Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman © 1994 A Review Beautifully and sensitively written, meticulously researched, well organized and

presented, Motherless Daughters presents an excellent way for women who have lost their mothers: to death, to mental illness, or to physical or emotional abandonment, to understand and come to terms with the significant way this loss has shaped and continues to impact our lives, our life choices, and patterns of thinking. I’ve owned a copy of this book for about fifteen years. I’ve read it dozens of times and yet, going back to it recently after not having read it in five or six years, have discovered many new insights I didn’t see until now. Grief work is not something we should or must do continually, but it is something we must do periodically. Think of it like painting a house: if we thoroughly strip off the old paint, repair and replace any rotten wood, any broken windows; sand and prime, then apply several coats of the best quality paint... we will still have to do“touch-up” every few years. That’s just the way it works. If we quickly glop a couple layers of the cheapest paint over everything in the beginning, things may look fine on the surface for a few weeks, even months, but pretty soon, paint will start peeling off everywhere, and serious damage can occur to the structure of the building. We need to treat ourselves like the wonderful classic houses we are, deserving of the best care, the finest attention to detail, worthy of painstaking restoration work. If we do, we’ll be amazed at how glorious and splendid we can be. That said, although I highly recommend this book to anyone who has experienced mother loss in any form as a child - it’s not an easy book to read. There’s a reason Disney usually kills off the mother offscreen before the action starts; mother loss always makes a person very vulnerable. This book is tremendously enlightening, and the subject is essential to understand if we want to grow, and move on in our lives; however, it’s also very, very hard, because parts of it may pierce some very tender spots. As I recall, the first 2-3 times I read it, I curled up, sobbing, in the fetal position more than once. Parts of it still bring me to tears, as familiar as I am with it. It was “good” pain, the pain and relief of recognition, of realizing that I wasn’t alone in what I felt and how my loss had impacted my life - but it was pain nonetheless. So, read both this review, and the book, when you purchase it (as I know you will) at your own pace, being kind and gentle to your soul and heart.

Review: Motherless Daughters © Perfectly Awful 2011 - All Rights Reserved.

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Part I: LOSS Chapter One:

The Seasons of Grieving: Mourning Takes Time

This chapter deals with several aspects of the fact that resolution of grief is a hoax. “Resolution? I hate that word,” Therese Rando says. I use the term accommodate, because at different points in your life you can have accommodated the loss, made room for it in your life, and have come to a relative peace with it, but then something else can bring it up again later on. Grief is something that continues to get reworked.” Depending upon our age when we lost our mothers, we might not have had the tools, as a child, to grieve properly. If we lost ours mother as teenagers, for example, may not have been able to cry, and still feel guilty about that. Anniversaries can be tough: the anniversary of her death (or desertion), her birthday, our birthday, holidays. Mother’s Day can be an emotional minefield, with every commercial seeming to rub in our faces all these wonderful mother-daughter relationships that we didn’t have, and can’t have now. The emotional milestones like graduating from college, getting married, having a baby can be incredibly lonely when we want to reach out to your mother and she’s not there. Other rough times are reaching the age our mother was when she died; having a child who reaches the age we were when our mother died or deserted. I found much relief and comfort in knowing that other motherless daughters experience the same pain points. That it was not just some weird lack in me that I could not “get over” losing my mother, like you’re “supposed to.” Kind of funny, now - did I think the “Grief Police” were going to give me a ticket for exceeding the acceptable time limits or something?

Chapter Two:

