Having No Relationship With My Mom Was Awful -- and Then I Had Kids

mom and new baby

Every Mother's Day, when Facebook fills up with tributes to moms, many of us go silent. My mother died in 2007, but even before her death we were estranged.

Our relationship had always been troubled, and once I married and moved away, it became impossible to communicate. Every phone call was a guilt trip about how I had left her, every conversation started with criticism and judgment and ended with me in tears. It took distance and time for me to realize my mother's erratic and unreasonable behavior might have been grounded in undiagnosed mental illness (something that runs in her family).


Maybe this should make me feel better, but it only makes me angry and sad. Why couldn't she have recognized she had a problem and sought treatment? Then, at least, we would've had some time to share that mother/daughter relationship my friends have with their mothers, and my memories wouldn't be tinged with bitterness. But it wasn't meant to be.

Before I had kids, I avoided the card section at Target because I couldn't look at the Mother's Day cards without crying. Then I got pregnant. When two close friends had babies at the same time, I thought it would be nice to bond over our shared experience. And it was nice, in some ways. In other ways, I was made painfully aware that while I was a mom now, I didn't have the support and nurturing my friends did. A casual comment like, "My mom dropped everything to come help me when the baby was sick," or something sweet like, "My mother says the baby looks just like me when I was her age," felt like daggers to my heart.

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Without my mother as a role model, I find myself a little lost on how to do this mothering thing right. I'm not just motherless, I am unmothered. Despite an incredibly supportive husband who is an equal partner and parent in most every way, it depletes my emotional well to mother my children without the comfort and support of my own mother-figure. How do I do this, with no one to tell me I'm doing it right?

Those of us moms without a mother, whether through death or estrangement, have to wing it. Yes, we may be lucky enough to have a supportive grandmother or mother-in-law, but it will never be the same. For me, the effect on my children is profound. I vacillate between being a helicopter parent, grief-stricken at the idea of my children suffering in any way, and being a free-range mom and encouraging their bravery and independence because, after all, that's what has helped make me a strong adult.

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I want more than anything to be a good mother to my children. I hope they will never feel alone in this world the way I have felt alone. By nurturing them and giving them what I never had, I sometimes feel like I'm healing the wounds of the past. At other times, I feel the loss of a mother -- not the one I had, but the mother we all want -- so profoundly it's as if my mother has died again.

I know it's unrealistic to think that I'd be a better parent if I had a mother who dropped everything to drive hundreds of miles to help me with the baby, or who could tell me that she sees my looks or mannerisms in my children. We are the sum of all of our experiences, not just those we share, or don't share, with our parents. But I can't help but think what a comfort those experiences would be, to feel so closely connected to the woman who gave birth to me, to be bonded to both the generation before me and the generation after. But the best I can do is make sure my children know I am always here for them.

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It's easy to idealize the mother/child relationship when you don't have it, to say "if only." I recognize now that even the best mother/daughter relationships don't look like the fairy tale I have imagined since I was a child. I also know that the childhood I had is not the one I want to give my children. My mother may not have been the mother I needed her to be -- that she may have wanted to be -- but I can be the mother I want to be and that my children need and deserve.

Choosing to have children and then choosing a different road than the one my mother took is an exercise in hope for the future. It's the reason I'm celebrating Mother's Day this year.

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