Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“Can I Be a Good Mother to My Daughter While Missing My Own Mom?

I wrote to you once before after a traumatic stillbirth that I experienced over a year ago, and you sent a private response. Your advice and compassion helped me through a very difficult time. Now I’m currently 21 weeks pregnant with a little girl, and things seem to be going very well, except for one thing: I need my mom and she isn’t here. My mom passed away when my son was three and a half months old. He will be 13 in September. Now that I know I’m having a little girl, I feel lost.

My mom was my everything, and, even with her being severely ill for 20 years, she was the best mom I could have ever dreamed of and she was my best friend. I’m very scared that I won’t be able to be as good a mother to my daughter. I’m extremely close to my son, but I have no idea how to raise a daughter. Maybe I am overthinking things, but I don’t want to let my little girl down. I want to be a great mom; hell, I’ll settle for being just an OK mom to both my children.

I just really want and need my mom, and although it’s been over 12 years, I feel the pain of her loss more than ever now. I tried talking about it but was told it’s been so long that I need to get over it. I don’t normally feel this way, and I try to think of the happy times. I’m so scared that without my mom I won’t know what to do. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. I feel like I am going crazy overthinking this but my mom was my rock and I want to give to my daughter what my mom gave to me. Thank you for your time. — My Mother My Self

I remember you! And I remember the beautiful name of your baby you lost at birth and the other details you shared with me. I remember that you felt lost then and like you had let her down, and I told you that you hadn’t—that she was lucky to have you as her mom during her brief time on Earth, and I believe the baby girl you’re carrying now is equally lucky to have you.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in a cafe and a woman just walked in with a tiny crying baby girl in a stroller. I looked up and the woman met my gaze, quickly apologized for her baby’s cries, and said she needed some coffee and they’d be gone soon. I told her her I wasn’t bothered at all and that her baby was adorable. “Oh, thanks,” she replied, “She’s four weeks old and I just needed to get out of the house. Everyone says the first few weeks are the hardest.” She looked both exhausted and exhilarated — like how I remember brand new motherhood feeling.

I didn’t tell her that sometimes it gets harder — that as hard as the sleep deprivation and hormone fluctuation is in the beginning and everything feeling totally new and foreign, there will probably be times in the future when her heart will break for her daughter and she’ll long for the days when the biggest challenge was getting her to sleep for more than 90 minutes at a time. What I told her instead is what I tell any new mom who is struggling: “The first six weeks are the hardest, and then it gets a little bit easier, and then after 12 weeks it gets a little easier again, and then every few weeks after that it keeps getting easier and easier.” And that’s all true. And it’s also true that experience breeds confidence and confidence makes experiences like motherhood a little easier. And it’s also true that there will be moments in the future that it won’t be easy — moments that will actually be harder than what she’s experiencing now, but the strength and confidence and bond with her daughter that she’s building now will get her through it, just as the strength and confidence you’ve built as a mother with get you through. In addition, you’ll have your mother’s legacy — the lessons she taught you and the love she shared and continues to give — to guide you through any challenges you face in raising your daughter. It sounds like she provided a wonderful model of motherhood — one you’ve already been following in your 13 years of being a mom.

The truth is, raising a daughter isn’t that different from raising a son. As a mother of both myself, I’ve found that rather than their gender, far bigger indicators of their differing needs are their personality traits and their respective interests, talents, and challenges. It’s a continual learning process — getting to know them, trying to assess and meet their needs. Does this sound familiar? It should. You’ve already been doing this for almost 13 years. And you grew up with a mother who did it with you. You’re going to be just fine.

Here’s the thing: Everything you think you need to raise your daughter you already have, including guidance from your mother through the love and lessons you learned from her. And the stuff you don’t yet know that you need to raise your daughter you’re going to figure out the same way your mother figured out what you needed and the same way you’ve figured out what your son needs and the same way all loving mothers figure out what all their kids need: by trial and error and doing the best they can do. When you need support, you will turn to your partner and your friends and the people you’ve always turned to for support. And when those people can’t give you the right support — like, when someone you care about says it’s been 12 years and you should just get over the death of your mother — you will seek support from someone else who might better understand how you’re feeling and what you need to hear. And you will, hopefully, forgive the people who don’t always have the right thing to say at the right time, including yourself.

