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Thursday, 14 September 2000

On Growing Up Motherless: One Woman's Story

Written by  Sara Eisen

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My friend Elaine is 36 years old but she has not yet learned to sit. She can stand, occasionally, but generally, she's in motion. She is chasing her two-year-old, wiping chocolate off her four-year-old daughter's lovely face, or teaching her seven-year-old to ride a bike or her nine-year-old to jump rope. She is outside with them all afternoon, or inside, baking or doing projects.

When the kids go to sleep, Elaine cleans or paints something. Thursday nights, she cooks two full meals (feasts, really) for her frequent weekend guests. She is an excellent cook. Friday, she is busy gardening. She does not hire a gardener and has a cleaner come in only twice a month. Her house is spotless, her garden, professional.

Elaine is active in the community and goes to every school meeting. She finds time for friends and takes a photography course. She plays basketball and bridge. She and her husband throw a party every few weeks, just to get everyone together and she often bakes pies for these occasions.

Elaine works full time, from 9:00 - 4:00, every day.

Some people are jealous. They cannot understand how she does it all. Where does she get the energy, or the skills, or the time? But I know. Elaine has a fire inside. She lost her mother when she was 10.


Her mission? To never have anyone's pity. Best to keep achieving, she thinks. That way, no one will ever be able to say, "Shame she's a terrible cook...but she didn't have a mother -- let's cut her some slack. Where should she have learned from?" To Elaine, that would be worse than anything. Anything at all.

Elaine tells me that she remembers very little about her mother's breast cancer and subsequent death at the shockingly young age of 31. She did not realize that she was saying good-bye when she last saw her mother, but she cannot say what she would have changed had she known. She was too young to absorb what was happening, too young to have forged a coherent emotional memory to carry into adulthood.

But even little girls have sophisticated coping strategies and very different styles. What this little girl did was become self-sufficient. She made her own decisions, worried about herself. She acted responsibly, so nobody questioned her. She had her freedom and took pride in the fact that she was independent. As a teenager, she relished this liberty.

She tried to ignore the fact that her father was so grief-stricken that he was distant and under-nurturing; tried to quell her own fears about navigating the milestones of adolescence without a compass. After all, she could not rely on anyone. She had relied on her mother and look where it got her.

She was pragmatic. She was rational. She didn't like favors. Didn't like pity or that the kids were too nice to her. She couldn't stand incompetence. The worst were the whiners, the complainers, the ones who could do nothing on their own. They gave her the actual creeps.


Most of all, young Elaine hated being different. She was the only one in her class, more or less, without two parents at home. She hated this and became involved in nearly every extracurricular activity and every sport. She would be uber-popular, super-achieving, ultra-cool and maybe they would forget. Maybe she would forget.

Today, I recognize a lot of this girl in my friend. Elaine is still terrified of asking anyone to help her, ever. And she still hates under-achievers.

But now that she has had some distance, she is able to tell the truth: She is sometimes angry at her mother. She was angry when her mother wasn't there for her wedding. Angry when she missed the birth of her first child. Angry when she has questions: Would you have been a supportive mother? Would you have liked my kids? What would you think of me, the woman?

Elaine says that she does not think about her mother every day anymore. But her drive to be a good mother, and to keep herself healthy for her kids, is always hovering close. She rides herself hard about always being there for her children and she does not answer the phone between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. That's their time.

Last month Elaine got tested for the BRCA1 gene that can predict whether she has inherited her mother's tendency to breast cancer. If she is found positive, she will undergo a radical mastectomy. She wants to see her kids grow up and she doesn't care if it means losing her breasts.

In the meantime, she is not nervous about the results. She does not worry; it's not practical.

She just keeps busy.

Read Therapist's Comments on Motherless: Grief, Guilt and Anger

Last modified on Sunday, 03 July 2011 09:47
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Sara Eisen

Sara Eisen

Sara is a journalist and editor.

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