It’s a long winter afternoon, and I have nowhere to be. I bundle up and, despite the hassle of going anywhere with a toddler and a baby, we head out to the mall – it has a free children’s play area. Nothing fancy, but it does the trick.
I expect to see a bunch of other mothers, also trying to escape a bit of boredom. This is New England, and the winters are long.
I find my spot on the bench and try to get comfortable.
Immediately, my eyes fall on a woman about my age. Walking alongside her is her own mother – the relationship is unmistakable. Her mother is pushing along the stroller, cooing at her grandson. A three year old plods along beside them.
“I’m just going to run into Macy’s, I’ll be right back.”
“Go ahead, I’ll watch the kids.”
The woman walks off, alone, for a few minutes. She’ll be back soon, and anyway, her mother loves time with the grandkids. She’ll get a kick of watching the 3 year old go up and down the tiny plastic slide.
After the playspace, maybe they’ll do a little more shopping and grab lunch at the Food Court. Mostly, they’ll talk.
It’s a common scene. Hardly notable. But it makes a lump rise up in my throat.
I used to do this sort of thing with my own mom, before she got too sick.
The pain of raising my kids without my mother startles me, sometimes.
I’m surprised, not infrequently, that I can just be going about my day and then suddenly my loss hits me with a force that I’m not braced to handle. It can hit at anytime, and nobody walks around expecting a body blow while they’re in line at the grocery store.
But it comes when it wants to, and that’s as true now, almost 4 years after her death, as it was the first year.
The blows are more spaced out, but oh do they come.
Raising kids without my mother is much, much harder than I thought.
It’s like driving without a GPS. You think you know the way, kind of, and then as you get deeper into the route you realize you may be veering off a bit, and there’s no way to check in with the person who could get you back on track the quickest.
It’s hard to go to the mall, or the playspace, or soccer, or anywhere really and see all of the small kids out with their grandmothers. You know your mom would be there, in a heartbeat. She would be beaming with pride at your kids. They’re her kids too, after all.
You see the connection these children and their grandmothers have, and you want that, more than anything, for your own mother and your own children.
My oldest child had it, for just over two years.
It wasn’t long enough.
Sometimes the loss is not an emotional blow, but a practical one: you see that your friends are able to run out and do a quick errand, because grandma is around to watch the kids for 20 minutes.
It’s hard not to feel jealous when people casually take their own mothers for granted. They rely on help that you could only dream of having. They don’t totally understand how good they really have it.
I want to tell them, trust me, this is a luxury. You won’t always have this, so at least understand what it is you’ve got.
And it’s hard not to envy the friends who can go to their own moms to ask what they themselves were like at age 5, or 9 or 12 – is that why their own daughter is acting this way, now? What can I expect, here?
Without the primary family historian it can be hard to get your bearings.
Your dad is great, but he doesn’t keep the family records. Not like this.
The details – the smallest things about family life – lived with your mom, and most of them died along with her too. There are things that are simply too far back in your own childhood for you to be able to access, now.
It turns out those things matter to you, a lot, as you attempt to navigate raising your own young children.
Was I a picky eater at two? Was I an emotional kid? Unreasonable? Did I whine a lot? Did we really have as much freedom as I felt like we did? How did you manage to keep our clothes all ironed? What was it like when Dad had work trips out of town – were those hard on you? They didn’t seem hard – but then again, I was only a kid. What did I know about what was going on.
You want to know so much that only your mom could tell you.
You want to know these things more – much more – now that you have kids of your own. You need them, in a way, to make sense of your current experiences – to be able to put your children into a larger, understandable, context.
The answers would help you, now. They would help a lot.
If your mom is still alive, ask her all the questions you can about your own childhood, and about hers. The family history becomes ever more precious when you don’t have access to it anymore.
The truth is, motherhood is confusing.
Being an adult is hard. You didn’t know this as a kid. How could you?
And taking on the role of being a mother without your own mother there as a guide is, more often than I’d hoped, devastating in a day-to-day we all buck up and do this because we have no other choice type of way.
Sometimes, like when you’re sick yourself, you just want a hug.
In these moments the family history you miss isn’t in the stories, it’s in the touch. The cellular-level memories of a cool hand on a fevered forehead.
It’s the touch you miss. It’s the stories you miss. It’s the trips to the mall. It’s knowing what she’s missing, and what your kids are missing, even as they don’t realize it.
A grandmother to cheer them on at soccer. Someone to step in and hold the baby so you can get a little rest. The person who could tell you what it was like when you were little, so that you might better understand how to raise your own little ones.
A cool hand on a fevered brow.
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I don’t usually comment on anything – but this post. Oof. Right in the feels. My mother died when I was in my mid-twenties – just as I was starting to really become an adult, before I met the man who would be my husband, before I settled into my career, before I even thought about my children. My brothers are significantly older than I, and I was able to watch the relationship that my Mom had with their kids and I so wish my kids could have known that. And almost every day something hits me…something where I know I would call my Mom and ask her, or have her drop by, or tell her about a funny/maddening/interesting thing my kids are doing. So much that it never even occurred to me to ask, because I didn’t know the questions yet. Even ten years later I still get hit with it. Maybe even more so as a mom now myself. All this is to say, thank you for articulating this, and for putting it out there. I love your blog, I was sad (but understood) when you took time off and am so pleased you are back. And to anyone else who reads this, I second Liz’s statement – If you have a good relationship with your mom, Ask all the questions now! Appreciate every day (even though all moms sometimes drive you crazy) because it can be incredibly hard and lonely and awful when your mom dies, and there is no one else in the world who knows what she knows about you.