Times of Change: Developmental Stages of a Daughter’s Life

Losing our mothers impacts us differently, depending on how old we were when it happened. In this chapter, mother loss is examined as to how it affects those six and younger, in late childhood (six to twelve), in adolescence, and as young adults (early twenties.) Among children of all ages, the critical factor determining later distress is not mother loss per se but instead the availability of consistent, loving and supportive care afterwards. A child who can attach to another adult after losing a mother has the best chance of developing without serious ongoing difficulties. This person could be the grandmother, an aunt, the father, a housekeeper, a stepmother. Unfortunately what happens frequently in real life is the father is not emotionally or even physically available, and if a child is raised by her grandmother or aunt, for example, for a year or two, she is often disrupted again when the father remarries and she is brought “back home.”
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A child might be bounced from foster home to foster home. We may learn not to trust caregivers, because emotional attachments are not safe. Children as young as a year old will look for a mother in the last place she appeared. Toddlers may be able to remember specific tactile or visual images such as hair, hands or skin. Children who were three or four years old may recall funeral or other details. A daughter’s early identity forms in large part from the experiences she has with her mother, the behaviors she observes and the quality of their relationship. “A five-year-old can understand about being a little girl with a mom, and on top of that comes her seven-year-old experience of it, and then on top of that is a nine-year-old layer,” explains Nan Birnbaum. “It’s not that the original identifications disappear; it’s like increments get added on to each other. What then happens it the girl’s view of her mom slowly matures, and she sees her mother in more realistic ways, with flaws. She begins to see there are things her mom isn’t able to do so well. She still values her a lot, but she just doesn’t see her as God. Along with that, the girl’s view of her own capacities is growing. She begins to realize, ‘I’m better than Mom at this,’ or ‘I’ll have to go to Dad or someone else for that.’ It gets more and more realistic.” Losing a mother can bring this process to a premature halt, freezing a daughter’s identification at a very specific point and time. Adolescence is normally a time when a girl is developing her own sense of self - her own personal value system, learning to manage emotion, solidifying a sexual identity - by pulling away from her mother, yet knowing she may safely return. The mother may resist the daughter’s struggle to break away, especially if she did not emotionally separate from her own mother. A daughter whose relationship with her mother is marked with conflict and anger often feels tremendous guilt if her mother dies at the peak of her rebellion. In her memory, their fifteen-year relationship may then deflate to the six awful arguments of the past year. Teenager may feel weird about not having a mom, so they hide it. Adolescents without mothers are often deeply ashamed of having lost the parent other girls view as so central to a daughter’s well-being. The teenaged girl who thinks her mother’s absence will make her appear different or abnormal - and therefore subject to rejections from her peers - often will avoid talking about the loss or revealing any anger, depression, guilt, anxiety or confusion to her friends. When I read those passages about the shame factor, I felt such a sense of relief and recognition. It wasn’t just me that felt this way! (And I’d felt shame for feeling shame, like it was betraying
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my mother to not want everyone to know I was without one.) The book also deals with the struggles for young women being forced to take on some of their mother’s duties, in caring for younger siblings, housekeeping, etc. Losing a mother in one’s early twenties is no walk in the park, either. “There’s an enormous yearning to be in relation to a home ground in your twenties and thirties,” say Naomi Lowinsky. “And your mother is a reference point. You might be mad at her and not want to be like her, but your mother is the source. She’s the origin. You’re always kind of looking back at her to see where you are. If you’re twenty-five and you know your mother is full of bullshit, you know where you are. It’s very defining. But if you’re twenty-five and you’ve lost your mother, how do you know where you are?” And later... The twenties are the years most women pinpoint as the time when they first realized their mothers had qualities - empathy, wisdom, experience - they would value in a friend. To lose a mother at this time, just at the point when one seems to have found her again, feels like a cruel trick. The chapter goes on to point out that even women who lose their mothers much later in life still feel a deep grief, though they are (presumably) better equipped as adults to emotionally cope with the loss. There is no good time to lose our mothers, but losing them at different ages presents different challenges.

Chapter Three:

