‘Motherless mothers’: the hidden grief of becoming a mom without one of your own

Adjusting to parenthood without a mother as a touchstone can be poignant, complex and emotionally challenging.

There’s a profound psychological transformation that happens upon becoming a mother. Many women turn to their own mothers to glean insight, sometimes feeling a deepening of connection, or at the very least a more well-rounded understanding of their maternal lineage. But if your mother has passed away, or if the relationship is too damaging to hold on to, nascent motherhood can be laced with a new kind of grief.

In the absence of that connection, the transition to motherhood might take on different meaning altogether. Some women find they have a new appreciation for the complexities of what their own mothers endured; they may begin to feel more strongly bonded to them even in their absence. Others may experience a sense of isolation, pangs of envy or fits of anger. Adjusting to motherhood without a mother as a touchstone can make for a complex and poignant period.

Being motherless amid the experience of pregnancy and new motherhood spurs a series of unanswerable questions, almost immediately. “What was my mom’s pregnancy like with me?” “Was I like this as a baby?” “Was nursing this painful for her?” “Would she be able to help me figure out how to be a mom?”

Arriving in the role of mother – a role that previously belonged to her and her alone – can cause a painful awareness that though we may remember what it was like to be mothered by our moms, we didn’t know them as a woman for whom motherhood was a new, foundation-rocking identity rather than an innate status.

“I’ve started to realize I never got the chance to deeply know my mother,” says Shishi Rose, 30, who is pregnant and whose mother died when she was 18. “I’ve begun grieving again, I think, more for never really knowing her.”

That grief – which may be resurfacing for the first time in years – can deepen the already common sense of isolation new moms often experience. Those harder, fraught emotions lead to another difficult unanswerable question: “Did she feel these feelings?”

Brittany Logue, 28, lost her mother in 2016, and her son was born two years later. She recalls a moment in the first weeks of his life: “I found myself sitting on my couch with this beautiful, perfect baby. And I was just in tears,” she says. Logue longed for her mother’s support – and, perhaps, confirmation that this was normal and that her mother had experienced this vulnerability, too.

A new kind of grief may begin to percolate even before the first positive pregnancy test. After Logue’s mother died, the thought of trying to conceive at all seemed like a betrayal. “I felt guilty that I was trying to conceive right after my mom died. It felt wrong,” she says.

Lauren, 33 (who asked that her last name not be used to protect her privacy) is pregnant, and has been estranged from her mother for 16 years. “I have found pregnancy to be an incredibly isolating experience,” she says. “I’ll have a symptom and I want my mom. I find it so strange that you can have a hard relationship with a parent, but still think I just want my mom.

Rose felt similarly. “Being pregnant without a mother stepped me back into a grieving process that I mistakenly thought I had already healed from,” she says. Grief and longing can also make us feel detached, dissociated even, complicating the corporeal experience of pregnancy.

“I was so close to my mother, the idea of becoming a mother and not having my own was unacceptable to me,” says Anna Overballe, 28, whose mother died last year.

“At times,” Overballe adds, “I even felt resentful that my baby had literally invaded my space and forced me to think about something other than my mom. I was concerned I’d neglect my grief because of my pregnancy. And I was worried that losing my own mother would make me a worse mother.” Overballe’s daughter was stillborn, so these questions remain for her.

When a newborn does enter the picture, the circuitousness of grief can take a toll on the ensuing bonding process. Sarah Komers, 38, is now a mother of three, but had difficulty nurturing her relationship with her firstborn. Her mother struggled with mental health issues, and she was so terrified of being a “bad” mom that she actively overdid it in an attempt to be “perfect”.

As a result of this preoccupation, her hypervigilance – born out of trauma and fear – was limiting her ability to truly connect with or enjoy her new baby. “It took about six months for us to bond,” she says. “I wasn’t confident in my abilities as a mom the first time around, whatsoever.”

These periods of disconnection can resurface the same way grief often does: intermittently, without warning. Logue, for example, has found it hard to spend time with her own child on Mother’s Day. “My husband tries to do things for me, but the whole day all I want to do is sit in bed and cry. I don’t want to celebrate myself when I can’t celebrate her.”

These experiences of mothering without a map may create a panoply of emotions – often ones that aren’t associated with the idyllic maternal energy we may aspire to. Instead we may feel envy, anger, resentment.

Overballe often feels frustrated. “I will never know if my mother would have agreed with the way I honor my lost daughter,” she says. “My mother was always my biggest guide, so not having her can make me doubt my choices in my own version of motherhood.”

Logue, to her own chagrin, finds she sometimes has difficulty around her sister-in-law’s family. “Seeing them together – mother, daughter, granddaughter – can bring up resentment and a little bit of jealousy in me,” she says.

These feelings are natural and understandable. Forging a path in parenthood without a maternal compass may not be linear, as grief’s tendrils have the potential to reappear at any time. But we show up for ourselves – and our children – anyway.

  • Sara Gaynes Levy is a freelance writer in New York City covering health, wellness, and women’s issues.
  • Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health and the author of the forthcoming book I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, A Movement (Feminist Press, 2021).

(For the source of this, and many other equally intriguing articles, please visit: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/18/motherless-mothers-the-hidden-grief-of-becoming-a-mom-without-one-of-your-own/)

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