Parentless Parents: How To Be A Parent Without Your Own

Being a parent is difficult work under any circumstances, but being a parent without both your own parents is wrenching.
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Imagine not being able to go home for the holidays. Now imagine if you couldn't go home next year either. Or, ever again. What would it be like to never smell those smells from your childhood or re-taste those special tastes? That's what it's like for me now that both my parents have passed away. Nearly every year since my parents died I've gone to my husband's family for Thanksgiving, this past Thursday included. And now that we have two children, his family's celebration is the only celebration our children know.

My mother died from ovarian cancer when I was 25 - before I got married and became a mother. Five years later, when my son, Jake, was just 18 months old, my father passed away too. Neither of my parents met my daughter, born two and a half years after her brother.

When my kids were small, there were so many questions I wish I could've asked my parents: When did I get my first tooth? How old was I when you let me cry myself to sleep? Perhaps knowing the answers would've helped me gauge my children's development or at least provided some measure of comfort. Not knowing made everything murky. And sometimes scary. I couldn't get my parents' perspective. I couldn't ask them for advice and I often pushed my in-laws away if they tried to take their place. Even though I was (and still am) happily married, I often felt lonely.

It's been nearly a decade since my final parent died and even though my kids are older -- Jake is 9, and my daughter, Lexi, is 7 - I haven't outgrown the need for my parents. In many ways I long for them more; I can't possibly make up for all the lessons they would have taught. So much is missing from their childhoods because they'll never know their other grandparents - the ones who belonged to me.

Being a parent is difficult work under any circumstances, but being a parent without both your own parents is wrenching. That's why I was shocked to learn that this relationship between double parent-loss and parenthood has never been fully explored. Until now.

I have launched a comprehensive online survey about the intersection of parent-loss and parenthood. And, according to the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, the organization that tracks virtually every public opinion survey conducted since the 1930s, the questions I am asking have never been asked before. The Roper archives contain data on how the public feels about seemingly every field of research: politics, education, health care and various social issues like abortion and poverty. It also has a clearinghouse of information about our evolving views on work, family, and raising children. But nothing has ever been asked about how losing both your parents informs the way you parent your own children. This is surprising to me, especially given that American women are having children later in life than ever before. The final results of my survey will be presented in my forthcoming book, Parentless Parents: How the Deaths of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Parent Our Own Children.

Here are some of my preliminary findings:

Practical and Emotional Voids

Parentless parents face challenges other parents don't. While all new parents share similar concerns, the questions we have often take on greater urgency because our moms and dads can't answer them. We cope with teething and temper tantrums without the help of the teachers who knew us best. As one mother explains, "I don't have anybody to ask how I behaved at certain ages and stages or what they did with me during particular situations."

Caring for babies and toddlers is also physically more demanding because our parents can't baby-sit or give us the occasional Saturday night off. It can also be isolating. Every milestone we reach and every achievement our children tackle feels somewhat imperfect because we can't share it with our mothers and fathers. Raising our children in this vacuum fundamentally shapes how we experience our first years as parents.

Being a parent without parents can also be emotionally exhausting. Depression, anger, and fatigue are common complaints and I always hear stories about envy. Going to the bus stop and seeing children picked-up by grandparents reminds us what our parents will never be able to do. Play dates are emotional landmines because friends absentmindedly chat about the time their children spend with their parents. Many pretend to be happy, but confess to pushing those closest to them away.

Fear of Dying Young

Dying young is a recurring fear among parentless parents. The anxiety is fueled by having lived through the deaths of their own parents and by imagining how their death would impact their own children. This gnawing sense of mortality greatly influences the way we parent our children and the decisions we make for ourselves along the way.

Women describe a heightened fear of miscarriage and being overly concerned with their children's health and well-being. Some parentless parents admit they're so scared something will happen to them or their spouse they never go on vacation without their children. Nearly all say it's hard at times to envision the future or imagine being alive long enough to watch their children graduate from college or get married. I've found myself stopping mid-sentence writing in my children's journals because I've envisioned their eyes examining my handwriting after I'm gone.

