The closet was small, but my fathers obsessive-compulsive disorder meant that it was meticulously laid out. His ever-present rage meant that one lost hair or inch of movement meant that I would have hell to pay as a repercussion. Still, the reward–her image, her face, her drawings of mountains with birds– was too satisfying.
They said she was my mother, and the baby book that sat perfectly-placed on the shelf fourth from the floor held the only information I could obtain about her that was not laced with voracious editorializing or possibility of a beating for being disloyal should I dare to ask about her or shed a tear on her behalf.
Though I had heard stories about her wild ways and felt the sharp pain of her absence every silent birthday (and morning, noon and night in-between them), the truth is that, as horrible as they made her out to be, I longed for her. I would wait for my father to leave for the bar, watch his car drive out of the parking lot and then grab a paper towel. I would cover my small fingers with it and switch the light on, something I had learned to do the hard way. I would slowly remove the book and open it to the third page where her image lived. I would then study it with the curiosity and emotional distance one has when looking at a painting in a museum. Finally, I would force myself to turn the page. Was that her leg? Did she take the photo of me with cake all over my face. Was that my cake? When did she leave me? Was it six months or a year? Then, back to her image for a final study before running into the bathroom where I would stand in front of the mirror and move my head just so in a somewhat successful attempt to look like the woman I had deified; the myth of a mother I had created in my young and confused mind. A woman I later learned never existed.
I would later meet the woman who gave birth to me, but never my mother. Her reasons for leaving my father were based on his brutality. Her reasons for leaving her baby with the bathwater, and then the pre-teen (and eventually woman) who needed her, were valid only to her. There was an unsuccessful attempt at reconciliation later in life that led to a second abandonment and solidified a motherless adulthood, but this piece is not about that or her. It’s about growing up without a mother and what it feels like to live with the hole that only someone who has experienced it can feel.
It has often been reported that more telephone calls are made on Mother’s Day than any other day of the year. But what if there’s no one to call? The beloved holiday can serve as a painful reminder of the ultimate void for those who have loved and lost or were never loved at all. It’s clearly a topic that’s close to my heart, and I know I am not alone. Here are four other women who have shared their stories for the many who can relate and are looking for a little comfort.
How old were you when your mother passed/left? I was eight when my mother died of cancer.
Can you briefly share the circumstances surrounding your situation? My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 30. She died at age 31.
Did her leaving/passing have an immediate impact? Absolutely. My father really fell apart. He didn’t function well. My grandparents could only help so much and eventually had to return to their jobs and lives. Once the help went away, our house fell to disarray. Dinners were pretty simple. Laundry was not done often. Lunches were made by myself. There were no more handmade Halloween costumes or help with homework. My father was overwhelmed with his responsibilities, he was only 32. He suddenly had to raise two young girls on his own.
Who raised you? My father raised my sister and myself. We spent most summers traveling between grandparent’s, cousin’s and aunt and uncle’s homes.
How was her absence handled in your household? My mother died in 1979. It wasn’t discussed much. There were no child therapy sessions to deal with it. Since my father took her death so hard, most of the family seemed to focus on him. My sister and I were the afterthought. My grandmother got rid of most of my mother’s possessions only days after the funeral. She did not want us to be around reminders of the woman who was no longer there. That was very painful for me. I felt like my mom was ripped out from under me twice in one week.
How did this impact you? I was in a tough spot. My sister was only five and needed support. My dad went into what I now know is a depression. I had to take on a lot more responsibility than any third grader should. My father worked. He supported us. But I had to take on a lot of the household tasks. I also remember having to think of Christmas presents for our extended family. Christmas sort of stressed me out because of the added responsibilities. I also knew my dad would forget to shop for my sister and I until Christmas Eve.
What did growing up without a mother feel like as a child/teen? As a child, I hated standing out. Everyone in our suburb knew my mother died of cancer at a young age. Every time we walked into a grocery store, I could see the faces of pity when they looked at my dad, sister and me. I hated standing out. I just wanted to be like everyone else. The special treatment bothered me most as a child. As a teen, I really struggled internally. When my grandmother told me that my mother died, I didn’t cry. I didn’t end up crying about her death until the summer I got my period. I knew what a period was, but I had a hard time talking to my dad about it. It was so stressful. I hated asking him for feminine hygiene products as much as he hated buying them. One night I had a break down that I didn’t have a mom to help me through dealing with my first few cycles. I sobbed for most of the evening by myself. I am sure at that point, it was five bottled up years of grief that spilled out that night.
