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…”.

 

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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.

Mom Friends

I’ve always been a girls’ girl. I love having close female friendships, some of which I’ve been lucky enough to have since childhood. I’ve always valued sharing, venting, crying, and laughing freely with a trusted circle of confidantes. My circle has always been somewhat small yet flexible, finding that the older I got, the less time and energy I could dedicate to non-true friendships.

The friendship dynamic in your life undergoes a huge transformation when you become a mother. You still love and miss your pre-baby friends, but a part of you yearns to be surrounded by others who are going through what you are going through. After the dust settles and the first couple of crazy, tearful, love-filled, exhausting months of motherhood are behind you, you kind of re-emerge. I felt like a hibernating bear, waking up from its long winter sleep, shaking off the dust, and opening its eyes again.I felt my strength slowly return; My baby was growing and thriving and I was ready to be me again. I started to miss the social interactions from my old life – simple things, like going for a quick coffee with a co-worker or a phone call with a friend on my lunch break. I knew I couldn’t have those things again in the same way, so I looked for new versions of them.

As a new mom, you are stuck in a strange limbo, an in-between space between your old self and your future self. Your old friends are all busy with non-baby things, and yet the thought of putting yourself out there and making the effort to meet new people is daunting and scary. You are still fragile; You are still healing, vulnerable, and trying to make sense of all this newness. The friends you have that are moms with older kids are already out of this space – they are usually back in the workplace or have somehow resumed their pre-baby activities.

I found that in the past, a friendship in my life was created from a unique combination of shared values, background, sense of humour, etc. Now, however, when I meet a new mom or exchange a quick smile with a fellow stroller-pushing woman on the street, I feel an instant connection. I don’t ask for much – if you are nice, I want to be friends.  This doesn’t mean I discount non-moms as potential new friends, it just means that there is a very special and very rare connection a woman feels towards another woman who has just gone through the same life-altering event as she has.

I understand now why so many of my mother’s good friends were ones she had met when my brother was a baby and little boy. My mom was an immigrant, new to Canada and uprooted from her family and friends. I understand now how my shy, soft-spoken mother formed such strong, connected friendships with a few special women she met at the playground, at the beach, and at preschool.

I get it now – why women need mom friends. I used to think of this as a sad rejection of a woman’s old life, friendships, and lifestyle, but it’s not like that at all. It stems not from a need to remove the old and replace it with the new, but from the need to be understood. A new mother is so fragile. She is so focused and dedicated on her little one that her life temporarily becomes not her own. There is something so freeing and so beautifully simple about having someone to talk to about things like breastfeeding, pacifiers, and baby poops. A sisterhood is created – an understanding that she knows what it’s like. 

 

 

Dear non-baby parents, I will hold my baby as much as I freaking want to.

I will hold my baby as much as I feel like and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it.

Dear grandma, friends, and random strangers,

Why do you offer your misguided advice to me about not holding my baby girl? I’ve heard it it all at this point:

  • Try putting her down more – Umm yeah, no shit. Guess what? Tried that. Didn’t work.
  • Do you always hold her? – Define always. When she cries, yes. When she needs me, yes.
  • She’s going to get too used to being held – Last time I checked, babies are babies. Tiny helpless humans who can’t do things on their own. I can’t exactly reason with her and explain why everything will be fine if mommy doesn’t pick her up when she gets scared or lonely.
  • You’re doing to spoil her – Spoil her into what? Thinking she’s loved, and cared for? I’ll take the risk.

Snarky thoughts aside, the truth is that my baby girl will quickly grow. She was just born it feels like, and she’s already now a four month old with a personality and the sweetest chubby legs. Moments are fleeting.

Soon, I won’t be able to hold her with one arm anymore. Soon after that, she won’t fit into my lap. Soon, I will be back at work and she will be in school. These rainy days of cuddles and quietness will be gone. And then one day, she won’t want me to hold or cuddle her anymore. I know this for a fact. I remember my sweet mother saying things like “Come cuddle with me. You’re still my baby” and me rolling my eyes with preteen attitude and awkwardness. How I wish I could take up my mother on her offer now.