There will be times, just as there always have been, that you make mistakes as a mother — when you say or do the wrong thing, when you disappoint, when you let impatience or sheer fatigue get the best of you — and it’s important to cut yourself slack. No mother is without flaws and mistakes — even your own, and yet you loved her fiercely. Fortunately, loving perfectly and doing everything the right way isn’t a prerequisite for a happy and fulfilling relationship. And one day, hopefully many decades in the future, when you pass on, the grief your children will feel, like the grief you rightfully still have over the loss of your own mom, will be a testament to your relationships with them and the perfectly imperfect love that sustained them.

Related: What We Wish We Would Have Known About New Motherhood and “How Do You Find Balance After You Have a Baby?”
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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy​(AT)​dearwendy.com.

19 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Kate July 19, 2018, 8:33 am

    Your mom’s love for you and her guidance and wisdom never went away. You do still have them, even though physically she may be gone. But also, more broadly than the human woman who was your mother, you always have that mother-love in your life. Everyone does. No one can lack it. Look around you and try to see it. You will. I just saw the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” about Mr. Rogers, and at the end, people who knew him are remembering how he told them to think about the people in their lives who helped them and lifted them up. I’m sure you’d think about your mom, but it wasn’t just her, was it? It was probably lots of people. Anyway, I strongly recommend that movie!

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    • avatar

      Kate July 19, 2018, 8:37 am

      Because it’s like therapy! But it also is all about what kids need.

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      • Moneypenny

        Moneypenny July 19, 2018, 11:26 am

        Oh my gosh, I really want to see that documentary! But I already know it’ll make me cry! 🙂

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      • avatar

        Kate July 19, 2018, 12:17 pm

        I cried. It’s worth it though.

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  • avatar

    anonymousse July 19, 2018, 8:44 am

    I can tell you’ll be a good mother to her because you are so worried about it. Whoever told you just to get over it isn’t very empathetic, and is unkind to dismiss you in that way.

    You’ll find ways to remember and honor her by incorporating her into the way you raise your daughter. Maybe you’ll be as close as you were to your mother.

    Also…Congratulations!

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    • avatar

      csp July 19, 2018, 9:06 am

      There was a great study that said that parenting books don’t help. Being the type of person who buys parenting books already makes you a good parent. Basically, if you give the book out it makes no difference. The people that search it out, already are good.

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  • avatar

    ron July 19, 2018, 9:05 am

    I think you’ll do fine as a mother, but it wouldn’t hurt to do a little therapy and also check for depression. If your family doesn’t think you should continue to talk about your mother and isn’t willing to listen, then you need a therapist to listen and guide you.

    What you learned from your mother is still and will always be with you, much of it almost subconsciously, as you will just ‘feel’ what is the right thing to do. Your mother’s guidance and approach to child raising will be a big help when your daughter is young. Beyond that, you need to turn to the experiences of yourself and mothers your age — the world changes a lot in a generation. What was the right way to handle raising a teenager, including what are the real dangers and what are the appropriate expectations and what her future will be like, change a ton in a generation. Whether or not your mother was still alive, you’re on your own on this and the point will come that you need to trust your daughter’s perceptions of her generation and world and what is right for her more than your own or your mothers.

    My sister is the best mother I’ve known. She has two daughters, both born after our mother died. I see that a lot of the way she deals were her daughters reflects my mother’s approach. As the girls have grown older, mys sister did more to nurture their independence than my mother did with us. Turned out just fine. Both daughters are among my favorite people in the world and I don’t think my sister could have done a better job. Her daughters are over 25 and quite different from each other, but both extremely impressive young women. If my sister had insisted upon raYising them with the view that how our mother thought teenage girls should behave — well, it wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well.

    You’ll be fine, but do find someone you can talk to — therapist or a friend who’s a young mother.

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  • avatar

    JD July 19, 2018, 9:57 am

    I bet you’ll find your mother by your side more now than ever. She will be there is the traditions you carry on with your daughter, baking cookies, painting her nails, whatever it may be. I suspect you will feel her love even more.

