Mixed pain and joy on a motherless Mother's Day

sad mum
sad mum 

As I prepared to leave hospital after my first child was born, a midwife gave me what she thought was some very practical advice to help me through the weeks of new motherhood that lay ahead of me.

"Don’t worry about the housework or washing, you just concentrate on your baby. Let your mum help out with the chores so you can get the rest you need," she said as I bundled my new son into his car seat for the very first time.

I just smiled and nodded, doing my best not to burst into tears.

"When a mother dies, a daughter's mourning never completely ends" ... <i>Motherless Daughters</i>, Hope Edelman
"When a mother dies, a daughter's mourning never completely ends" ... Motherless Daughters, Hope Edelman 

What I could have said was: "Sorry, but my mother won’t be visiting to help me out as I adjust to parenthood. She won’t be there to call on in the middle of the night if I can’t figure out why my baby is crying. She won’t be able to tell me I’m doing a good job when I feel like I am getting the whole motherhood thing wrong and, most sadly, she will never cradle my son in her arms and gaze into his eyes with the amazement and love that only a grandparent can."

But it wasn’t my lovely midwife’s fault that my that mother’s death from cancer, when she was aged just 49, had robbed me of her guidance as I entered this next stage of my life. So I stayed silent - just as I had stayed silent every Mother’s Day in the years following my mum’s death when I was 20 years old.

Each year, as friends and colleagues planned lunches and picnics to celebrate Mother's Day with their own mums, I did my best to pretend that the second Sunday in May was no different to any other.

But now, two decades later and with children of my own, it's not as simple to ignore the existence of Mother’s Day, and nor would I want to. I love the special attention from my little boys and my husband on the day put aside to celebrate mums. The lovingly created cards, the Vegemite toast in bed and, most importantly, the blissful feeling of little arms thrown around my neck in the biggest of bear hugs.  

But as friends take to Facebook to express their appreciation and love for their own mothers, I am still acutely aware of the void that was left in my life when my mum passed away.

They say that time will ease the pain of grief. And for most losses, that might well be true.


But there’s something about the unique role a mother plays in the lives of her children which means that grief for her returns in waves each time an important milestone is reached, no matter how many years have passed since her final goodbye.

The joy of my wedding provided a reminder there would be no mother-of-the-bride at the ceremony, and the excitement of having children goes hand in hand with the disappointment that my mother will never get to meet my babies.

In her best-selling book Motherless Daughters, Canadian author Hope Edelman says this lifelong fallout is common among all women who lose their mothers at a young age.

"When a mother dies, a daughter's mourning never completely ends. Motherless women have always intuitively known this," she wrote.

Edelman wrote the book in 1994 because she was unable to find anything on the topic of early mother loss as she grieved for her mother who died from breast cancer when Edelman was just 17. The popularity of the book has continued to grow and Edelman recently released a third updated edition

The author, 49, is now happily married with two daughters, but she too says Mother’s Day is something of a double-edged sword for her.

"My daughters want to make Mother's Day about me, but my impulse is to make it about my mother," Edelman told US Associated Press recently.

To mark Mother’s Day this year Edelman is releasing a documentary titled The (Dead Mothers) Club, which explores how losing a mother in childhood or adolescence shapes a woman’s life.

It includes appearances by American actresses Rosie O’Donnell, Jane Fonda and Molly Shannon, who all speak about losing their mothers before they reached adulthood themselves.

In the documentary, O’Donnell, who was only 10 when her mother died, explains how she dreaded Mother’s Day after the loss of her mum.

"Mother's Day was horrible," O’Donnell says of memories of being the only child at school who had nobody to make a card for on that special day of the year. "Everyone in the class knows there's this huge elephant in the room that no one's discussing, and you just feel so much like the weirdo."

Edelman now tries to do something with her daughters that will remind her of her own mum each Mother’s Day.

"It can be something very, very simple. Trying to push the feelings of loss aside or not acknowledging a mother's importance on that day only adds to our distress," Edelman told AP.

So with that in mind, I intend to spend this Sunday remembering my mother’s devotion to her family. Because while my sons will never be fortunate enough to meet their grandmother, I can at least share with them the unconditional love she showered on me.

Watch the trailer for Edelman's documentary The (Dead Mothers) Club below.