Mothering Without a Mother
When I was pregnant with my daughter, my first child, I sat alone on the exam table at my first ob-gyn appointment. My doctor’s office didn’t book initial pregnancy visits until somewhere near the end of the first trimester, so I had waited what felt like forever to get some clarity on this situation. Things like, were the first 15 home pregnancy tests I had taken accurate? Ha! Part of me really hoped I just had the world’s longest case of food poisoning because the enormity of what a pregnancy meant for our lives was just a little too new, a little too big to fully comprehend.
Don’t get me wrong. I wanted kids. We wanted kids. It just takes a little getting used to that first time – especially with your hormones all out of whack.
I clearly remember sitting on that table while the doctor asked me about my mother’s pregnancy because, according to her, sometimes there are parallels between a mother’s pregnancy and her daughter’s.
Except for the rustle of that flimsy paper cover on the exam table, time stood still for half a second.
My mother was dead.
I couldn’t ask her about her pregnancies because she had died 3 years earlier in a car accident.
I could now add one more thing to the list that I didn’t ask my mom before she died.
While I’m fairly certain I handled the grieving process as healthy as possible, there are times in your life, like this one, when the scab is picked off the wound and it starts to bleed a little.
The day my daughter was born was the most exciting, the scariest, the happiest and one of the most bittersweet days of my life. There was no balance on the pendulum of emotions that day.
I had just given birth to this beautiful child. We were halfway across the country from any relatives or close friends. We didn’t have any visitors in the hospital. The one person I wanted to share this moment with my husband and me was long buried. I yearned with all my heart, perhaps foolishly, that for one second the heavens would part and allow my mom to peek down to see this new, glorious life.
So now we faced the daunting, overwhelming, exhilarating task of taking our newborn home. It was such a relief to get there, but then my husband and I looked at each other and asked, “now what?” That feeling lasted approximately 3 minutes before there was crying, diaper changing and nursing to take care of…over and over in an endless, sleepless cycle.
I look back and kind of chuckle now about how overwhelming that time was in our lives. Two successful, bright people reduced to zombies by one sleepless 8 pound, 4 ounce infant. By the time our second child came around, it was like, no worries, I’ve got this.
Part of the reason that time of adjusting to motherhood was so hard is because I didn’t have my own mother to ask about the ins and outs of caring for a newborn. I didn’t have my mother to call me out on my over-the-top behavior. I mean, I read What to Expect the First Year and if my doctor gave us instructions, we followed them to the letter. We had a spreadsheet of our child’s first two weeks of poop, pee and feedings. A spreadsheet. That we printed out and took to our well-child visit. I’m pretty sure if was color-coded. I don’t know how our doctor kept a straight face.
For every milestone and celebration since that time, I wish my mom could be there. It’s really less about her missing out and more about my children missing out.
I know she would have been the grandparent who loved on her grandkids. She would have been their biggest fan. She would have brought some extra zip and zest into their lives. She would have had them over for sleepovers and told them stories about when I was growing up.
She probably would have driven me crazy with her grandparent antics.
I wish she was alive to drive me crazy.
A large part of who I am today is because of my mom. That link, that understanding will never be visible to my kids. They’ll never understand why, after 10 years, I can still experience moments of profound grief for someone they share DNA with, but have never met.
I’m not writing this for you to feel sorry for me or to pity me. Quite the contrary. I have a charmed life and am blessed in countless ways. I don’t have much to complain about, especially compared to the suffering of others.
I’m writing this because my own experience of mothering without a mother has led me to a few conclusions and I’m sure there will be many more as my children grow older.
First, all of the books and websites and advice from well-meaning people are not a substitute for your instincts as a parent. I cannot tell you how many hours of my life I have wasted questioning my own parenting decisions or comparing myself or my children to other people. It is ridiculous and pointless. It doesn’t mean I still don’t catch myself doing it, but when I do, I give myself a mental whack upside the head, which is what my mom would do to me.
The only things that matter: are you happy? are your children happy? are you and your children healthy? does your lifestyle work for your family? are your children learning? are you giving your children the tools to make good decisions as they grow up?
I think we judge other people’s parenting because it helps us validate our own. It’s okay to take information and helpful tips from all of those books, websites and well-meaning people. In fact, it’s necessary, especially if you don’t have a mama to help guide you. Just don’t let it be a substitute for your own instincts, what you know in your gut is right for your kids.
Second, don’t be so hard on yourself. I think this is the reality check my mom would give me regularly. (Refer back to my list of the things that matter.) So what if your kid went to school with a dirty face on picture day (true story). So what if your kid thinks underwear are optional (true story). So what if you let your kids watch way too many cartoons on Saturday morning so you can sleep in (true story). So what if you yell at your kids to stop yelling at each other (true story).
