Guest Post: Motherless Mothering

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

I met Sandie Angulo Chen at BlogHer ’10 this summer. We bonded over The Wire while getting magical pedicures in a suite high above the city.

As we talked, I noticed that there was something very calming about Sandie. Her voice was smooth and welcoming.

We moved from TV shows to talking about weightier things like moving to the suburbs, finding work/life balance and, of course, motherhood. That’s when she told me that she lost her mother two years ago. The remarkable thing is, even through this poignant topic, the warmth in Sandie’s voice never faded.

So I asked Sandie to write a guest post about it—moving through motherhood without your own mother present to help guide you.


Motherless mothering. It sounds like an oxymoron.

It’s not about single fathers who find themselves in the unenviable position of having to “mother” their children. Not in my case.

For me, it’s the literal sense: I’m a mother without a mother. My mother died of metastatic cancer almost exactly two years ago, two weeks after I turned 32, and 10 days after she turned 67 (she would have been 69 this month). My children were six-and-a-half, three, and six months old.

Time froze on that day, splitting my life in two, like a branch: life before Mami died and life afterward.

My mother and me, 10 months before she died. This was our last New Year's together.

Since my mother’s death, I’ve realized that mothering without your own mother just a phone call a way is incredibly lonely. Nobody–not even your best friends and siblings–wants to hear about all of your children’s little accomplishments … that star at tae kwan do, the all-O report card, the pre-school dance recital.

Sure, I can tell a few of my friends and family some of these things, but only Mami would have truly cared, been excited about all of it.

I wasn’t completely aware of how much I depended on Mami until she died. My oldest had received a yellow brick (a special reward system for good citizenship) from his kindergarten teacher, so I immediately pulled her number up on my old BlackBerry and hit send before I realized. I dropped the phone, reminding myself that she would not ever answer the phone.  My heart sank.

The problem with grieving the loss of a parent when you have young kids is that grandmothers are everywhere.  Try going to the mall, to the playground, a fair, theme park, birthday party or anywhere without bumping into grandmothers, Abuelas, Bubbes, Nanas, Grandmas and the like.

The world becomes a painful series of reminders of what you don’t have. I felt resentful every time I went to a child’s birthday party and saw well-meaning grandmothers doting over their birthday boy or girl. I felt bitter every time I saw my mother-in-law delight in my children. It’s not fair, I thought. If I can’t have a mother (or a father, I might add, since he died when I was two), why must I be tortured this way?

I wanted desperately to hit an “ignore” button and magically erase the sight of grown-up women and their mothers or grandmothers and their grandchildren.

Eventually I stopped wanting to sob every single day. I stopped wanting to tear my hair out when my mother-in-law played with my children. I stopped hating the sight of grandmothers. But I’ve never stopped missing my mother. And I’ve never stopped talking to her. I don’t go for the phone anymore, but I tell her just the same. I smile a secret smile and talk to her in my head.

She talks back, too, urging me to give my kids a break she never would’ve given me, to wear earrings and lipstick more often, to make sure my husband feels like a husband and not just a father. I “hear” her, I listen, and I thank God and the universe that she was my mother.

It’s still ridiculously difficult and lonely to be without her physical presence, but I’m lucky. I had the kind of mother whose influence, whose love, I still feel daily.

Sandie Angulo Chen is NYC  transplant living in the DC ‘burbs with her husband and three kids. She writes about entertainment, motherhood, and grief on her blog Urban Mama.

  • 1
    nblades says:

    This is such a beautiful post. You can feel Sandie’s warmth and the love she had for her mother radiating from the page. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mack says:

      Yes, Sandie is lovely. Her post is heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time.
      Thanks for reading and commenting, Nai.

  • 2
    carey says:

    Thanks for this post. For me, it’s how to parent without my own father. I had this whole life planned for my daughter and her grandfather – in my head – that never played out when he died of a fatal stroke at the age of 58 (I was 31). I miss that she’ll not have him as her grandpa and how great he would’ve been with her.
    I miss his spontaneity, love for photography and thrift store presents at Christmas. His generosity and full spirit. His love of adventure.

    • 2.1

      Sorry to hear about your father, Carey. It sounds like he was quite remarkable. Missing him is hard. But maybe doing some of the things that he loved–photography, volunteering– with your daughter can help soften the edges of that and keep your memories close.