I gave birth to this child to love, protect, and cherish it. Not to hide behind a closed door as it screams for half an hour,  its little face red with exhaustion and desperation. She sleeps perfectly at night but doesn’t like to nap much during the day. She will only fall asleep nursing. It works great for her. It’s exhausting for me, but I’m okay with that. Because like I said, she will grow faster than I can ever imagine.

Yes, it’s hard caring for a baby. I would know – I’m a motherless mama without a lot of help other than my husband and occasionally mother in law and dad. Yes, I have days when I want to curl up into a ball and cry. And I have. And that’s ok. But it’s not my child’s fault that her mama is tired.

I know I will be judged for saying this, but I am so against the crying it out method. There is nothing more traumatic for a mother than hearing her child scream. I don’t care why she’s screaming, all I care about is that I’m there to comfort and assure her that she is loved and safe.

Yes, I’m tired. Yes, I need a break. Don’t all moms? But I will hold my baby girl when she needs. I will let her nap on me if that’s the only way she will sleep. I will cuddle her all day when she’s sick. Why? Because I’m her mom and that’s what moms do.

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.

All of a sudden, this body disappoints you instead of amazes you.

Being a new mama, I’ve started paying more attention to the the way pregnancy, birth, and new motherhood are portrayed in the media. I find it really unfortunate the way that the media builds up pregnant celebrities with headlines like “baby joy,” “eating for two,” “pregnancy glow,” but then is so quick to tear them down after they give birth with language like “crash diet,” “getting her body back,” and “shedding those pregnancy pounds”.

I find it even more unfortunate that some women really believe in this notion of having a baby and then suddenly and magically erasing pregnancy from your body. The mixed messages being aimed at new mothers are ofter confusing, damaging, and hurtful. The shift from “you’re pregnant/have just given birth – eat whatever you want, rest, indulge” to “you’ve had the baby – you should be exercising and shedding that weight” is too drastic for any new mother to be able to tolerate. It goes something like this:

1 month pregnant – “indulge your cravings, eat whatever you can tolerate”

3 months pregnant – “go ahead, you’re eating for two now, have some more”

6 months pregnant – “make sure you’re making healthy choices – your baby needs healthy nutrients”

9 months pregnant – “you’re gaining too much weight, don’t eat too much junk. Watch the sugar. It’s going to be really hard to lose that weight. It’s not good for your baby.”

Then it happens. You have your baby after a long and hard labour. You go home with your brand new little bundle of love. You do your best to meet your little one’s needs around the clock while you yourself are feeling physically broken. Your emotions are running wild and your body is healing. You get emails and notifications from various websites and apps telling you to stay in bed, bond with your baby, and only worry about nursing and resting. You look at yourself in the mirror after getting out of the shower and are shocked at your postpartum naked body. Everything is different, but you don’t even care. You feel proud at what this body has done and you feel grateful that it has not let you down.

A few weeks go by, visitors come and go. They adore your little one and commend you on what you’ve done. They bring you treats and tell you that a breastfeeding mum needs to eat well and often. You’re on a high – life is amazing and you’re in love like you’re never been before.

A few more weeks go by and you’re at the 6 week postpartum mark. Now the emails and notifications change. You start to get bombarded with information about post-baby fitness, diets, nutrition. You start to see photos of celebrities with babies the same age as yours look nothing like you do. Motherhood and life with baby is still so new to you, but suddenly so much more is expected of you. You should be back to the way you were before pregnancy. Friends and family start asking how much of the baby weight you’ve lost. You look at yourself again in the mirror after your shower and all of a sudden, your body disgusts you. All of a sudden, this body disappoints you instead of amazes you.

A certain celebrity who shall remain nameless (she is on a particular show about a particular family who has a thing for a particular letter of the alphabet) recently gave birth. I read somewhere that she is now in hiding until she drops all the baby weight. This same celebrity loves taking photos of every bit of her life and sharing on social media. Her two-month postpartum body however is something she’s too ashamed of to show. This sends such a sad message – that a woman’s body is to be praised and admired for its sexuality, but shamed and hidden away for its ability to do the greatest thing of all – give life.

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…”