Becoming a Mother When You Don't Have Yours
Coping With the Loss or Absence of a Parent When You Are Postpartum
As a postpartum doula, I work with and support new mothers. Very often, these women don’t have mothers of their own. For some, their mothers have passed away. For others, their mothers aren’t present. They’re either ill, live too far away, or are elderly and frail. And for others still, their mothers may lack enthusiasm for their new grandchild or lead their own time-consuming lives.
Becoming a parent is a singular event, like no other. We immediately have a new title. In just a quick moment, we enter a relationship that never existed before. It's only natural to look to those who came before us to help guide our way; to answer our questions; to listen to our struggles. We wonder what we were like as babies or what our mothers’ and fathers' experiences were like when we were born.
But what happens to a new mother if she no longer has her own mother to turn to? Or, if a new parent is unable to tap into those memories due to a parents’ dementia or other illness? It can be quite complicated and heartbreaking.
New mothers without mothers often experience a resurgence of grief over their maternal or paternal loss. They may feel guilty or conflicted for also feeling joy. They may have a greater chance of experiencing postpartum anxiety or depression. They may feel isolated like never before.
When we suffer, we often look to our primal relationships to ease our burden. Even when we become the caretaker, we still need to be taken care of. Maybe even more so. The ghosts of our parents or the idealized version of them, help guide new parents.
New parents want and need to see the legacy of their beloved parent in their own children. A baby who reaches for a book “will be an avid reader, just like grandma!” A baby who loves her bath “will be a marathon swimmer, just like my mom.” A family name given to a new baby, grandma’s favorite flower in the nursery, a dimple shared by those who came before, a soothing lullaby that once lulled you to sleep, a framed photo of you as a baby being held by your mom - these all serve a vital purpose of feeling close to those we miss. We lean in to our memories as we project our hopes, assumptions and beliefs about who our little baby is and will become.
It’s a sad fact that some pregnant women know their mothers won’t be alive by the time their baby is born. I’ve learned from my clients some things a new mom can do to ameliorate this situation. If it’s possible, some like to discuss baby names with their mother. By doing so, there's a greater feeling of connection, knowing that grandma had a hand in the decision and will "know" the baby's name after he's born. Sometimes a soon-to-be grandmother will knit, draw, write a poem, or make some kind of creative lasting gift for her grandchild.
If postpartum depression is a concern, plan to have support at home. (Postpartum depression can appear for up to a year after giving birth, so reach out to your OB or mental health professional if needed.) Sharing the early weeks or months with a treasured aunt or your mother’s best friend has helped some new moms cope better. Others like to enjoy a favorite recipe or use a baby blanket that was passed down to them, to bring their mom’s spirit a little closer.
These connections can bring comfort, revive memories and bring reassurance to new mothers whose own mothers are no longer present. They can choose to incorporate the joyful memories, the practical advice, the family traditions and leave the rest. New moms can take some comfort knowing that their mothers do indeed have a presence in their postpartum life and in the lives of their grandchildren.
There’s no doubt that the powerful force children of all ages and parents share, whether on this earth or in our hearts, will last a lifetime. Do you have your own tips to share?
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