibly outgoing and quick-witted, and she brought so much wild beauty into the lives of my father and myself that it’s a wonder we weren’t blinded by it all.

Oh, and did I mention impulsive? She was that too.

So, this one afternoon, we’re driving around the mall parking lot, looking for the perfect spot. My mom had this thing about finding a perfect spot. And suddenly, it happened: A car started pulling out of this tiny stretch of coveted spaces right in front of the entrance.

My mom yanks the wheel, turning us into the one-way parking aisle, and snaps on her blinker. Then she turns and gives me this smile of wonder and pride. But as the exiting car backs out towards us, another car suddenly zips into the parking aisle from the wrong direction and puts on its blinker too.

I watch my mother’s eyes widen. “That woman is NOT going to steal my space,” she mutters. She then makes some desperate hand-waving gesture at the other driver, receiving only a catty shrug in return. We watch together as the original car backs out of its space and the other waiting car pulls in before we have a chance to.

My mother’s jaw drops. Her grip visibly tightens on the wheel, and her mouth closes into a hard line. She pulls up behind the newly-parked car and lowers her window. I am pensive in my seat, scared but also excited by this unfolding of events. A woman emerges from the car and begins to walk towards us.

“You just stole our parking space,” my mother says tersely, “and this is a one-way.”

“Yeah, well too bad,” the woman replies. She flips her hair over one shoulder and walks right past our idling car.

My mother is so stunned that she just sits there for a moment. And then she throws the car into gear and drives quickly to an open parking spot near the back of the lot. “Come on,” she says through her teeth, practically yanking me from the car, and we fast-walk towards the mall.

Inside the doors, my mother heads straight for a candy shop that sits adjacent to the food court.

“Mom,” I plead, “what are we doing?”

But she doesn’t answer. All she does is depress the lever on a large dispenser of gumballs, and I watch as the colorful orbs pop out and into a plastic bag she holds open. She is hardly finished paying for them before she thrusts several into my hand.

“Chew,” she instructs, grabbing my hand and pulling me towards the entrance of the mall again.

As we walk, I slide the gumballs over my tongue, my mouth instantly smarting with their sweet flavor. In less than a minute, we are outside in the parking lot again, the intense Florida heat shimmering off the cars around us. I follow my mother to the car that now sits in our coveted space, and I stand beside her, both of us furiously chewing our gum. I stare at our reflection in the window, my lanky adolescent figure timid next to her glamorous and stately one. In that moment, I know that I will say yes to anything she will ever ask me to do.

“OK, now smear,” she says, grinning at me, light dancing in her eyes.

Carefully, I remove the giant wad of gum from my mouth, holding it between my thumb and index finger, and I watch my mother do the same. Then, working quickly, we spread them out across the windshield and driver’s side window. Within seconds we are done and walking away, leaving the gum to bake in the hot, afternoon sun. I let out a breath I hadn’t known I was holding, and my mother does the same, except hers sounds more like a giggle.

Several months later, my mother is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and five years later, she is dead.

It’s now been sixteen years since I’ve held her hand or heard her voice. In that time, I’ve grown into a woman. I’ve traveled the world, gotten married and become a writer. But all these years, through everything I’ve done and everywhere I’ve gone, there’s been the sense that something is missing. There’s always been this little (and sometimes not so little) space inside my heart.

But then, three years ago, my daughter, Veronica, was born. Seven months ago, my second daughter, Juliette, was born.

And in the moments and days and hours and months that have occurred since their births, I have become a mother.

And in this wildly unexpected way, I feel as though I have been given my mother back. Time and time again, I hear her voice in mine, I feel her hand in mine. She is there with me when I’m teaching Vera how to bake cookies, or when I’m up in the middle of another sleepless night, cradling my smallest.

It’s not even that I feel like she’s been given back to me, but that my mother has been given to me anew. I understand her in a way I never did before. I see her in a way I never did. When I tuck my girls into bed at night, when I smooth Vera’s hair away from her forehead when she has a fever, or scoop Juliette into my arms after a tumble, my heart spilling over for them, I often find myself breathless with the realization of just how much my mother loved me.

They will never know her the way I did. They will never call her grandma or experience any of her mischievous adventures. They will never get care packages in the mail from her or cook with her in the kitchen as I did. But they will know her in the way that I love them, in the way that I see them and hear them and name them.

It’s funny, the stories that stay with us. To this day, I refuse to look for the perfect spot in any parking lot, always preferring to park in the back, no matter how far the walk. And in all these years, no matter how much I have tried to emulate her, I have not become my mother. I would never dream of smearing gum across a stranger’s windshield, no matter their misdeed against me. I am also not nearly as messy, nor as beautiful, as my mother was.

But she lives within me somewhere in a very real way. And I know that each of these moments and days works to create a world in which my girls will carry me within themselves as they move forward in their lives, no matter what lies ahead.

Hi. My Mom died. I have a baby girl.

This is how I feel like introducing myself every time I meet someone new. My mother died at 51 of colon cancer in 2012. Her life and its tragic end are so closely intertwined into my life that I feel like losing her has come to define me. I find myself wanting to tell anyone I meet that my mom died; Whether they ask or not, I tell them.

My mother used to call my younger brother and I “sunshine“. She would tell us we are her greatest accomplishments and that there’s nothing she’s more proud of than her children. I understand now. I am a mother to a beautiful baby girl. She is my sunshine, my soul, my entire world. I never knew love like this.

It has been three and a half years since my mother passed away. The immediate grief was intense, loud, violent, and merciless. Then there came a more peaceful time, of hope, positive energy, and dreams for the future. We were blessed with a healthy and happy baby girl.

I never expected my grief to return with such a vengeance when I became a mother myself. I never expected it to cripple me once again with its intensity during the days which should have been some of the happiest in my life.

I did not expect that although I was now a mother myself, I so badly still yearned to be mothered.

The day we brought our baby girl home, my heart was full, but broken. I was smiling, but had tears running down my face. I was celebrating this beautiful new life, but mourning one lost. I was excited about the future, but devastated at what would never be. During one of the first days after we brought her home, exhausted but euphoric, I began to sob, those loud, ugly sobs that take over you and make your tummy hurt. A new chapter of my grief had begun.

Thank you for visiting my blog. I will be sharing stories, thoughts (some good, some bad, and some ugly) about motherhood, grief, lovelife, and loss.

Much Love,

A Motherless Mama ♥