To the Mother-Less
Hello dear ones,
Mother’s Day has always been a hard day for me and yesterday was no exception. And so instead of sending out this newsletter, I tended to my grief and wanted to share some thoughts, feelings, and practices that emerged out of this weekend. Content note: parental death and abortion.
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THOUGHTS & FEELINGS
To those whose mothers are lost;
To those who never had mothers;
To those who had to become surrogate mothers;
To those who wish to never mother.
At the age of eleven I became motherless: a child less a mother. And at the same time, I became a surrogate mother to my younger brother. A smaller amount of mother than he was used to because I was still a child. A mother of lower rank or importance, as I was expected to care for him but had no say in how my father raised him with rules and punishments so starkly different from those meted out to me. As a teenager, I’d sit at my grandparent’s dinner table and be berated by my aunt or grandmother from some new infraction: pink hair, a facial piercing. Never once did they acknowledge the labour I performed, had been performing for so many years, as the mother-less.
The book Motherless Daughters sits on my bookshelf unread. I am now older than my mother was when she had me. And in five years I will be forty-three, the age at which she died of cervical cancer. One of the very organs that enabled her to become a mother robbed her of motherhood and of me a mother. The suffix less can indicate a failure or inability to perform or be performed. She spent the last year of her life in and out of hospitals. Each missed dance recital a reminder of her inability to be the mother she wanted to be.
I do not wish to become a mother. I’ve known this for many years now. Too much of my life has already been spent as a mother. The idea of another being depending wholly upon me for life feels suffocating. Unbearable. I want to be free from (less) this duty. Each month when I start to bleed, I feel a kind of dysphoria, a disconnection from my body. No. Don’t you know we don’t want to do this. Each spot of blood on the side of the bathtub, as I sit, waiting for the tub to fill, is a reminder that my body doesn’t understand this wish of mine. Less: free from, without, false. I want to stop my monthly cycle. I want to be free from this falsehood I inherited, this belief that I should want to be a mother. That there is something wrong with me if I do not wish to mother. The word hysteria comes from the Greek word hystera, which means uterus. One of the first theories of hysteria was that it was caused by a wandering womb. Later, women would fake illness to avoid becoming mothers and would be given the diagnosis of hysteria. What could be more hysterical than a human with a uterus not wanting to be a mother?
We’re told that the supreme court is planning to strike down Roe Vs. Wade. I think of the people with uteruses who died because they did not want to become mothers. They wanted to be free from motherhood.
At the age of fifteen I got pregnant. My boyfriend and I had been using the pull out method some of the time, and the rest of the time we did nothing. After my first missed period I knew that I might be pregnant and so I avoided taking a pregnancy test to delay the evitable. Eventually, I went to the sexual health clinic in the mall in my suburban town. The nurse estimated that I was around ten weeks pregnant and rushed to get me into an abortion clinic in downtown Toronto. I searched my house for my health card and couldn’t find it anywhere. My father didn’t know where it was (many of my legal documents, it turns out, went missing after my mother’s death) and I couldn’t tell him why I needed to find it. My boyfriend and I begged and borrowed from our friends to come up with the $400 needed for the abortion. I remain so deeply grateful to those friends, who also came from poor working class families, and gave us whatever they could so that I could avoid becoming a mother.
I read about people who feel immense grief after they have an abortion but haven’t had that feeling. In place of grief I feel relief. I think about how, if I’d had that child, they would be twenty years old now and the thought startles me. There was a daycare at my high school, where teenage pregnancy was a common occurrence (whether the daycare existed because of the high teen pregnancy rates I do not know). Another girl in my grade got pregnant around the same time as me and chose to keep the baby. At the time I wondered how she could do it and then I remembered Oh, she has a mother. She will not be alone in her mothering.
After my mother died I developed an overwhelming fear that, like her, I too would die young. It didn’t help that my maternal grandmother also died shortly after I was born. And so I reasoned that bad things always come in threes. I became hypervigilant of my body – every unexplained ache or pain seemed a possible signal that my time had come. My fear of threes returned when my body began to get sick. I had my tarot cards read for the first time when I was in New Orleans during a brief and singular reprieve from illness. “Do you have any questions for me?” she asked. I told her how I’d been sick for a while and that I still didn’t know what was wrong. I asked if it was serious. She looked at me with great tenderness, and then down at the cards and said, “No, my dear. You might be sick, but you’ve got a long life ahead of you.” Tears came to my eyes. Not because I necessarily believed her. But because I didn’t have to ask, “Will I die soon?” for her to understand what I needed, so desperately, to hear.
