Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
An Interview with Hope Edelman

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Hope Edelman's book Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become continues the journey Edelman started with her 1994 book, Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss. While that book took an in-depth look at women, like Edelman, who had lost their female parent prematurely, Edelman's latest work considers how losing a mother influences the way women mother their own children. Edelman recently sat down with Literary Mama Associate Profiles Editor Helaine Olen to discuss how becoming a mother re-opened the wounds of mother loss, why she came to write Motherless Mothers, how she coordinates work with raising her two daughters, and why she continues to devote time to the teaching of writing.

HELAINE OLEN: Why did you decide to revisit the subject of mother loss?

HOPE EDELMAN: At the very end of my second pregnancy, I was put on partial bed-rest. I was spending a portion of each day just lying down, and it was the first time that I just couldn't manage everything on my own. When my first daughter was born, she was colicky, and I'd had this very self-sufficient, self-reliant, 'I can do it all myself,' attitude and pulled it off. But this time I couldn't. I could not take care of a four-year-old, the house, this pregnancy, and myself all at once -- and I didn't have a mother who would come in and help. Other women I knew would have called their mothers. So, I started thinking a lot about this issue and talking to some of my friends who were motherless and found that they were having similar thoughts and feelings.

HO: Did you think -- as you lay in bed -- that if your mother could come everything would be solved?

HE: Of course. I was completely fantasizing. I was thinking 'If only I had a mother,' I would call her, and she would be on an airplane and would come here and take care of the house, my daughter, and me. But I was also thinking 'Gosh, wouldn't it be nice for my daughter to have her grandmother here,' so they could have that relationship, because it wasn't until I became a mother that I really felt the loss of my mother as a grandmother for my kids.

HO: You have a mother-in-law and sister. You didn't call them?

HE: My mother-in-law lives in Israel, and it's just too far away for her to come. She did come after my first daughter was born and helped with childcare then. And, my sister has a pretty demanding career. There wasn't any way that she could just come over to my house for a couple of weeks and help out.

HO: One of the thoughts that occurred to me when I was reading your book was whether the loss of one's mother is amplified by the modern isolation from family. We don't live in extended families any longer . . .

HE: There's less of a support network to draw from, so the loss of the mother who would be, in most families, the first person to whom a daughter would turn, does become even more amplified. There was one statistic I discovered during my research that really surprised me: the large number of motherless mothers who managed on their own after their first child was born. Yet when I looked at women with living mothers, they weren't all calling their mothers. They were calling sisters; they were calling friends; they had help from lots of people other than their mothers. So you have to wonder why the motherless mothers didn't ask other people for help. I brought this statistic to a couple of psychiatrists and researchers in the field, and the conclusion that we all came to was that these women may have become so used to doing things for themselves that they'd become practiced at not asking for help.

HO: When you surveyed people, did you do random surveys, or did people self-select themselves to participate, and if so, do you think that influenced your findings?

HE: It's not a purely random survey, and I'm sure that made a difference. But the Internet survey I conducted was so large that it included people of all different backgrounds. I also compared my results to all the research studies out there that were done using purely random samples, and my results were not that different.

HO: What were your main findings?

HE: I found that the motherless mothers had a lot of the same thoughts and concerns and fears as other mothers, but they were 'amped up' a little bit. They had a special set of sensitivities surrounding separation and loss -- wanting to be a good mother and being afraid of not knowing how to be a mother. They also talked about not having access to their mothers, her emotional support, and her information about their own childhoods. In many cases, their fathers either were not living or didn't remember much of the information they wanted to know.

I also found it was the transition to motherhood -- the birth of the first child -- that was the most profound experience for them. It was deep emotionally because they were becoming the person they had lost: for the very first time, they could see the world through the eyes of a mother. Some of them said that even in the hospital, they would look at their baby and feel this rush of love and think 'My mother once felt this for me.' They could identify with her in a way they just couldn't before, and once they put themselves in her shoes, they could understand how much she'd lost by dying young.

HO: How is the experience of losing a mother different at different ages?

HE: The girls who lost their mother before age 10 or 11 still held a very idealized image of their mothers: She was perfect, she did no wrong. They never had an argument with her, and they never disagreed with her. For them, that set the standard for their own mothering very, very high, and they often wound up frustrated or disappointed they couldn't be the perfect mother that they remembered having.

The ones who lost their mothers during their teenage years tended to have a little more realistic picture of what it meant to be a mother and raise a child.

Those who lost their mothers as adults actually had time to have full relationships, so in a sense, they almost lost more. The relationship had time to mature to the point where they felt they were losing a friend or confidant, and that was very difficult for them, but in a different way than it was for those who lost their mothers at a younger age. For example, they knew what kind of grandmother their mother probably would have been because she may have been close to becoming, or even already have been, a grandmother herself. Also, losing their mothers hadn't shaped their personalities as much as it had those who lost their mothers at a younger age and had learned to survive without a mother.

HO: What about cause of loss?

HE: The ones who lost a mother to a disease, especially a disease that might be hereditary, were really concerned about dying young from the same disease and leaving their kids motherless. Statistically, in the surveys that I did, they were much more worried about dying young and leaving their kids motherless.

The ones who'd lost a mother suddenly were constantly trying to guard against having someone snatched from them again, so they tended to be more vigilant about their children's safety and more worried about their husbands. They would think a lot about what would happen if their husband died: if they had life insurance, where the financial records were kept. One of the women talked about how she had a series of practical checkmarks in her head of what she would do if the phone call came. She was prepared in advance emotionally, so she would know what to do and not be taken by surprise again as she had been as a child.

