ON BEING A MOTHER WITHOUT A MOM

My three year old calls to me shortly after I’d settled her into bed. I go up the stairs and creep into the kids’ room, past my little son snoozing in his crib.

“I’m still awake,” my daughter whispers. “Can I have a cuddle?”

I snuggle into her twin bed, put my arm over her tiny body, and listen to the sound machine whirring. I look at the shadows on the walls, think about how well I knew the shadows on the walls in my own childhood bedroom, how the shadows take on personalities and become stories, think about how my mum must have looked at the shadows on the wall of my bedroom as she lay with me in the night, wonder if they reminded her of her own childhood bedroom shadows. I wish I could text her.

“Do you see the shadows, mummy?”

“I do, honey.”

“They’re beautiful.”


Another moment: I’m nursing my daughter. She’s only nine months old and she’s warm and heavy and slightly damp from her bath. I’m rocking gently in our hand-me-down nursing chair and it’s dark outside and glowing soft light inside and suddenly I’m sobbing. My body shakes so she stops eating and stares up at me. Mum, I think, how have you missed all of this? Mum, you would love this little girl. You would make her a better person, and I’m worried that without you neither of us are as good as we could be.


And another: I’m a brand-new mum. My little tiny baby is tossing in the bassinet beside the bed. It’s the middle of the night, probably. We’re still in those long, hazy days of the beginning when I’m learning what it means to be on constantly—sixty minutes an hour, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week—forever. Forever and ever. I roll over and find the pacifier and put it to her little mouth. I will her to calm down and settle and sleep and in that drifting floating moment of nothing it crosses my mind that my mum only knew her youngest baby for 21 years and 11 months. That’s all. That’s nothing. And, for all I know, that might be all I have left with mine. I cry quietly in the dark and I understand something I didn’t before, about what it must have been like for mum when it was clear her forever and ever was ending and she didn’t have much time left to be on.


I had more time with my mum than my little brother. I was 26 when she died, a year after being diagnosed with lung cancer.

I was 27 when I got married.

I was 30 when I had my daughter.

I was 32 when I had my son.

She wasn’t there for any of it.


I didn’t realize how much becoming a mum would bring me closer to her, would bring her back to me. I understand her in a way I couldn’t before I had kids and, although that hurts, it also brings me comfort. I hear her voice in mine. Recognize her parenting wisdom becoming my parenting instinct. Those phrases she said so often they stopped meaning anything—Patience is a virtue! Calmness is essential!—suddenly spring from my mouth with conviction.


My father-in-law sent a video to the family text exchange of the kids hunting for Easter Eggs. I’m in the background, hovering near my toddler son. My arms are crossed low, one hand gripping the wrist of the other, and then I raise my arm up and out, lean forward slightly towards my son to encourage him to walk over there to find an egg. The posture and gesture is so my mother it makes me gasp a little. I watch the video again and again and again, looking at myself to see my mum move across the little screen.


At some point in our childhood, my mum managed to convince all three of us kids that we should regularly sing a short diddy to her: “You’re the best mother ever, You’re the best mother ever, And everything you do is right!” I don’t remember how it started, but as kids, we thought this was hilarious good fun, a little snarky, a little ironic, but also we all three truly meant it. We’d sing it often, while swinging ourselves into the back of the car or running to the bus stop in that hectic morning rush or grabbing yet another snack from the cupboard. “What do you say?” she’d call to us in her mysterious, lilting accent, and I can still hear us, a little chorus of voices chanting our response in unison: “You’re the best mother ever, You’re the best mother ever, And everything you do is right!”But now I can also feel it from her side—the salve that must have been to that part of her that was tired, frustrated, anxiety-ridden, even on the best days. Our happy voices loving all her choices, affirming to her that she is and was and will always be our best mother ever. What a clever trick she pulled, creating a playful, healing call-and-response for us. I’m realizing now that my daughter might just be old enough to join in the song.


It’s going to be Mother’s Day in North America soon. For my first Mother’s Day, my husband made a beautiful photobook of my daughter and me (forever missing a photo of my mum with her granddaughter.) I’m sure I received a number of sympathetic and sweet texts. I think someone even sent me flowers. To be honest, I don’t remember the day feeling that bad, really. I’d steeled myself for some onslaught of pain and grief that didn’t materialize, perhaps because I bundled it up and pushed it away. Other days are harder. Unexpected moments catch me off guard and I’m floored by the feeling of missing, of lacking, of being alone, of not being able to reach the one person I really need, the one person who would solve all my problems, answer all my questions perfectly, love me the way I need it, understand me. I can’t get her and it’s impossible.


It’s been eight years since I last sat next to her. I don’t think about her every day anymore, but I do think of her often. Funny things about my body remind me of her or perhaps I’ll hear a story I want to tell her. I’ve found ways to fill some of my motherless needs—my partner, friends, family, and also subreddits, Instagram accounts, and Google. None of it really, truly fills the gap, but most days it’s enough. Some days I even find myself feeling a little boastful about how well I’m doing “on my own,” as if I didn’t have a community helping me, as if I didn’t have those 26 years with my mum to guide me.


When she died, when I was unmarried and childless, I remember consoling myself with the thought that losing one’s mother is the natural order of things. We expect to outlive our mothers, even if we don’t think of it often. With every fiber of my being, I want my kids to outlive me. And there’s solace in knowing that she had that knowledge. Her kids keep going on. And now her grandkids do, too.

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