Motherless Mothering

When I Am Asked
by Lisel Mueller

When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.

It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming.

I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the day lilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.

I sat on a gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.

My mother died when I was seven and she was 33. She died on her 8th wedding anniversary, though my father was not with her, was not holding her hand as she passed from this life. She died in the hospital where I was born. I can’t begin to imagine how she must have felt; perhaps irony at the moment she realized she was dying, to remember my birth just a few floors away in location, but another lifetime ago in memory. I would have liked to ask her.

She was their only daughter. I am hers. Now I have a daughter.  I have a daughter and she scares the hell out of me.

I watched her be caught by the doctor as she came out of me. I heard her come screaming into the world. When they put her perfect, small body into my arms, and she looked at me with her bright and brand-new eyes, I realized I was in trouble. I loved her right away. The fear came later.

“She’s just a baby, how can you be scared of her?”, you might be wondering. Easy. She’s so small, with a vulnerability that is both beautiful and terrifying. She’s needy and impossible to refuse. Most frightening of all, she is mine.

When she emerged from my womb into the world, she knew nothing of it. Except me. I was her one connection to the vast, cold world. Her very first thoughts, perceptions and sensations of this world occurred in my womb. Such is the height of her need that she is utterly dependent on me without knowing a thing about who I am. Can you imagine such a proposition, such an enormous leap of faith?

Even though I loved Maggie from the moment I saw her (and even before that), I have struggled with feeling resentful of just how much she needs me.  To be frank, its overwhelming. Her cries pierce through me; her squeaks and sighs while she sleeps make me catch my breath in a prayer that goes something like this:

“Dear God, thank you for this amazing, precious person. But really, what were you thinking?”

I love her so much, but I also know how completely unworthy I am to be her mother. I couldn’t begin to love her as much as she deserves. Since we’ve been home with her, I’ve sensed this hesitation in me, this desire to fight getting “too close” to her. I’m not talking physically, because I spend a lot of time holding her or carrying her with me. Really, it’s something less tangible, but which I would have to describe as a hardness of heart.

I don’t want her to need me too much. I don’t want to feel this needed, this necessary to someone else’s existence. This fear of her needing me too much has been showing itself as resentment. Why should she need me more than anyone else? Why shouldn’t she be just as happy with someone else? Why should I have to feed her from my body?

The thing is, before she was born – breast feeding, snuggling – these were the things I was most looking forward to about being her mother. So imagine my surprise when they made me so uncomfortable. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why. I thought perhaps I was experiencing postpartum depression. Or maybe I was just going crazy. I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could ask my mom about all this? I wonder if she ever felt like this when I was a baby?” Then it hit me:

My mom.

My mom, who will be dead 20 years this June.

My mom, Maggie’s other grandmother. The one she’ll never get to meet. The one she’ll only know from pictures and second-hand stories.

Some wounds rip open again that easily. Ones you think have been closed for years and years. All it takes is one off-handed thought, and the pain rises up in your throat like a poison.

I’ve been fighting letting myself get as close to my daughter as my heart really desires because I don’t want her to need me too much. Just in case.

Just in case…

history repeats itself.
I’m not here as long as I want to be.
she HAS to learn to be just as happy with someone else as she is with me.

It’s not that I’m morbid. It’s that I know what can happen. I’ve lived it, so its not as easy for me to pretend I’ll live forever as it is for others who haven’t lived it yet. I’ve been trying to protect Maggie by pushing her away. Just in case.

I don’t want to live that way, keeping my own flesh and blood at arm’s length. People aren’t meant to live in “just in case”. Just in case is what keeps us trapped and living out of only a small corner of our hearts. The fear of “what might happen” is one of the things Jesus came to free us from. To free us from ourselves. To free us for the hope which knows that in the event that what we fear will happen, happens, then we will not suffer alone.

My mother knew this. She must have known this, otherwise how could she have carried a risky pregnancy to term, and why would she have fought so hard for so many years to be with me? She knew she was a sick woman, and that she might not have a very long life. But she took the risk of knowing and loving a child of her own. She chose to live and love out of her entire heart, when it would have been safer and less painful for her to choose otherwise.

Some wounds we think have closed can come open again so easily. But each time this happens, it’s an opportunity to heal a part of the wound. We think it’s all been irrigated, but there’s so much beneath the surface. God tears those wounds open again and again to show us that healing is a process and an invitation.

God opened this wound in me again to invite me to live even more fully, and to give myself even more to the ones I love. Maggie needs me in a way that forces me to confront my fear. Her cries are an invitation to love her until it hurts, in the hope that if I persevere, it won’t hurt anymore. Love will overcome fear. Even though she’s been gone 20 years, my mother continues to teach me these lessons.



17 thoughts on “Motherless Mothering

  1. Sarah,
    I can’t to begin to imagine what it was like for you to lose your mother,especially at such a young age. Becoming a new mother is such a challenge even when you do have your own mother supporting you. I am sure that the mix of emotions you feel is not easy to deal with. What a joy that you have faith to sustain you! Despite the sadness that you must still feel, you will probably always be mindful of how precious your relationship with Maggie is, and you will never take it for granted. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Your writing is always thought-provoking and inspirational to me!

