I still remember how the idea got into my head that becoming a mom would bring me closer to my own. I was 14. It had only been about two years since she died.
I was babysitting for some family friends. The kids were in bed, and I was enjoying the spoils of the house, eating a Popsicle from their freezer and watching VH1. A special was on about Madonna. They were interviewing Rosie O’Donnell, who explained that Madonna had lost her mother at a young age and so had she, and they had become friends from that strange bond. I instantly decided I liked them both — that’s how that strange bond works, of course. Then, O’Donnell said she thought that Madonna’s mother dying was why Madonna — who had recently given birth to her daughter Lourdes — had so badly wanted a child. So she could become the thing she lost. Click.
This concept burrowed into my grieving head. I carried it with me for years. It made so much sense. Have a baby, and you restart the motherhood cycle. Have a baby, and you get to feel what your mother felt while raising you, bringing a part of her back. Have a baby, and you have someone new to share your mother’s story with and carry her legacy forward.
My mom’s death was a tender spot for me throughout my adolescence. I struggled to find language to talk about my loss — and thus keep my mom’s memory alive — as did the rest of my immediate family. I wanted to be better at it, but I couldn’t figure out how. Even if I’d have to wait, at least having a baby of my own really seemed like it might work.
When I got pregnant some 16 years later, it looked like it was starting to. My dad and I set up a recurring call on Sundays during which he would share stories about my mom’s pregnancy with me, and we’d compare notes on morning sickness, symptoms and cravings. It felt so good. I was learning new things about her. I couldn’t wait to learn more through my parenthood journey.
But when my daughter was born, the new information was quickly outpaced by many more questions. “Did your mom sing to you when you were a baby?” my stepmom asked one afternoon while watching me sing to my newborn.
“I don’t know,” I told her. I didn’t. I had never had to reckon with how much I didn’t know like this before. I didn’t know if my mom sang to me or if we had a special bedtime ritual or how she weaned me. I’ve often wondered how my mom would react to things that happened after she died: 9/11. Kate Spade’s death. Hamilton. Now I was wondering about how she reacted to things when she was alive too. It made my head spin. I was thinking about her more, which I liked, but I was thinking about how much I didn’t know, which made me feel so lonely. In many ways, she seemed further away than ever. The plan wasn’t working anymore.
Unfortunately, I found it difficult to ask my dad for answers because of my stepmom (whom I love). I know she wants to carve out her own place in my daughter’s life, and I can imagine hearing about my mom is understandably hard for her. She’ll be the only female maternal grandparent my daughter ever knows, but she’s also not her grandmother. It’s a delicate balance. So sometimes, I don’t ask the questions I want to ask. And that can make her feel further away too.
But becoming a mom has done one thing I’m grateful for — something I know it does for plenty of women with living mothers too: make me profoundly appreciate everything my mom did for me. And not just carrying me and giving birth to me and feeding me and changing my diapers and generally, you know, being a parent. I’m in awe on a completely new level of all she managed to do as a mom that was living with cancer — from how she physically had the energy to take care of two kids to how she emotionally protected us with her strength and resilience. It’s incredible. I’m so thankful for the parent she was able to be. When I have those thoughts, I try and soak up every bit of it to take into my own parenting.
I’ll always wish I knew her better. I only got 12 years with her. My daughter won’t get any. But as my parenthood recontextualizes our relationship — something I know it will do, continuously and constantly — I’ll try to be grateful for those changes, both good and bad. I’m sure that in the future, there will be more moments when my loss feels deeper, when her memory feels more faded, when I’m stuck under grief that she didn’t meet her grandchild, when I’ll have more questions than can possibly be answered. But those hard moments are still times I get to think of her and, eventually, share with my daughter. Because of those moments, she’ll get to know her grandmother, even when I have to tell her that I don’t know if her grandmother knew that song or ever made some dessert for me. That’s when I’ll tell her what I do know. She loved Rent. Her favorite dessert was apple pie. We’ll get to know those memories together — mother to daughter to daughter in our own new cycle.
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