Learning to be Mother Without One
Updated: Apr 2, 2022
It has been more than four years since my mother passed away—her transition began on New Year’s Eve, which happened to be my daughter’s third birthday.
My father had run to the store to grab a cake before hosting a celebratory dinner. When he returned, he found my mother motionless.
“I think we just lost mom”, my dad’s voice shook on the phone as he said the words, out of breath and packed with adrenaline. I tossed on boots and drove, quickly (and recklessly) to their home, about 15 minutes away, just in time to see her being rolled out on a stretcher.
“Is she alive?”, I stammered as I threw my car into park in the middle of the road. By the Grace of God, she was, and we avoided the gut-wrenching trend of a passing on the birthday of a family member.
“Don’t do this today,” I begged as her eyes met mine.
It had been 14 months since we first found out about her pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Lucky by many accounts, they found it earlier than what is typical of this disease. She was able to receive surgery and her numbers were impeccable…until they weren’t.
I had conceived my son just days after I received the news of her illness, hoping she would be able to physically cuddle the little bundle of joy that we knew would complete our family. My mother, father and daughter came to meet him in the hospital and as soon as they walked in, I knew her doctor’s appointment that morning had not gone well.
As she cradled the tiny newborn, my mom told me that the cancer had progressed from Stage II to Stage IV. July 17th, 2017 was the day I welcomed a miraculous gift but also knew I was going to lose a part of my soul.
The Beginning of the “End”
My mother had invited us over for a Sunday dinner along with my brother and his wife. We enjoyed a few drinks, a few laughs and an unseasonably warm fall day. My daughter, who at this juncture was just shy of two, played dress up and ran around giggling and having fun.
My mom was very insistent that we take some photos out by the gazebo, a structure that was built about 100 years ago by my great-grandfather. It had been torn down from its original spot and rebuilt in my parents’ backyard. It was “the picture spot” for every important occasion and I’m very happy to write that it is now being rebuilt at my own home for even more memorable moments.
I didn’t think much of it at the time although I remember questioning why she wanted pictures so badly, but we smiled, posed and made her happy.
An hour or so later we’re in the living room chatting away and mom excused herself for the restroom. As she came back, she sat on the couch and grabbed my father’s arm as he sat beside her and squeezed. My parents were always affectionate with each other so it’s not the action that I took notice to, but rather my intuition that there was something more to that squeeze. I didn’t bring attention to it but about 10 minutes later, my mom told us, “I have pancreatic cancer.”
For those who aren’t aware, the five-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 11%. It’s an aggressive cancer and one that isn’t usually detected until it’s in the later stages. My mother was fortunate as it was found early but there isn’t much that western medicine could do for her in terms of treatment. I have personally met some who have beat it but my Spidey-senses told me that my mother wasn’t going to be one of them.
As mentioned in my last post, she didn’t have a supportive or emotionally healthy childhood. I believe this shaped not only her adult identity, but led to her body breaking down and ultimately, her cancer.
This theory, that emotions affect your physical body, has gained more traction in recent years and experts in eastern—and many in western medicine—support that fact that almost every single physical ailment is linked to an emotional cause of the disease. In other words, without exploring or fixing your shit, eventually your physical body will begin to deteriorate. More on this in another post.
Ultimately, my mother’s childhood experience shaped a woman who wanted to break free from her unhealthy patterns but she just didn’t know how. I believe that her fear of changing, or fear of the unknown, claimed her life.
And as I make peace and heal from my own childhood traumas, I am aware, now more than ever, that I am directly affecting not only my children’s current emotional health and well-being, but also their possible end of life scenarios. Wowza.
Nope, no parenting pressure at all.
After my mother was rushed to the hospital, we scrambled to figure out the best course of action. She had cancelled her hospice appointments and short of sending my father home with an oxygen tank and a prayer, they weren’t able to do much. We knew the end had come and had agreed that keeping her there was what was best for all of us.
On January 2nd, 2018, we invited friends and family to say their goodbyes and share stories, had a shot of bourbon in her honor, and when everyone was gone, and all was quiet, she left us.
Forging a Path Ahead
Initially her passing was a relief. Not only was she free from the hurt and pain, but also free from the sadness she felt at her reflection in the mirror—she took extreme pride in her appearance and seeing her body breakdown and change affected her immensely. It was also a relief for the rest of us who had seen her experience the various stages of death.
My parents were married for over 40 years and my father was right beside her the entire time. While I witnessed a lot of what she had gone through, his experience helping her through her illness is something I will never fully and truly understand. He saw it all and I know it changed him.
My brother and his wife welcomed my niece into the world the day after my mother’s funeral, an appreciated distraction from the pain we were all experiencing. Being out of state, he wasn’t around for the day-to-day dealings with my mother, but I know he hated not being able to control what was happening to her.
And here I was, 35-years-old with a toddler and an infant and I had to figure out how the hell to be a mother to them without having my own mother to help guide me.
While I no longer had to witness the horrors of cancer or be filled with fear and anxiety over her passing, I missed her and continue to miss her tremendously. No one quite “gets you” like your mom, no matter how much other support you may have around you.
The three of us that remained were bonded together by our mutual experience, but how each of us ultimately handled the grief couldn’t have been any different.
My father chose self-preservation, wanting to “live life fully”, remarrying quickly and putting a great deal of physical and emotional separation between us.
My brother, on the other hand, stopped wanting to live and fell down the rabbit hole of depression and alcoholism. Even though he was a new father himself, four years later, he still hasn’t been able to heal in any real way.