Cause and Effect: No Way Is the Best Way

This chapter deals with the different ways we may lose our mothers: long-term illness, sudden deaths, abandonment, and the pain that each kind of loss can bring. As the chapter title suggests - there is no “best” way. Each way brings a different kind of deep pain. ...a child whose mother dies from a long-term illness usually experiences other losses throughout its duration. The family’s previous way of life may vanish as the group reorganizes to accommodate a sick member; the active attention of one or both parents may diminish, leaving some of the child’s needs unmet; financial resources may dwindle; and a daughter’s perception of her mother might change several times. A younger daughter may, as an adult, remember her mother only as a patient, never having had a relationship with a mother who’s healthy. I would guess the above is not too dissimilar to family dynamics where the illness is mental,
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rather than physical. Long-term loss does allow the family to prepare, to say goodbyes, to reassign household duties. It may also increase guilt and conflicted feelings, as often the daughter wishes her mother would just die/stop suffering. The daughter feels helplessness, anger, and later on, fear that she will relive her mother’s illness and death. Sudden death throws the family into crisis. There’s immediate shock and disorganization in the family. There’s no time to say goodbyes, to prepare. (If a mother has been ill, say, of cancer, and dies of a sudden heart attack when her cancer is in remission, an unlucky daughter may experience both types of trauma.) There may be guilt and blame, if the mother has committed suicide. If the mother has been murdered, add the trauma of police investigations, and if the assailant is unknown, this may leave the daughter feeling especially vulnerable and helpless. Other daughters may experience the murder of their mother by their own father, or father figure. They may even witness the attack, or be present as their mother is dying. Daughters who lose mothers to homicide, along with children who lose parents to accidents, suicides, and other sudden deaths often believe they could have prevented the death if only they had been there, delayed her, apologized in time. Daughters often reconceive themselves as key cause-and-effect players in events otherwise too arbitrary to comprehend. This phenomenon is prevalent enough to be called the “if only syndrome.” A statement such as “If only I’d asked my mother one more question as she walked out the door, she wouldn’t have been crossing the intersection at that precise moment” allows a daughter to blame herself and imposes a sense of order and control on an otherwise unpredictable world. In abandonment situations, the daughter struggles with knowing that her mother is alive, but inaccessible and out of touch. A daughter whose mother chose to leave her or was incapable of mothering may feel like a member of the emotional underclass, like a dispensable part of society whose needs the government has ignored. As a result, she often develops a sense of degradation and unworthiness even more profound than that of the daughter whose mother has died. In physical abandonment, daughter may fantasize about a reunion. Yet be consumed by fears. “She would want me now” is complicated by the thought “but she didn’t want me then.” While this is not covered in the book, I would imagine that for some physically abandoned daughters, their feelings of longing for their birth mothers may be complicated by feelings of disloyalty if they have “good” adoptive or step-mothers. And a reunion, if/when it takes place, if it does not fulfill the secret fantasies the daughter carries, may lead to even deeper disappointment.

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In emotional abandonment, the mother is physically present, but emotionally gone. Alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, childhood abuse - all can render a mother incapable of responding to her child emotionally. Victoria Secunda, the author of When You and Your Mother Can’t Be Friends, describes this type of mothering as a “sort of muteness.” The mother is physically present but offers no emotional substance, like the body of a car with nothing under the hood. But the daughter keeps turning the key in the ignition, hoping that if she does it just right, the mother might start up this time. Another passage, excerpted from Evelyn Bassoff’s Mothers and Daughters: Loving and Letting Go, explains Because acknowledging that one was not loved by Mother hurts so much, many deprived women fight against this fact. Even when their mothers continue to undermine them, they do not turn their backs on them. Rather, they remain devoted and unseparated daughters, eternally waiting for the maternal validation and approval that never comes. Or, even if they distance themselves from their unloving mothers, they recreate in their present lives situations that simulate the early relationship with her. For example, some may quite unconsciously select lovers or husbands who respond to them the way their mothers did. By trying to soften the hearts of these men and win their love, they are indirectly appealing for mother love.

Chapter Four:

Later Loss: Learning How to Let Go

This chapter is about how our mother loss affects losses we encounter later in life - of family, friends, and lovers. (Which losses can also be to separation or divorce, rather than to death.) The entire chapter is a gold mine of insight. ...found out that when childhood mourning is complete - as it often is - the death of another loved one in adulthood frequently activates elements of the early loss, including the same coping mechanisms the child relied on then. The problem, as many women discover, is that what helped a child through a loss at twelve doesn’t necessarily work for a woman of thirty-five. ...Later loss reactivates early loss selectively... Eva, for example, lost her father twentyfive years after her mother died. The circumstances of this second death were sufficiently different for her, as an adult, to perceive it as an isolated event and keep it separate from her mother’s. But when her husband, on whom she’d depended for most of her emotional needs, walked out eight years later, the abandonment and despair she felt was so similar to her experience after her mother’s death that this loss was the one that sent her back to do the mourning she hadn’t done as a young child.