  2. OH my. This is so powerful. I gasped a few times reading it. Your loss is so different from my own childhood loss, and your perspective just as unique. But the lesson is often the same. Love until it hurts. Love overcomes all of it.

    Beautiful post, my friend.

  3. Beautiful words. Maggie is blessed to have you as her mother. And I am quite sure she has an extra special Angel in heaven watching over her.

  4. Being open and vulnerable is such a hard thing to do and can bring a lot of pain, but is so worth it. Thank you for sharing these powerful words.

  5. wow wow wow. I think I gasped too when I figured out where this was leading. you are so perceptive to recognize the source of your ‘resentment’ i imagine that the death of your own mother is something one doesn’t ‘get over’ so much as learn to deal with, and its only natural that new situations would provide new angles to consider. my heart feels for you, i think about becoming a mother away from family (well, less now), not considering that some have to do it without their mothers on this earth at all…
    and you’re right, the best way to show her how much you love her is to hold nothing back. you know, just in case.

  6. wow wow wow. I think I gasped too when I figured out where this was leading. you are so perceptive to recognize the source of your ‘resentment’ i imagine that the death of your own mother is something one doesn’t ‘get over’ so much as learn to deal with, and its only natural that new situations would provide new angles to consider. my heart feels for you, i think about becoming a mother away from family (well, less now), not considering that some have to do it without their mothers on this earth at all…
    and you’re right, the best way to show her how much you love her is to hold nothing back.

  7. I haven’t suffered a loss as profound as yours, but I struggle with very similar fears towards my small son – fears, mostly, about the unknown-ness of what the years ahead may bring. It’s hard. It’s so hard, and painful, and unpleasant when all you want is to rejoice in the sweetness of your child. But I think it’s part of the growth cycle of a mother’s heart: breaking and opening and expanding, over and over again. It’s not an easy job, this motherhood.

  8. Sarah,
    I sometimes [jokingly] wonder aloud when my kids’ Real Parents are going to come claim them… It’s defintely a hard and awe-full thing to be so needed by somebody. I don’t always stop to appreciate the way my kids love me and I love them.

    The losses that I experienced at around the same age that you lost your Mom are completely different. And yet, they do still affect my relationships with my kids, especially as I watch the two of them relate to each other. Two of my brothers died – one significantly older who died in a car accident, and the other younger who was stillborn. The moments that the memories come rushing back are odd. Like this morning [before I read your post] when I buckled my seatbelt.

    You’re in my prayers.

  9. Oh, Sarah. I’m so sorry that you lost your mother, and even sorrier that it must be so much more painful to you now, being a mother yourself.

    I can’t speak to that loss, but as for the resentment, I do think that might be a normal part of new motherhood for some mothers. It certainly was for me. I felt everything you just described, all that fear of being needed, and I also felt annoyance at being needed that much. I felt like I was still a child myself in so many ways, and no child should need me like this. Not when I still needed to be mothered as well.

    It’s a hard feeling, and it took time for me to get over it. I’m sure that your angst at having lost your mother will add a whole new depth and dimension of struggle and difficulty to your relationship with Maggie, and I’m sorry for that. But I think you’ll find that time will draw you closer to your daughter. The first few months with the first child are so much harder than any that follow, in my experience. It’s learning a whole new way of being, and requires daily dying to self.

    My heart really broke reading this. I felt so sad for you and so sad for your mother…she must have loved you so much, and it must have been horrible being taken from you when you were so young. If she could see you now (can the dead in heaven see us? I don’t know) I think she would be so proud of you. And you’re right, the lessons she continues to teach you in her absence are amazing…little traces of grace that God allowed her to leave for you to find.

  10. Thank you for sharing those most private feelings. I also lost my mother when I was 14 yrs old… 20 years ago this comming Aug 28th. I have a 9 and 6 yr old daughters and I was and still am going through ALL of those fears you feel. I keep a journal that I write my feelings and advice for my girls when they are mothers… JUST IN CASE. My oldest told me she doesn’t want to grow up becuase I don’t have a mom… and that might mean she won’t have me. How hard is it not to wear our fear on our sleeve from the ones who we are most transparent to. *Thank you so much for sharing again, it’s important to know that we’re not alone.

  11. Perhaps a note of encouragement from an older Mom may help? I remember the fear- that I’d be inadequate, not do a good enough job. But now my kids are 14,17, and 19, and that is all such a long ago blur of sweet memory. I’m not a perfect mom. In fact my kids will tell you I’m far from it! But I spend time on my knees before the Father, and I’ve found He’s kind of like “holy spackle”: I do my best, and he smoothes over me and fills in the gaps! So give yourself away with joy and abandon, sweet mama. That is what the Lord made you for! That is the only path to being conformed to the image of His son. (and motherhood gets easier- they don’t poop in their pants forever!) Blessings and hugs to you and your precious little girl.

  12. I lost my mom seven weeks ago. I’m 24 and haven’t had kids yet, and I’ve been wondering what that will be like. I love the poem at the beginning – it’s what I was searching on google that led me to your blog. Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty. From one motherless girl to another, I get it. Much love.

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