Thursday, April 4, 2013

How My Mother’s Death Makes Me Fear Motherhood

The loss of a mother affects a woman whether she chooses to have children of her own, chooses not to, or finds herself becoming a mother after years of believing she was not destined to do so.  Nicole Clark is a social worker and activist who writes about her personal experience with this below.  To view her full Web site, which contains a wealth of information about a broad range of reproductive health and justice issues, click here.  (Another pioneer on the topic of motherless daughters is Hope Edelman, whose books explore many issues, including the helpful role of doulas in supporting women who have experienced mother loss as they become mothers themselves.  Also, women whose mothers are not deceased, but who were absent due to other challenges, sometimes relate to these same issues.)  I am grateful to Nicole Clark for sharing her story here.

My mother died when I was seventeen years old. Diagnosed with lung cancer in December 2000, she rapidly declined, passing away 5 months later at the age of 43. We all have that one moment when your world changes forever. This was my moment.

When you’re a teenager, the world revolves around you. I was a high achiever. I expected nothing less than an A in all of my classes, striving to keep my concert master violinist position in my high school orchestra, and making sure that I was inducted into the National Honors Society and National Beta Club, all while maintaining a 4.3 grade point average. I was used to thinking logically about many things, but for a long time I couldn’t grasp the fact that my mother, who never smoked, could die from something like lung cancer. Even worse, I didn’t want to accept the fact that I would never see her again. One of my biggest fears in life was losing my mother at a young age. Though I was 5 months shy of my 18th birthday, I felt like a little girl on the day of my mother died.

As I approach my 29th birthday a little over a month away, I still have many moments in which I feel like that 17-year-old all over again. Also, visions of babies dance in my head. While many women my age are either currently pregnant, already mothers, or are waiting with anticipation of becoming mothers some day, I come up with as many reasons as possible as to why motherhood may not be for me:

Not all women desire to be mothers.

What if my kid doesn’t like me?

Kids are expensive, and the economy sucks.

I actually get more excited when I see a dog than I do when I see a baby.

What if I don’t like my kid?

We live in a patriarchal society that puts forth the ideal that women are nothing if we aren’t mothers and wives.

What about my career?

Do I really want the responsibility of caring for another life?
Sure, I can envision seeing myself as a mother, and I actually don’t completely dismiss the idea. I have the regular worries of not knowing what to do, if I even have a “mothering instinct,” making decisions over whether I would want to breastfeed, choosing the healthiest foods and the best schools, hoping my child doesn’t turn out to be some juvenile delinquent, and the idea of losing my identity, among others. But my biggest fear over becoming a mother is the fear that I’ll leave when my child needs me the most.

Like my mother did.

While irrational, this fear has been something that has lingered inside since the day my mother died.  Logically, all children will have to deal with the death of their parents. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I know that if she had a choice, my mother would have wanted to beat her cancer. Losing your mother at the cusp of young adulthood isn’t part of anyone’s plan, and while time has made her death hurt less, it’s brought about a sadness and anger towards my mother that I’ve subconsciously held inside for a long time. Knowing what it’s like to lose a parent at a young age, I instinctively want to shield any possible children from experiencing that type of pain at a young age. So, in many ways this has held me back from embracing the idea of motherhood.

One way that I’ve been able to examine my feelings is to talk to my mother, through writing. I got the idea from my college counselor during my last semester of senior year. I was on the brink of graduating, and once again I became sad and anxious over the thought of my mother not being able to be there for this important milestone. My counselor suggested that I purchase a small journal and write to my mother. She instructed me to write to my mother and share all of my anger, fears, unanswered questions, guilt and memories. I’ve done this on and off throughout the years, and each time I’m amazed at the sense of calm that washes over me whenever I do write to my mother.

Every important decision I have made in my adult life has been based on what I feel my mother would have wanted me to do. Many of these decisions she may not have agreed with at all, and that’s OK because I am my own person. However, I do believe she would have been proud of me for doing what I can every day to live in my passion, to stand up for what I believe in, and to do what I can to raise my voice and help raise the voices of women and girls of color.

Motherhood is one of the most complex roles a woman can take on, and while I may continue to have my own feelings on becoming a mother one day, I’m glad that I had my mother for those 17 years. The beautiful memories I have of my mother throughout my childhood and adolescence far outweigh watching her take her last breath.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep writing to her while I figure out this motherhood thing.


  1. I lost my Mother a week after my 14th birthday. She was 38, healthy, happy, and vibrant but died just two days after the onset of her illness. I'm now 42 and have two beautiful, healthy children and my life is very, very good. But, as a mother who has lost her mother, my greatest fear is to know that my two perfect, happy children may have to endure my own sudden death while they are young. It is a terrifying thought as a mother; to know that your own children may have to experience a pain that is profoundly life altering...and that you would not be there to protect them from it. It is there however, in that fear, that the scared 14 yr old girl who resides in this 42 yr old mother, realized that my mother did not want to leave us. And, it wasn't until I became a Mom that I realized just how deeply my mother loved me. My advice to you, from one motherless daughter to another, is to not let fear dictate your choices. Good luck on your journey.

  2. I can relate to this post as my mother died suddenly when I was seven. I too struggled with the idea of becoming a mom and was really conflicted about whether or not to have children. For a long time I didn't think I deserved to be a mother because I obviously hadn't deserved to have one, if I had she wouldn't have left. So my thinking went. My thoughts and decisions may have been irrational and mistaken, but they were formative. They influenced my decisions at every turn and showed up repeatedly. For example, my mother was forty when she was killed in a car accident. I had no rational reason to think I would die at forty, but as I approached forty I realized I did not expect to live to forty one. Fortunately, instead of dying when I turned forty, I changed my life profoundly, including ending a bad marriage. While the marriage was ending, I got involved with my current husband who is absolutely the love of my life. When I was 41 I got pregnant. My fears of becoming a mother were gone. Why? Because in my book of life moms die at 40. I was 41. Moms don't die at 41 so I was fine. It was that simple.
    My daughter is now four. To write about all the ways that my relationship with my mom and the loss of my mom have healed through becoming a mother would take pages, but I can share one story. When I was about 3 months pregnant, the annual anniversary of my mom's death arrived. I was out walking and realized that no matter what happened now to my baby, I would always be a mom. That meant that wherever I went there would always be a mom there. No more absence of mom -- the present mom would be me! That was the beginning of the healing of my mother loss that my pregnancy and my daughter brought me.
    Thanks for posting this blog and giving me the opportunity to reflect on my story.

  3. I've never had a great relationship with my mother and so when I did become pregnant with our first, I was banking on the idea that this would be the bridge we needed to get to a better relationship. Except that didn't happen. I lost my mother to her bipolar illness, when I was 32 weeks pregnant, a week after the baby shower she through for me. I have two kids now, and I struggle sometimes as life's wonderful moments can often be bittersweet. I, too write to my mom or talk to her from time to time. And becoming a mother really did bring me closer to understanding her, even though it was too late to have a better relationship with her it did bring about a better understanding of motherhood, parenting and life in general. I see her so differently clearly. What I thought I had known of her then and what I know's life changing, life affirming. Becoming a mother, being less rather than more and being gentle to myself has definitely helped heal my mother loss.

  4. I wonder how much time is spent in my life reinventing the wheel simply for lack of a grandmother- role model to augment my own mama-ness.

    Then I take a deep breath.

    I accept that I am where I am.

    I stop asking why me, how much, or what if?

    Thankfully, if I've lost anything through mothering it has been some of my own personal moping-about-nature. Maybe that's just my mom in me. When everyone's pastel, she's primary.