On Being a Mom Without a Mom

I saw no silver lining in my mom's young death. She was 46 and I was 15. It ushered in my life, 2.0, a time when I came to view the world through catastrophe-colored lenses -- something with which I still struggle.
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Photo: My mom, shown here with me on her lap and flanked on either side by my siblings, was the most effusive person I've known.

When my mom died of breast cancer 26 years ago, I was sad, mostly for myself. No more Chinese-takeout dinners on Friday. No more special trips to Canada or Florida. No more normal.

My parents had divorced six years earlier, so normal meant spending most weekends and holidays with my mom, and living at my dad's house during the week. Mom was the soft, fun parent with whom I shared everything. Dad was rigid and serious, concerned with his work and maintaining our quality of life. Both were breadwinners.

The divorce had upended my life, but I'd grown used to splitting time. Materially it meant more: extra gifts, special trips, leniency from my parents at almost every pass.

I saw no silver lining in my mom's young death. She was 46 and I was 15. It ushered in my life, 2.0, a time when I came to view the world through catastrophe-colored lenses -- something with which I still struggle.

"A catastrophe is a great and sudden calamity, a violent and abrupt change. Adult survivors of the early death of a parent use just such language to describe their loss. The event is known by its enormity; nothing in the child's life remains untouched; the catastrophe is absolute," writes Dr. Maxine Harris in her book, The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father. The child navigates a new world marked by total discontinuity, terrifying insecurity and profound emptiness, Harris says.

Newly aware of the unpredictable nature of life, I sought to restore order, to the extent I could. School and my studies provided a natural outlet. Later, my writing and editing career was a prime place I could set about organizing and controlling. For a while things seemed relatively composed -- until I had my first child, 20 years after my mom's death.

Motherless Mothering

A unique strain of chaos runs through motherhood. Establishing order is what moms do for their families and for themselves. I like that. But figuring out how to do it has been tricky. I'd like a road map. What better place to find one than by asking my own mom? Without that option, I've set out on a rudderless ride. It was especially bumpy after my first baby arrived.

Before I had children, I thought I wouldn't make a good mother, because I hadn't been mothered long myself. Once I was married, I figured my wise-and-sensitive husband would be all the support I needed.

When our son, Noah, was born, my motherless fears were magnified by postpartum depression. That season gave me a chance to grieve my mother again, and work through the notion that I wasn't parent material. As Noah grew and flourished, I gained confidence and strength. I came to see my lack of a road map as a freedom: I could tread a new path and define motherhood for myself.

That sense of independence came in handy when I had my daughter, Syma, and has since served me well. My kids are now 6 and 3½ years old. The concerns I faced in early motherhood have morphed. I'm not as sad for myself as I am for my children. They've lost one of the pearls of life -- a maternal grandmother. Since they've never known what it means to have her, they don't sense the magnitude of the loss.

I strive to recreate her through stories and pictures. It's been so long since she lived, though, my memories are limited. I've forgotten most of the small moments, so I rely on a few big ones that illustrate her character. It must be working. One day recently my son said, "Mom, I'm sad that Grandma Karen isn't here. I know I would love her." He includes her in prayers and remembers what I've shared, retelling it better than I do.

Hope Edelman discusses the missing maternal grandmother in a chapter of her book, Motherless Mothers: How Losing a Mother Shapes the Parent You Become. "In virtually every survey conducted with grandchildren who have four living grandparents, the maternal grandmother ranks highest in their affections," Edelman writes. "Mothers' mothers tend to be the grandparents most likely to make grandchildren feel good about themselves, to help in emergencies, to act as intermediaries between children and their parents, and to share secrets with grandchildren. This is mainly because of the relationship a mother shares with her mother."

Certain times of the year magnify the loss, especially Mother's Day. It's a bittersweet mix of gratitude for the healthy family I've been blessed with, and longing for my mom to be part of it. This year was no different.

In time I'm learning to be content with the idea that, as long as I live, my mom's absence will spell a certain discontent. Tullian Tchividjian says it well in his book, Glorious Ruin: How Suffering Sets You Free:

We may not ever fully understand why God allows the suffering that devastates our lives. We may not ever find the right answers to how we'll dig ourselves out. There may not be any silver lining, especially not in the ways we would like. But we don't need answers as much as we need God's presence in and through the suffering itself. For the life of the believer, one thing is beautifully and abundantly true: God's chief concern in your suffering is to be with you and be Himself for you.

As mothers, we're called to struggles. Suffering often is part of the deal. Yet God equips us for the rugged journey, even -- and especially -- if we ourselves don't have mothers.

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