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Mothering Me

Motherhood changes everyone, but I found the transition monumental

 

My mother has been dead for almost 20 years, considerably more than half my life.

I was about to turn 13 when she died.

My father woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that he’d come home and found her in bed, not breathing. The cancer must have taken over.

At least, they all said, she died at home — the sort of thing that people say when they don’t realize who had to wash the linens the next day.

I can’t honestly say it was hard to be motherless throughout high school and college.

I know, I’m not supposed to say that. Bear with me. Sure, it stung when my friends in seminary received packages from their mother or when they’d cry to their mothers. There were times I wanted to do that as well. Mostly, though, I’d already gotten used to being motherless.

Just before I started dating my husband, well into my twenties, I woke up one morning, sat up straight in bed, and said out loud, “She is never coming back.” It was the first time I truly understood that being motherless wasn’t a temporary inconvenience or misfortune, but my permanent reality.

I worried that having my first child would exacerbate my sense of loss — what with the hormonal, physical, and identity changes — but for the most part I was fine. During the postpartum period, I was so consumed with trying to get my son to sleep for more than 40 consecutive minutes (thanks, silent reflux) and to successfully use a fork and knife myself (thanks, postpartum shakes), I may have forgotten my mother died.

Then, to my great relief and pleasure, my son started sleeping. I started becoming a person again. I should have been overjoyed. But what happened next was something I’d never expected.

 

The more I eased into motherhood, the more the grief of losing my mother consumed me. I was prepared for sleepless nights. I was prepared for blowouts and nursing issues. But this, this grief, nothing had prepared me for that.

No one ever told me that grief can feel so much like fear. Real fear. It was in the prayer I’d say each night asking G-d to let me find my child alive in the morning. It was in the relief and surprise I’d feel upon waking when I would find my baby in his bassinet, still breathing.

Before my son was born, if you would have asked me how long it felt my mother had been dead, I would have said that it felt like a long time, maybe even forever. Six months postpartum, I would have answered that it felt like she died that morning.

Needing to call a friend to ask when to introduce solids or how to get crib shoes on a baby’s feet left me with a soul-crushing sense of loss. My friends tried to comfort me, explaining that all mothers worry about their babies sleeping or about crossing the street with the stroller, but I knew that they couldn’t understand the tremendous divide between us. They worry and I worry. But they’ve never been woken up in the middle of the night to be told someone they love was dead — and I have. For me, that possibility is real, every single day.

Motherhood changes everyone, but I found the transition monumental. After so long — more than half my life — there was a mother in my house again. An empty void had been filled, a unique relationship restored.

Today, when I tuck my son into bed, I reach my hand into my pocket, and tell him the sandman is coming to put sand in his eyes, his eyes are getting heavy, it’s time to go to sleep. I do this ritual with him each night, just as my mother did with me.

I feel his arms reach around my neck for one more hug and I almost can’t believe it’s true. I can’t believe there is a mother in my house again. I can’t believe it’s me.

I exit the room and pick up my daughter, the one named for my mother, the first one to be named for her in the 20-plus years since her petirah, and I sing until her eyes close, then place her in her crib. A few hours later, I go check on them both, feel their chests rise and fall.

Do all mothers feel this kind of love, I wonder? Are all of these women I meet in the street filled with this need to watch their child’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall? Does this remind them of the piece they occupy in their child’s heart?

These and so many other questions I wish I could ask my mother….

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 702)

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