My mom died at 49. I’m now 42. This is a bizarre fact that I’ve only just come to appreciate as something I have to work through. I have had so much health anxiety for years about getting sick and dying like she did, leaving my children feeling abandoned and alone. This, fortunately won’t ever be their fate because even if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, they have another mom to love them unconditionally.
When my mom died, I thought of her as old but now that I’m basically the same age, I know that’s not true. She was young but she had suffered a lot in her 40s, having been diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 44. Being a motherless daughter for so many years has caused me incredible pain and suffering of my own. Unless you’ve also experienced your mother dying early, it’s difficult to explain how traumatizing and frightening the whole experience can be.
What I want to talk about is the other side of this. The part that I am only now learning was there the whole time. Because my mother died so young, and I was a young adult, I had an opportunity to define myself wholly outside of her existence. I had an opportunity to come out as a lesbian and frankly, if she was alive, I’m not sure I would have been able to do that. At least not at 21. It could have taken me many more years before I would have had the courage to do that and risk her judgement or worse, rejection.
I also had the opportunity to learn about pain very early in life. I learned about not being seen by your mother, not being recognized as a separate person with needs of her own. I learned that my mother could be cruel and aggressive. I learned that she could be petty and small, that she could unleash on people, that she had a lot of anger and resentment that she didn’t know what to do with. Looking back on it, it seems like she was having her own midlife meltdown. And then she got cancer and that had to go on the backburner while she fought for her life.
We often see our mothers as dichotomous, good or bad. Strong or weak. Powerful or not. In fact, they’re all of these things. We, too, are all of these things, whether we’re mothers or not. We have all of these pieces inside of us, as part of us. We are partly amazing and partly shitty. Partly powerful and partly insecure. We are partly generous and partly petty. No one is all of these things all of the time. This, I think, is what I now understand from her death. Being a motherless daughter, in whatever shape that takes – estranged, abandoned, orphaned, grieving, is a lesson unto itself. It isn’t simply that we grieve their loss, it’s that we grieve the loss of what we thought we had. The fantasy of the perfect mother. Or the worst mother. Whatever the narrative is for you, you’re grieving it. I’m grieving it too, even after 24 years of her not being here physically.
I hope that if you, or someone you know, is a motherless daughter, that you’ll talk about what being a mother means. We have such ridiculously pious notions of what mothers should be in our culture, it’s almost comedic how saintly we have to be. I think this is the source of so much of our collective pain as women in midlife. We have this idea of what we’re “supposed” to do as mothers, and yet, there’s no rulebook. There’s no guide, no checklist. We do our best, just as our moms did. We hope that we mother in a way that is more informed because we have more information now than we ever did before about what children need. I don’t hold it against my mom that she didn’t know what I needed. It pains me greatly but it makes me a better parent. And for that, I’m grateful. xo Janet