How do you feel her absence has influenced you as an adult? I never know if I am doing female things correctly. Did I arrange the flowers from the vase correctly? Does this sauce need more salt? Did I fold the sheets correctly? Am I meeting the emotional needs of my family? Is this shade of lipstick work with this blouse? Did I wrap that present correctly? I also have this notion that when I meet people for the first time that they can tell right away that I grew up without a mom. As if there is a neon sign over me that says, “motherless daughter/feral child.” But I also think having to rely on myself at such a young age forced me to develop survival and coping skills, which has helped me deal with my son’s autism. I also think her death put into perspective which things in life are a big deal and which aren’t.
In what ways has her absence influenced your ideas about motherhood? It made me want to have my own family so I could make things right. She was an amazing mother and I couldn’t wait to be just like her. Unfortunately, I am not the seamstress and crafter that she was. I didn’t inherit that gene from her. In other respects, I think we are probably similar; light- hearted, funny, and warm.
What do you feel is misunderstood about motherless children? As I said before, I hated the special treatment and attention I received after her death. I just wanted to go play handball without being whispered about. I wanted a return to normalcy as quickly as possible.
How do you feel about your mother today? My heart breaks for my mother. She must have been so scared to find a lump in her breast when she had a preschooler and a second grader. It must have been awful to be going through chemo while we were trick-or-treating. I can’t imagine how it felt to go from one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen to a skinny bald woman in a matter of months. I feel love for her. I sometimes think I would give all the money I have just to hear her voice one more time. My father is still very angry at her for dying. This makes me incredibly sad.
How do you handle Mothers Day? Mother’s Day doesn’t bother me. I had four grandmothers growing up so I always associated Mother’s Day with them. However, my mother died on Valentine’s Day. I am scarred for life when it comes to that day. While everyone is celebrating their amazing romantic love, all I can think about is dropping all my Valentine’s cards when I rounded the corner and saw all the cars in front of my house. I knew my mom died by all of the cars on the street. My husband knows not to celebrate Valentine’s Day with me. We skip that day.
How have you healed? I hope I have healed but as you can see from answers, there are deep wounds left. My mother was so loving and amazing that I just think of her fondly. She never ever let me down. I think about how she was so much better than any other mother I ever met that eight years with her was most likely the same as eighteen with other mothers.
Any additional thoughts? Her funeral haunts me to this day. Some people just fell apart at the graveside service. I can still hear their wails. The adults were falling apart in front of my eyes and it impacted me deep inside.
How old were you when your mother passed/left? I was ten.
Can you briefly share the circumstances surrounding your situation? She was 30 and overwhelmed by three kids and suffered from some psychological issues.I think it was manic depression but I am not sure as it never formally diagnosed.
Did her leaving/passing have an immediate impact? Yes, it was horrible. She took my brother (6) and left me and my sister (2) with our stepfather who then molested me later that week.
Who raised you? My stepfather, my neighbors down the street, and eventually my dad when I was a teenager. I left home when I was 17 and never really looked back.
How was her absence handled in your household? She was vilified and everyone spoke poorly about her. She made herself an easy target for blame.
How did this impact you? Everything suffered. my confidence, self-esteem, friendships, grades…all of it.
What did growing up without a mother feel like as a child/teen? It was the ultimate feeling of abandonment. I was rudderless.
How do you feel her absence has influenced you as an adult? It has made me a strong person. It takes a lot to get me down.I have been diagnosed with PTSD (due to cancer, helicopter crash, sexual abuse, 9/11 etc.) I take medication and it has helped me to become a high-functioning adult.
In what ways has her absence influenced your ideas about motherhood? I think it has made me very sensitive to being physically present for my daughter. That said, she has it so much better than I did so i find myself avoiding the common wringing of hands that so many of my mom friends do. I know what a true crisis is and not having organic sunscreen to slather on your kid, is not a problem. I am very liberal about certain things but am a stickler for manners and respect towards adults. My daughter would say I am the strictest, but also the goofiest of her four parents.