After my mother died, I became close with a woman who lived on the next street over. She was around my mother’s age and hadn’t had kids of her own, though it was clear that she wanted them. I’d spend nights at her house and wake up in the morning to eat key lime yogurt with her, standing in the kitchen. She would be the one to take me shopping for my grade eight graduation dress (a pink spaghetti strapped number from Le Chateau). Years later, she’d drive me to get an abortion. Sometimes weeks would go by where I didn’t see her. I’d go and knock on her door and suddenly her husband would appear. He was always away on business whenever I visited. “Jan isn’t feeling well,” he’d tell me. I knew that she had some kind of illness, but I always wondered whether their relationship was abusive. For I had been with her on days where she wasn’t feeling well. Who was he to keep us apart?
We lost contact when my family moved a few towns away at the end of high school. I would find myself, as an adult, looking for key lime yogurt in the grocery stores and not finding any. One day, it reappears and I am delighted. I purchase it weekly to this day. Sometimes, I will go looking for her on Facebook, will google search her name wondering if I will find her obituary. I find neither. It is as though she never existed. Again, I am mother-less.
“When I was told I was going to die from cancer I wanted to leave you this letter, hopefully to make you feel better and to feel close to your mother … I know this is a great time of sadness and pain for you, a pain I wish I could take away.” So begins the five-page letter that my mom wrote to me before she passed away. Inscribed inside a small, purple journal, this the last trace of her handwriting that I have. I’d forgotten that this book existed and was surprised to rediscover it when I began to write an essay about grief. In her letter to me, my mom suggests that I use this book to write to her; she tells me that she’ll make sure my brother and dad don’t snoop in it. But I’ve left the pages blank. The blankness of the pages – a signifier of my inability to write, my inability to confront the pain of her loss – produce in me a greater sadness than her letter.
Before she died my mother recorded a message on a tape: one for my brother and one for me. I recall listening to my tape shortly after she died. I remember her calling my dad “daddy,” a term of endearment that she didn’t like. Her decision to use it signaling, more than anything else, her recognition that she is dying. But that’s all I remember. When I rediscovered the book she’d left for me, I was actually looking for the tapes. I wanted to listen to them, with the intention of inserting some of her words into that essay. I found a microcassette player, and I inserted each tape, hit play. They were empty. No sound except for that of the tape turning. Loss upon loss. First the loss of my mother. And then, twenty years later, the loss of her voice, of her words, on those tapes. And then there’s the loss of the possibility of knowing her final words to us. Having only listened to the tape once, I can barely remember what her final message to me was.
When we attach the suffix less to a word, we denote a lack, that something is missing. In this way, less becomes a negative, a void that we seek to fill. I can feel that sense in my own motherlessness. I wish she was here. I create imaginary memories with her: getting matching tattoos, introducing her to my friends, calling her after the most recent breakup. On the twentieth anniversary of her death, I invite my friends to join me on Toronto Island for a ceremony. No one can say anything about my mother, since they never met her. And so I ask each person to bring a quote about family, grief, loss. Each person reads out their quote and places it in the fire. They offer me a second copy, which I bring home and place in a wooden box with a swan painted on the front, above the word “memories.” This box was a gift from my mother before she died. In place of her absence, I fill this box with all of the words my friends offer me in my grief. In a way, I no longer feel mother-less.
I like the way this word looks when you separate mother from less, but keep them attached by a dash. I feel like I exist in this space between. I have been a mother. I have lost a mother. And yet neither of those experiences define me. Yes, there is an absence, as denoted by less. An absence that I would never wish for. At the same time, being mother-less has opened me up to other ways of mothering myself and being mothered by those who are not, in the classical sense, mothers. Yesterday, my dear friend and I made each other Mother’s Day cards. Inside, we wrote the kinds of words one might write to a mother. Prior to this, we went shopping at a market. I wanted to do something that my mother and I loved to do together. Each purchase I made, I made alongside her. In this sense, I am far from mother-less.
NOTES: The writing in section 5 comes from my essay “The Many Sick Mothers of My Heart,” published by The Minola Review. And the writing in section 7 comes from my essay “Grieving Forms,” published by The Puritan.
There are so many ways that we can mother ourselves and others. Here are some photos of my day yesterday for inspiration.
Make your own Mother’s Day cards:
All you need is some paper and whatever craft supplies you have on hand! Here’s the card I made for Riley:
And the card Riley made for me:
Treat yourself, if you can. I bought this gorgeous linocut print by Colleen Fiddler to hang above my altar.
If there was ever a time to be supporting access to safe abortions, now is the time. One place I’ll be donating to is Indigenous Women Rising. “Indigenous Women Rising is committed to honoring Native & Indigenous People’s inherent right to equitable and culturally safe health options through accessible health education, resources, and advocacy. This abortion fund is open to all Indigenous people in the United States and Canada who are pregnant and seeking an abortion in the United States.”