When my mother died in 1993 of breast cancer while I was still a teenager, the only thing I wanted was a family. As I grew older and went away to college, watching as moms helped their daughters move into dorm rooms, talked them through their first major breakups, and sent care packages of cookies, candles, and candy, I knew I could be more specific. I didn’t just want a family. I didn’t just want a baby. I wanted a daughter.
I told myself that when I had a daughter, things would be better. That I would stop hurting so much and missing my mom so much. I told myself this at 18, when I worked at the Gap and used to have to run into the dressing room to cry after watching mothers and daughters try on clothing together. I told myself this at 21, when I went home with my best friend and watched her mother help her daughter learn their family’s secret recipe for pecan pie. And I told myself this again and again.
At graduation from college when my mother wasn’t there to tell me it would be OK. When I had my first major breakup with a live-in boyfriend and she wasn’t there to comfort and empower me. When I got married and couldn’t share my joy and pride over the man I married with the one person who would have loved him as much as I did.
I counted the days since I’d last called someone “mom.” First it was 10. Then 30. Then 700. And on and on. I longed for the nurturing. For that pat on the back. For the reassurance that no matter what happened, someone loved me above all else, unconditionally, and with her full heart.
And I knew when I had a little girl, that hole would be healed. I would be fine. I would be whole, indeed. In my head, the mother-daughter relationship was unbreakable. Nothing on Earth could compare to it and no one could possibly match it. Not a sister, not a husband. Not a best friend or a father.
But then I had my daughter.
In 2007, on the coldest day of the year, I gave birth to my first child. I’d known she was a girl since week 13 of my pregnancy when my ultrasound revealed it. I cried with happiness and relief, sure this was my opportunity to replace what had been taken from me so long ago. But right from the start, I realized motherhood was nothing like daughter-hood. Because a baby is helpless. A baby can’t even lift her little head. And every ounce of the mother’s energy, even her physical body, goes toward keeping that little person happy.
I loved being a mom, but the emotional healing I’d been expecting was absent amidst the midnight feedings and nursing issues and poop-spread sheets and torn nipples so many first-time moms experience. I loved my daughter, but being a mother was nothing like being the child. I wasn’t being nurtured. I was nurturing. I wasn’t crying and being held by someone, I was doing the holding. And this continued.
I remember the first time my daughter told me she wasn’t my mother. It was the 18th anniversary of my mother’s death. My daughter was 4.
“I am your daughter, not your mother,” she told me.
I don’t know why. It may have been the fact that I was crying and hugging her, looking to her for comfort in that moment. Even her 4-year-old brain could sense my expectations were too high. And maybe they were.
But they aren’t anymore.
As she has grown, I have had mixed feelings about motherhood. Some days I am nailing it, self-sacrificing with aplomb and remembering to get them all to do their homework. Other days I fail and cry in the bathroom over the lack of time to myself and my inability to find my oldest’s karate uniform. I have three kids now and it’s all a constant mess of overwhelm and chaos and love and noise and sports equipment.
I have days with my daughters (I have two now) that feel magical and bonding. Like the yoga class my daughter helped me teach to a local girl scout group. Or the night I let her stay up late watching Troop Beverly Hills, a movie I’d loved as a kid. But we also have rough days where she drives me insane and all the bad qualities I have in my personality manifest in her and I have to ball my fists to keep from screaming profanity in her general direction. They say it’s normal with preteen girls. I hope it is.
But I am not fixed. I am not healed. Being a mom has been rewarding and challenging and full of twists and turns. It is nothing like I expected. And having a house full of love — three kids, five pets, chaos all day, all the time — has gone a long way toward healing my broken heart. But I still miss my mother.
I no longer think there is some perfect fix out there waiting to be discovered. I now understand that grief is forever. It fades, but comes back acutely at random times — and on anniversaries, birthdays, and even some smaller holidays and celebrations. Her absence is part of the story of my life and no amount of children could replace a relationship that is irreplaceable.
I love to bond with my kids. To take them shopping. To take yoga classes and get our nails done and share secrets and gossip and laugh together. I am acutely aware of how precious it all is and I love being their mother. I am grateful for every second. Because, even though my daughters have not been a replacement for the mother-daughter loss I experienced, the grief has made one thing abundantly clear: Life is precious. Every second matters. You just never know when it could all be gone.
I wouldn’t wish this loss on anyone. And no one could replace my mother in my heart. But I am constantly aware of how precious each second is when I am with my children. And I will never take that for granted; I will never take a trip to the Gap for granted. Even if it’s not what I hoped it might be, given I am the mom and not the daughter, it is still a moment I am thankful for.