10 years ago, I read a book by Hope Edelman called Motherless Daughters. It was gifted to me by a fellow mother-less daughter shortly after my mom passed away. To be honest, I’ve forgotten a lot of what I had read - I was in such a unique headspace the weeks following my mom’s passing that absorbing the content of the book (or anything else for that matter) seemed almost impossible. There was a section towards the end of Edelman’s book that talked about becoming a motherless mother and the complexities that come along with that new identity. I skipped it. I was far away from becoming a mom, and the 20-year-old version of me couldn’t fathom the kind of pain that motherhood would bring.
I need to go through our bins in the garage and find that book. Read it again, absorb the contents this time, and really dive into that last section on motherhood. Because as amazing as mamahood is, it sure is a doozy. First, there are the pregnancy hormones and the growing bump, then the sleepless nights and breastfeeding pain, and that’s just scraping the surface. Motherhood is a complex, out-of-this-world experience, and to face all of it without your own mama by your side? It’s just not the life that God meant for us to live.
Knowing that I can’t speak for all motherless mothers out there, I thought I’d share a few recurring thoughts that have crossed my mind, given this new identity. All opinions are entirely my own, and are not meant to be all-encompassing or disrespectful; I just hope that it may resonate with other motherless moms. I also do not mean to devalue the love and care we’ve received from our friends and family around us. Know that we are deeply grateful for how you take care of us.
As a motherless mother, I have a lot of questions. As if parenting didn’t already come with enough 3 am Google searches that span from normal poop colour to correct belly button shapes, becoming a mom when yours isn’t around brings up many questions that Google can’t help with. Finding out that I was pregnant brought about so much joy and concurrent (often inexplicable) emotional pain.
I desperately wanted to tell my mom that I was expecting, after two years of trying and waiting. She struggled with secondary infertility (I am an only child), and I knew how happy it would have made her to find out that she was becoming a grandmother. Throughout pregnancy, I came across a few articles that mention certain circumstances (i.e. stretch marks) are genetic, and the only way to find out whether or not you’ll get them in pregnancy is by asking your mother. Did her stretch marks ever fade? Did she get nausea? Heartburn? How did she react when she first felt her baby move within her? How long was she in labour? Did her water break? How long did it take before they thought about having more children? Can you babysit this weekend? I have so many questions. I try to investigate as much as I possibly can by asking her sisters the answers to some of those questions, often to no avail. I desperately want to know my mom, who she was, how she felt, and what she did to face her life as wife and mother. I can only imagine the joy it would have brought her to embrace a new identity -- first as a mother to a new mother, and then (most importantly) as a grandma. I wish she was here, here to watch my children so I can run to a dentist appointment, here to answer the phone when I feel overwhelmed, here to buy the kids one more toy they do not need. I wish she was here.
I have started to write some of these questions down in my journal. Every now and then I’ll re-read some of these thoughts and yearn to hug the younger version of myself. I ache for her. The words pour heavily out of a broken heart, knowing that the questions scribbled on my journal’s pages will continue to remain unanswered until the day Jesus calls me Home. I am, however, thankful that my children still get to experience the love of a doting grandma through Luke’s mom, even though the air of sorrow still remains. Luke’s mom delights in my children in ways only Nana can, and I do my best to cherish the look in her eyes when she sees my children, imagining how similarly my own mom’s eyes would have done the same.
As a motherless mother, I desire to create connections back to my mom. Once I saw a photo of my mom as a 6-month-old baby and immediately thought about how much she looked like my son, Judah. I’ve noticed that the more I get to know my kids and the more their little personalities unfold, the more I try to create links that connect them with my mom. Round head? Must have gotten that from my mom. Cheeky smile? Yep, that looks like my mom too. Most of the current people in my life — Luke included — did not receive the great fortune of meeting my mother. They do not know how her laugh sounded (a sound I often repeat in my head, in fear of forgetting it someday), how her cooking tasted, how generous she was, how often she would gently rub your forearm to let you know she cared. My mom was especially great at showing you her thoughtfulness by the little gifts she loved to give, just to let you know she was thinking about you. All of my mom’s family (except for one brother in the States) is in the Philippines, so the only way my kids would really get to know their Lola (Tagalog for ‘grandma’) is by my conscious effort to find her presence and influence in our daily lives.
