Do we ever stop needing to be mothered?

Today I picked up my Motherless Mothers book that my husband had gotten me two Christmases ago. I love Hope Edelman’s honesty and the way she uses so many women’s experiences, women from all backgrounds and circumstances, to shed light on the experience of “motherless mothering.”

Having been a brand new mom at the time, I had asked for this book and really looked forward to the insight it would offer. Life got busy, mommy life took over, and my book lay half-read on my nightstand for months. In picking it up again today and starting where I left off, it was interesting to notice the change in my perspective, from a brand new mom to now, one year later.

Hope talks a lot about the idea of needing to be mothered. She emphasizes that the first few weeks after your child is born is the time in which this need is greatest for women and the loss feels new again in the experience of motherless mothers.

This got me thinking – do we ever lose the need to be mothered? I hear the way my 82-year old grandma talks about her own mother, who died only ten years ago. Having her mother into her seventies, my grandma still mourns her loss so tenderly. She misses her and her presence in her life so genuinely. It makes me think that a “mother” is not only a person, but a feeling.

Having lost my mom almost five years ago, I can say that unfortunately for me, my need to be mothered has not lessened since she passed, but increased. Having a child of my own has made me miss my own mom more than I was ever prepared to. The initial few weeks at home with the new baby were really tough as expected, for countless reasons. Hormones, lack of sleep, lack of experience, nervousness…the list goes on and on. In her book, Hope talks about mothers’ mothers usually being the ones that support the daughter most greatly in those first few weeks after bringing home the new baby. For motherless daughters, usually mothers-in-law, sisters, or aunts fill this role. While I did have physical support in those early weeks, from my sweet husband, his mother, my dad, etc., I still felt very much alone. It’s sad to admit, but the joy of my new daughter’s arrival was overshadowed by this feeling of a void.

I couldn’t shake the feeling. Yes, my fridge was full. Yes, my floors were vacuumed. Yes, I had someone to drive us to our first doctor’s appointment. No, I didn’t feel supported. I remember there were days where I barely ate one piece of food in my haze of changing diapers, nursing every two hours day and night, and everything else that comes with a newborn. And nobody noticed. Everyone’s attention was on my daughter and having her needs met, and rightly so. The thing is though, if my mother was here, her attention would also include making sure her child’s needs were being met.

Despite feeling more confident in my role as a mother and finding somewhat of a balance in this cycle of motherhood, career, friends, and family, I still yearn so much to be mothered. I don’t know why, but it feels embarrassing to admit. I try hard to be strong and don’t like to ask for help – just the way that Hope writes motherless daughters do. Lately I’ve been trying different things in order to find some relief from this feeling of being overwhelmed. I feel so guilty writing this because I know how lucky I am. I have my little blessing who I love more than life itself. I have an amazing, supportive, and loving husband who is an amazing dad to our daughter. I have an emotionally-disconnected, but helpful dad who means well. I have many people that love me. And yet, something is missing. Obviously, someone is missing.

Like I said, I’ve been trying different things in hopes that I find a little tiny piece of what I am missing. I hired a babysitter once a week to come to the house and hang out with my daughter while I attempt to get some work done, since I work from home. That felt weird and wrong and I spent the entire two hours she was here listening from the other room and feeling anxious. Then, I hired a cleaner to come help me out with housework every few weeks. Well, my house is cleaner, but I am still overwhelmed. Finally, last week, I put up a post on Facebook, which reading back now sounds sad and pathetic. I asked for recommendations for a mother’s helper to come once a week to come and read and play with my daughter in Bulgarian (my mother tongue) in the hopes that it will develop her language skills. I asked for a woman experienced with small children. I asked for someone warm, kind, and patient. It finally dawned on me – I was asking for my mother.

My brain knows she’s never coming back, but my heart somehow refuses to accept it. I keep searching for her in other people. Small parts of her, qualities she possessed. I watch from the sidelines as mothers nurture their own adult daughters and fantasize about what it would be like if those women were us. I feel like I can’t go through this whole lifetime without any parts of my mom’s presence in my life. It may not make sense, but it’s hard to put into words. Her total absence from my daughter’s life seems devastating to me, today and in the future. I just don’t know what to do about it. Do I hire a neutral third-party helper? To give me a breather once a week and know my baby is in safe, experienced hands? To have a friend or family member try to fill that role seems more painful. Hope writes: “It may be emotionally easier for motherless women to accept help from a compassionate stranger for hire…With a skilled professional, there will be no hurt feelings, no crushing disappointments, no family drama if the arrangement doesn’t work out. Most importantly, a baby nurse or doula is less likely to be perceived as a substitute for the mother…”.

 

If I can’t have her advice, I don’t want anyone’s

I have a memory that’s been popping up in my head often for the last little while. I am 12 or 13 years old, in that awkward pre-teen phase, when you don’t feel right in your own body and everything either annoys or embarrases you. I am at the mall with my Mom and I am convincing her to buy me a piece of clothing that she doesn’t really like.

“It doesn’t suit you,” she says. “Trust me, I’m your Mom. There is no purer or more honest advice than the one from your Mom. I will always want the very best for you.”

I am annoyed and roll my eyes at her, unable to comprehend at that time the significance of her words.

