When a Mother Stops Being Mom

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.

What Can You Do With a General?

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.





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14 thoughts on “When a Mother Stops Being Mom”

  1. I love this post so much. I also love YOU so much. My mother stopped being a Mom when I was a pre-pubescent girl. I also raised my boy alone and understand so much of what you went through.

    There are so many reasons you are my darling friend, one of which is that we understand each other.

    LOVE you.

    1. Thank you, Ali for you kind words. You’ve done an amazing job with your son, and hopefully the pattern is broken.

      As for the relationship with your own mother, where there is life, there is hope. I’m a big fan of yours, and know that you have the ability to leap high obstacles life has put in your path.


  2. It’s painful to read this, but I am moved by your desire to help others. Also, I never would have thought of using Mark’s book in this context, but can see how helpful it might be.
    Well done, my friend.

    1. Thank you, Jamie. Grief is grief. It wears many different hats, but underneath it is still the same.

      So many people suffer this time of year with the manufactured holidays of Mother’s Day, quickly followed by Father’s Day. Last year, I shared a remembrance of my mother, which I will likely do again, however as I read through my Twitter stream there was so much sadness, I felt compelled to reach out to some of these parents.

  3. Sometimes you have to leave the parents behind. When they are destructive and dangerous, you have to first think about the harmful effects they have on you and the destruction they cause to your family and your responsibility has to be to protect your own children from what you endured.

    1. You make a very valid point, EM. When the environment is so toxic, so abusive that to subject children to their grandparents would be child abuse, a parent is obligated to detach completely. It is sad that the children miss out on loving grandparents, but that’s not the cards they’ve been dealt.

      I wasn’t implying that all mothers deserve their children’s love and affection. I made no judgement about it one way or the other. Instead, I pointed out it is a form of loss, and there is a grieving process that must be addressed.

  4. Never saw those movies.. It’s a terrible loss that I can’t imagine.. My closest analogy in my experience would be going through breakups with boyfriends who parents have already spent time bonding with. They never get a word in do they? Except that one day the “son” or “daughter” they’ve developed a relationship with for years (and vice versa) is suddenly gone and there’s no closure whatsoever.
    What a terrible time for you back then with a small child..

    1. What an interesting analogy, Nathalie. I had never thought of that. Though there had been siblings, nieces and nephews through the years whom I’ve missed, it never occurred to me that the parents also felt a loss. Thank you for widening the scope of this article.

      Yes, it was a difficult time, but I was fortunate to have been born with a combination of great coping skills and that mixture of opportunity meets chance. Also, my sister, Nancy was a huge help with my sanity. We had a blast during those early years while I was trying to figure it all out. Each Friday, we shopped for new outfits, and then went out while her fiance and his buddies watched my baby during his poker game. Not sure I ever actually did figure anything out, but time keeps moving, and children grow up inspite of us.

      You MUST rent The Birds. Scariest movie ever.

  5. During an early-married dinner, my potato-masher bent, so I was using an electric beater to mash the potatoes.

    A girlfriend entered the kitchen to refill a wineglass. “Beaters, huh?” she asked, nonchalantly.

    Just as nonchalantly, I shrugged. “Thought I’d try it.”

    The girlfriend passed my mother as SHE entered my kitchen. My mom said nearly the exact same thing, in the exact same nonchalant tone: “Beaters, huh?”

    Only THIS time, my back stiffened worse than the potatoes, and the tiny hairs on my neck stood up. “Why?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with beaters? Beaters are fine for potatoes. I’m just trying something a little different, that’s all.”

    My mother just shrugged, and smiled, and left the kitchen, and I felt quite stupid.

    Years later, my own daughter was trying her hand in the kitchen, scrambling eggs, and I peeked over – I think I started to make a suggestion about which spatula she might use on my non-stick pan, when I saw the same stiffening in her back, the same hairs stand up.

    Luckily, she was young enough to fall for my backpedaling: “Oh, I totally forget what I was going to say. You go ahead, I’ll just read this newspaper.”

    Mothers have enormous power over their daughters. And it’s not even their fault, I realized that day. It’s US. The DAUGHTERS. We need to grow up, we need to appreciate our mothers. That takes a LOT of maturity. Not that I’M all the way there yet. Mothers do their best. Even if their best isn’t very good. It’s still their best. That’s a lot, no matter who you are.

    I wrote my own mom an e-mail the other day; I don’t write her nearly enough. But I wrote her that she’s never far from my thoughts, and that I love her and appreciate her.

    That’s not nearly enough, either.

    When my daughter’s eggs were done, she asked me if I wanted some, and I said “Sure,” and tried to balance casual and enthusiastic as carefully as I could.

    They were delicious. And my pan was fine.

    She did her best. I’m doing mine. We’re both very, very different people. THAT took some time to figure out.

    What will be, will be.

    Wish me luck. As long as we all do our best, it’s really all anyone can hope for, isn’t it?

    As usual, Mara: you’ve taken on a subject that everyone else is afraid to talk about and made it a subject for some extremely interesting conversation.

    Do it again! Do it again!

    Your #1 fan,

    1. What a great story, Elizabeth! When we are with our families it is so difficult to not fall right back into the roles our childhood – and react like children. In early February, I had lunch with my two older sisters, and at 51, I felt myself vying for their attention just as I always had as ‘the baby’ of the family.

      Some things never change unless we make a conscious decision to do things differently. We can choose to break patterns, just as you did with your daughter. It’s not easy, but practice, practice, practice.

      Thank you so much for your encouragement. I love to write about the my travels, however there are many things that I feel need a light shone upon them. Soon Peregrine Pages will launch, and there will be more room for these articles. 🙂

  6. I feel it is important to write that the estrangement between mothers and children I was referring to in this article is not the result of abuse. That is an entirely different topic, and one which I am not at all qualified to address. Instead, I was writing about tensions in families, the drifting apart, misunderstandings, rifts because of disagreements over money, etc.

    There are a myriad of reasons why families drift apart, but as long as there isn’t abuse involved there is a chance of reconciliation – so that means there is still hope.

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