When you stop and take a minute to put things in perspective, sending your kid to school without brushing his teeth on a particularly chaotic morning is not the worst thing that could have happened. There are plenty of parents with kids in the hospital who would give anything to have that be their biggest problem of the day. So, cut yourself some slack! I guarantee you will be much happier.
Third, the more opportunities for your children to receive love, the better. My kids will never know the love of my mother. There are other people who will and do love my kids though. The more the merrier, I say. I’ve had to set aside awkwardness and pettiness to allow them to have fruitful relationships with people that I might not be close with or that might not have been in their lives if my mom hadn’t died. I’ve had to build my “village,” a support system, even when I’d prefer to be a loner because I need it and so do my children. I want their lives to be filled with love, joy, kindness and special memories. And I’m so thankful to those people for filling that gap. My children are very blessed and I hope they are a blessing to others.
The reality is my kids don’t know their lives any other way. They never met my mom. They didn’t have to experience that loss. And let’s face it, the aftermath of death is hardest on the ones left behind. I wish I could protect them from loss forever, but that’s not the way life works. Someday I will be gone, but I know in my heart of hearts that the love they experience today, the lessons they’ve learned and the memories they’ve made with me and their dad and all of these people in their lives will be an emotional life raft.
Last, go ahead and keep the memory of your mom alive and well with your children. I think it helps us stay grounded to know where we came from, to know who came before us and to honor them. Around Memorial Day my family has a tradition to visit the cemetery where many of our ancestors, including my mom, are buried. We take brushes and clean each headstone to make sure moss isn’t growing on the granite and that bird poop isn’t hanging out until the next rainstorm washes it away. We place flowers from our yard at each headstone and listen to my aunt tell us about each ancestor, some dating back more than 100 years.
Someday it will be my turn to tell those stories. While it is a little melancholy to those of us who have a mother or father buried in that cemetery, the young children think it is a fun event they participate in with their cousins each year. Their small, bright spirits lift us out of our silent reverie and soon we are laughing and telling funny stories from years past. I learn something new every year we go and am sad we will miss it this year since we live so far away.
I do tell my children stories about my mom every so often and show them pictures. They know she lives in Heaven and that we’ll see her someday. And then they run off to play a silly game and I hear their happy laughter drifting toward me and I know that I’m one of the lucky ones.
There are people out there who were abandoned or abused by their mom. There are people who experienced moms who were neglectful or mentally unwell or emotionally unfit. There are people who fight with their moms or are estranged from their moms. I get it. I do. Relationships can be complicated. Situations can be out of our control.
So that’s why I know I’m fortunate. My 26 years with an amazing mom, not a perfect mom, but the perfect mom for me, are more than many people have experienced.
I can choose to wallow in the wonder of what could have been or what should have been. I can be angry that life is unfair. I’m sure I have done that from time to time. But if I stay there, I miss out on the real wonder standing right in front of me – two of them actually. I don’t know if I have 26 more minutes or 26 more years with these two kids. I don’t. So, I make the choice to be the best mom I can be for my kids – just like my mom was for me. I’m not perfect and I don’t have it all figured out. I definitely fumble daily and there’s a learning curve, but she gave me the tools to be a great mom for my kids. And I think she’d be happy to see how far I’ve come.
My Mother’s Day wish for all of you mamas out there is for your days to be filled with more sunshine than clouds. Whether you are making this journey through motherhood with your mama by your side or wishing your mama was by your side, I hope you find true contentment and happiness along the way.
I’ve written some other posts about parenting. I’d love to share them with you.
The Unexpected Thing to Save When Your Parent Dies
Kid Wisdom – Everyday Superpowers
What an amazing post, I laughed, smiled, and cried my way though. Your Mom was an inspiration to so many. Thank-you for sharing and inspiring us with your memories and thoughts of her. I enjoyed the pictures and seeing your adventures as a Mother. It is so good to read and learn and glean from others and then just let go and parent with passion and common sense and God-given parental instinct. I used to wish there was some sort of manual…. but alas, it could never cover every possible situation could it:) You are a great Mom. I have learned from you and have watched your firm but gentle, concerned yet carefree, loving and independent nature all rolled into one. I just wish you weren’t so far away:)
I didn’t mean to make you cry! Thank you for your kind words. I hope your Mother’s Day was special.
I just read this.
“….not a perfect mom, but the perfect mom for me…….”
Wonderful, comforting words.
My mother died over 40 years ago…..my first daughter was a baby, the second not born yet. I think about her almost daily and sometimes wonder how I got through my life without her. But in actuality, she was there.