So how on God’s green earth was I going to do this? How was I going to get through the postpartum phase of pregnancy while grieving, without those that I used to run to for encouragement and strength?
I have a wonderfully supportive husband, a compassionate extended family and several ride-or-die friends, but they were busy keeping the day-to-day normalcy in place for my kids and had their own lives to keep living. For a while, I felt like a child myself and wondered, “who was going to take care of me?”
Though my mother and I had strains in our relationship, she was an amazing caretaker and there is a huge absence in my life since she’s been gone. She was very affectionate and was the person I ran to for everything—every milestone, every happy moment (and every sad moment), she was there, telling me “Tomorrow’s another day…keep smiling”.
How was I going to navigate through this new phase of life without the familial support I was used to and without that love that only my mother alone could provide?
Honestly, those who kept me going, those who pushed me to carry on in life in a productive and healthy way, those who gave me the reassurance and praise that I desperately needed on the hard days, were, my kids.
I may not have enjoyed pregnancy—having two extremely difficult experiences—nor am I one who really enjoys very young children, but I have to say, these two tiny beings were my lifeline.
I often wonder what those early years with them would have been like had my mother not been sick. Would I have hated the sleepless nights a little less? Would I have been able to handle the diaper wrestling matches a little bit better? Possibly, although babies are hard no matter what the circumstances!
But as the days turned into weeks and eventually the weeks into years, it has gotten easier and more enjoyable to be a “mom”.
I look back on what I went through, and I am proud as hell that I fought so hard to keep myself and the family unit moving.
I CHOSE to keep going, chose to get up every day and figure it all out. And when the grief, fear, anger and loneliness began bubbling up and was too hard to bear, it was my kids who lifted me up out of the mud and muck. While they needed me to help them grow and develop, I needed them for the same exact reason.
It took a long time, but I am finally learning how to enjoy the little family my husband and I created.
Of course, as kids get older, many aspects of parenting get easier, but it’s more than that. I did my best to embrace my situation without giving up and as ugly as the process was, I am now experiencing a completely different level of love, companionship and contentment I didn’t think was possible when they first entered my life.
Over the last few years, I fought for normality, for keeping old relationships strong, for closure, acceptance and most importantly, respect, when instead, I was often confronted with brick wall after brick wall.
Some even went so far as to criticize me as a mother, saying “it is sick and worrisome that as a 36-year-old woman, you are using your three-year-old as a weapon against us.” (No, my little girl just had a question about her grandmother. Sorry, not sorry.)
Following that exchange and for a long time after, every little comment about my parenting abilities triggered me. I had been through so much that judgement in any form with regards to how I raise my kids sent me into a blind rage.
When my mother died, I didn’t run away from my old life to start a new one and while I was still in the thick of my disordered eating issues, I continued to work on healing the parts of me that needed love, grace, and compassion. My immediate reactions in life didn’t always stem from that healthy place, but I did my absolute best to be a good mom to my kiddos given the circumstances, and tried to protect them (and subsequently myself) from further hurt and pain.
Those who judged or criticized me in the early stages of grief were dealing with their own insecurities. As my mother’s words, “consider the source”, repeat in my head, I take a deep breath and try my hardest to just let it go.
In 2021 I took a step back to really dig into the last few years and asked myself what was next. Who was I and who did I want to become? What did I want for myself in terms of my marriage, my career and my role as a mother? I had missed out on so much of kids’ lives in an angry and grief-stricken haze and I wanted to move past that into a more present and involved parent. I did a lot of work, a lot of soul searching and now, being a mom is becoming fun.
I joke that my main goal as a mother is to teach my kids not to be assholes as adults—it’s what I truly believe is most important in this short life we are here to live. I do enjoy time with my children but I have never been the type of mother who is going to sit down and play endless games or spend hours crafting together when the house looks like a tornado hit it or if I need to work on “my” stuff. I’m also not the type of mom who laughs off flour getting flung around the house as we try and bake together…God I really, really hate baking. It’s just not how I’m built and I’m OK with that.
But I see them, and hear them and while I may mess up, I know that that way of parenting is what works for us.
Why? Because at the end of the day, if my kids see their friends struggling, they offer to help.
If they see someone fall, they help them back up.
They cheer on their peers and have smiles on their faces and initiate hugs when they sense I’m having a hard day.
They are still young, seven and four respectively, but they have more strength, emotional intelligence, love (and a whole lotta humor) in their tiny little bodies than many other grown adults do.
THAT is something that can never be taken away from me or them. My husband and I, so far, are kicking ass, despite the struggles we have gone through in the time they’ve been here on this planet.
I have grown with them, in spite of the obstacles that have been placed before me and in spite of the grief, absences, insecurities and judgement of others. They are amazing and when they test my patience, which they do A LOT, I’m able to recall on this growth and use it to be better than before.
I’ve learned how to pick and choose my battles with the kids—it’s really a crap shoot at who comes out on top these days!
I’ve learned when to speak up and vocalize issues with friends and family, or, when silence is more necessary for my sanity and the greater good.
I’ve learned that healthy boundaries should exist and be maintained, and then at the end of the day, nothing is more important in this life than learning how to be kind to each other.
Look ‘ma…I figured it out! In the midst of losing you, I found myself.
As I begin to settle into this new chapter and find my mothering groove, I now have the capacity to explore other parts of my identity. Truth be told, I’m excited for who my kids, and I, are becoming.