There is a profound psychological transformation that happens when you become a mother. Many women turn to their own mothers to gain insight. Sometimes they feel a deepening of the connection or at least a more thorough understanding of their maternal lineage. But if your mother has passed away, or if the relationship is too damaging to hold on to, the emerging motherhood can be associated with a new kind of grief.
Without this connection, the transition to motherhood could have a completely different meaning. Some women find that they re-appreciate the complexity of what their own mothers have endured; You may feel more attached to them even when you are not there. Others may experience a feeling of isolation, envy, or tantrums. Adapting to motherhood without a mother as a touchstone can lead to a complex and moving time.
Being motherless in the experience of pregnancy and new motherhood raises a number of unanswerable questions almost immediately. “How was my mother’s pregnancy with me?” “Was I like that as a baby?” “Was breastfeeding so painful for her?” “Would she be able to help me find out? how to be a mother? “
The arrival in the role of mother – a role that previously only belonged to her and her – can lead to a painful awareness that we remember what it was like to be mothered by our mothers, but did not know her as a woman , for motherhood was a new, fundamental identity rather than an innate status.
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“I started to realize that I never had the opportunity to get to know my mother deeply,” says Shishi Rose, 30, who is pregnant and whose mother died when she was 18. “I started to mourn again, I think, more for I never really know her.”
This grief, which may reappear for the first time in years, can deepen the feeling of isolation that young mothers often experience. These harder, tense feelings 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 remembers a moment in the first weeks of his life: “I was sitting on my couch with this beautiful, perfect baby. And I only had tears in my eyes, ”she says. Logue longed for her mother’s support – and perhaps for confirmation that this was normal and that her mother had also experienced this vulnerability.
A new type of grief can start to seep away before the first positive pregnancy test. After Logue’s mother died, the thought of receiving at all seemed a betrayal. “I felt guilty that I wanted to get pregnant right after my mother 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 found pregnancy to be an incredibly isolating experience,” she says. “I have a symptom and I want my mother. I think it’s so strange that you can have a tough relationship with a parent but still think I just want my mother.“
Rose felt similar. “Being pregnant without a mother brought me back to a grief process that I mistakenly thought I was already cured,” she says. Grief and longing can also make us feel distant and even distant, which makes the physical experience of pregnancy difficult.
“I was so close to my mother that the idea of becoming a mother and not having my own was unacceptable to me,” says Anna Overballe, 28, whose mother died last year.
“Sometimes,” Overballe adds, “I was even annoyed that my baby had literally entered my room and forced me to think about something other than my mother. I was afraid to neglect my grief because of my pregnancy. And I was afraid that losing my own mother would make me a worse mother. “Overballes’ daughter was stillborn, so these questions remain for her.
When a newborn comes into the picture, the awkwardness of mourning can affect the resulting bonding process. Sarah Komers, 38, is now a mother of three, but had difficulty maintaining her relationship with her firstborn. Her mother was struggling with mental health problems and she was so afraid of being a “bad” mother that she actively overdone it to be “perfect”.
As a result of this concern, her hypervigilance – born of trauma and fear – restricted her ability to really connect with or enjoy her new baby. “It took us about six months to connect,” she says. “The first time I was not at all confident about my skills as a mother.”
These periods of separation can reappear, as grief often does: at times without warning. Logue, for example, has a hard time spending time with her own child on Mother’s Day. “My husband tries to do things for me, but I just want to sit in bed and cry all day. I don’t want to celebrate if I can’t celebrate them. “
These experiences of the mother without a card can cause a variety of emotions – often those that are not connected to the idyllic motherly energy that we are striving for. Instead, we can feel envy, anger, and resentment.
Overballe is often frustrated. “I will never find out whether my mother would have agreed to the way I honor my lost daughter,” she says. “My mother has always been my greatest leader. If I don’t have her, I can doubt my decisions in my own version of motherhood.”
Logue notes to her own dismay that she sometimes has difficulties with her sister-in-law’s family. “Seeing them together – mother, daughter, granddaughter – can cause resentment and a little jealousy in me,” she says.
These feelings are natural and understandable. Finding a way in parenthood without a maternal compass may not be linear, as the tendrils of grief can reappear at any time. But we show ourselves – and our children – anyway.
Sara Gaynes Levy is a freelance writer in New York City dealing with health, wellness, and women’s issues.
Jessica Zucker is a Los Angeles-based psychologist who specializes in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health and author of the upcoming book I Had a Miscarriage: A Memoir, A Movement (Feminist Press, 2021).