What do you feel is misunderstood about motherless children? The assumption that we know the things that mother’s are supposed to teach us and norms and values and etiquette and how to use a feminine product–things like this were gaping holes in my understanding of how I was supposed to handle things.
How do you feel about your mother today? Now that I am older i understand why she cracked.She was sexually abused by her brother growing up and had no support around it. A mistake I made for many years was assuming that we were very similar. and although i have her hands and her sense of humor, she is much more shy, insecure, and meek than I am. seeing this allowed me to have compassion and understanding for her choices.
How do you handle Mothers Day? I go to mexico where mother’s day falls on my birthday, may 10th, every year.
How have you healed? Therapy, making mistakes, and more therapy. I worked to build my self-efficacy by starting my own business Eight and a half years ago. Forgiving my mom helped me let go.That was the best gift that I could give my daughter: the ability to tell her own story and to have her not inherit this legacy of pain. So far, so good.
How old were you when your mother passed/left? My mother was an alcoholic, she never passed away or left me but being that she was never sober and sent me to live with my grandparents one of those two things might as well have happened. I was 5 years old when she sent me to live with my grandparents due to her drug and alcohol abuse.
Did her leaving/passing have an immediate impact? Not having a sober mother definitely impacted me and my life. When I was 13 years old she sat me down and explained to me that I was an adult and that she was going to live the rest of her life for her. I had to grow up and go through things at a very young age.
Who raised you? My amazing grandparents
How was her absence handled in your household? We didn’t speak about it
How did this impact you? It made me feel good, not to have to think about her every day. It was nice forgetting that I had a mother that would rather drink than be with me.
What did growing up without a mother feel like as a child/teen? The hardest thing was to see the relationship my friends had/have with their mothers. Too see how they spent time shopping and cooking together. Even though I had a grandma who did all of those things with, it still was never the same. I craved a relationship like my friends had with their moms, yet any time I was around my mother there was a lot of anger and that relationship just couldn’t be.
How do you feel her absence has influenced you as an adult? I learned to not trust people or their “word”. I grew up knowing what abandonment/rejection by choice felt like. I guess the biggest way it has influenced me is that I don’t have a lot of faith in people.
In what ways has her absence influenced your ideas about motherhood? It worries me, a lot. I don’t ever want to be a screw up and ruin a child’s life.
What do you feel is misunderstood about motherless children? No answer.
How do you feel about your mother today? Indifferent
How do you handle Mothers Day? I dismiss it
How have you healed? By letting go of hope.
How old were you when your mother passed/left? I was 13
Can you briefly share the circumstances surrounding your situation? My mother had ulcers and was addicted to painkillers and because she was afraid of the doctors she never went to them. I remember the night before she died she was very weak but still took my younger brother and I for ice cream. That morning we woke up and my dad had called the ambulance and I had no idea what was happening until I saw the paramedics take my mom on the stretcher . We followed the ambulance in our car and got to the hospital. We found out that she had a bleeding ulcer and she was in a coma, but she didn’t make it.
Did her leaving/passing have an immediate impact? I don’t think it sunk it right away. I just felt like I was in a bad dream waiting to wake up. I went through a depression in high school and suffered with anxiety and panic attacks.
Who raised you? My Father
How was her absence handled in your household? My father did the best he could. He was the breadwinner in our family and my mom was the stay at home mother. I remember we did suffer with money and were very close to selling our house and keeping food on our table.
How did this impact you? I think that this made me a stronger women.
What did growing up without a mother feel like as a child/teen? Very lonely, I only had my dad and 3 brothers. No women influences.
How do you feel her absence has influenced you as an adult? It has made me believe in God more and made me more spiritual. I believe she is always with me and that I have an angel watching over me.
In what ways has her absence influenced your ideas about motherhood? I think it was the hardest time when I was pregnant with my daughter and even after I had her. I wanted her more than ever to help me and be there for me emotionally and mentally.
What do you feel is misunderstood about motherless children? I don’t really know, I never thought about that.
How do you feel about your mother today? I love her so much and she made me the women I am today. She gave me so much love during the short time that she was here and I will always cherish that!
How do you handle Mothers Day? By crying. Aside from that, I am a mother and my daughter makes it special for me that day.
