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Mothering Without a Map

When I first heard about the publication of Hope Edelman’s groundbreaking book, Motherless Daughters, I raced out to buy it. When I told my mother that I was reading it, her reaction was swift and visceral—”You are NOT a motherless daughter!” she screamed. I tried to explain that I felt I was—my mother had walked out when I was 16 years old. She was not an active part of my life again until I graduated from college. I didn’t understand until years later, when I became a mother myself, that what I really was searching for in Edelman’s book was some insight into my mother’s life, which had taken a tragic turn at a young age.

My mother’s father died when she was two, and her mother died when she was 13. This makes me the second generation of a motherless daughter; I grew up with a mother who essentially had no road map for mothering. Had even one of her parents lived to see her to adulthood, I am sure she would have been a very different parent.

“Second generation”—a loaded phrase. In the Jewish world, it means having parents who were survivors of the Holocaust. For me, it means bearing the imprint of a mother who wanted to be a mother but, somewhere along the way, could no longer sum up the emotional energy to fulfill her obligations and desires. When my parents divorced, my mother was the one who moved out, not only of our house, but essentially of our lives for a number of years.

My mother’s absence from my life in my later teenage years and early adulthood was devastating for me. But even before that time, I felt her absence. She was so unlike the other mothers I knew. She was so proud of marching to the beat of her own drummer, yet at the same time was (and is) incredibly fearful. She would not let me sleep with a pillow until I was five years old, afraid that I would suffocate. She would not watch me learn how to ride my bike without the training wheels, afraid I would hurt myself. She herself has never learned how to ride a bike or drive a car. She feels so unsafe in the world. And while I have successfully navigated my way to adulthood and even parenthood, my own path has been strewn with fear and trepidation, which I work daily to overcome.

I was raised on a confusing combination of early-1970s feminism and the quixotic lives of The Brady Bunch. As a result, I craved both a strong female role model, a working mom outside the home, as well as a mother who ran a “real” home. While my mother always had a career outside the home, she completely lacked the domestic touch. She herself had had no guides, and, by the time I was 16 and beginning to explore my “femaleness,” my own mother was gone. I had no one from whom to learn how to do the girl things I so craved. It wasn’t until college, when I met the friend I think of as my “girlfriend mentor,” that I learned most of what I know about how to dress, how to apply makeup, how to buy a good cantaloupe, the difference between Shetland and cashmere, how to flirt, how to cook. I learned about my body from books and about sex mostly from a precocity in high school that sent me reeling into situations I should not have encountered. I learned about keeping a home by living away from my own. And I am learning about motherhood from becoming a mother, hoping that being “second generation” does not necessarily mean walking into parenting with a deficiency.

A therapist once said to me that I should stop thinking about my mother’s leaving as having been about me—that she must have had very compelling personal reasons for it. I now believe that her departure was, in some ways, a reenactment of her own abandonment as a child. Knowing this doesn’t change my sense of loss, but it helps me to understand what happened in both our lives. And it causes me to shiver when I feel my own natural desires to flee well up after a particularly bad day or week or month. I question my own mothering skills constantly.

In all the years I have known her, my mother has had no stories to tell. At 19, she married a non-Jewish man, began new but empty traditions for her children, and lived a life completely stripped of history. I did not even know that her parents were buried in a nearby cemetery until we attended the funeral of my great-aunt, and saw their headstones a few steps away. It had never occurred to me until that moment, when I was 23 years old, that my mother’s parents were actually my grandparents, and that I could and should have had some access to them and their stories.

In my house growing up, there were no family pictures, no stories, no holidays or traditions from my mother’s Jewish roots. My mother’s father was a photographer for Vanity Fair magazine, but instead of being displayed in our home, his work was shelved in huge, gray filing cabinets in the basement, only to be left behind—”by accident”— when our house was sold. When asked about her father, my mother says that everyone raved about how handsome and talented he was, but all she knows is that he died on her and that she feels no connection with him at all. Her parents had been artistic, interesting people, but all I know about them is that they’re missing.

I have a friend who is also a “second generation” motherless daughter, whose house growing up was brimming with photographs and other reminders of her mother’s parents. Today, when I go to hang a photograph in my own home, I always hesitate. I am drawn to family pictures, even in the homes of strangers. I thirst for them, for the connections they hold, and I drink them in. I envy friends’ galleries of family pictures. I’ve tried to do the same—salvaging a few prints of my grandfather’s collection, including a baby picture of my mother and a shot of the woman who was my grandmother—but I can’t quite get it right. I worry that even this little reminder of the past hanging in my house will upset my mother. But, unlike her, I crave these meager connections to my past and have forged ahead.

As we eagerly await the birth of our third child, I am still marked by her inability to connect to her past. My husband and I take great pleasure in choosing for them names that, in the Jewish tradition, honor deceased relatives. But I have yet to suggest honoring one of my mother’s parents. For me, there is no link to their names—or to their lives. My mother has followed a steep, difficult path to parenting with no map to guide her. While she has faced unbearable tragedy, I too, bear the scars of her losses. This very personal history is beginning to affect a third generation, and as I await my baby’s birth, I have to face down the terrors I harbor that I will somehow fail my own children, especially a daughter, because of the complex relationship I share with my mother. 

Karen Paul-Stern is a fundraiser and writer living in Takoma Park, Maryland.