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  • juliecatharine

    Juliecatharine July 19, 2018, 10:34 am

    Who’s cutting onions? LW, it is so lovely to read your letter. Even though you are worried and missing your mom terribly the love and fierce determination to be a good mother is palpable. Your kids are lucky to have you.

    Ps. There’s no time limit to grief. Your feelings are perfectly valid. I’m sorry for your loss but glad you and your mom shared such a bond. Emulate her with your children and you’ll be a-ok.

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    • avatar

      ktfran July 19, 2018, 10:58 am

      Yeah. I got a little teary eyed while reading the letter and Wendy’s response.

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  • avatar

    dinoceros July 19, 2018, 10:43 am

    Being a good parent isn’t just about giving advice or helping in the moment. It’s about raising a kid who can go on to be a great parent, spouse, friend, etc., WITHOUT the advice or help. Not that it wouldn’t be wonderful if she was there to do these things, but part of her being an awesome mom was raising you in a way that you are awesome on your own — not just if someone else is there to tell you how to be. It may be hard to have that confidence, but trust in your mom. Have some faith that she knew that part of doing her job was to make sure that you could do this stuff on your own if/when you needed to.

    But I also echo that raising a girl isn’t that much different from a boy. Any differences that you will find (and some may be due to gender and some may be just due to her being a different person than your son) are things that you will learn from as you go. Think about how a new parent has no idea how to raise a teenager — but they don’t have to know that immediately. They just need to know how to raise a baby and then a toddler and then a preschooler and so on. Right now, you just need to know how to care for a baby, and THAT you already know. Anything that you need to know or do different for your daughter is stuff that you’ll learn gradually. (Also, maybe it’s a good thing that you don’t have a concrete plan of “this is how to raise a girl” since that means she will be free to be herself. People I know who are super certain of how to raise a child of a certain gender sometimes go too far in the other direction and make their kid play with dolls or cars or whatever even if they don’t want to, because they think “my kid HAS to like these things because this is how you raise a boy (or a girl).”

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  • avatar

    LisforLeslie July 19, 2018, 10:51 am

    Agreed with the rest -you are and will continue to be a great mother.
    I also suggest that you consider if there are any active elder groups in your area that might provide some adopt-a-grandma options. To be sure, no one can possibly replace your mom and she sounds like she was amazing. But there are a lot of people out there that either never had kids or whose kids moved away or who lost their children and so don’t get to play grandma and would love to spoil a grandkid or two.

    If you belong to a church or temple, just take the baby there and you’ll find some candidates. Or your local Panera around 10 am.

    But that may not be your thing and that’s totally fine. You got this.

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  • Moneypenny

    Moneypenny July 19, 2018, 11:29 am

    This was such a compassionate response from Wendy. I have no advice, but I do know I have had that feeling of being in a negative situation and just wanting my mom. I guess that feeling never goes away no matter how old you are.

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  • Lucidity

    Lucidity July 19, 2018, 12:06 pm

    There is no time limit on experiencing grief. If you find yourself unable to stop thinking about how much you want and need your mom, I encourage you to see a grief counselor. My mom died 10 years ago, and I still go through periods where I really struggle with the loss. I find that returning to my grief counselor during those times helps immeasurably. I sometimes go to group sessions, and there are people there who lost loved ones decades ago. You never really get over a loss of this magnitude, and that’s OK.

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    • avatar

      csp July 19, 2018, 1:28 pm

      ^^This. LW, don’t feel like one of the most influential relationships of your life should be swept under the rug just because time has passed. My mom is in her 60s and her father died years ago. She cried the other day because something on tv she knew her dad would love and she thought to call him. Only for a second but that was all she needed to feel it. don’t feel bad about still missing her.