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...When you lose a parent early, you develop and increased sensitivity to later loss. The challenge isn’t to bury that early experience, but to understand it, accept it, and to keep it from interfering with your adult life.

Part II: CHANGE Chapter Five:

Daddy’s Little Girl: The Father-Daughter Dyad

This chapter describes four main types of fathers: The I’m Okay, You’re Okay Father, The Helpless Father, The Distant Father, and the Heroic Father. If our mother is gone - whether she’s died, abandoned us, dived into a bottle, whatever - we really need our fathers to be “there” for us. Doesn’t always (usually!) happen. The I’m Okay, You’re Okay father is all about enlisting the family into a game of Let’s Pretend Everything is Just Fine. Because children often mimic the loss response of the family’s most significant surviving member, children of this kind of father often try to convince themselves that their grief should be as minimal as their father’s appears to be. While this may help the family “get through it” in the short term, in the long term, the suppressed grief does no one any good. The Helpless father may be overwhelmed, whether by his own grief, his new duties, and possibly, addictions, to the point of paralysis. When chronic bereavement causes a father’s helpless state, when his grieving seems to have no limits, he often succumbs to intense despair, apathy, or depression. He may lose interest in his appearance and let his home deteriorate, and his children may suffer emotional or physical neglect. Only one parent has died in this family, but a daughter feels that both have disappeared. Distant fathers may even move away from the physical presence of their daughters. The daughter of a distant father view any attention - even anger - as evidence that he cares. She may alternate between being so good that he’ll have to notice her, and so bad he can’t ignore her. But as a daughter quickly learns, her efforts to be good typically receive little more than a quick smile and a pat on the head. ...We’re often told that our fathers did the best they could and that by understanding their limits and lowering our expectations we can heal some of our past father-daughter wounds. And this is all true. But such advice doesn’t erase the memory of inadequate
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emotional support; it doesn’t magically turn “the best they could do” into “good enough.” The Heroic father apparently, does exist. The heroic father typically shared child-rearing and household duties when he wife was present and had warm, loving relationships with his children before his wife died. After her death, he mourns appropriately, providing his children with a safe forum for expressing their feelings, and reallocates roles fairly, taking on what he can and delegating the rest. The chapter also goes into the adjustments required when Daddy brings home a new girl, and says, “Kids, I’d like you to meet your new Mom.” And the scary subject of incest - both sexual and emotional, that can occur when the mother is longer present as a buffer between father and daughter. A father may not physically molest a daughter, but depend on her in ways that make her an emotional “wife” to him.

Chapter Six:

Sister and Brother, Sister and Sister: Sibling Connections (and Disconnections)

Families are all different shapes, all kinds of combinations, but as the author points out, sibling relationships are usually the longest ones we have in our entire lives. Brothers and sisters who were close and supportive beforehand tend to draw more tightly after the death. Likewise, siblings with loose connections typically split even further apart - especially when the mother was the force that held disparate family members together. Older siblings may be expected to take responsibility for younger siblings. This is usually somewhat beneficial for younger siblings (if not for older siblings) however, this may also make it hard to re-establish a peer-to-peer relationship later on if one sibling is accustomed to taking the “parent” role. The chapter looks at the various benefits (and drawbacks) of being an older or younger sibling, only child, or member of a larger family. It also examines the reality that even when siblings are close in age, and present at the same events, they experience those events differently.

