I'm My Mother's Daughter

by Tracy Jensen May
Originally Published: 

I lost my mom to cancer when I was eight years old. Not the quick and romantic illness from the movies, but two long years of hospitalizations, wheelchairs, hospital beds, and oxygen tanks moving into our home, riding along for chemo sessions with a barf bucket in the front seat, and getting shuttled back and forth to relatives’ homes while everyone tried to make it seem like these were exciting adventures.

Accordingly, I’ve always been a ghost of sorts – I look just like her. My father and I have always struggled with our relationship, and those close to him always told me, “It’s just because you look like her. He lost her once – He’s scared to be close and lose her again.” Great news for a daughter. My grandmother chose to indulge herself in her later years, calling me by my mother’s name instead of my own. At her funeral, people came up to me saying they’d thought Janeen had walked in because I had her mannerisms and even her walk.

Growing up was strange. While divorce was on the rise and becoming more common for kids in the classroom, no one really knew what to do with me. Throughout school, I was continually told that I needed to get to know John, who apparently also had lost his mother. We were marked. The Only Ones. But they couldn’t facilitate the dialogue, and no connection was ever made. The funny thing is that we became friends years later in high school, and through the many times we sat and talked on the couch, never once did we ever broach that topic.

Being my mother’s daughter is a role that has defined both the best and worst parts of my life, and also left me completely without a road map.

Because communication was sparse in my home growing up, focusing on Mom was at varying times a way to feel protected. When other kids had an imaginary friend on the playground, I had my mom. Weird, I know. I was a weird kid. I was the one who drew a detailed picture of the lower intestine and colon on elementary school reports. I wanted to be a microbiologist when other kids were still thinking about being firemen. (Don’t even think of getting me close to anything in the field of science these days.)

As an adult out in the work world, I found a home for it through philanthropy. I spent four years working for the American Cancer Society along with several as a volunteer. I planned events that raised a lot of money and brought thousands of people together to fight cancer. I got to know patients, their families, and people left behind, like me. I loved it. It was a lot of work and time – It was often all consuming. I looked around one day and realized that the central focus of my life was still revolving around someone who isn’t here, and that by doing so I was keeping myself a ghost. Although I loved the work and found myself to be good at it, I needed something that didn’t surround me by Cancer every minute of the day.

I changed jobs and immediately got pregnant. I read about “Motherless Mothers” and learned that I would likely block out my daughter’s eighth year. That’s right, go ahead and mark the calendar now – I’m just checking out at that point for a year. We’ll see how well that works.

At this point, it’s now 27 years later, I’m the mother of two kids two and under, and a stay at home mom. My universe has completely changed, and now looks startlingly like my mother’s. She never really had career aspirations – She wanted to be a homemaker. I always planned to work but circumstances made it more practical for me to be at home. I do hundreds of loads of laundry, clean the fingerprints off of the fridge (my husband’s not the kids’, for some reason), and I want to post a sign on my back that says: “I used to not smell like baby vomit and Cheerios.”

The struggle for me these days is that lack of phone call. I have amazing friends and a wonderful network of mamas. But, at 35, so many years after this outlet was available to me, I still have so many “I want my Mommy” days. I want to call and ask her if I can give the kids to the gypsies. I want to ask her why she wanted to stay at home. I want to ask her how the heck she made it through chemo sessions and side effects while juggling two little kids… when I can’t even get dinner on the table while healthy. I want to hear her laugh as she recognizes the payback I’m getting for being the snotty little toddler I’m sure I was.

I want her to tell me who is going to style Abby’s hair or teach her how to apply makeup because I never learned.

I want her to tell me what happens next.

In the meantime, as someone who feels like I have no evidence of history, I document my kids’ every moment. I blog it, I book it. I try to find adventures for us and savor the time. I try to remain sane. And whenever someone tells me how Abby is “just like her Mom,” I think again about how thin that line between our past and creating our own selves is. My mom didn’t have an opportunity to help create that canvas for nearly as long as she’d planned, and although I’m winging it, I hope I can help my own daughter find that balance.

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