My Mom Died – But I Can Mother Anyway

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In 15 months, I will have lived twice as many years without my mom as I did with her. I was 11 when she died, but even now most of my casual, daily interactions remain framed by that shadow. I’ll be folding laundry or walking my daughter to the park or editing a project for a client, and that familiar refrain is never far from my consciousness – your mother is gone, your mother is gone, your mother is gone.

It’s been nearly two decades now. Here’s what I know:

Becoming a mother forged a new tether to my own.

There are distinct differences between the way I parent my 3-year-old and the way my mother raised my sisters and me, but I’m surprised by the number of similarities that have revealed themselves since the birth of my daughter. This window back to my mom was an unexpected but not unwelcome gift – a way to feel closer to her, to more fully understand her complexities both as a mother and as an autonomous woman separate from that role.

That being said …

I’m still witnessing the full depth of my grief.

My teenage rebellion included denying any possible need to grieve the loss of my mom. I understood only later that this was an act of self-preservation – part of grief’s cyclicality, that stubborn tide. But nothing prepared me for how acutely I’d feel my mother’s absence once my daughter was born, of how much more aware I’d become of exactly what I lost.

Not having a mother doesn’t mean I’ll fail at being one.

I’m not saying I don’t have moments of jittery self-doubt (most often in that peak hour of chaos just before bedtime when many parents elect to pour themselves a very large glass of wine), but I’ve also realized how far my capacity for love and empathy and patience can be stretched. I’m lucky that my circle includes some really amazing, heartening moms (and dads) that I get to learn from and lean on, too.

Speaking of …

My dad is pretty spectacular.

He’ll shrug it off and say he was just doing what was necessary, but he’s a rare breed of generous. Plus, from helping me navigate my first box of tampons to honoring my request for the pill at 16 without shaming me to being an enthusiastic Cheer Dad for my two younger sisters, my father broke plenty of normative gender roles without batting an eye – an attempt to help fill the space of all he worried we were missing.

I’m afraid of basically everything.

There’s a running joke among old friends of mine about my permanent position as safety patrol officer. You’re going hiking alone? That’s dangerous. You’re thinking about buying a boat? That’s dangerous. You dared someone to eat a hot pepper? You still ride roller coasters? You used a fork to eat something? EVERYTHING IS DANGEROUS, OK? I’m obviously the most fun person of all time to have at a party or anywhere.

I need to keep records. Extensive ones.

Because you just never know when you might be seeing someone for the last time. Think Hoarders, but for Google Drive.

I have kinship with other people who have lost a parent.

This is especially true of women who have lost their mothers. No matter how divergent our personalities or experiences, there’s no denying the existence of this curious and terrible sisterhood.

I have a hard time making close friends.

I’m not shy, but my first instinct is often to leave distances unbridged. There’s no denying that this might protect me in the short term, but the truth is I can’t see how guardedness honors my mother’s life or my own. I’m not always on the right side of that learning curve, but even when it takes real effort, I try to turn toward others instead of away, to keep my heart open to the filling.

The future looks pretty damn fuzzy.

Because there’s been no model, it’s hard to picture what my life might look like beyond the age my mother was at the time of her death: 41. Maybe I have another 60 years, maybe only 10. Maybe even fewer. It’s hard not to wonder about what grief might lay in wait for my own little girl, but that kind of fear quickly becomes immobilizing. The quality of our time together – what we fill our days doing, how much I get to discover about her – is more important than the number of boxes I’ve checked off a calendar. Would my mom have thought that too? I have no idea. All I can do – all any of us can do, really – is pack as much good as possible into each day I’m here and hope it’s enough.

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