Chapter Seven:

Looking for Love: Intimate Relationships

After the chapter on specific characteristics based on age of mother loss, this is probably the chapter that everyone goes to... and stays on. Because if our mother didn’t love us - whether because she died, or was an alcoholic, or mentally ill, whatever... we all hope somebody else will
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find us lovable. Often desperately so. And that’s the problem. As Clarissa Pinkola Estés points out, the unmothered woman will almost consistently override her intuition when she thinks she can find love. That’s about “falling in love” with somebody we know is bad for us. Ignoring the red flags popping up all over the place, because... we think we can fix it this time. Or perhaps, on a deeper level, it’s “safer” to love a dysfunctional person, because that’s what we’re used to. And we already know it won’t work out, so, no unpleasant surprises. On one of the chat boards to which I belong, a woman confessed to marrying a guy, unemployed, that she met on the Internet, who moved to her state to marry her, and she discovered on her wedding day, that’s he’d been married and divorced (or so he claimed) six times previously. She married him anyway. If that’s not a textbook case of overriding intuition and common sense because we think we can find love, I don’t know what is. (Well, he did have a big workers’ comp claim settlement coming in any day, so he said, and he promised to use it all to buy her a big beautiful house.) We delve into the Anxious-Ambivalent Daughter - who wants love, soooo much - and yet may push it away at the same time. At the Avoidant Daughter, who fends off love before it can hurt her again. At the Secure Daughter (not just a rumor, they do exist!) who can give and accept love. At the lesbian daughter, and how mother-loss can complicate that scenario. And at love substitutes, like food, alcohol, back-to-back relationships... Yep, familiar (and painful) turf for most of us. ...those who recalled their parents as cold or inconsistent caregivers were more likely to worry about being abandoned or unloved, exhibit and obsessive and overly dependent love style, and suffer from low self-worth and social confidence than those who perceived their mothers and fathers as warm and responsive during their childhoods. As adults, the daughters with distant parents often formed relationships characterized by jealousy, fear of abandonment, and an obsessive preoccupation with finding and maintaining intimate bonds. the same route over and over again, hoping that this time she can rewrite the past with a happy ending. This time he will give me everything I need. This time he won’t leave. ... a motherless daughter frequently denies or ignores the warning signs of a troubled relationship insisting that this time she can be special and worthwhile enough to prevent a loved one from leaving. Clinging to a dead relationship or pleading for a lastminute change of heart is less an adult’s attempt at reconciliation than a child cry for the
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parent to remain. But because the daughter’s behaviors haven’t changed, neither has their outcome. What happens is just what she set out to prevent - she reactivates a cycle of loss. I know the script - and I’m not particularly fond of it. So, why do I keep re-reading it? I already know the ending! When a daughter fears loss so much that she believes it inevitable, she avoids forming relationships that might lead to the deep intimacy she craves. This daughter either dodges romance, chooses aloof partners, or bolts each time a relationship shows the first sign of long-term commitment.... It’s as if she’s telling her mother, “See? I can leave you, too.” So that’s avoidant - how about secure? Just for the sake of expanding our minds. Those who had a surviving parent they felt they could depend on became adults who felt they could depend on others, and did. Other research indicates that good experience at school, such as social relationships, athletic success, or scholastic achievement, lead to an increased feeling of self-efficacy, which bolsters a daughter’s self-esteem and makes her less likely to choose a marriage partner exclusively based on her overwhelming, subconscious need. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, without any research or feedback in this book to back it up, that it is healthier for daughters to have at least one healthy parent, even if that means a parent must divorce an unhealthy partner, than two parents caught in the dynamics of an unhealthy, co-dependent relationship, perhaps supporting untreated addiction, mental illness, or other toxic dynamics. On the girl-girl scenarios -which is waaaay different from heterosexual male porn fantasies: Motherless daughters who chose women as lovers look for the same emotional security as those who choose men, and also find solace in those who offer stability and consistent care. ...About half of the lesbians interviewed for this book knew they were gay before their mothers died, and several of them said their mother’s death freed them to come out without fear of family conflict.... Other bisexual and lesbian motherless daughters say they chose women as emotional and sexual partners after relationships with men failed to provide the nurturing and comfort they sought, or because they channeled their sexual impulses towards women because they feared having such impulses while living alone with their fathers. And on emptiness filled in other ways:
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Motherless daughters talk about empty spaces. They talk about missing pieces.... about the gaping hole that sits permanently between their stomachs and their ribs. “The unmothered child often wants to grasp things because she’s so afraid they’ll go away before, that they won’t be there when she needs then,” Clarissa Pinkola Estés explains. Back-to-back relationships, overeating, overspending, alcoholism, drug abuse, shoplifting, overachieving - all are her attempts to fill that empty space, to mother herself, to suppress feelings of grief or loneliness, and to get the nurturing she feels she lost of never had. “Compulsion is despair on the emotional level,” writes Geneen Roth in When Food Is Love: Exploring the Relationship Between Eating and Intimacy. The substances, people, or activities that we become compulsive about are those that we believe are capable of taking our despair away.” As I read and write this, I have to confront the impulse that chocolate will make it all better. Because - although I’m not giving up chocolate - the reality is, it’s not chocolate that I’m truly hungry for.

