Can You Be a Family Without a Mother?

A sociologist ask girls about their early losses 

On Sunday morning , November 7, 1993, my father passed away. I was 38, he 71. To say we were not close would be an understatement; he and I had hardly spoken for 20 years. But that night, I accompanied my brothers to Jerusalem, to bury him there, next to the new grave to which my mother’s remains had been transferred four years earlier. I had not seen this grave before; I was opposed when my brothers moved her. And that night, at the cemetery where my mom and now dad are buried, I was transformed into the 13- year-old girl whose mother had died. I sobbed, “I want my mom.” I cried out in mourning for my lost opportunity to have known my mother, to have her know me now as a woman. And I wondered about the many ways in which my life would have been different—and significantly easier—if my mother had not died when my brothers and I were young.

While I was crying for my mom, women in my extended family surrounded me, held and comforted me. My older and younger brothers were there, crying for my father, but they did not react to the expression of my long-held grief about my mother. We had never talked about our mother before and were not about to then. But later, replaying that cemetery scene in my mind and trying to fathom my brothers’ reactions, I began to wonder not only about myself, but about how their lives would have been different if our mom had not died of cancer at the age of 36.

Pondering the ways in which the premature loss of my mother has shaped me as a woman has troubled me for 25 years. But after my father’s funeral another question struck me: how did the loss of our mother when we were so young affect my brothers’ lives as men? How did our experiences compare with those of other adults whose mothers died when they were children?

My passion to answer these questions led me to research Motherless, a book about to be published that is the first full-length sociological study of this experience. I have sought to interpret our experiences through a continuous movement between my own memories and feelings and those of my respondents. By entering into my own feelings of pain and loss I believe I am afforded a pathway to understanding the experiences of others and the general issue of loss in our culture.

To research this book, I interviewed 60 adults—30 women and 30 men from mostly middle- but also working-class backgrounds—whose mothers had died when these adults were early adolescents, children between 10 and 15 years of age. I chose this age range because at 10 people are likely to have clear memories and still young enough that the child still has significant growing up to do. Also, my own mother had died when I was 13. I found respondents through word of mouth, notices in community centers and largely through advertisements in newspapers in several different cities in the Northeast. The large majority of the mothers of these interviewees had died of cancer or other long-term illnesses; about a third had died suddenly from such diverse causes as a heart attack, a cerebral hemorrhage, complications after surgery or a car crash. Six of these were suicides. The interviewees ranged in age from 20 to 80, with the large majority between 40 and 60 years old. This predominant age is important to note: Most of these adults grew up in the ’40s, ’50s and early ’60s; during the post-war glorification of motherhood, nuclear family, and the home.

As a sociologist, my perspective on motherloss focused on how the larger social context in which mothers die shapes individuals’ personal experiences of their mother’s deaths. The key themes in my interviews were repeated across nearly every single interview, regardless of gender, age at death, religion or ethnicity. Among my central findings: Early adolescent motherloss is experienced as a loss of caring; individuals try in diverse ways, throughout their lives, to replace that caring; and individuals and their families go through this experience in relative silence.

Each of these themes reflects larger aspects of American society. In particular, the sense of lost caring is a result of our “separate spheres” ideology, in which women are assigned the role of emotional (and in many ways, physical) caretaker of their families. The silences that surrounded respondents’ experiences of their mother’s deaths also reflect our general cultural avoidance of death, and the stigmatization of illnesses associated with death.

In talking to 60 people, I was constantly amazed—and reassured—to find that their narratives of motherloss so closely resembled my own. In U.S. middle-class society, the dominant image of the nuclear family is one in which the mother is intensively and exclusively devoted to her children, is the emotional foundation of the family, and does the largely invisible, innumerable tasks that make nuclear family life possible. A nurturing, caring, unconditionally loving mother is so central to our idea of family that it is virtually impossible to have a family without her. Based on my analysis of my interviewees’ life stories, and the forces that shape them, I have found that the intensity and exclusivity of motherhood as it is constructed in our society means that children who have lost their mothers feel they no longer have a stable foundation for their lives. A central part of the mother’s role is simply “being there” for her children and husband. Therefore, mothers cannot simply be replaced. Although, theoretically, many of the particular tasks a mother does can be taken care of by other people—fathers as well as other women and men—her death undermines her family’s ability to maintain the form and functions of the dominant nuclear family model.

Indeed, so high is the idealized standard for motherhood, even living mothers can rarely live up to our conditioned expectations. While I was working on this study, several friends and acquaintances whose mothers were still alive described themselves to me as “unmothered.” Their perceptions of their mother’s lack of complete emotional availability to them led them to experience themselves as “growing up motherless.” Even people who felt that their mothers were generally good and available to them nevertheless expressed disappointment over the mothering they received: It never met the standards of our society’s ideal.