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  • avatar

    SierraNevada July 19, 2018, 3:22 pm

    LW, your sadness and fear really hit home. You sound like a great mother and daughter, and your daughter will be so lucky to be raised by such a compassionate and resilient woman (as your son already is). For what it’s worth, my wonderful mom died two years ago, and my brokenness ebbs and flows. She was central to my life. While I know I want children (in part because of the close bond we shared), it makes me raw to remember that she won’t be there for me or them. My mom’s own mother died when my mom was a young teen. I know that she didn’t think that she would be a good mom because she lost her own, but she was the best mom. I grew up acutely aware of how lucky I was, and she got to experience mother-daughter closeness from a new position. Wishing you abundant joy in this new chapter, even as that joy continues to be tinged with sorrow.

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  • Guy Friday

    Guy Friday July 19, 2018, 10:51 pm

    When I read your letter, LW, I immediately thought of Thomas Merton, who was a Jesuit monk in the mid-1900s who wrote what is commonly known as “The Merton Prayer.” Admittedly, I stumbled across him because Aaron Sorkin paraphrased the bolded part of this in both Sports Night and the West Wing, but it’s still a beautiful prayer. It goes like this:

    My Lord God,
    I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain where it will end.
    nor do I really know myself,
    and the fact that I think I am following your will
    does not mean that I am actually doing so.
    But I believe that the desire to please you
    does in fact please you.

    And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
    I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
    And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
    though I may know nothing about it.
    Therefore will I trust you always though
    I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
    I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
    and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

    You can replace the Lord in the prayer with whatever you want, but the sentiment is the same: the fact that you are trying to be the best mom/daughter/friend/role model you can be is going to be enough for the person you’re being it for. They don’t need you to be perfect; they will be moved by the fact that you care enough to try hard. You obviously worry enough about doing the right thing to write to Wendy, and THAT, more than anything, is what makes me feel confident despite never having met you that you will be the kind of mother your kids will be lucky to have.

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    • Skyblossom

      Skyblossom July 20, 2018, 8:45 am

      This is beautiful!

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  • Skyblossom

    Skyblossom July 20, 2018, 8:45 am

    You sound like you’ll do great! You can honor your mom and remember her by being there for your own daughter in whatever way your daughter needs. You don’t need to duplicate what your mom did to be like your mom. If you remember wonderful times when you and your mom did things together you can do the same with your daughter without needing to do the same activity. Maybe you and your mom loved to bake cookies together but you discover your daughter hates baking but loves bird watching so you build togetherness with your daughter by bird watching.

    There is no one perfect way to be a parent and child. Each parent and each child have their own unique personality. The best way to be like your mom is to be like her in general ways, like spending time together, while being unique in the specific ways you do that.

    Don’t beat yourself up trying to be just like your mom or trying to decide what your mom would do. Your mom almost certainly did the best she could in the moment. You can do that. Do the best you can. Every child is unique so try something and if that something doesn’t work try something else. Your mom probably did. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself if what you are doing is working or if you should try something else. Your mom probably did that too. When you remember your mom you will be remembering the woman who already tried various things and settled on what worked for herself and you. You won’t remember the times she tried things that didn’t work so they didn’t become the long term traditions that you cherish.

    If you are a warm, loving, available parent you will be a good parent. If you accept your child for who they are with their own strengths and weaknesses you will be a good parent.

    I’m a parent of a son and a daughter who are nine years apart in age with the son being the oldest so not so different from where you are. I found that at the beginning the difference between boy and girl wasn’t as great as the difference between the interests of the older child and suddenly carrying around a diaper bag again and having a child that needed naps. They definitely were different and some of that difference was gender related. My son loved cars and trucks and tractors and Legos. I assumed my daughter would play with them at least some of the time but she never had any interest in them even though all of those toys were available to her. We got how different it was when we went into Toys R Us when she was two and she ran straight for the plush animals. Our son always ran for the ride on cars. My husband and I looked at each other and said, “Wow, this is different.” I’m sure you’ll have your own moments like this. My daughter who loved plush animals was not even slightly interested in dolls but she did love dinosaurs. We have lots of dinosaurs in our home and when we are traveling we stop to see fossils if we get the chance and a chance for us means driving somewhere near them. We make the time because she has that interest.

    The best thing you can do is let your daughter show you who she is and love her for all of her own interests and uniqueness and support her in the way you decide she most needs support. That’s probably what your mom did with you.

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