Chapter Eight:

When a Woman Needs a Woman: Gender Matters

Sometimes it happens like this: I have a 10:00 am business meeting, and Im trying to decide what to wear.... Then I remember I have a bag filled with my mother’s pins and scarves and beads. I spread the items across my bed. But I’m not sure what to do with them; I can’t remember what she put with what. Surrounded by the pieces, I don’t know who to make them fit. ...In my memory, she knew exactly how to shop for clothing; I can’t even imagine what kind of lingerie to wear under a cocktail dress. I’m aware that cooking and clothing and personal hygiene hardly amount to a feminine totality, and that many women with mothers don’t know the difference between a slingback and a mule and don’t particularly care, but when you’ve lost your primary model for womanhood it’s easy to fall into this perceptive trap. Without the presence of a woman who can show us how to be feminine in a man’s world, and who can serve as a point of reference for us to either accept or reject, we rely on cultural stereotypes and cultural myths as our guides. This chapter deals wit the sense that something is missing, that those of us who lost our mothers didn’t get clued in on the secret handshake admitting us to the sorority of women (do sororities even do secret handshakes?!) We tend to feel less feminine. The way one woman put it was she felt like she should be in overalls, with cowshit up to her knees. We may reach out to other, older women (not necessarily stepmoms, there are all kinds of pitfalls there) as mother substitutes, hoping they will help teach us what we need to know about being a woman.
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Part III: GROWTH Yes, it’s not all bad news. Being a motherless daughter can bring tremendous strengths, insights, and opportunities for growth, not just pain and loss.

Chapter Nine:

Who She Was, Who I Am: Developing an Independent History

The personal mythology a woman creates to define herself depends on her early memories and on the stories she’s told, and mothers are typically the chroniclers of a family’s narrative history. When she dies or leaves, many of the details are lost. Many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to glean small details from other family members, and our mother’s friends. I remember the triumph, and illumination, of hearing from one of my mother’s friends that she was never quite finished with her pre-date grooming, and so would walk about the dorm they shared, frantically waving her hands to dry her fingernail polish. Realizing that I do the same thing, although in my case, it’s usually my hair that’s not quite dry, made me feel more connected to my mother on a woman-to-woman basis. A twenty-year-old daughter with a forty-five year old daughter actually compares herself with two versions of her mother: the twenty-year-old she has pieced together in imagination from her mother’s stories, and the forty-five year old she sees. When the daughter herself turns forty-five, she then compares herself to the forty-five year old mother she remembers, and also to the seventy-year old-one she knows. But a mother who dies young is a woman interrupted, and her daughter’s image of her freezes at that point. ...Am I as I am - who I am, how I am - because my mother lived, or because my mother died? The answer, we decide, is both.

