Mother–on Mother’s Day

Josephine and Linda 1945

I look at this photo of my mother, age 30, as I lay somewhat untethered in her lap. It’s before everything happens, before my father leaves her, before she leaves me. It’s the beginning of our story. There we are, innocent of the future, and unknown to both of us, we are part of a pattern that will continue. When I’m four, she will leave me with her mother. My mother was left behind too, and this legacy will haunt us to the end of their lives.

One word. It’s just a word: “mother,” but it’s never a neutral word—it’s always imbued with emotional meaning. Each of us has a story about her, each of us is somewhere on a path of dealing with the person we know as mother.

As Mother’s Day approaches, pink flowery cards spring up like gardens in every store saying things like, “Who is the person who always listened to you, the one you could always count on—Mom! Celebrate her today.”

Some people feel that their mother is their best friend, with no doubts about her loyalty and her abiding love, and Mother’s Day can make some people feel celebratory while others feel sad, angry, and confused. I was one of those in the second group. My stomach would begin to ache as Mother’s Day approached, and despite my intentions to ignore it or find a neutral card, I’d remember things I wanted to forget: my mother leaving on the train after her once a year visit to me and my grandmother. Another part of me wanted her to leave, because the visits were fraught with conflict between her and her mother. Sometimes my heart would soften toward my mother as I thought of her being motherless. I knew how that felt.

As an adult, after my mother made it clear that she wanted no one to know I was her daughter—my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother: A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness is the story of the mothers in my family—I was left with two feelings: to change her mind and PROVE that I was worthy for my mother to love and claim me—thus the need to find the “right” card. Or perhaps that year I’d feel like expressing my anger at her abandonments refusing to send her a card. Which was right? Was it being a small-minded person to refuse to send my own mother a card? After all, she had birthed me, she was indeed my mother, even if she felt conflicted about it. I knew that in every day life, her mother was my “mother” in the sense of she was the one who took me to the doctor, tucked me in, got me to do my homework, bought my clothes, and encouraged my development. So I had two mothers, really. When my grandmother was alive, and we were speaking—things were complicated between us as well—I would send her a Mother’s Day card, as I did an aunt who mothered me, and a friend who had taken the role of mother for many years. So the motherless me adopted several mothers.

I’ve been a therapist for over thirty-five years, and during this time I’ve encountered many emotional “orphans.” Some people feel motherless because they grow up with very distant mothers, mothers who are distracted or sick, mothers who have too many children, or who start off well with mothering but then become overwhelmed or have other interests, or have a stressful marriage, or no marriage at all. There are so many stories about mothers—and each mother has her own story as well about who her model of mothering was and the challenges she faced as a person.

It seems to me the best way we can manage the complexities about “mother” is not to remain in judgment of our mothers, no matter how hard that is. If we can find a way to stand in her shoes, and to learn who she was before she was a mother, we may find ourselves seeing her as a whole person, someone who had her own life, her own struggles and problems to solve.

It doesn’t work in the deep mining of memories and the past to pass over the true feelings we may have, even if they are dark. I had to learn this over and over again. First, we may need to speak out or write out the raw truth of how we feel—now and in the past, the good and the bad. We may need to scream or cry or write poetry, stomp around or simply sit still with a range of insights and feelings we discover on our journey to healing.

There may come a time when we can look into the face of the girl or young woman “mother” was long before she knew of us, when she was simply herself. You may visit her, or simply look at a photograph—and pause to get to know her, thinking of the possibilities and hopes she might have had for her life, how she wanted her life to turn out. You may have this information, or you might need to imagine it based on what you know.

As a memoirist, I encourage people to write the stories that beckon, the untold stories, the secret stories. And yes, you can write a story through your mother’s eyes, become her, and see her world. Think of the era she grew up in, the clothes she wore, the political and historical demands on her life and write from her point of view. Look at the photographs and write TO her, share what you think and understand now. And write about that word, “mother.” See how it speaks to you.

In honor of Mother’s day, my eBook Don’t Call Me Mother is on sale for .99–just for today!

Video: Judy Mandel and I talk about Discovering our Mothers through Writing Memoir.

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Imagining Mother | An Imaginary Memoir

 My mother Josephine, age 10, with the dark hair. She had lived with her great-grandmother since she was 6.


All of humanity has something in common: we were born to a mother. We might not know who she is/was, or we might have been blessed to be bathed in her love–however she might have shown that love. Perhaps we were close to our mother, or yearned to be closer. Once she became a mother, she may have lost her original identity–what was her maiden name. Do you know what her life was before she had children–before you were relating to her as “mother?”

 Look at photographs of your mother–was she smiling? What was she wearing? Is there a familiar mood she exudes? Can you tell what she was feeling; do you know what she was doing just before or just after the photograph was taken? What do you imagine she felt/thought/did that day so long ago?

I’m often asked by people who are writing memoirs, “How can I write about my mother’s life? I don’t want to write fiction, but of course I wasn’t born yet for a lot of what she lived through. The stories I know are from others, from letters, from journals.”

 Here’s a great way to learn about your mother or grandmother:

1. Read about the era she lived in–clothes, furniture, food, holidays, schooling, expectations of those times. These can be found in history books, online, in diaries and in fictional stories set in that era.

2. Look at a photograph of your mother–is she smiling, posed or casual, what is her body language, what do you know about her at that age?

3. From what you know or imagine about your mother, write some pieces about her–from her point of view. Write a letter from her to her mother when she was 18 years old. What might she have said?

4. Write a diary entry about a secret your mother had, or might have had. See what comes out.

5. Write a diary entry she might have written on the day, or week, of your birth.

6. Create a scene where something in her life that was negative turned out to be positive. Rewrite her history.

7. Journal about your experiences as you create someone new in your imagination. Call it fiction, call it body knowledge or intuition. Who knows? But these exercises might tempt you to know more about her, or see her as separate from you–as a person with her own life, hopes, dreams, and disappointments.


It’s Muscatine Iowa, circa 1926.  Josephine is playing with another child in the family who lives with her great-grandmother, also called Josephine, the mother of Blanche.

The woman who became my mother was an abandoned child, like me. As a little girl she would wait and wait for her mother to visit, and melt into her arms for the few moments of ecstasy before having to face the “real” world, which later she would describe as dingy and depressing.

Muscatine was the home of several generations of her mother’s side of the family. Her father lived about 20 miles away with a new wife and their baby daughter. I see her feeling displaced, I can see the sadness in her eyes from the time she was very young. This photograph was given to me by a relative after she died. I stare at the photos of mother when she was young, and I can see her then, her small limbs, her dark wistful eyes.

Little Josephine used to walk up and down the sidewalk on Iowa street, glancing at the boats and barged that plied the Mississippi River just a few blocks away. The button factories, the alcohol plant, the industries along the wharf were more interesting to her than the women’s life at home, cooking, taking care of everyone.

She yearned for Chicago where her beautiful mother would come from on the train. She ached for the big city clothes and excitement. Her mother has planted hope in her heart. “Someday,” she says, brushing the dust off her smooth wool coat.

For now, Josephine must practice piano, study her lessons, and put up with farm people who have no dreams. She squeezes her eyes shut, and grits her teeth. One day, she will have her mother and all the finery and live in the big city. One day.