HO: Why are stepmothers seen as so evil?

HE: The relationship with the stepmother does not tend to be a close one, and there are a lot of reasons for that. One is that many women objectively have stepmothers who really aren't invested in raising another woman's child and often have been previously married and have children of their own that they're more invested in.

Then there is the feeling that my mother is really the only one who could have done this for me or answered these questions, and they reject the stepmother. The dead mother becomes the 'good' mother, and the stepmother becomes the 'bad' mother, the usurper of the real mother's place. It also happens that fathers tend to remarry very quickly, especially if they have young children, so those children may not have had time to grieve their mother before a new woman is presented in her place.

HO: Did you have a stepmother?

HE: I didn't, my father did not remarry, so it's not something I can speak about from personal experience, only from interviews and research.

HO: How is estrangement from the mother different from death?

HE: I did interview some women whose mothers were living but just not involved in their lives. I can tell you that the practical losses are really very much the same. You don't have a mother there to help you, to give you emotional support, to be a grandmother to your children. However, you don't have layered on top of that this experience of tragic loss that can make you afraid of losing other people in quite the same way. It's different. I'm not an expert on abandonment, but a lot of women who were poorly mothered -- for example, by mothers who were mentally ill or addicted -- have a lot of concern about maybe being abusive themselves toward their children or modeling some of the behaviors that they saw as children.

The motherless mothers I interviewed for this book tended to have good relationships with their mothers, and thought they were good mothers before they lost them. They had some positive mothering foundation on which they felt comfortable drawing on. The women whose mothers had abandoned the family or who had been harsh or critical or rejecting felt that they didn't even have that. They really felt they were starting from ground zero.

HO: What are your recommendations for motherless mothers looking for connection?

HE: First, it is really, really important to find a company of other women, whether it's a Mommy and Me group or motherless daughters or a motherless mothers group so that you don't feel like you're doing this alone. Motherless daughters are pre-disposed to feel that they are alone in the world, so it follows they would then feel alone as mothers.

Second, these women tend to have a lot of trouble seeing their children in any form of emotional distress, because it triggers in them the memory of a time when they were young and unprotected and alone and sad. I encourage women to take a moment before reacting and ask themselves 'Am I reacting to real external signals in the environment, or is it coming from something inside of me?'

HO: A hundred years ago it would have been quite common to have lost your mother by adulthood. Now, that's not very common. Has this changed the experience of mother loss?

HE: At least if you were alive during the influenza epidemic, for example, you probably knew other girls who'd lost their mothers at the same time. You probably weren't getting any counseling or other support, but at least you wouldn't have felt like you were the only one in the whole school who'd had this experience. Plus, it was a more hardscrabble kind of life. You didn't really have the luxury to sit around and think about your emotional life as much when you were trying to survive without modern conveniences and technology.

Today, girls who lose their mothers have access to more bereavement centers and support networks, and there's more awareness about children's loss. There is an in-between group of women I interviewed -- ages 25 to 60 -- who were young enough that it was unlikely they'd lost a mother due to childbirth or infectious diseases, but old enough to have missed the current culture of bereavement support. These women were right in between. They felt alone, and they didn't get support.

HO: How does the loss of your mother affect you now, on a daily basis? An anecdote I remember from the book is that you have all these clothes in the garage, that you buy clothes years in advance for your daughters and label them. Do you still do that?

HE: You know, I don't do it with quite the same amount of foresight that I used to. My daughters are actually getting to the ages now where they like to pick out their own clothing, so it's becoming a little less urgent. I think I now plan in other ways. I take lots of photographs, and I organize the videos. I want to make sure their lives are catalogued. I've done very extensive baby books for both of them, so they would have access to information about their births and early years if I weren't here.

HO: How do you organize your days, so you can mother and write?

HE: Now I actually have a good balance because both of my kids are in school. I work when they're in school, from nine to three, which feels just right because I can't be with them anyway.

When I was writing the book, though, it was hard. I did not want full time childcare because I didn't want to leave the kids motherless to write this book about being motherless. So I used to go away every third weekend and binge write. My husband would take the kids for two nights and three days, and I would check into a hotel with my laptop and write 15 or 20 pages all at once, just to push forward with the book. The book took longer than any other I've written because I didn't want to miss out on those years with my kids. I wanted to be there for the school plays and the field trips. My father died, too, in the middle of the book --

HO: I'm sorry.

HE: . . . and I lost a couple of months then. From having lost my mother, I knew I wanted to be with him in those final months. I didn't want to work and miss that time with him, so the book took three years to write.

HO: Did you feel that some of the desire to be there for your daughters so much was because you had lost your mother?

HE: Completely. Always in the back of my mind was the thought, 'What if I died tomorrow?' I wanted them to remember that I was part of their lives, that I was there, that I balanced it in their favor, that I never prioritized work over them.

HO: You also teach...

HE: I teach at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City. I do private workshops from time to time, in Los Angeles, and they're always advertised on my website. I also teach at the Masters of Fine Arts program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. It's a great program for mothers because you only have to be on campus twice a year for ten days. The rest of the time the students send in their work through the mail.

HO: Why do you continue teaching given your time for work is so limited?

HE: I think I am a better writer because I teach. I analyze the work and get great energy from my students. I spend a large portion of my day alone, in front of a computer screen, and teaching gives me interaction. Writing is such a solitary, isolating profession; it gets me out in the world, talking with other writers about writing which is, I think, really important.


Helaine Olen’s journalism and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, AlterNet.org, Cookie, Time Out New York Kids, Variety, and Literary Mama, where she is an associate profiles editor. She lives in New York and has two boys, ages seven and three.


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