Mothers

Raising a Daughter When Your Mom Is Dead

father and little daughter having fun flying kite at sunset

Last year, when I stood to recite the Kaddish, the prayer for mourners, I was still nursing my baby girl. The words were ashy and bitter in my mouth while my breasts were busy making nourishment, giving life. It had been exactly twenty years since my mother died. It wasn’t the first anniversary of her death since I’d had children, but it was the first one since I’d become a mother to a daughter. Somehow, it felt different.

I was a junior in college, and we were pulling into the garage on the way home from radiation. I don’t remember the context of the conversation, but I know that, as I put the car into park, my mother looked over me and said, “I’ve always seen you as me with second chances.”

It explains a lot: why she was already talking about the value of graduate school when I was only in junior high, why she always told me I should put off marriage until I was at least thirty, why she was so critical of my weight, which happened to be distributed like her own.

I was kind of relieved, actually, when I found out that my first, and then second, children were boys. “It’ll be easier,” I remember telling a friend after one of the ultrasounds, “since he has different body parts, to remember that this child isn’t some weird incarnation of me, or my mom, and that he’s allowed to have his own personality and interests.” And, indeed, Yonatan has turned out to be curious and dreamy (not me), while Shir is gregarious and expressive (also not me).

Nomi’s only 20 months now. Today, she’s sweet, easygoing, and smiley. But as she grows and learns to assert herself, will I be able to really see her, or will she become the site onto which I unconsciously project all of my losses and fears?

Reciting Kaddish on the 20th anniversary of my mother’s death, and then the 21st, I missed her more than I have in ages. These days I can feel her presence, palpably, hovering just out of reach. I’ve fantasized about what it’d be like to have her in my life many times over the years—how she would play with her grandchildren, what advice she would give me when I was stuck, how it might be to experience her love as something other than a distant, fading memory.

We lived in closer proximity to my husband’s family during Nomi’s first year, and one of the highlights was collaborating on child-rearing with my mother-in-law—brainstorming with her about how to handle Shir’s tantrums or what other foods picky-eating Yonatan might actually enjoy. It was so nice to have the perspective of someone besides my husband about how best to care for these children—someone who loves them as desperately as we do.

It’s almost strange to me that a lot of people get to have this all the time, that so many of my peers have never known what it is to raise the next generation without the help of the previous generation. Is this what it would be like if my mother were still in my life? Or would our relationship be more characterized by fraught conversations in which I tersely remind her not to say anything about whether or not I’m losing the baby weight, moments in which I exhale with relief when she finally gets in the car to go back home?

Would it be harder for my mother, if she were still living, to really see Nomi as her own independent self if it turns out that she’s physically and maybe emotionally built like the generations of women before her?

Will it be harder for me to see her for who she is? Will my paranoia and vigilance about allowing her to live her own life—with whatever passions, career path and relationship choices come with that—be enough to keep me from being hurt and angry when she makes decisions that don’t reflect my own secret agenda for her? Can I keep myself from developing an agenda for her?

My mother was furious when I dyed my hair purple in high school. “It doesn’t have anything to do with you! It’s not about you at all!” I remember yelling. In retrospect, I think that this, actually, was the problem.

In the years following my mother’s death, in my early twenties, I carried a copy of the poem “A Raisin in the Sun” around in my wallet. However much I’ve tried not to feel obligated to move through the world as my mother’s vicarious proxy, on some level, I always have. I know the damage of a dream deferred. Hers has exploded on me.

I’ve tried to live her second chances—by making sure I take my own. And if I think there’s anything that gives me hope about Nomi, it’s this—that, in the end, I’ve tried to attend to my own dreams, my own regrets. I couldn’t save my mother, but in trying to attend to my own wellbeing first, perhaps I might be able to save my daughter.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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