I once came across an Instagram post that immediately brought tears to my eyes. It was a poignantly heartfelt thought from a grieving mother, one that had to say goodbye to her young daughter much too early in life. Her words spoke deeply to my heart:
“You keep living in the very moments you wanted to escape, years ago. It’s a step forward, a shaking off the grief -- the kind you once held onto to survive. And in that shaking off, the image of your beloved becomes crystalline. The edges worn away, and what’s left are smooth, almost perfect memories that you hope to pass onto another generation, because, as they say, you die twice: when the heart stops beating and finally, when your name is said for the last time. (...) And this is one reason why parents continue to talk about their child and share moments. Because they will not die a second time, not on our watch.” (emphasis added)— Michaela Evanow
Our losses may have been different, but it is grief all the same. So from now until the day I bid this world goodbye, I will do what I can to preserve my mama’s memory. I pray that one day, in their own little ways, my children will honour her in this way too.
As a motherless mother, I am surprised by a newfound desire for self-preservation and self-protection. If you know me, you would probably know that my diet largely consists of coffee, steak, ramen, fried rice, and chips (maybe not all together, but I wouldn’t put that past me). Throw in an occasional avocado smoothie and I’d consider myself “healthy”. Never one to opt for a salad, I’ve found myself suddenly throwing in random kinds of vegetables in our grocery cart, thinking it may help me live just a little bit longer. That may sound silly, I know. But getting sick, especially with something as serious as cancer, is a very real fear. I know too well the unfortunate reality of being a child of someone who is seriously ill, and I do not wish this upon my children.
In my mom’s final minutes of life, she mustered up all of her waning strength to call out for me. “Anak ko, anak ko… (my child, my child)”, she mustered. She knew her moment had arrived. We had never chatted about this (add this to my growing list of unanswered questions), but I believe that the moment she feared most was saying goodbye to her baby. I was 20. Not too young, but not really grown up yet either. She didn’t feel quite done raising me yet (does this moment ever come as a mother?!), not quite ready to say goodbye. With all of her strength she threw her arms around me, one after the other, and held me as tightly as she could. I believe it was largely because she wanted to know that I was going to be okay. She was my biggest cheerleader, my most faithful advocate, my fiercest protector. Who would take over this role? How would the rest of my emerging adulthood turn out? She wanted, so desperately, to be there for it all: graduation, marriage, a career, grandchildren. She did not want to give up her prized role as my number one fan. I don't think that it was death itself that she feared. After all, death is a happy occasion. As a Christian, she loved Jesus and I know she yearned to meet her Maker. However, as a mother, embracing your beloved child one last time bidding a premature goodbye? I wince just imagining the pain the moment caused and the courage it took to face it. But, the moment had come, and the most painful goodbye was inevitable. All I could tell her then was a faint promise that I will be okay, and that everything will work out fine. I didn’t know if that was the truth, but it was all the wisdom my broken courage allowed.
And so now the tables have turned. I am the tenacious mama bear, my children are my precious little cubs. As much as I want them to be strong and healthy, balanced and kind, I want both Luke and I to also remain physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy for the sake of our children. This is a work in progress, of course. Luke is still an avid Slurpee drinker and I have still yet to order that salad in a restaurant. But slowly and surely, we’re trying to change things one little bit of kale at a time. Because we want to be there, present in every way. And we don’t want to miss a thing.
As a motherless mother, I want to make my mommas proud. This is not a humblebrag, or a plea to be showered by some kind of mama compliments. But I am busting my butt as a mom. I’m trying really hard, to be present, to be healthy, to make my children laugh and to hold them tight when they cry. The biggest motivator is, of course, the love that I have for them. However, I do know that somewhere in that bottomless mama heart, is a deep desire to make my mommas proud. I was raised by two women: my grandma (“mama”) and my mom (“mommy”). I feel so clueless about so many things, and often so very alone. My mom is not here. My grandmother, my other hero, is far away in the Philippines. These two women are so crucial to the person that I have become today, and there is no one is the world that could take their place. I know that my own mom honoured her mother by the way she loved me, her child. And now with my own two little “mini-mes” around, I consider it a privilege to be able to do the same.
I want my mommas to know that they have raised a good one. I want them to know that the kindness and compassion they have so effortlessly lived out have left a lasting impact on me. I want to honour their motherhood by doing the best I can in mine. I desire for them to know that any accomplishment, any milestone that I reach as I continue on the path of motherhood, I owe largely to their influence in my life. I want them to know that the sacrifices they have made, the tears they have shed, their sleepless nights and their beaming proud hearts have not gone unnoticed. They are honoured, their legacy celebrated. I am forever grateful. I desperately hope they know that.
Again, I write these things not because I am short of a pat on the back, or in search of sympathy. I’m merely saying that motherless mother grief is real, it can be isolating, and that it deserves to be acknowledged. So if this is your story too, I am so very sorry. I hope you know that you are not alone. If you want to chat, or if you just want your mama’s story to be heard, I am all ears. I pray that your days — these long, hard, repetitive days — are still filled with inexplicable joy, however tinged with sorrow they can be. Let us celebrate our mothers’ lives together, mamas. Let’s let their stories live on.