My mother's death, in particular, has colored my vision of the future. Because she died of ovarian cancer, there was no doubt in my mind that I would die of ovarian cancer too. I eventually had genetic testing and was told I was BRCA1 positive - assuring me that my fatalistic expectations were grounded in scientific truth. Ultimately, I decided to remove my ovaries and have a hysterectomy - an operation that thrust me into menopause and night sweats at 37. The decision, though, wasn't just about me. No longer was I just trying to save my own life; I was also trying to save Jake and Lexi's mother's life. You can read about my genetic testing and surgery in the posts I wrote called, My Journey to Prevent Ovarian Cancer.

Impact on Marriage

My husband, Mark, and I met when we were teenagers and we have now spent more than half our lives together. We are still, in every sense, best friends. Nothing has challenged our marriage more, however, than the fact that his parents are alive and mine are not.

Mark's parents come to every one of Jake and Lexi's birthday parties and they're able to attend all their music recitals and soccer games. While I can tell stories about my parents and show Jake and Lexi pictures, there's no way my parents can have equal influence over our children. My children's sense of family is completely off balance. Out of frustration, sadness, and jealousy many parentless parents end up pushing their in-laws away.

Because loss informs the way we raise our children, we often develop different parenting styles and that can also be a source of significant bitterness and conflict. One mom told me that because her in-laws are alive, she and her husband often approach parenting from very different perspectives. "That's been a huge issue for us," she told me. "He's not trained to think of the worst case scenario. Whereas, when I see a situation, my mind goes immediately to what could happen." She says her husband has called her, "paranoid" and "neurotic." Another mom reflected that she often pushes her children to be far more independent than her husband would like. "I actually parent with the idea that I could be gone tomorrow," she said. Lessons, many parentless parents feel, just can't wait.

How To Keep Your Parents Memory Alive for Your Kids

There's one job that distinguishes every parentless parent from all other moms and dads - keeping the memory of our parents alive for our children. The responsibility includes showing pictures, telling stories, and the deliberate passing down of family history, traditions, and heirlooms. These tasks simply would not be ours if our parents were alive. We want to give our children all that would have been automatic - a rich connection to their past - so they can more completely understand who they are, where they came from, what makes them - them. In many ways, we need to be grandparents to our children too.

Ensuring children have a link to their grandparents is demanding work and we do it along side every other parenting responsibility we already have. Some parents, like a young mother I interviewed for my previous book, Always Too Soon, take their children to cemeteries. "I bring Catherine, who is now four, to the gravesite and take pictures of her there. I have a picture on my dresser of her putting flowers on my parents' graves." Others use technology, like one father I spoke with who spent months digitizing his family's old films and videos to create a movie to email his adult children. "I definitely want there to be a legacy for my children to show their children. My parents are part of who I am," he explained.

But ensuring this connection can have profound, emotional consequences. A significant number of parentless parents say their identity is dwarfed by ghosts. They tell stories about their parents, but forget to tell stories about themselves. I noticed this myself one afternoon when I was telling Jake and Lexi a story about my father playing stickball in The Bronx when he was a kid. As I was talking, I realized I had never told them how much I loved ice skating or how competitive I was in gymnastics and swimming. I had been inadvertently marginalizing my own life. Constantly looking backward can also cause some parents to become psychologically stuck at the age they were when their parents died and it can impact their ability to take care of their own needs and happiness.

These are just some of the topics I'll be exploring here and in my forthcoming book, Parentless Parents: How the Deaths of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Parent Our Own Children. How has the loss of your parents impacted the way you parent your children?

Join the discussion and take the Parentless Parents survey. I'll use your anonymous responses in my book.


Allison Gilbert is currently writing her third non-fiction book, Parentless Parents: How the Deaths of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Parent Our Own Children. If you are a parent who has lost both your parents, you can help with her research by taking the Parentless Parents online survey. You can also join the "Parentless Parents" community on Facebook. You can find out more about Ms. Gilbert by visiting her website at

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