I don’t have children .. my sister has 3 … they are grown up now … the eldest one has a 3 year old son .. he talks to him about his special angel nana … it breaks my heart .. it’s nearly 8 years now … 34 since we lost my dad … I need her so much … even now I look what’s on tv and know when to ring her …. nana was a special person in her grandsons lives … and she always will be … I miss her laugh … kid knows how the boys must feel but I was so lucky to have my mum and dad … they taught us so much and I hope they will be so proud of us all … and I know they would adore their great grandson xxxxxx
Such a beautiful post Liz! Thinking about you and know your mom is watching over you each and every day. A true reminder of how special each and everyday is with those we ❤️ love. Your kiddos are adorable
Thank you Deb, that is so nice.
Hey Liz. I hope you turn this blog into a book. You’re a very gifted writer able to articulate what many of us have gone through but unable to put into words. You do it with warmth, love and humor. Your mom was a special lady and is with you always. Hugs! Pam
Thank you Pam, this is such a nice comment to get!
Every. Single. Word. Lost my mom to ALS almost 2.5 years ago (I had a 1 & 4 year old at the time… 4 & 7 now). What would have been her 65th birthday is next week. Thank you for writing! ❤️
I’m so sorry Britney. With kids so young it really takes a toll on you 🙁
So spot on. We lost my mom 2 years ago but really 10 years before that, with the early onset of Alzheimer’s. I missed my mom all those years but I could see her, touch her. Now that I’ve got teenagers I am often struck in how much my mom would enjoy them, appreciate them, choose to be around them. And how good it would be to have her guidance, her voice, her experience. Thank you for reminding me I’m not alone ?
Alzheimer’s is so tough. Having your mom there but not really “there” is painful in it’s own way. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through this Lisa! And you are most definitely not alone.
What a beautiful article.I lost my mom 28 years ago, when my kids were 8 & 12. I still miss her, even though I’m a grandmother now. I am grateful for the years they had with her, but I still felt the sadness of so many milestones they missed sharing with her. My beautiful daughter-in-law lost her mother only 4 months ago, after a 6 month battle with a glioblastoma. I’m doing what I can to be there for her, and I’m grateful we have a very close relationship (I became good friends with her mom over the years), but I’m very aware that nobody can come close to one’s own mother. Both sets of grandparents babysat while our “kids” worked, so I’m glad my 4 year old granddaughter experienced her time, attention, and love for at least a short time. However, it saddens me that this 4 year old is missing out so much.. Barb so loved this child, and we’re all doing our best to keep her memory alive. I did share this article with my DIL, knowing she can relate to everything you’ve written. Sometimes knowing someone knows exactly how one feels truly helps.
Thanks for sharing the article with someone who may need it. Unfortunately too many of us know this pain all too well.
Thank You for an amazing text. My mother died of cancer when I was 24. Now I’m 31 and I have an 8 month old girl. She would have been so precious to my mom. She had 4 kids her self and motherhood was her greatest joy in life. Your mother also sounds so nice. Glad she had the change to be a grandmother, even tough it was for a far to short amount of time . When ever i miss my mom(and that is often) I try to think that I can be a good mother to my babygirl because of the fact that my mother gave me the keys to do that, by beeng the best mom to me, when I was growing up. But everything you write about…the feeling when you see a mother with her own mother and baby. Breaks my heart every time. Found this blogpost when I googled motherless mothers….so sad 🙁 but I often can see my mom in my daughter and that feels amazing. My daughter gives me so mutch joy. Thank you again for a good blogpost. I wish all the best to you and your family. Love from Finland
Thank you so much for posting this… I feel like you took the words right out of my heart! It’s good to know that there are people out there that know exactly how it feels to be having to raise your children without your mom. My mom past away in 2009 when my one son was 2 and my other son was 6 months old. 4 years later, we were surprisingly blessed to have our baby girl…..without my mom here. So many days I watch her and wish that my mom were here to see her! My mom always wanted a little girl that she could dress up with ruffles and ribbons and bows…my sister and I (even my niece) have never liked ‘primping’..lol… BUT this daughter I have is ALL girl!!! And oh how I wish she had her ‘Grams’ here to spoil her rotten??? thank you for your posts!!! It ripped my heart out and I bawled like a baby but it let me know that I am not alone.
I just lost both of my parents, a year apart.. My mom died when my oldest was 2 and youngest was 3 months… They probably won’t remember Grandpa, either. My parents, like yours, were extraordinary… Creaters of great love and magic. Your words speak to my soul. Thank you for writing them.
My mom died last July. She was only 59. She wasn’t even sick. We were always really close, and my son quickly became her favorite person. He just turned 5 this week. Kills me too that she will never know the 5-year-old version of him. And even though I talk about her alot, his memory of their time together is already get tech hazy. I’m one of those mom’s that loves talking about their kid TOO much, and she was the only other person interested in talking about him as much as me. I see him growing up she I hate she’s missing it. Thank you for this article. There’s a strange comfort in knowing other people are dealing with the same things, and we’re all getting through as best we can.