When I was a little girl, my mother and I used to stay up very late most Friday nights to watch what were then referred to as horror films. Boris Karloff, Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi would come out from behind the curtain dripping with chocolate syrup. By today’s standards they were pretty tame, with the exception of the Hitchock films that were sure to frighten me with their realism. Even now, when I see birds gathered on a wire, I shudder.
Our other shared passion was musicals. Songs from South Pacific were sung to my own daughter during bath time. Maria, as a modern day Juliet, was so beautiful and tragic in West Side Story. And, the ultimate for me, Fiddler on the Roof. I knew every word to every song, complete with dialogue spoken mid-song. In retrospect, I’m not sure if, as the youngest child, I developed my love for this American artform because it gave me a chance to spend time with my mother, Regardless, it continues until this day. I’ve been known to break out into song on more than one occasion if the appropriate song pops into my head. However, this I get from my father. Unfortunately, I don’t sing nearly as well as those around me wish I did.
I bring all of this up because during these formative movie-watching years there was one song in one film that made a particularly strong impression on me. The first time I remember seeing White Christmas, I was about eight years old. Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Irving Berlin, were a trinity for great entertainment. The song that the plot is really built around, is “What Can You Do With A General” Two army buddies end up in Vermont to see two young ladies, only to find that their former commander, who is the innkeeper, is about to go bankrupt.
This song has played over and over in my head through the years, and I’ve often applied its principle to other roles and situations. Just as the General found he was no longer of value once his role in the war was through, what do we do with mothers when they are no longer moms?
There are many reasons why a mother may lose her children. We’re fighting two wars at the moment, and young men and women die on the battlefield leaving behind grieving mothers. The streets of many US cities may as well be behind enemy lines with gang warfare taking the lives of approximately 15,000 people each year. There are young people playing Russian Roulette with drugs and alcohol, and their luck simply runs out.Then there are the horrible accidents and diseases that take children and young adults, leaving behind mothers devastated by their loss. These mothers experience a grief that only another who has gone through it can fully understand, yet they are still mothers, respected by the world as moms.
And, then there is the loss that hurts in a way that few can understand. There is no Hallmark card for it. There is no date to mark on a calendar, or grave to set flowers. There is the grief of estrangement. For these mothers, whose children have turned away from them, it is an entirely different sort of pain because there is no societal role for them. Much as the General was unemployable after the war, what do you do with a mother whose child doesn’t want her to be a mom? Who has fired her?
When I was twenty years old, my husband died, leaving me and our ten week old baby. People assumed I was either an unwed mother or divorced. It was a natural mistake considering my young age. However, it was very important to me that people understood that I had done it right. I had gotten married, then pregnant. That my husband had not chosen to leave me, but that circumstances beyond his control – death – had separated him from me and our daughter. Over the years, friends who were going through difficult divorces would tell me that I had it easier than them because my husband hadn’t rejected me, nor had our marriage been a failure, but simply fate had interfered with our happily ever after.
This is very much how I view the mothers of estranged children. They are in the throes of messy divorces, with all the baggage that’s carried along with them. But, they are still mothers, and this is where the similarity ends. From the research I have done, most have agreed that nothing would make them happier than to once again be engaged in their children’s lives. Maybe the roles would be slightly different, and the rules would change, but they long to hear in a familiar voice “Mom”.
For those of you who are struggling with this, there are resources out there. Mark Hundley, a therapist who specializes in grief and loss, has recently released the second edition to his book, Awaken to Good Mourning, which deals with the loss of a loved one, that can be applied in this situation very well. Also, here are a few online support groups that may be helpful. If you know of others, I ask that you please add them to the comments below.