What It Means to Be a Mom Without a Mother

My mom died in 2007, two and a half years before I had my oldest son. We had been estranged for nearly a decade before that, so her death was sad, but the emptiness had been there for so long that it simply felt like an extension of the estrangement. I have spent most of my adulthood without a mother-figure in my life, so I was used to doing things my own way and not having a mother to turn to for advice or help.

But once I had kids, the fact that I didn't have a mother suddenly magnified a thousand times.

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Two of my close friends had babies the same year I did, and in both instances their mothers traveled from out-of-state to stay with them for weeks after their babies were born. I came to learn that it was pretty typical mother behavior. And that knowledge—that not only was my husband deployed for the first five months of my son's life, but that I also didn't have the one other person who is supposed to be there when my children are born—was like a punch to my pregnant belly. What had been a wistful longing for the kind of mother/daughter relationships I saw in movies, and that many of my friends seem to have, suddenly became an overwhelming feeling of heartache.

I vow to be in my children's lives in a way my mother was never in mine.

Being a mom without a mother meant not being able to ask, "Did I do this when I was a baby?" The generational link was broken. I was sure my mother told me stories when I was a kid—but that was long before I was even thinking of having kids of my own. I had forgotten the stories I was told and I couldn't ask her now. So I went into motherhood blind—not sure if I was doing anything right and having no mother to ask. I figured it all out. I had to. But I know having a mother must have made it all a little bit easier, a little less stressful.

Not having a mother also meant I had to learn about most everything baby-related from books and friends. The only person I could really count on was my husband, and he had as little experience with babies and parenting as I did. We learned together, which was nice, but there were times when I wished I had a mother to lean on and trust with my children. There were no free childcare or weekends at Grandma's house—even my in-laws lived 12 hours away.

Maybe that has been the hardest part of being a motherless mom over the years—not that I don't have someone besides my husband to rely on, but that my children don't either. They see representations of grandmothers in their TV shows and books, but they don't quite understand the concept, having only seen their paternal grandmother a couple of times in their lives and not ever knowing my mother. The idea of a grandmother is so foreign to them.

Being a mom without a mother means finding the strength to mother children when there is no one to mother us. It's hard. Damn hard.

My children have asked if I have a mom. They're young, so I've only told them that she died. They don't know that I didn't have a relationship with her before she died, or that if she were alive now she wouldn't be in their lives either. Knowing that my mother, their grandmother, is dead has led to questions about my mortality, and I've had to reassure my kids that I will never leave them, not until I'm very, very old. It makes them feel better and it scares the hell out of me—how can I make a promise like that? But I do, and I vow to be in my children's lives in a way my mother was never in mine.

Not having a mother is lonely sometimes in a way I can't explain, but I know I'm not alone in my loss or my feelings. When I meet another woman who has also lost her mother, whether through death or life circumstances, we bond over our motherlessness. We are survivors—mothers without a maternal role model—and we have had to be stronger than we should need to be. But we're doing just fine, thanks. That's what we tell you, because that's what we tell ourselves. Being a mom without a mother means finding the strength to mother children when there is no one to mother us. It's hard. Damn hard. But we do it because we love our children—maybe more than we were ever loved.

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But becoming a mom who doesn't have a mother has had one profoundly positive change for me. I no longer dread Mother's Day—that special day to honor our mothers and let them know how much they mean to us. There was a time when I could barely stand to walk through a card store in the month of May, which also happens to be my birth month, ironically, because it hurt to much to see all of the Mother's Day cards and know I didn't have a mother. Now the day has taken on a happier meaning and I can appreciate the sweet offerings of my children. I have no family except the one I have created, and now I get to be the mother I never had. And that's enough. It has to be.

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Photograph by: Twenty20

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