When you first become a mother, a split happens. Part of you wants nothing more than to nurture and care for this little human you’ve brought into the world. At moments you feel unimaginably equipped to be in charge of another human being — meals are complete, everything is clean and taken care of, sleep comes. But then you realize: most moments are nothing like this. You’re full of fear and exhaustion. The anxiety sets in. And then it leaves again.
All of this is the rollercoaster of new motherhood. And, while you want to instantly assume this immense responsibility, the other side is still there. You want to be cared for, nurtured, heard, and understood. You’ve never felt at once so powerful, yet so vulnerable.
So what does a new mother need most? If she has a strong relationship with her mother, she is quite possibly the best person on earth who can help support, love, and guide a new mom. This is how I felt after giving birth to my son. But my mom was gone.
I Get It Now
My mother died when I was 23, and she was just 51. I was just starting to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had a degree, some work experience, and I was on my way. But when my mother died of a heart attack, the center of my emotional universe collapsed. I could write books on the aftermath of this devastating blow as a young woman. The feelings of shock and trauma don’t begin to cover the emotional reality that saturated my existence. It changed me. And it changed the trajectory of my life.
When my husband and I discussed trying to get pregnant, I desperately wanted to talk to my mother about the prospect. I missed her when I endured breakups. I missed her when I achieved professional goals. And I missed her when I got married—but becoming a mom without her support and guidance? It was hard to imagine.
The Fear of Loss
I was also hesitant to become a mom because of the simple and profound fact that my child would have to, someday, experience the shattering pain of losing his parents. Life is unpredictable, I had learned, and I wouldn’t want him to lose me the way I lost my mom. I couldn’t guarantee that I would be there for him throughout his life. When you lose a parent without warning, your relationship to this idea of a long life and facing your own mortality instantly changes.
That’s a real concern for those of us who lose a parent at a young age. We think that we’ll never make it past the age your parent died. To not believe that you could live past the age your mother died changes the way you live your life. You move through life with one foot in this world and one in the next. You know the pain of a young person who feels rudderless and a little incomplete.
The New Mom
When I was pregnant, I was happy until about the seventh month of my pregnancy. That’s when severe anxiety set in. I had never experienced any sort of anxiety before. It came at me like a baseball bat hovering in front of my face just before the moment of impact. That intense feeling of flinching from something so scary and dangerous would persist for hours at a time. It was unbearable. I worried about my mental health and how that would affect my baby.
There were several things that I wished. I wished I could have called my mother and asked her if this was normal. I wished she could have been with me. Hearing her tell me how she coped with her three pregnancies and how it felt for her would have meant the world to me. I wished I could have asked her what I was supposed to be doing to prepare for this little person inside my body. And I wished she could have comforted me and talked me through my thoughts, my fears, my hopes. Instead, I leaned on internet searches, books, a friend who was also pregnant at the same time, and stories from my mother-in-law. All of that was helpful, but it wasn’t the same.
What no one tells you is that when you are motherless and become a mother yourself, you enter a new chapter of your relationship with your mom. Though she’s gone, you now know her in a completely different way. You grieve in new ways, and sometimes your love for her changes and deepens because you understand how perilously fragile the heart and mind of a mother can be. You ask yourself, “How did she do all of this and keep her sanity in check? How did she do all the things moms are supposed to do? And she still had a career! How did she handle it all? And how did she handle me?”
Guilt sets in. You think of all the times you made her stress out. I began to remember when I was cruel or dismissive. The times I ignored her or made her worry. I could be ungrateful and moody. I wanted to take back everything I did to make her life harder. And I wanted to say, “I’m sorry, Mom.” But I wouldn’t have the chance to make amends or get to that golden time in a mother-daughter relationship when we could see each other as fully realized women. That reality hung heavy on me. Our story had ended too soon.
But then something started to happen. I began to realize that the greatest gift my mother ever gave me was unconditional love. I knew, without question, that I could give that to my son. Emulating my mother by trying to help him be who he wanted to be is something that I could give him. I could do this because my mom gave me a safe harbor in a world that sometimes seemed crazy. I didn’t always fit in—I was bookish and melancholy. But she fiercely protected my sensitive nature and believed in me. The best way I could ensure that my mother’s legacy would live on was to be happy in my own life and to raise a good human being.
Remembering is Healing
My mother’s side of the family was Mexican-American, but we didn’t celebrate Dia de Los Muertos—the Day of the Dead. After my mother died, I decided to start. That first year, I put up a picture of her on a table surrounded by sunflowers, a Diet Coke, and a shell for a few days before Nov. 2. But as Dia de Los Muertos grew closer, I added more to the ofrenda—a pineapple, some cookies she liked, candles, a scarf, a sugar skull, one of her paintings, figures of the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph. By the time the day rolled around, half of my living room was an altar to my mother. It was how I grieved and honored her. It’s how I chose to remember.
Every year, I still prepare an ofrenda for her, my father, my grandparents, and other people I love who have gone. I honor the people who once loved me, and who I sometimes took for granted. I share stories with my son, show him pictures, and remind him that remembering is healing. Our ancestors still have lessons to teach us.
She is Alive in Me
I imagine what my mother would say or do in certain challenging situations as a mom. I would show my son who I really was, without hesitation, like she did. And I would remember and live out the best qualities of my mother—patience, humor, support, love. That’s my way of saying, “Thank you.”
Today, I am the same age my mother was when she died—plus a few months. This is a significant milestone for those of us who lose a mother before we become mothers ourselves. I see my son growing, my plans changing, my own life evolving in ways that my mother could never experience. But she is alive. In me, in my son, and in the love that comes.