How I coped as an unmothered mother

my
mother
was
my first country.
the first place i ever lived.

–lands
Poem from Salt by Nayyirah Waheed

**Trigger warning: This is where you may want to stop reading if parent loss, specifically the loss of a mother, is triggering for you. You can come back later when you’re ready to, if at all.*

The day after what would have been my mom’s 69th birthday I took a pregnancy test. And, I freaked. It was positive, but I was not. I was riddled with anxiety and thoughts of “How will I do this without my mom?” I was happy of course because my spouse and I had been planning this and trying for a few months. We wanted a baby and felt ready. But, when faced with the results, my stomach did a backflip. It had been just under a year since my mom had died from uterine cancer and we thought that it would take longer to get pregnant given my age. Here I was pregnant and full of mixed emotions. Not to mention, I was finishing up grad school.

When I told my spouse the next day he was ecstatic. I booked an appointment with a midwife at the birth center near us, but it didn’t feel real until that first ultrasound–when we saw our child moving inside my body. In that moment I knew I wasn’t just a “motherless daughter,” but now a “motherless mother.”

You need to know, I hate the term “motherless mother.” Not to mention the gendering issues with these terms, but that’s another blog post. Suffice it to say that the terminology likely comes from psychologists and was popularized by Hope Edelman. I prefer the term “unmothered,” from Meghan O’Rourke. Plus, I’m not motherless,my mom is simply no longer earthside. I still “talk” to her and think of her. Every. Single. Day. Sometimes I even see her her in my dreams.

Denise wore some of her mother’s clothing like this skirt during pregnancy to remember her

My entire pregnancy oscillated between happiness, excitement, anxiety, and depression. I was nauseous the first trimester as so many are, but already I wasn’t sleeping well. I didn’t share much of what was going on inside my head except with my spouse, a motherless daughters group, which I had joined about a year prior, and a small group of friends. What those thoughts were exactly are a distant memory now that my child is 3.5 years old. The rawness of it all has faded.

I do remember, I wanted a doula at the birth of our baby, and we were able to have a volunteer doula with us. I shared my fears of not having my mom for support with her and hoped she understood. When my contractions started on our baby’s due date, I labored at home most of the day and that night went to the birth center at 11 p.m. I was at 5 cm! We dropped our things on the table near the bed of the birthing suite and we got my mom’s photo out. I needed to feel her presence. I roared through labor and finally our child was born at 2:20 a.m. the next morning in June of 2014.

So, how did I cope as a new parent without my mama around? I journaled, I went to therapy, continued my home yoga practice (although not consistently), and I cried a hell of a lot. This is probably similar to what others have done when faced with major transitions or trauma and is very much what I did after my mom died. What did I do differently as an unmothered mother though? Here are four things, which could be helpful to other birth givers who have experienced parent loss and things to think about for doulas.

Denise’s mom, Janet, and her while pregnant.

  1. Connect with your deceased parent through an activity they loved. My mom loved painting and I had her easel, paint brushes, some blank canvases of hers as well her oil paints. I decided to take her tools and paint three canvases for our little one’s room. It was so therapeutic imagining how my mom painted in the past and that I was creating something with the things she had used. It was a beautiful tribute.
  2. Recreate moments of your parent during pregnancy or postpartum. I found a photo of my mom when she was pregnant with me and thought how endearing it was because she was asleep on the couch with curlers in her hair. So, I recreated it in my last trimester. I tried to find clothes like hers and to pose my head in just the right position, which she had held in her hand. It still makes me smile.
  3. Ask for help before postpartum as a form of radical self-care. I gave myself permission to have people care for me and our family the first 40 days postpartum. I recruited close friends to care for our baby while I napped (nap train!) along with the volunteer doula and we had friends make meals because our families collectively live thousands of miles away. If we have another child, I will extend this care to at least the first three months because my anxiety skyrocketed after birth, most likely caused by a lack of sleep.
  4. Find a group of other people who are unmothered. I attended a group for unmothered mothers that was run by a therapist for 8-9 months postpartum. I am still in touch with these other mamas often and we get together once or twice a year. This group was critical for me because I could share how gut-wrenching it was when I saw other birth givers out shopping for baby clothes with the grandma gushing over them. I could also share what it was like feeling we didn’t have anyone to call in the middle of the night postpartum because our baby had a fever or an ear infection. (One instance we called my sister-in-law in Mexico, around midnight or one AM).

My mental health would have suffered much more if it hadn’t been for these coping skills and the unmothered group. When I did an informal poll with some new unmothered folks on Facebook, mental health was the number one thing they wanted help with too. For the doulas reading this, please don’t be afraid to talk about the birth giver’s parent or make some suggestions of ways to cope if appropriate. I would have loved this from my doula. (Note, there are lots of “motherless daughter” and “motherless mother” groups around the country, on Facebook, and on Meetup).

A lot has changed for me over the last five years since my mom passed away. I finished grad school. My spouse and I grew our little family from two to three among other things. Life has moved forward. But, it is damned hard work without my mama.

Denise and her baby hours after birth.

Denise A. Garcia is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, an Ayurvedic Postpartum Consultant, and a mama of one cute kiddo in the Boston area. She is passionate about serving families from all walks of life starting before birth on through postpartum. Her mantra as a doula (and as a parent) is as Thich Nhat Hanh says, “smile, breathe, and go slowly.” Find out more about Denise and the doula care she provides at nidodoulacare.com and follow her on Instagram @nidodoulacare.