You know that moment when you meet your baby for the first time and your heart fills with a love that you’ve never felt before? It’s indescribably epic. With both my children, the pure joy of their existence was the most sublime feeling I’ve known. Both times, that beautiful feeling was tempered by the bittersweet revelation that my late mother, who passed away from breast cancer, had the same feeling about me. In the midst of adjusting to being a new parent, I was utterly paralyzed by my grief. To my great disservice, I embraced that pain and wore it as an invisible armor for many years.
“With both my children, the pure joy of their existence was the most sublime feeling I’ve known. Both times, that beautiful feeling was tempered by the bittersweet revelation that my late mother had the same feeling about me.“
My mom, Lisa, was an excellent mom. In my foggy, early memories, she was kind, available, beautiful, and steady. In my adolescence, we had typical, dramatic screaming matches—she was steadfast in her beliefs on propriety and held me to very high standards. Once I acquiesced to her rules about no visible bra straps and whatnot, we became easy friends.
Our friendship blossomed as I aged, and I had the pleasure of knowing her as Lisa-The-Person and not just My Mom. As her health failed, our friendship was the foundation for the premature shift in our relationship from daughter and mother to caregiver (a role I shared with my dad, along with many other wonderful family members and friends) and patient.
As her death from metastatic breast cancer became inevitable, we began to have chats about her hopes for my future. She expressed regret specifically around knowing she’d miss seeing me become a mother, but I didn’t know how much it would hurt to navigate the ocean of motherhood without her until it actually happened.
Navigating New Motherhood Without My Mom
With every milestone of my pregnancies, births, and parenthood, I yearned for her. I’d spend equal amounts of time trying to conjure a mental picture of her reaction to a particular moment, and mourning that she was missing it. This practice of haunting myself and steeping in my grief consumed me.
“I didn’t know how much it would hurt to navigate the ocean of motherhood without her until it actually happened. With every milestone of my pregnancies, births, and parenthood, I yearned for her.“
I never talked about her. I didn’t share stories about her with my kids or even mention that she’d been a person. It simply hurt too much. For years, I was unable to truly celebrate anything—holidays, birthdays, graduations, weddings; anything that she would have swooped into joyfully and effortlessly turned into a party. I went through the motions of planning, hosting, cooking, and decorating for such occasions but without deriving any joy from what felt like just a cyclical burden of adult responsibility. I could not figure out a way to genuinely be happy without her, which I was afraid to say aloud.
The Unraveling That Came With Grief
Starting shortly after my mom’s death, I volunteered myself for the needless and self-serving task of worrying about my grandmother (my mother’s mother who had now outlived two of her four children) and my dad (who is now happily remarried but had started to succumb to the open arms and comforting numbness of alcohol and a barcalounger). I used the weight of these responsibilities, along with being a parent of two small children, to eclipse my own need for help. If I acknowledged that I was not OK, it seemed like everything around me would fall apart. Eventually, things did fall apart.
“I could not figure out a way to genuinely be happy without her, which I was afraid to say aloud.”
I couldn’t sustain the role of self-appointed worrier, wife, and mother. My relationship with my dad became strained, my marriage failed, and my heart was doubly-broken. It was during this time that one of my frequent breast cancer screenings revealed a lump.
Making a Life-Altering Choice
Thankfully, a biopsy confirmed it was benign, but it was the catalyst for my making a life-altering choice. In April 2013, I had a preventative bilateral mastectomy.
It took me months to plan for this life pause. I meticulously mapped out the logistics of childcare, missing work, doctor appointments, and housekeeping. The time leading up to surgery was full. In hindsight, those hectic months are poetic punctuation for the years of filling up every second of my time to avoid dealing with my grief. With surgery, my frantic pace came to a grinding halt. I was forced to sit still with myself. Guess what? I didn’t like who I’d become. I desperately wanted to let go of my grief and feel something new.
The process of undergoing surgery forced me to ask for help, which became the bedrock for my emotional shift. I discovered my capacity for being patient with myself, my body, and the other people around me. And it was through those people that I relearned to celebrate my life. In the many generous friends and family who helped me through this difficult time, I could see Lisa. Everyone talked about my mom. They told my kids stories about her, and they made my mom a visible part of my life again. I couldn’t help but be bolstered by the love and positivity surrounding me. I started to accept that her death didn’t mean she was entirely gone. My mom was alive in me. In all of us. Believing that made trying to feel better not an impossible task.
Choosing to Find Happiness
The emotional shift I felt in 2013 was just the first ripple that is continuously echoing in my pond. My household is a happier one than it otherwise would have been. I’ve blossomed into a more thoughtful and understanding parent. And my grief, while ever-present, is less acute.
Even so, not a day goes by when I don’t wonder how things might be different if my mom were here. I know she’d hate that I’m wearing a blue bra under the white blouse in this photo below. She’d love my new throw pillow and that I got it on sale. She’d cherish my children and be here for baseball games and ballet recitals. She’d catch (and point out) every grammatical error in my social media posts. She would be my business partner.
This constant wondering is like the ledge of a high building that I regularly stumble off. Thankfully, I’ve honed the ability to pick my splattered spirit up off the pavement and keep going, even knowing that I’ll surely fall again. Each day is a practice, a meditation, a choice.
I want to be happy, and so I work to find it. Much like I can find signs of Lisa’s existence everywhere, I can find reasons to be happy. The very best reason, without question, is my kids. I want them to have an excellent example of being able to find what they need inside of themselves. No matter what hardship they come to face, I want them to know (as I do now) that any calm, peace, happiness, strength, and love is always available if they turn inward. And in this way, my mom’s memory acts as a nightlight in the darkest part of my spirit.
This article was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.