Mothering and Motherlessness

Sometimes I surprise myself with how friendly I am to strangers. I smile, laugh easily, joke or commiserate over a shared obstacle, and then merrily go on my way. I stand in a moment of epiphany, wondering if that’s really who I am now: a generally happy, outgoing person.

I spent younger years as an angry young woman. Mother’s Day was like a dark cloud that rained on me every May. Thankfully, my mother is of a religion that considers all holiday celebrations to be immoral, and so ignoring Mother’s Day was construed as respecting her wishes. It took the healing of time and a good deal of introspection to get to a place where I was no longer angry at the world for not having a typical mother.

Of course, my children healed me too. From what I’ve read about motherless mothers I realize that I have probably transferred the idea of a nurturing maternal relationship to my children, only with me in the starring role as mother this time. Do I have a tendency to over-mother my children? You betcha. Yet, through them, I finally have a reason to see the sunlight on Mother’s Day. I thank my son often for his gift of making me a mother, his mother. I am in control of the next chapter of motherhood.

Others complain about their mothers. For a long time, I couldn’t help but wonder why they were complaining. They seemed to have normal, albeit quirky, mothers. I’ve come to realize that motherlessness can arise from different causes – death, mental illness, abandonment and elusiveness to name some – but the overall feeling can be similar. Motherlessness can affect a person differently depending on their life stage, personality and the presence (or absence) of other nurturing, mother-shaped figures.  There are motherless daughters, motherless sons and motherless mothers like myself, all with their challenges.

Motherlessness to a mother can feel like learning the trapeze without lessons. The baby is born and we jump off the platform, gripping tight and sailing, looking for the net. It’s hard to tell what, if any, net is there and so we do our best to make our own.

I’ve heard women say they would not know how to be a mother without the guidance of their own. They’re right. Motherless mothering isn’t something you know how to do, and there’s no one to teach you either. It’s something you feel and invent through empathy and long nights staring at the baby in your arms realizing that you are the sole source of maternal comfort. Thankfully, mothering is very much built on instincts, it’s just that the motherless path also includes trips to the emergency room for diaper rash. The feeling emerges that although you don’t know what you’re doing, others could not possibly know your baby as well as you and so you hold tightly, wary to let anyone else care for them. I’ve learned to let go cautiously over the years, and I’ve read that these are common experiences for motherless mothers.

I’ve accepted that I will never have a mother-like relationship in my life. Do I like it? No. Does it surface with grief that sends me reeling from time to time? Certainly. It probably always will, returning like a swarm.

There are many ways of getting to the airport but perhaps only one way to leave, if you want to fly. Peace and acceptance will give you wings.

I’ve found a certain peace – even empowerment – with my situation. I’ve come to realize that the person to whom I am tethered, whom I am obliged to visit, is not really a “mother” as much as it is the person who gave birth to me and did the best she could with what she had available to her. She gave love in her own way, even when it did not feel nurturing. No oasis from the storm, she IS a storm. She will never be better, never be a normal mother, and it’s not her fault. Being angry at mental illness is like being angry at any physiologically-based disease. Nothing productive will come of it. Nothing I do or feel will change the situation or change who my mother is. Raging against the sky will only leave me exhausted and drenched with rain.

My peace with my motherlessness has come from realizing her limitations and realizing mine. Nothing I do will “show her how to be a mother”. If anything, she has given me a powerful negative example as I mother my dear children. She has shown me what happens when you walk off a cliff. Lesson: don’t be a lemming.

My anger would smolder inside if I hadn’t chosen to extinguish it, accepted reality for what it is and moved on. Chosen to live in the present. Chosen to be happy. Chosen to be strong.

There’s a reason why you need to save yourself first. Like the oxygen masks in an airplane, you are useless to others if you don’t meet life with your personal strength intact.

As I negotiate my evolving relationship with my mother, the extent and manner to which I feel tethered to her is my decision. I can respond to her emotionally, I can respond to her physical needs only, or I can choose not to respond at all. None of us asks to be born, after all. I continually carve out the extent to which I am able to have a relationship with her while maintaining myself and prioritizing my responsibility to my children. I brought them into the world, after all.

The more people for whom you are a life raft, the harder it is to swim, and the harder it is to save yourself. Learn to swim first and you can be a life raft to others that need it, on terms that you decide. The balance between mothering and motherlessness.

