“How is your mom?”
My mother looked at me, waiting for my response. Born in a small town in the middle of Kansas, she genuinely wanted to know the answers to the questions she asked, and more importantly, she listened.
I stared back—voiceless. I was holding my infant daughter in my arms, bouncing her up and down in that rhythmic, automatic movement that defines the early years of motherhood. Up. Down. Up. Down. I sped up, frantic almost.
“She’s good,” I said. The words came out more as an exhale. I cleared my throat. “My mom is good,” I confirmed.
But she was not good. I had been trying to come to terms with my mom’s eventual death (which would happen only weeks after that day), but as her terminal cancer spread to her brain, I realized that what I had not planned for was the loss of myself.
I propped my daughter on my hip and plunged my free hand into my bag. As I dug around aimlessly, opening my eyes wide in a desperate attempt to dry out their sudden moisture, I wondered . . .
How was I supposed to be a mother when my own mother did not know who I was?
From that day on and for years after my mother’s death, my self-identity dove headfirst into a torrent of self-pity. For my friends, advice was a phone call away. Reassurance was given in seconds. Yes, you will sleep again. No, you are not doing it wrong. Yes, you are a wonderful mom. I had so many questions I needed to ask my mom. But for me, there was silence.
It has now been eight years since my mother’s death, and I am a mom of two happy elementary school-aged kids. One recent early spring day, my husband and I took the kids to a beach. It was spotted with a few other sweatshirt-clad families and the occasional ransacked sand castle, but the summer crowds had yet to arrive.
My kids had brought their kite, which lay limp on the sand—its airplane shape hardly distinguishable until my daughter grabbed it and let the ocean breeze lift it into the air. Its wings ballooned out, the edges sharp against the blue sky. We tied the kite to our chair and let it flutter proudly above us. It hung in the air, held by the gentle wind that we could feel but not see—an invisible force of support. My kids busied themselves in the sand, and my husband opened a book. I watched the kite.
I remembered as a brazen young adult, feeling like that kite. And then, the day my mom did not know who I was, the day the invisible force of her maternal love suddenly went still, I tumbled out of the sky.
In those early years, I had tried so hard to lift my amorphous shell of a self back up into the air, but without her, I had struggled to define my own shape again.
A giggle from my son made me turn my head back to my children. Their enthusiastic digging was causing fountains of sand to shoot up and land in their hair. Watching them, I realized that my list had started to change. I used to have a list of things I wanted to ask my mom, but that was transitioning into a list of things I wanted to tell her—all the things her grandkids did, all the things they loved, all the funny things they said.
I wanted to tell her what I know now. That I get it. I get all of it. I get what she sacrificed for me. How much she loved me. How much she worried. How from the minute I was born, every major choice, directly or indirectly, became a choice for two.
I wanted to tell her that I realized the maternal force I needed underneath me, that lifted me up and gave shape and definition to my identity, did not have to come from her anymore—because it was coming from me.
That day on the beach, as my kids yelled out with glee and their little limbs flew in and out of the warm sand, I realized that at some point over the years, I had slowly unfurled. I was finally back up in the air.
And from that height, I was able to see that I am strong in my motherhood because motherhood—both my mom’s example of it and my lived reality of it—made me strong. Strong enough, even, to be a mother without a mother.