How have you healed? By the grace of God, Time really does heal all, and definitely having family and friends that support you.
How old were you when your mother passed/left? I was told six months by some and a year by others.
Can you briefly share the circumstances surrounding your situation? My father was a mess. A bipolar alcoholic ex- convict prone to violence and she was a 19-year-old with a number of issues, some documented, some not. From what I have been told, she married him after running away. I don’t know much about either of them, but I do know that both had problems and personalities I cannot understand or relate to. When she left him to move on with her life, she left me with him. At 11, she found me and the courts gave her temporary custody because I had welts all over my body. A month later, she abandoned me again, this time with a story about me so vulgar and vile it’s not worth repeating. I’d rather have been left where my hair was pulled and my fingers bitten, to be honest.
Did her leaving/passing have an immediate impact? I grew up in a volatile and chaotic environment that was about survival. My first memory is of screaming and running through a dark neighborhood on a rainy night, banging on neighbors doors because I was scared and didn’t know where to go. I never knew what it was like to have a mother’s love so this was a pain that simmered and seemed to grow saltier as time passed. I felt lonely and unworthy and like garbage that could be left behind, to put it bluntly. There’s a very specific pain that comes with being rejected by the person (or in my case, the people) who created you. I took my sense of worthlessness out on myself for a long time. I was never smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough. I accepted terrible behavior from people just to have someone. It took a lot of work to accept that my being abandoned didn’t mean I was not worth keeping, and it really was their loss. I say that not in a nasty way. It really was. I would have been a great daughter.
Who raised you? My amazing grandfather, and my great aunts, Sybil and Vyvian, in the ways they could when he passed. Other than that, I have been blessed with incredible, smart, wise, loving and supportive friends and mentors who have helped me to learn to navigate better while showing me a love and support that has transformed my life.
How was her absence handled in your household? My father always had different wives and women around, but I was mostly treated as though I was in the way. There was one woman who I felt that motherly love from, Karen, but my father beat her so bad one night that she snuck away and I never saw her again. My father, never mentioned my biological mother than to tell me what a bad person she was and to remind me that she had left me so I could be placed for adoption at any time. He would tell me that he was not my father or that I should have been a boy which would let me know he didn’t care about me, either. My grandpa and aunts simply told me that I was better off. That said, I ached for her growing up. I would sneak into my father’s closet to look at my baby book which had her photo. I would run to the mirror and try and pose like her to look like her. When he would beat me and tell me he would send me to her, I would say “no, no” but run in my room and pray she would come and get me.
What did growing up without a mother feel like as a child/teen? Not having parents was hard, and losing my grandfather was the greatest pain of my life, but I literally begged God to know what it felt like to have a mother’s love. That longing was sharp and ever-present.
How do you feel her absence has influenced you as an adult? I have a drive and ambition to prove that I belong on this earth, too, and work very hard to make my mark in a healthy way and leave a legacy of love. That said, I have fears and insecurities that perhaps only those who have experienced can understand (hence, my decision to post this in the hopes it might help someone feel less isolated).
In what ways has her absence influenced your ideas about motherhood? I cannot wait to be a mother to give my child all of the love I have to give and the childhood I never had. I know I will be a loving, kind, fair, active mother to my child, biological or adopted, and I will love them with every ounce of my being. I simply cannot wait to have a family of my own.
What do you feel is misunderstood about motherless children? That the same rules apply emotionally. They don’t.
How do you feel about your mother today? Apathy most of the time. Rage, on occasion, when I think of certain things that were said and done to me. But I only knew her briefly in my life, so in reality, my “feelings” are about an idea and my reality as compared to it.
How do you handle Mothers Day? I used to sob and mope, but that was before acceptance. Now, I honor the amazing women I have in my life who are mothers, the amazing women who have shown me love, and I remind those with mothers to cherish them.
How have you healed? I don’t know that I have healed, I think I have just accepted that this is how it will be and chosen to live my life to the best of my ability. I have an incredible, loving, supportive and wonderful family of friends who have definitely helped me grow. I also have photos of my Grandmother (who died when I was 10 months old) and my grandfather everywhere to remind me that “mother” “father” and “parent” are titles that are earned, not given.
I think Madonna does a fine job of summing up how many of us feel in this video (2 minute mark).