23 thoughts on “Mothering and Motherlessness

  1. Such a beautiful post. I deal with motherlessness to and think that while it does fill me with a deep sense of loss it also inspires me to be for my son everything that I never had. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. I understand these feelings, Ani. I think we have a tendency to work to the point of exhausting ourselves to make sure that our kids never feel this type of lacking. It’s good to feel the commonality of this experience with others. Thanks so much for the comment!

  2. You are very wise and very intropective. We do have to decide what we can and cannot expect of others and let our expectations meet with what others are willing to give. Otherwise, like you said, it’s just screaming at the sky. I’m going to make sure Erin reads this!

    1. Thanks, Michelle! You’re right that this negotiation and fulfillment of expectations goes beyond relationship with mothers. Thankfully, relationships are always evolving and we can influence what they become.

  3. Wow.

    This “The more people for whom you are a life raft, the harder it is to swim, and the harder it is to save yourself. Learn to swim first and you can be a life raft to others that need it, on terms that you decide.” is quite the thought.

    I am currently dealing with a tornado of issues with my mother and I have been so lost. We used to be extremely close. Now we don’t talk at all. And I’m not entirely sure why.

    I’ve been struggling with how to deal with her because I have a husband and 2 boys who need me. My mother is an adult – and dealing with her would be a full-time job that I just do not have time for. I’m not sure I even have the desire.

    Very interesting post. Thank you.

    1. Hi Rebecca, I’m sorry that things are difficult with your mother. It’s hard when the tables turn and find your mother being needful when you are already taking care of your children and husband. It’s would be a lot for anyone to handle, and so hard to know where to draw boundaries. Wishing you strength as this unfolds! – Kat

  4. Oh Kat. As always, your post was just beautifully written… and really hit home with me. I have a mother who is very much a part of my life. She is overly involved to the point where I struggle to understand my true identity now as an adult because she has controlled and dictated SO much of my life. But I still feel motherless. I don’t have a mother who supports me unconditionally. I don’t have a mother who helps me. I don’t have a mother who makes life easier in any way. So while she’s in my life, she’s not the mother I would choose. It’s hard to admit that and feels somehow wrong. But it’s reality and thank you for helping me realize that. Big, giant hugs to you. Let’s support each other this Mother’s Day. We deserve a special day for being the wonderful mothers that we are to our own children. <3

    1. Knowing where to draw boundaries and trying to balance the generations can be so hard, particularly when we don’t have the type of relationship that we need or desire. Wishing you a very happy Mother’s Day, my friend! We should celebrate another year of good mothering. x

  5. Thank you for sharing your deeply personal story, Kat. Your post reinforced a thought I’ve been having – the experiences of my children are not the same experiences of my childhood. At times, I feel inadequate to the task of guiding them in a life so different from my own, navigating ballet rehearsals, daycare, and treats at the grocery store. While I do not have many painful memories and have a good relationship with my mother, I was 1 of 9 in a family without extra money for wants. Now, I’m living in suburbia and play the part of a working mom to 2 kids.

    1. I often wonder about the experiences of children these days too. Everything from car seats to computers. The world is so different from when we were young children that it does require a good deal of creative thinking to imagine what it’s like for them, and what is a reasonable parenting decision in the current state of things! Thanks for your comment, Beth.

  6. What a gorgeous post. I am so happy that Sunboy and Flowergirl have brought such a beautiful closure to such pain. You are definitely a great mother and I know that personally when I saw you with the two little ones, I definitely learned a lot from you about being a mother. Happy Mother’s Day my dear friend!

    1. Hello, dear friend! From what I have seen you are a wonderful mother as well. We need to get the kids together! Happy Mother’s Day to you too, Radha, and thank you for the lovely comment. <3

  7. “The more people for whom you are a life raft, the harder it is to swim, and the harder it is to save yourself. Learn to swim first and you can be a life raft to others that need it, on terms that you decide.”

    Yes, yes, yes.

    Love you, lady. <3

  8. I cannot imagine your life even when you write it with such ease on your blog. I cannot imagine how deprived you might have felt all your growing years and I am sure the void feeling may still surface from time to time. Having a mother to guide and love you is one of the world’s fundamentals. there are no parallels at all. It makes me so happy to know that you chose to be better and to rise above the negativity. Much love to you and your lovely children.

    1. No experience has a parallel, really.
      I don’t want to suggest that everything was dire. Compared to most people in the world, I had it pretty good. We all did.

  9. Kat,
    You are blessed with a way with words that only a few of us can only imagine, this is a gift, I enjoy reading, very up lifting in every word all I can say Thanks…..

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