When Hope Edelman finished writing “Motherless Daughters,” she thought she had said all she could about the long-term effects of early mother loss. But when she became a parent, she found herself revisiting her loss in ways she had never anticipated. In “Motherless Mothers,” Edelman, the mother of two young girls, explores how the loss of a mother to death or abandonment can affect the ways women raise their own children. Here's an excerpt:
Motherhood and Mourning
The Power to Heal
It's 7:40 A.M., and the house is cranked up to full volume. We've got twenty minutes till Maya and Uzi have to leave for the bus stop, then another half hour before I drive Eden down to preschool. Between now and then, I've got a snack bag and a lunchbox to prepare, a backpack to fill, breakfast dishes to rinse, two kids and one adult to dress, and two heads of hair to brush. Three, if you include mine, but sometimes that one gets skipped.
“Mom!” Maya shouts from upstairs. “Where are my pink high-tops?”
“In the basket by the front door! Bring a hair clip when you come down!”
Uzi walks down the stairs, rubbing his freshly shaved chin. He stops in front of Eden's chair and kisses her on the top of her head.
“Twenty minutes,” I tell him.
“You need help with that?” He nods toward the array of bread and turkey breast slices and condiments spread across the kitchen counter. I consider the offer. If he makes Eden's lunch, I can brew a cup of tea for myself. Otherwise, I won't bother. But I'm the one who knows exactly how to cut the crust off Eden's bread, and how many slices of turkey to use. Those are the details mothers know. From first through eleventh grade, my mother made my sandwich every morning. That's what mothers do.
“I'll do it,” I say.
“Have you seen my wallet?” Uzi asks.
“It's probably still in your pants from yesterday.”
Maya catapults into the kitchen, pink high-top sneakers on her feet. “Mom!” she says. “Where's my hair clip with the gold bow on it?”
“On the counter in your bathroom, where you left it last night.”
Homework. Snack bag. Backpack. The gold barrette, a zip-up sweatshirt, a good-bye kiss for Uzi and they're out the door. I lift Eden out of her chair and shift her to my right hip.
“Made it,” I say.
“Made it,” she says.
“Whew,” I say.
“Whoo,” she says.
When I went to school in a New York suburb, the bus picked me up at 8:05 A.M. Every morning, when I walked out the door at 8:04, I stopped on the front step and stuck my head back inside for a final good-bye. It was a little ritual I had.
“Mom!” I'd shout. “Good-bye!”
“Have a good day!” she'd call back from inside.
If she told me to have a good day, I had a good day. If she didn't, my day turned out bad. I'm still not quite sure how that worked, but it was true.
Now I'm the mother left in the sudden vacuum of silence when a child leaves for school. How can that be, when I'm still the daughter stuck in the good-bye?
Eden and I stand quietly in the living room and listen to the soft ticking of the kitchen clock. It's not over yet.
We hear the explosion of noise before we see her. The front door bursts open and Maya hurls herself into the room, a four-foot cyclone of brown curls and pink sneakers and Helly Kitty backpack.
“Mom!” she gasps, making an urgent beeline for us. “I forgot hug and kiss.”
I lean down so she can grab my neck. We kiss on the mouth, and she plants one on Eden's forehead. “Bye,” she says, hurrying back out the door.
“Have a great day!” I call after her.
“Bye, Maya!” Eden shouts.
“I will!” Maya yells from the front path.
Uzi opens the car's back door for her and I watch them drive off between the palm trees that line our driveway. It's more than two thousand feet down to the bus stop on Pacific Coast Highway, a fifteen-minute drive. When I was a kid, the bus stopped right in front of our house. And palm trees! To get to the nearest palm tree, we had to take a three-hour flight.
Eden and I wave through the window as Uzi's car winds down the hill and out of sight. Every morning it's the same routine. And every morning it ends with the same sweet, odd feeling of wonder, how in this house in the Santa Monica mountains, this place of wildfires and hot tubs and no snow, my California daughters manage to bring the best parts of my mother right back to me.
What is it about motherhood that's so healing for a motherless daughter, mending something inside her in a place deeper than scalpels or medication or therapy can reach? Many of the women interviewed for this book spoke of motherhood as an experience that restored their equilibrium, their self-esteem, or their faith. “Having my kids is like discovering the missing link,” explains thirty-five-year-old Sharon, a mother of two who was eleven when her own mother died. “There's a completeness in my life that wasn't there before.”
“The first time my son put his hand in my hand when we were walking,” remembers thirty-eight-year-old Corinne, who lost both parents by age eleven, “and the first time he ran to me and threw his arms around my neck, showing that he preferred me over anyone else, for him to love me back so uninhibitedly and unconditionally, filled some part of me that I didn't expect would ever be filled again.”
It paints a rosy view of motherhood, but there's more than just a simple idealization going on here — although God knows our culture tacks enough of that onto mothers these days. For these daughters, motherhood is the final repair in their process of mourning and recovery from early mother loss. What was broken in their pasts is once again made whole; what was subtracted has been added back again.
When motherhood interfaces with the long-term mourning process, the result is exponential. Becoming a mother can give a motherless daughter access to a more enhanced, more insightful, deeper, richer, and, in some cases, ultimate phase of mourning for her mother, one that may initially be painful but eventually leads her to a more mature and peaceful acceptance of both her loss and herself.
Excerpted from “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become” by Hope Edelman. Copyright © 2006 by Hope Edelman. Excerpted by permission of . All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.