My mother died the day before my first law school final. Hope Edelman says, in this book, that partway through college she had a weird urge to walk up to strangers and tell them, “My mother died when I was seventeen,” because she recognized that this fact about herself, this fact that alienated her from the people around her, had become totally definitive about who she was. A girl can’t tell people that her mother died because it brings only fear and pity, it doesn’t solve anything to talk about it. But, at the same time, no one knows you without knowing that you don’t, that you didn’t, have a mother. For the past few months I have had this weird compulsion, too, to walk up to people and just say, “My mother died the day before my first law school final.”
But, what do I mean by that? It sounds like I want to be pathetic or impressive, and I don’t mean either of those things. It sounds like I conquered life that day, or like I lost all hope of being a woman. It is ambivalent and loaded. I know that even talking about reading and reviewing a book that is “self-help,” even if it is about grieving, is loaded, too. It has a pastel cover and a sentimental name, but I kind of appreciate that about the book. It looks like only the fierce of heart, those who can handle reading sentiment without shame, should attempt this book, and I think that’s good. I think I benefited from waiting to read it until I felt like I could really listen to a sentimentally titled book without sneering.
At the same time, I don’t think emotions mature themselves, so I always remind myself that I’m probably not going to get very far sitting back and waiting for mine to suddenly do so. It would be like waiting for myself to spontaneously become a stellar lawyer without ever actually going to law school or reading any books about law. Or, it would be like waiting for myself to spontaneously become a marathon runner. Not all self-help books have anything worthwhile about emotional growth to say, but neither do all legal scholars have anything worthwhile to say about the law or all personal trainers about marathons. I don’t think the gaining-skills-by-doing-nothing strategy works with almost anything, so I’m pretty enthusiastic about smart books about emotions and spirituality. I’m pretty enthusiastic about counseling, too – it’s like getting a massage for the soul.
I’m being really long winded about saying that, while I don’t think every time is the right time to read this book, I do think probably everyone would benefit from reading this book at some point. I wish I had been prepared to read it sooner. The book is directed to women, obviously, but Edelman makes the point that we, women or men, mourn rejection (in whatever form, whether death or emotional or physical abandonment) from our same-sex parent differently than we mourn rejection from our opposite-sex parent, and the book is mostly about that. Even if you have not experienced rejection from a same-sex parent, I think it would still give you perspective on what you gain from that parent that you might not even be aware of. It also might give you perspective on why (at least some of us) women who have lost our mothers act the way we do when we have not known how to mourn.
The book is arguably as sentimental as its title, even just because it is about death and emotions, but it is so smart. Edelman surveys over a hundred women who lost their mothers at various ages, and she tells their stories in an organized, clear layout. She also talks about many famous women, including Virginia Woolf, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Madonna, and how they have reacted to the deaths of their mothers. In addition to hearing and recounting all of these stories, Edelman obviously did some pretty serious research into other studies about women and grief, and about family relationships in general.
For me, much of this book was practically a miracle. If you don’t mind my spoiling what the biggest revelation of the book was for me, I will tell you about it right now. I will not say it as clearly as Edelman, though, so you should still get her take on it, and it’s probably only a small part of the book, even though it was life changing to me. It is that when a mother rejects a daughter, whether she does it intentionally or unintentionally, such as through illness and death, the daughter starts to look for the mother relationship in all of her relationships. One woman in the book described it as a “cocoon,” another described it as “that family feeling,” which is something I have said, at least in my head, a lot
. The daughter starts to think that any successful relationship ultimately has that particular form of intimacy – that the intimacy from a mother is successful intimacy.
I literally thought this. I had no idea that, ultimately, all intimacy, all sense of family, isn’t
necessarily that feeling of a little daughter with her mother. I had always thought that because my relationships, whether friendships or romances, are not like that, it was like “people, iz doin it rong,” and that once I figured out how to do it right, my relationships would feel like that. I have been jealous of my friends, men or women, who have families (read: friends who have mothers) and their ability to do relationships right, shown just by the fact that they have a mother. And this intensity has created a completely unfair expectation for all of my relationships because then every time I experience rejection, it is the loss of my mom, the loss of my family, all over again. It means that friends living their own lives, not focused on me one hundred percent of the time, translated to rejection, and not just rejection, but also the death of my relationship with my mother all over again. It was basically a miracle to hear that I could treat the loss of that nurturing, cocoon relationship, that mother-child relationship, as a total loss, and not let that loss pile on to every other lost relationship I ever have. It sounds weird, but it is a relief to know it is not failure that no friend ever turns out to be my mom
*facepalm* I totally love this book.
