My mother died when I was 6 years old. For those curious and bold enough to ask what it feels like to lose a mother at that age, I often give the same response. The grief does not always weigh the same, but it is always a presence. Every moment without her is a mourning.
As I have grown older, my milestones are accompanied by the impact of her absence. Who would I be if she were still alive? Would I have developed a different disposition? What influence would she have had over my life?
It has been a particular mourning to become a mother. When I was in labor with my first child, I distinctly remember thinking, What would my mother be doing for me right now? When I brought my first baby home, I felt so lost. Until I held her in my hands, I did not realize how little I actually knew about being a mother. How little experience or memories of my mother that I had to draw from.
What would my mother be doing for me right now?
In her early months, my daughter developed the worst diaper rash. I was so embarrassed that I did not have the basics figured out and I remember thinking, This is what mothers are for! She’s supposed to be here walking me through this!
Now, I have two daughters. As my children grow older, they demand new depths from me. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my mother’s death, wondering how it has fundamentally changed me and shaped my parenting. At times, I fantasize about the advice my mother would offer if she was still alive. What would she pass on to me?
Angels and Ghosts in the Nursery
A child losing a parent is an adverse childhood experience, that is, a traumatic childhood event that can have repercussions into adulthood. Studies have explored how our parents’ nurturing have incredible influences on our lives and eventually our own parenting.
In 1975, psychologists wrote about the idea of “ghosts in the nursery”: the impact parental maltreatment has on the lives of children and eventually their parenting as adults. These studies were later countered by newer research that explored the idea of “angels in the nursery,” or the positive impacts benevolent parenting has across generations.
Both studies show that we learn and retain so much from our parents—good and bad, consciously and subconsciously. Their influence affects how we hold and scold our children, the rituals that shape our lives together.
The studies also offer hope, especially for those of us missing a parent or who have had difficult upbringings. As part of their research, psychologists determined that through reflection or therapy, we can learn to identify how these angels and ghosts show up in our parenting and if need be to choose alternative methods as we raise our children.
With this research in mind, I realize that I have an invitation to write my own playbook. Really, we all do. If the researchers have it right, with appropriate support and intention, we are capable of rejecting the parts of our rearing that harmed us and embracing the positive ones. We can shape our own parenting. We can summon the ghosts and angels from our nurseries, take heed of their influences, and chart a path forward that reflects our best ideals.
Building New Traditions
In this spirit, I have decided to shift away from my one-step-at-a-time mothering. I have accepted that I don’t have much to draw from, and that my mothering will require intention.
Some difficult questions are at the heart of this change: What kind of mother do I want to be? How do I want my children to remember my mothering? What do I want to pass on to my daughters?
Answering these questions has led to new intentions, rituals and rhythms. For example, though I was not raised in a house that performed or decorated for any holidays, this year I got a Christmas tree and we decorated it together. I wrapped presents and placed them under the tree. We adopted an elf on the shelf. I put up lights outside.
I hope I stick around long enough to see these precious seeds break ground.
I relished taking my daughter to get her ears pierced. Afterwards she held my hands as I got new piercings too. I wanted her to remember that we did this together. I am planning fun weekends and family trips, when we get to explore the world on new adventures together. Every Sunday is Donut Sunday and we all get to pick our “usual” order from our neighborhood donut store. I’m introducing them to my favorite childhood authors and movies. Act by act, I am molding their memories, making a roadmap.
I’m not gonna lie though: All of this proactive parenting is taxing. It requires non-fiction reading and discipline. I slip up. Lose my patience. Skip a weekend here and there. I get lost in the duty of it and forget the affection, the meaning, the fun. But as I dive into these rituals, I’m hoping they become habits and eventually a lasting part of my daughters’ memories of my motherhood.
One of the side effects of losing my mother is that I constantly think about my own death. How long will I be there for my daughters? If I was to die prematurely, will my daily actions be enough of a roadmap if they choose to be parents?
I hope I stick around long enough to see these precious seeds break ground. I hope that this intentionality pays off, and it provides the anchors they need to develop into secure, grounded children and eventually adults.