By the time my mother died from stage 4 ovarian cancer, I was 28 years old and had prepared myself for the impending fallout as best possible. Grief counselor? Check. Personal therapist? Check. Oral contraceptives as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer? Check. Lexapro prescription? Check.
What I learned pretty much immediately after losing my mother was that there’s no amount of therapy, medication, food, or alcohol that will make you feel better. Time, that thing everyone preached would heal, was, in fact, the only thing that worked. Though, let’s be honest: red wine didn’t hurt.
What I could never have imagined or prepared for was that 10 years later when I gave birth to my son, all of the healing I’d achieved would be challenged in a pretty aggressive way. Losing my mother completely and totally shaped my experience of becoming a mom, and while I know my mother is cursing me from her grave for suggesting that her death ruined motherhood for me (sorry, mom), it screwed things up without a doubt. Here’s how.
1. Mothers Need Mothering
Having a child might be the most physically and emotionally raw experience I have ever had. The hormones, the incisions, the bleeding, the milk, the exhaustion, the swelling, the sheer uncertainty of everything is enough to make even the most otherwise composed, successful, type-A woman completely unravel. Who better to remind you that you will get through it (and make you a sandwich while imparting such sage advice) than your own mother herself?
After giving birth to my son, I was lost. I looked far and wide for support that didn’t exist. Sure, I had friends and family nearby. They came and went with trays of mac n’ cheese, dark beer for milk production, and endless words of firsthand wisdom. I even paid for help. Baby nurses, night nurses, postpartum doulas.
What none of them could give me was the thing I needed the most: my mom to tell me that everything would be okay and that this moment of sleepless hell was also something that would pass, something that I would look back on one day and miss, dearly.
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2. I Felt a Clock Ticking, and Not the Biological Kind
When you lose someone prematurely, there is a persistent and nagging voice in the back of your head asking you when the next shoe is going to drop. I am always, always, waiting for the next bad thing. And it is a terrible way to live. When my son was born, despite the crazy rush of hormones, pure elation, and really hardcore pain meds, I felt sad. Sad because now that he was here, the clock was going to start counting down to when we could no longer be together.
That thought plopped down in my mind on that day and has made itself comfy there ever since. Some days, I’m able to reason with it. But most days, I have to accept that it’s there and go about my life. It took me a really long time to admit to anyone, including my husband, that I carried such a dark, painful — and what on paper, seems really twisted — thought inside of me. That’s what loss will do to you.
3. I Put Immense Pressure on Myself to Find Joy in Every Moment
Anyone who’s had a kid knows that the first year of your child’s life is filled with highs, lows, endless exhaustion, and lots of worry. Which is why it’s a ridiculous expectation to think that any new parent would find joy in every moment. How joyful is it really to get pooped on? Or to massage the giant plugged duct out of your throbbing boob? Or to wake up every 3 hours? Or to not fit into any of your clothes?
Joy is not a word I would use to describe these moments for a friend, but when it comes to myself, if I’m not appreciative of all of these somewhat ordinary and relatively unpleasant moments, I fear that I will be filled with regret. This is an irony not wasted on me.
4. I Live in Constant Fear of Something Happening to My Son
Who doesn’t, right? I think most parents can agree that this is a common sentiment. After all, having a child immediately raises the stakes. When my son was born, I was stunned. My pregnancy was not without its fair share of scares and complications. When he arrived, I had a pure moment of disbelief. “I should be crying,” I remember thinking to myself. But I wasn’t. I chalked it up to the loopiness I felt from my cesarean pain meds, but in truth, I was afraid.
When you’ve experienced the loss of a mother, you have a pretty intimate understanding of just how unbearable loss can be, and that often translates to high anxiety and fear. You want to do everything in your power to control situations that are beyond your control, and that can be extremely alienating and crazy-making.
Ordinary things that many parents don’t think twice about suddenly take on huge meaning in your mind. When it came time to introduce allergenic foods to my son, it was an ordeal of mammoth proportions. I considered giving him peanut butter while parked outside of the local emergency room. “Just in case,” I told myself.
I felt insane. In the end, we did not sit outside the ER. (Though my husband was willing to, bless him!) Instead, we stripped my son down to his diaper so we could monitor for hives, sat on the living room floor with a prefilled syringe of Benadryl, my phone ready to dial 911 if need be, and I covered my eyes while my heart raced as my husband scooped up tiny blobs of peanut butter and fed it to our son with his pinky. He loved it. And devoured it. And wanted more. Me? I felt an immediate sense of relief, only to move on to the next thing to worry about. Like walnuts.
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5. Happy Occasions Are Never Purely Happy
The day my son was born was arguably the happiest day of my life. Or was it my wedding day? Or the day we bought our first home? I think it’s hard to say because all of those occasions were overshadowed by one giant elephant in the room. My mother was not, and never would be, there to celebrate alongside us. That’s a pain that never goes away, and always takes even just a little bit of joy out of the happiest of moments.
When my mother was dying, she confided in me that her greatest sadness was knowing she’d miss out on all of her kids’ big moments in life. “I am just so selfish when it comes to you three,” she said. “I hate knowing that other people are going to get to experience all of those happy moments, and I won’t be there with you to celebrate.”
Becoming a mother has made that sentiment so palpable, I carry it with me daily.