Book review: Motherless Mothers, Hope Edelman

I think I’ve been putting off reading this book, and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s just that the idea of reading an entire book about motherless mothers sounds so heavy—maybe even masochistic?

But I found a lot of comfort in this compassionate and clear-eyed book, which balances sociological research with the stories of individuals, framed by the story of the author herself. Edelman offers us a broad but detailed picture of what it means to be a motherless mother, from the moment we think about having children to bringing up teenagers.

There’s over 400 pages of it and far more details and nuance than I can capture here, but here are the 5 most valuable things I learned reading this book. My little boy is only one, so they relate mostly to the early days of having your first child. 

1.      You will keep returning to mourning from a new perspective: Rather than looking at grief as a one-time linear process, Edelman tells us it’s normal to have upsurges of emotions throughout our life, particularly when something big happens and our perspective shifts. You mourned your mum as a teenager, say, but now you have to make sense of your loss as a grown woman who is about to become a mother, and her absence means something different. It’s called maturational grief. These moments of being plunged backinto grief might feel like the very opposite of ‘moving on’, but they ‘process pieces of unfinished business for you’, so it’s healthy in its way.

2.      Thinking about becoming a mother has an extra layer of meaning for you: Broadly speaking, there are two camps which most motherless women fall into here. One camp are longing to have children, particularly girl children or a child who might carry a resemblance to theirlost mother: they are hoping to recreate that special relationship that they have lost. The other may feel conflicted or anxious about becoming a mother, particularly if their mum died when they were very young. They worry about whether they have enough experience of being mothered to do it properly, or just wish they had their mums to give them that vote of confidence they feel they need to go ahead. The good news here is that for most women, having a baby does not bear out their worst fears, and by becoming an amazing mum they are able to lay some ghosts to rest. 

3.      You may experience more anxiety during pregnancy and giving birth: You don’t need to examine the data to know we all feel a bit nuts when we’re pregnant, or rather that ‘normal psychological defences loosen, and unsettled or incompletely settled conflicts from the past bubble upto the conscious level’. Getting comfortable with our maternal identity means reconnecting with memories of being mothered, and whether you remember that as perfect or imperfect, that can be a painful place to go in your mind.

Also Pregnancy and birth are a dangerous time for a woman’s body and we all carry the knowledge that mums can and do die, so we may be more fearful giving birth than other women. As ever, there’s an opportunity as well as a challenge here: you may be able to use this time to better understand some of your deepest fears and anxieties and get the support you need to tackle it (see no. 4). Edelman tells some amazing stories of women who needed to open up before their, opened up? In so many ways, confiding your fears in someone is so important for getting into the right head space to bring life into the world.

4.      You need more help than women who still have their mothers… but you have difficulty asking for it: Women rely heavily on their mothers for psychological and practical support and, without a mother of our own, we need to get comfortable with asking for help from other people. But most of us find that difficult. Again this is particularly acute if you lost your mum when you were younger—you’ve got pretty used to being self-reliant and admitting that you have needs might feel like undoing the mechanism that’s been keeping you safe all these years. You may have trouble accepting help from a mother-in-law or anyone who you feel is trying to muscle in on your mum’s territory. You may simply feel angry that you have to ask for help at all, when your mum would have given it freely and with an intuitive knowledge of what you needed, or so we imagine. I like Edelman’s advice to build up an ‘affirming matrix’ of people who help you: seek out a doula with a bit of maternal energy, risk being a bit needy with that new NCT friend… learn to seek out what you need without feeling ashamed.

5.      Becoming a mum can be a profound source of healing: There are two reasons for this, both of them—I think—quite beautiful and profound. The first relates to loving your child. Giving your baby all that boundless love and acceptance is a way of restoring the mother-child bond that you have lost, but it’s also a way of nurturing a part of yourself, you become the mother that you yourself really need.

The other relates to the story we tell ourselves about ourselves: having a baby can be a ‘biographical repair’. Before we were stuck with a ‘before-and-after’ story in which the death of our mother was a tear right through the story of how things ought to have been. We feel stuck in a present shaped by that destructive twist in the story.

Now there’s a new story in which there is not only a loss but a recovery. ‘Motherhood, however, puts a conceptual framearound the loss,’ Edelman tells us ‘Motherhood rounds it out’. I love that.

My hope is that creative writing can help us by providing a gentle and self-directed way of capturing those feelings that ‘bubble up’, but also helping us to shape that new rounded story that I think we’re all striving for. I love that term ‘affirming matrix’ too, I hope that Dear Mum can be one of the places that some of you are able to find that. Here’s to affirming matrixes and motherless mothers everywhere!

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