When a mother is lost, there is a confluence and confusion as to who is missed—the ideal mother or the real one. Many of my interviewees described their families prior to their mother’s death in less than glowing terms. Mothers might have had nasty tempers, been overly strict disciplinarians, or profligate with the limited family resources. Nevertheless, when interviewees talked about the caring they lost, they turned a blind eye to their mixed emotions, instead echoing our cultural ideals of maternal perfection and unconditional love. Clearly, it is easier to idolize someone who is no longer present to remind you of her human fallibilities.

Our social construction of the image of the institution of Motherhood is generally an idealized image that few, if any, people can live up to. This idealized image is damning to real women and mothers who must negotiate the competing demands upon their lives. The discrepancy between the idealized version of Mother and the real, live mothers who today struggle to weave together family and work in their lives suggests to me that the “woman question” that first arose with Industrialization has still not been adequately resolved. Even as the majority of women with children work in the paid labor market, the ideology of a woman’s place being in the home still reigns supreme, resulting in social and personal strains for women, their families and the larger society.

Given that the nuclear family, with the mother at its center, has been the primary model of family in our society for so long, people often react strongly to deviations from this pattern. Fifty-seven of my 60 respondents emphasized the denial and silences that surrounded their mothers’ illnesses and deaths, a silence borne out of our cultural “denial of death” and of the sense of shame produced by a family that “deviates” from the normative nuclear’ structure. Although attitudes toward death have been changing in recent years, in the middle decades of this century, death stigmatized those who came close to it, especially when it shattered a family’s ability to comply with the normative nuclear model. As Rita, a 39-year-old Jewish woman eloquently stated, “I think the shame came from the fact that it was hidden. There was shame that she had cancer and there was shame that she was dying, so that is why I felt the way I did, like there is something wrong with her being sick and dying—that it is something you’re ashamed of. And I don’t feel good about that now, because it was nothing to be ashamed of, it wasn’t her fault. It certainly wasn’t my fault.”

Given our cultural discomfort and avoidance of death, the silences surrounding my respondents’ mothers’ deaths have generally lasted throughout their lives. These silences took their lost mothers away from them still further, producing a deep disruption in their sense of self and in their abilities to construct a coherent narrative of their lives. Many told me that the interview with me was a welcome chance to talk about a subject they almost never got to discuss; it challenged the social taboos that had made it difficult for them to integrate their experiences of motherloss into their sense of themselves.

Despite these deep cultural taboos, my respondents have nevertheless found intuitive and creative ways to maintain their mothers’ symbolic presence in their lives. Some of these forms drew directly upon the religious traditions in which they had been raised, such as the Jewish ritual of annual cemetery visits. Others took more individual approaches, gathering
up pieces and strands from various traditions and fashioning their own bricolage. One man told me he sewed a piece of his mother’s bridal veil into the yarmulke he wore at his wedding; another woman carried her mother’s photo in her bridal bouquet and then placed that same photo in her son’s pocket on his bar mitzvah day. A runner told me of the conversations she has with her mother when she runs; others spoke of praying to their late mothers. The ways that my interviewees recreated their mothers’ presences through symbols constitute meaningful ways through which they could reestablish embodied relationships with their mothers.

Both their idealizations of their lost mothers and their efforts to maintain her symbolic presence represent some of the ways that individuals hold on to someone whose loss was so painful. These idealizations and practices are a way of normalizing an “abnormal” experience—as if to say, I have a mother, she is still with me, I was loved and am loved and thus worthy of having a good life myself.

It is hard to know how a broader social openness to discussions about death might affect individuals’ narratives of motherloss. I know that most of the people I spoke with struggled, during our conversations, to find a language in which to talk about an experience they had clearly understood as taboo. I know that the silences that began with my own mother’s illness (cancer, which was not named in our household) continued for my brothers and me long after her death.

Part of the process of coming to terms with motherloss involves moving beyond American silences about death and finding the ways to express feelings, reactions and memories. Articulating—and thus re-experiencing—motherloss helps to weave this disruption into a coherent understanding of ourselves. Writing Motherloss represents my attempt to break these silences—personal, professional (the academy generally frowns upon the use of the personal in scholarly research) and cultural—that throughout my respondents’ and my lives, have been our typical ways of dealing with motherloss. As we break the long silences and fashion new ways in which to tell our particular life stories, we create alternative narrative frameworks that can help others to articulate their experiences and, perhaps, ultimately lead to wider social change.

Lynn Davidman is Associate Professor of American Civilization, Judaic Studies and Women’s Studies at Brown University and author of Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism. Motherloss is forthcoming from University of California Press.