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How Loss Empowered My Parenting

Self-taught parenting is a wild and unkempt landscape, but in it, the brave can forage beauty.
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Digital pregnancy tests are the worst. Unless you like a piece of plastic covered in urine yelling at you, prompting you to spit out the boxed wine you gulped down because there isn't any way in hell you could be with child, and besides, don't only unwed teens get pregnant when they're not ovulating?

That fear-mongering pregnancy test accused me in all caps. Orphans can't be moms. Her body failed her and yours will, too. Good luck sustaining a life. Time's up, she's gone, you're on your own.

I didn't want to be a mom. I wanted to be a daughter.

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For the four years after my mother died, I survived on her fumes, floating in a haze of her compassion, her quick wit, and her warm, freckled skin. In dreams I'd bump into her at the grocery store, but I spent my waking life meandering motherless through the milestones wedged between adolescence and adulthood.

A cross-country move, my first job, my first boyfriend, my wedding day. I survived it all like a daughter whose mother had simply gone missing. Her physical absence slowly eclipsed her memory, but I looked to that waning sliver of light to nourish me -- part daughter, part orphan.

It was five years after the end of her life that my son's life sparked inside me, and her flame began to flicker. With every milestone, I had another reminder to rip me out of the cocoon I'd built with pieces of her memory.

The first ultrasound, a two-part cocktail of dread and relief that this baby was actually happening. Twelve long weeks of face-pressed-against-toilet-seat sickness, wondering if she was sick, too, and for how long. The baby shower where I lost my crap because who needs all this stuff and where are all my hand-me-downs? Finding out he was a boy and forfeiting my chance to re-do my childhood through the little girl I'd dreamed up.

Week by week, I inched closer to impending motherhood, away from the daughter I needed to be. To me, the roles of grieving child and responsible parent could not coexist -- they were concentric circles, with my healing journey at the core and motherhood on the outskirts, reserved for a more elegantly bound version of myself.

I thought motherhood had prerequisites, and I hadn't finished my coursework in being a daughter. But mothering isn't one-size-fits-all. Sometimes to drop out of school and to be your own apprentice is the best bet. Sometimes we learn best by doing -- leading with the body until the heart follows.

I'm so relieved that my heart did. That I proved that pregnancy test and myself wrong. That I didn't just survive pregnancy and motherhood, but I learned to love it, even in the steepest learning curve.

Self-taught parenting is a wild and unkempt landscape, but in it, the brave can forage beauty. What if my own lack of a mother didn't disqualify me, but empowered me? What if healing and being a mother aren't concentric, but overlapping? And what if that overlap could be the perfect habitat for me to parent on my own terms?

When I began to leverage my mother's absence for my good and the good of my son, I became a mom. I asked specific questions warranting specific answers. I waited in the tension of not knowing what I was doing until my intuition came through. I had room to fail and room to astonish myself with success. I gave myself permission to exist as both grieving daughter and learning mother, and somehow, I blossomed.

You know how non-parents crack jokes about loving their friends' kids but getting to hand them back in to their parents at the end of the day -- gleaning the best parts of parenthood while preserving their sanity? Learning to mother was like that. I got to decide which wisdom to heed and which mentors to adopt without any sense of obligation.

I had a village of helpers and teachers to call on, but on my own time and in my own way. I had my dad, who surprised me with his excitement to be a grandfather. I had extended family who came to help but respected the boundaries I built. I had my husband to hold my hand and affirm my choices. I had a midwife and doula to summon my strength. I had our pediatrician, who was more concerned for me than my son when the little one fell out of his high chair. I had my notebook, where I processed it all by pen. I had the memory of my mom and the glimmering impression that she'd be proud. And I had the new knowledge that the space between us was the best gift she'd accidentally given me.

I am an orphan, and I'm not. And that's a tension I'm OK with.

Morbid as it may sound, I even celebrate it. Because in the hollow cavity of my mother's absence, I had room to crystallize -- space to explode into the most mothersome version of myself.