Well, fast forward about twenty years. She’s gone now, taken too soon at 51 years old. It’s funny how mothers always turn out to be right in the end, in one way or another. Her advice was the best. It was the most honest and pure. Now that I am a mother myself, I get it. 100%. There is nothing I could ever suggest to my daughter that didn’t reflect what I feel to be the very best for her. There is nothing I could tell her that didn’t put her first in its context.

Since my mom’s death almost four years ago, I have a lot of trouble asking for help or advice from others, even those closest to me. I feel like if I can’t have her advice, I don’t want anyone’s. My husband has been my rock throughout so much and he is my best friend. He knows more about the (sometimes scary) inner workings of my brain than anyone else. Except my mother. Men are different, though. They think differently and are wired differently. They are problem-solvers and solution-seekers. They want to fix. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about possible solutions to my problem. I just want the truthful opinion of the listener, even if I don’t like it.

I have a decision to make and I can’t make up my mind. We are going to Europe later this year to visit my family and introduce my baby girl to my grandmas, aunts, and cousins. My husband only has a couple of weeks of vacation time and I don’t know if I should stay a bit longer with the baby. Should I risk a potential nightmare 16 hr. + journey home alone with the baby? Or, should I come home with him and risk not spending enough quality time with everyone? I want to ask my Mom’s opinion so badly right now. Yes, I could ask a friend. Yes, I could ask my mother in law. But it’s not the same. Their advice would be helpful, I am sure. It would be good advice, fair advice, but not advice custom made for me.

I hope in time I get past this feeling of being alone in the world. The truth is, I am not alone. Far from it. But my mother’s absense has changed me. I’ve built such a strong and impermeable wall around myself. I guard my inner strength now more than before. I know where I’ve been.

I didn’t just lose a family member the day my mother died. I lost my foundation.

Advice is a funny thing. You almost always know the answer you want to get when asking advice. Ironically my mother’s advice, the one I didn’t always agree with, is the one I miss so badly now. The other kind, the nice, pleasant advice is available to me now, but I have no desire to hear it.

I miss the honestly that only a mother’s words can provide.

Life events, milestones, and the transformation of grief

No matter what you’ve read, what advice you’ve been given, or what your expectations are for your future after the loss of a loved one, one thing becomes very clear as time goes on. Grief doesn’t end. It changes its shape and direction, but it has no end. Every major event in your life and every milestone will cause your grief to re-emerge in a new form and you will feel like you are starting your journey from the very beginning. You will feel like you are right back in that very moment when you experienced the loss of your loved one.

Motherhood is the second and most intense milestone in which I experienced the transformation of my grief. The first was when I got married and those first few months of being a newlywed.  In the months that followed, filled with writing thank you cards and basking in that “new family” feeling, all I felt like doing was picking out sheets, dishes, and other meaningless objects, which only a mom could have the patience and excitement to go shopping with you for.

Motherhood has caused my grief to come back with a vengeance, which is something I have posted a lot about in the past. My experience has really verified for me the notion that my grief will never leave me. It will always be with me, re-emerging in different shapes and forms. It will always have a grip around me, whether it be a tight, suffocating embrace or a soft and gentle wrap around my shoulders.

After my mother’s death, I tried reading a few self-help books that explore grief and mourning. I was looking for a solution of sorts, a “how-to” for feeling better and being happy again. Looking back, I now realize my approach was the wrong one. My “situation” isn’t one that can be corrected. I don’t even know if acceptance is what I am after – will I ever accept my mother’s death fully and whole-heartedly? Will I ever think of her with peace in my soul and a smile on my lips? Will I ever remember a moment in our time together without that ever-present little pain in my tummy?

Grief is unfair for so many reasons. It’s especially cruel because it re-creates itself in a brand new version just when you have begun to make peace with its previous presence in your life. I made peace with the version of my grief in which I was a twenty-something newly wed, just beginning my career and adult life. I had accepted that my husband would never have his mother-in-law to joke about. I had accepted that my mother would not witness us buying our first home or celebrating our career goals. I had accepted that I would never go shopping again with her or watch American Idol together.

Then, I became pregnant. And my grief returned, with a new intensity I wasn’t prepared for. There were now so many “what will never be” tears alongside the “what I miss and once was” tears. My daughter is almost four months old and I think about my mother and her absence every single day. I have thoughts big and small – from wondering what my mother did about diaper rashes, to wondering if she was scared and nervous about raising a girl and passing on the wisdom that a mother gives to a daughter. In a strange way, I feel like my mother has just died. I am back in August of 2012. I have accepted so much along my path of grief over the past three years, but all of a sudden, I am bewildered and shocked all over again that my mother is actually gone. That she’s not physically on this Earth anymore.

When I have one of those dark days when I can’t stop thinking sad thoughts, I remind myself that nothing I feel or do will ever change the situation. This rationalization of my feelings really helps me get clarity and a grip on reality. She’s gone and nothing can bring her back. I think of what my mother wanted for me and it’s not tears, regrets, or sadness. If she’s watching over me now, which I strongly feel she is, she would want nothing but happiness for me. Happiness is the goal to strive for.

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…”

 

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.

 

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.