Chapter Ten:

Mortal Lessons: Life, Death, Sickness, Health

One of the greatest fears any motherless daughter has is the fear we will reenact our mother’s fate. Breast cancer? Bi-polar disorder? Alcoholism? Surely whatever took her out of our lives, we will repeat in our own. Especially if we look like our mothers, have inherited her shape, her facial features, or her personality type. “In order to fully identify with her femaleness, she got to be in her body. But that also
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means identifying with her mother’s body, and if she associates her mother’s body with a terrible illness and early death, it feels like the last place on earth she wants to go.” When I got to this part of the book, I cried some more. All along, all my life, I thought I was the only one who felt that way. I knew I would die before I reached my mother’s age, and probably of breast cancer, just like she did. This is the secret that motherless daughters share: We fear we will die young. And not at some unspecified point in the future - no, we fear it will happen when we reach the ages our mothers were when they died. Well, we all think that - and guess what, it doesn’t always happen after all. That part of our crystal balls are definitely cracked. I have now outlived my mother - and so have both my older sisters. Take that, Destiny! Although one of the trends that can occur, because we are all so sure we are going to follow our mother’s path, is wild-and-crazy behavior. We don’t need to worry about condoms to prevent AIDS or STD’s, because we’re going to die in a car accident. Or of cancer. We need to better understand that we are not doomed to repeat our mother’s fate - unless we choose to recreate it by neglecting ourselves.

Chapter Eleven:

The Daughter Becomes a Mother: Extending the Line

Becoming a mother offers unparalleled opportunities for healing, pain, joy, anxiety, mourning, and growth. It’s like we get to rewrite the story of our own childhood, only this time, with a different ending. A motherless daughter who looks at her child and sees only herself projects an unnatural identity onto that child and may overprotect or smother in an attempt to repair herself. At the other extreme, the motherless daughter who identifies strongly with her mother will fear dying young and may either emotionally detach from her children or avoid having them at all. Many motherless daughters secretly or openly long to have a daughter, the most direct route to maternal reconnection. birth to a daughter ensures the immortality of the female line. A baby girl in the nursery also brings a woman’s lost mother back into the room. And because daughters are typically socialized as society’s nurturers, a mother sees in her daughter the potential to enjoy a close, empathetic female relationship again. Confusing? Imagine what it’s like for the newborn daughter. She often grows up
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representing her lost grandmother, her mother, and, if there’s room left over, herself. No wonder daughters of motherless women, two generations removed from the death of grandmothers they never knew, say they still feel the legacy of that loss. Sons offer the benefit of already being expected to be different, Other. Not every motherless daughter enmeshes her daughter in the need to represent her childhood self (and some do enmesh their sons,) but the danger is more present for a daughter. There’s a great sense of loss for most motherless daughters when pregnant, giving birth, or bringing home an adopted baby. We want, we need our mother then, and she’s not there. This can make the whole loss feel fresh again, and trigger a new cycle of mourning. We mourn for ourselves, because she’s not there to help and advise us, and we mourn for our children who are missing out on having any kind of relationship with their grandmother. We can also mourn for our mothers, because as mothers, we’re relating to her on a whole new level, understanding what she lost, and how very hard it must have been for her. Amanda, thirty-three, who was three when her mother abandoned her, says her longstanding desire to find her mother disappeared when she held her newborn son in her arms. Lying in the hospital bed, she felt a new affinity with the woman who had raised her for three years and then had stepped out of her life. “It had to be the hardest thing in the world for her to leave me,” Amanda says. “When I had my son, I thought, I would die, absolutely die, if my husband took him out of my life. I’d be screaming at buses. My mother must have had to do a lot of work to get me out of her mind. I don’t think I have a right to interfere with that.” Then there’s the “magic number” business - the anxiety, depression and joy when a motherless daughter’s child reaches the age we were when we experienced our loss. Watching a child go through various phases reactivates the same developmental struggles in a mother. She doesn’t simply project her past experiences onto her child; to some degree, she relives them. Such a sense of relief and victory, when our oldest (or youngest, or middle - depends on our own birth order ) child passes that “magic number.” Some motherless daughters press too-early independence onto our children, to make sure they are prepared to “get along” just in case something happens to us. As she minimizes her importance in a son’s or daughter’s life because she loves them, because she wants to spare them from the pain of her childhood, she is, in effect, preparing them for an event that’s not likely to occur, and they grow up unconsciously expecting a trauma that never arrives. By deliberately retreating into the emotional background of their lives, she then does exactly what she’s trying to avoid: she deprives her children of their mother.
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In order to prevent the pain of the past from carrying over into future generations, a motherless daughter must be aware, be consciously doing our own grief work, and to be prepared to seek professional help as needed to reconsider the past and current family dynamics.

