On Learning To Mother Without Having a Guide

By Aliza Phillips-Stoll

Published May 12, 2006, issue of May 12, 2006.
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The idea for best-selling author Hope Edelman’s latest book was born as she sat in bed during the weeks leading up to the birth of her second daughter.

With her swollen feet needing some tender loving care, a toddler scrambling around and a husband keeping long hours at the office, Edelman wished she could do what many a woman in her situation would: call in mom for emergency relief. Only, as followers of Edelman’s decade-plus book-writing career well know, this was not possible: When Edelman was 17, she lost her mother to cancer.

“I couldn’t do that, and so I sat around for a couple of days and felt really sorry for myself — you know, ‘poor me, poor me’ — and that went nowhere fast,” said Edelman, 41. “So I got on the phone and started calling some of my friends who were motherless daughters and sort of informally interviewing them, saying, ‘I’m thinking about writing about this. Let me tell you what’s going on. What have you experienced?’ They were pretty thoughtful, well-versed women, some of them authors, some therapists, and I found that their stories were really, really similar to mine. And that’s really how the proposal began.”

After three years of work, the result is “Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become” (HarperCollins). Its 410 extensively researched pages weave together psychological theory, Edelman’s own experiences and those of other mothers who lost their own mothers at a young age. Together the material becomes a guide for the woman attempting to navigate the brave new world of parenting without a mother to point the way.

Edelman’s research, culled from individual interviews and from an online survey filled out by 1,322 motherless mothers, shows that motherless daughters face unique challenges when becoming mothers themselves. The women of Edelman’s book often speak of being elated to have a mother-child bond back in their lives, only, in many cases, to have a new experience of loss set in.

Perhaps most notable, Edelman found that after the birth of a first child, 52% of the motherless mothers she surveyed received help from no one other than a spouse. By way of contrast, only 15% of mothers with mothers went it alone, with 54% saying they had received help from their mother.

Edelman explained this discrepancy to the Forward. “The motherless daughters are very self-sufficient. They don’t ask for help. They either don’t feel comfortable asking for help or they’ve lost faith that help will be forthcoming, because they may have had childhoods where they expected other people to help them and didn’t,” Edelman said. “But I think that puts them at risk for isolation. It puts them at risk for postpartum depression. It puts them at a higher risk perhaps for stress during the postpartum period.”

“Motherless Daughters” covers the period of motherhood that stretches from pregnancy to raising a teenager, highlighting challenges that may be especially difficult for women who’ve lost their mothers. Though parenting teenagers is a daunting proposition for many a mother, for motherless mothers, “shepherding their children through a reasonably uncomplicated adolescence if they hadn’t experienced one themselves” is doubly intimidating, Edelman writes. But difficulty can hit much earlier, when children are just 3 or 4 and ask their mothers why they don’t have mommies of their own. When Edelman’s eldest daughter, Maya, then 3, asked why she couldn’t see Edelman’s mother, Edelman had to explain that Grandma had gone the way of the family’s pet fish.

Mother loss is not a new topic for Edelman. In the mid 1990s, her debut book, “Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss” (originally published in 1994 by Addison Wesley Publishing Company), which examined the way that early mother loss continues to affect girls and women throughout their lives, found its way onto The New York Times’ best-seller list. The book, now in its second edition, sold more than 500,000 copies; was released in such countries as Germany, Australia and Israel, and made Edelman an icon for motherless women everywhere. The book helped launch a movement. While there was very little information accessible to the public on the subject of early mother loss when Edelman wrote her book, today motherless daughters support groups meet everywhere from Los Angeles to Boston. Tel Aviv is home to the first-ever Motherless Mothers foundation.

For Jewish motherless mothers in particular, Edelman, who married an Israeli, told the Forward that religious rituals and holidays present an opportunity for mothers to connect their children to the absent maternal grandmother and again pick up traditions that may have fallen by the wayside after a mother’s death.

“I grew up in a pretty observant Conservative household. My grandmother, my mother’s mother, was Orthodox, so we spent all the Jewish holidays with her,” Edelman said. “But after my mother died, my father really didn’t keep it going, which is a pretty common story among Jewish families. The mother is the hub of cultural and religious activities.”

After Edelman’s mother’s death, Friday night family dinners became less frequent, as did Edelman’s trips to synagogue, though she always made a point of saying Yizkor, the memorial prayer, on Yom Kippur.

Becoming a mother helped reconnect Edelman to Judaism and to her mother’s traditions. “When I married, my husband had a lot of friends in the Israeli community that started to bring it back, but really when we had kids it became more important to us,” Edelman said.

Today Edelman uses the Jewish holidays as a time to connect her daughters, Maya, 8, and Eden, 4, to their maternal grandmother. Every Hanukkah, for example, the family lights a menorah from Edelman’s childhood. “A lot of stories they get about my mother revolve around the Jewish tradition,” Edelman said.

Aliza Phillips-Stoll is a candidate for a doctorate in clinical psychology at the New School for Social Research.

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