The Education of the Motherless Daughter

With enough kindness towards youtself, enough head pats and good snacks, you grow fond of the person you are because of, and in spite of, losing your mom.
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Hispanic woman thinking on bed
Hispanic woman thinking on bed

My mother departed from the earth the same way that she had lived on it -- ever accommodating to my schedule. I had just finished my last exam of the semester, but the day marked my graduation from childhood at the age of 19. My plans, my relationships and my character forever rerouted as I entered the tribe of the motherless daughters.

"For a long time, it was all you needed to know about me," wrote author Anna Quindlen, who lost her mother at the same age. "A kind of vest pocket description of my emotional complexion: 'Meet you in the lobby in 10 minutes -- I have long brown hair, am on the short side, have on a red coat and my mother died when I was 19.'"

For a motherless daughter, grief is forever the unwelcome guest we ignore or usher into our lives. We hate what it snatched from us, but we clutch what it gifted us with equal ferocity. And we're constantly knee-deep in that guilty question, "How can the worst thing that ever happened to me also be the best thing about me?" The loss of my mother was a sieve, straining so many the coarser pieces of myself from the finer ones.

In college I first read Hope Edelman's book, Motherless Daughters, which coined the term and birthed hundreds of support groups across the country. When I attended one of those groups a few years later, I found myself surrounded by women in their 50s and 60s, balancing Styrofoam plates with cake on their knees while grieving the loss of their octogenarian mothers. Losing a parent is not easy at any age, but in that room I was the veteran, no longer swept up in the immediacy of death.

Now, heading toward my 30th birthday and carrying a decade of life without my mom, I've learned to appreciate the power of the motherless daughter and the futility of the platitude that "no one will ever love you as much as your mother does." Because a funny thing happens when the well of unconditional love is closed for business. Left to wield the sword against the negative voices in your head, you start learning how to defend your own worth. You also become enamored with the prospect of aging. My mom just made it past 50, making the later decades both a mystery and a privilege for me. I might hide the premature gray streaks in my hair, but I don't hide my enthusiasm for wisdom I might gain on the trip over the hill and back down it.

Working as a therapist, I see how often decisions in relationships are nudged by the fear of loss. But death and absence are a constant of life, not a variable, and we have to decide who we're going to be in the midst of them. Losing a parent acquaints you to this certainty at a painful hyperspeed. Rejection is no longer the scariest outcome when you've survived the worst, and you learn to stop making constant adjustments to appease family members or significant others. "I can't live without you," might be a romantic phrase for the movies, but "I could survive without you," will keep you asleep at night.

Grief changes you like an ominous Alice in Wonderland beverage. Big things grow bigger, and little things shrink from their former importance. "If I can get through this," you say, "then nothing will be that difficult." But after 10 years, I've found that there is no "through." You're always in it, but so is everyone else at one point or another.

As I welcome more friends into the tribe of the motherless daughter, I try to remember what's it like to gain an identity that no one ever wants. If I could tell them anything, it would be that with enough kindness towards youtself, enough head pats and good snacks, you grow fond of the person you are because of, and in spite of, losing your mom. Time will only tell what grief will gift to me at 30, 40, 50 and beyond. Whatever the outcome, I like to think that I will be someone my mother would have liked to know. And for that, I am only grateful.

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