Chapter Twelve:

The Female Phoenix: Creativity, Achievement, and Success

After all the heavy lifting of the previous chapters, a ray of hope! Actually, much more than a single thin ray. For all the pain, hurt and confusion of being a motherless daughter, there are special insights and benefits, too. “When we talk about parent loss, we usually talk about the pathology and the pain,” Phyllis Klaus says. “But any kind of tragedy in life can be a springboard for creativity and growth, and for working out that tragedy in very healthy ways. What’s interesting is to look at what helps these people get to that point. Sometimes it’s their own ability to look inside and develop who they really want to be, to make life count and not waste it.” Eminent people who survived early mother loss include: Harriet Beecher Stowe, the Brontë sisters, Marie Curie, Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mitchell, Virginia Woolfe, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe... ... the rate of mother loss among “eminent” or historical geniuses” in the arts, the humanities, the sciences and the military is as much as three times that of the general population, even after the mortality rates of earlier centuries are taken into account. To offset that: ...other studies have revealed equally high rates of mother loss among juvenile delinquents and prisoners. It appears that children who lose parents generally respond in one of two ways: they develop a sense of fatalism, expecting and even encouraging future unfortunate events to occur, or they pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and find the determination and motivation to continue. Enter existentialism: “ must be aware of your own limits to succeed. Only if you feel that life exists between two anchors - birth and death - can you accomplish what you want. Existentialists understand that life is not infinite. After a parent dies, they’ll look around and ask, ‘What’s left to do?’ and then try to do it.” Modern famous unmothered daughters: Jane Fonda (15), Susan Dey (8), Madonna (5), Rosie O’Donnell (10), Ruth Bader Ginsberg (17).
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Carol Burnett - raised by her grandmother, because her alcoholic mother could not care for her. Maya Angelou, also mostly raised by her grandmother. Princess Di and Sarah Ferguson - both had absentee mothers. Oprah Winfrey - raised first by her grandmother and then by her father. Being motherless may lead to more autonomy, more independence, less fear of taking risks. We are pushed to move forward, out of the nest - often because there is no nest, so we may not stay with our families of origin longer than is healthy for us. We may be inspired to honor our mothers, by having a full, exciting, ambitious life, one that she never got a chance to do, especially those women of generations who were expected to stay home and wax floors. Our mother’s death may have loosened proscribed gender barriers in the household. We may experience survivor’s guilt, but also resilience and determination. Smaller losses, such as waiting for a call-back that never comes or being passed over for a job, then feel minor in comparison to losing a mother, and she can manage them without severe distress. We may appreciate life more. Anna Quindlen (19 when her mother died of ovarian cancer): My mother’s death made me a much happier and more optimistic person. People are always a little incredulous when I say that. I really felt from this experience, you could take away one of two things. One is you could just thing, “What’s the point? It’s all over so quickly.” But the other is that you can look at life and think, “My god. Every day that you have is so precious and so important.” When somebody dies you realize that if they had it to do all over again they wouldn’t want to win the Pulitzer Prize or make the best-seller list. If they had to do it all over again, they’d just want one more day at the beach, or to sit with their kids quietly on a blanket somewhere and talk about something one more time. I think the experience of my mother’s death made me treasure those little things in a way I never would have before, and I think that’s a real element of my writing that comes out. All in all, this book encourages those of us who are motherless to understand our loss, to mourn it in grief cycles as we need to, to understand how it has hurt us, but also to acknowledge that it has also shaped us into the women we are today. And that’s a good thing - since there’s nothing we can do to unmake our mother loss. There is no disgrace in using whatever raw materials are available to succeed. There is no shame turning loss into life. Like the phoenix, the mythological bird that ascended from the ashes of its own destruction, a motherless daughter can emerge from tragedy, and take flight.

Review: Motherless Daughters © Perfectly Awful 2011 - All Rights Reserved.

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