So, that concludes the review portion of your time, and the rest of this shall be a story with no real reviewing purposes in mind. It is more my experience of being a motherless daughter than a critique of the book. Even though my personal story, like anyone's personal story, is not the same as most other people's, it was really incredible to hear how similar my reaction to losing my mother is to the reactions of other women who lost theirs.
My mom died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, but as far as I am concerned, I lost my mom about twenty years before she actually died. I was six when my family first started listening to meditation tapes from the Foundation of Human Understanding
, and when I was eight, we moved to Selma, Oregon, to join what we would later refer to as “The Cult.” Really, most of the diets or clubs or churches my parents joined ended up taking on a cultish quality once my parents got mixed up with them. First, that diet/club/church was the only thing that could save us from certain doom; later, it was evil. The Foundation is basically a Judeo-Christian group that teaches men how to stand up to the domineering women around them. It teaches them how to take the world back from the invidious control of women, and it teaches women how to overcome their natural tendencies toward evil (ya know, Eve, and all that).
This is my recollection of The Cult. If you look on the website, it mostly looks like stuff you’d get out of The Secret, but if you read through the call show questions, there is some stuff about bullying women that is more what I remember. I can’t find it now, but there was this cartoon in their magazine once, which to me symbolized the teachings. The first panel was a tiny woman and a big, strong man. As the panels (maybe six or eight panels) went along, the woman got bigger and stronger, and the man got smaller, until, at the end it was a huge, ugly woman sitting next to a coffin. Anyway, my mom and dad realized that my mom was the source of all evil in our family, and that if my brother and I were to grow up right, we would have to overcome the feminine influences in our lives.
My mom wasn’t allowed to touch us any more around the time that I turned seven. My brother had been nursing, and my mom cut him off from nursing without any weaning process. If I ran to my parents’ room because I had a nightmare, my mom had to put a pillow between herself and me so that she wouldn’t transmit her evil. I was a daddy’s little girl, so I understood that as long as I stayed that way, didn’t touch my mom, married young (it was understood that this would probably be to the cult leader’s grandson), and devoted my life to my children, I would avoid the pit of feminine evil to which I was otherwise susceptible. Years later, when a friend of mine went home early from a sleepover weekend because, she said, my parents never hugged us, my parents realized that still none of us touched each other ever, but it is difficult to change habits.
I am extra-sensitive to anti-feminist propaganda, I know, because of this upbringing. My mom continued to believe for the rest of her life that it was her job to repress any part of her personality that might conflict with my dad, the head of our household. But, I continued to look to my mom for the relationship I had with her when I was very young. I always hoped she would wake up and come back to me, until I realized a few years before she died, during her eight-year-long dying process, that she never would. I set some boundaries about what I could contribute to our relationship, and because my mom couldn’t contribute anything, we lost the façade that our relationship had been. At that time, a friend reprimanded me, saying that she cherished that special mother-child bond with her own kids, and I would regret not maintaining that before my mom died. I thought a lot about that later, and my inability to maintain that connection with my mom haunted me, even though I can’t say I regretted setting the boundaries I did.
From the time I was little and my mom emotionally vacated the family, I got so used to looking for that relationship from her that I also started looking to everyone for it. I thought it was
intimacy. Motherless Daughters
talks about how people often call motherless women “adoptable,” and this has been true for me. Many families have adopted me, and I love all of them, but I have always thought that I haven’t been able to re-create that specific form of intimacy because of my own emptiness and awkwardness. I knew I loved these people, but I thought it was not the right kind of connection. And, then, when they had to do normal things for their normal lives, which I completely want them to do, it was a betrayal to me that was its own, plus the loss of my mom. When friends would move away, or start a new relationship and get busy, it was a betrayal with emotional intensity far beyond what I actually expected from the relationship. This was true for both friends and romances, both women and men in my life.
So, I’m not totally sure how this mourning thing works, but Edelman says that for her it is like a companion – not in a morbid sense, but in the sense that she continues to be without her mother. I think it’s reassuring to know that when I feel disproportionately intense about some kind of failure or rejection, it could be part of mourning: I could need to step back and re-adjust myself to the losses I’ve had so they don’t get confused with the relationships I am having. I could need to recognize that not every action a dear friend takes for him or herself is a sign that I am a burden to that person and they secretly wish they could reject me. I’m not sure why, but recognizing this about my relationship with my mom makes it easier to accept that people I really care about could care about me, too, even if they are not devastated when I am gone, and that when life pulls us apart, they could feel the loss of me as I feel the loss of them. Each new love does not have to be the sum of all previous loves and rejections. No new love is what I lost from my mother.