Mothering without my mom: How do I give my daughter what my mother gave me?

10 years after my mom died, my daughter was born. I thought I'd reached the bottom of my grief. I was wrong

Published May 10, 2020 7:00AM (EDT)

Hummingbird (Illustration by Liz Climo)
Hummingbird (Illustration by Liz Climo)

My mom died on her 50th birthday. She had been diagnosed with breast cancer a few years prior, and though she put up a tremendous fight, she just couldn't ever seem to get ahead of it. The day she left us, we sat in my parents' bedroom, which was filled with flowers and balloons, and read her birthday cards out loud. She took her last breath, and my siblings and I each took turns saying goodbye.

When we were done, we all walked outside and sat looking at the creek that ran through my parents' backyard. A hummingbird buzzed by, and someone, I think it was my sister, said, "I bet that's mom."  It was as if that boundless energy and charisma she'd had when she was healthy had finally been given back to her after so many months confined to her bed, and had taken the form of this lively little bird. It's impossible for me to see one now without thinking of her.

My mom was the sort of person who didn't want a big fuss made over her — unless, of course, the fuss was actually a big party where everyone had a great time and talked about how much they liked her. So, per her request, everyone wore funny hats to her funeral. There was also an open bar, a dance floor, and a DJ who played songs like "Consider me Gone" by Sting. (She always thought that would be a funny song to play at a funeral.) My mom never took herself too seriously. She just wanted everyone to be happy, and we loved her for it.

Even when I was upset with her for not letting me get a hotel room with my friends on prom night, or when she expressed disappointment that I couldn't bring my grades up, I still loved her so much. She listened to me without judgement. She respected my privacy, yet left her door wide open if I ever needed to talk. She encouraged my strengths and dismissed my weaknesses with humor: "Who cares if you don't have a great singing voice? That doesn't mean you can't still sing! Sing your heart out!"

She left us too soon, but she left her children with the memory of being loved unconditionally. I realized the best way to honor her memory was to find a way to love myself that much, even in her absence. What an incredible gift that has been.

Ten years after she died, I welcomed my own child into the world. I thought I'd reached the bottom of my grief, but found I was actually sitting on a mountain of feelings I didn't even realize were there. Initially, I was just angry. Angry that this new person would never get to know her wonderful grandmother. Angry that I couldn't pick up the phone and ask my mom how she handled this or that. I wanted her to say to me, "You used to do that, too! You were such a pain in the ass." I missed her levity, I missed her love. I just missed her.

When I was done feeling sorry for myself, I started feeling something new: panic. How do I give my daughter what my mom managed to give me? Can I? My mom was so much fun. She'd sing with us, and dance with us, and bake with us, and laugh with us. Am I fun? Sometimes I think I am. I'm usually the first person on the dance floor, but I'm also the first person to leave the party. I hate baking; it's too messy. I hate a messy house and I can't cope with chaos. Our house growing up was the definition of chaos: always filled with people, and always a disaster. As a kid, I loved that. It felt so warm, easygoing and comfortable. Could I be easygoing like that, or does our house feel sterile? Do I have the warmth she had — the warmth that made me feel so loved? Will my daughter feel as loved as I did?

One important thing I've realized as a mom: My own mom wasn't perfect. I remember her as perfect, but not because she did everything right. Like all parents, she'd have bad days when her patience was paper-thin and she would make her frustration known. She was also so far from a "Pinterest Mom" that the term alone would make her roll over in her grave had she not been cremated. (She would have loved that joke.)

Like me, I'm sure she had her doubts about whether she was going to screw her kids up somehow. Still, to me, she was perfect, and the reason for that was simple: She made a conscious choice to get to know me, to connect with me, and to always make me feel safe and loved. That's it. In a way, it's the easiest thing in the world to do as a parent, but on the other hand, it's easy to forget since we put so much pressure on ourselves to do everything right all the time.

I'm not sure if it's having a child of my own or just getting older and learning more about myself, but every day I feel like I'm getting to know my mom in a new way. I still miss her so much, but I feel like she's still here with me. When my daughter is kind, I know that in a way her kindness started with my mom. She's always the first to notice when another person feels sad, or scared, or lonely, and makes sure that person feels seen, just like her grandma did.

When my daughter is sad, it's easier for me to acknowledge what that sadness might feel like, because I had someone who always took the time to acknowledge my feelings. While my friend's parents would write off the angsty music their kids loved, my mom would listen to it with me and try to understand why I loved it so much (and then insist on coming with me to the concert). And when my daughter is silly, I can hear my mom saying "She's just like you. God, you were so weird."

I see all of these things in myself, and in my daughter — this lively, loving, charismatic little girl — and think to myself, "That's mom." I realize this, and I can almost see my mom smiling as if she were standing right there with me. And I smile too.


By Liz Climo

Liz Climo is a cartoonist, children’s book author, illustrator and animator. Her newest book "You're Mom: A Little Book for Mothers (and the People Who Love Them)" is available now. Liz grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and moved to Los Angeles after college to work as a character artist on "The Simpsons." She is the author of the Rory the Dinosaur series, "The Little World of Liz Climo," "Lobster Is the Best Medicine" and "Best Bear Ever!". Her books have been translated into ten languages and have sold more than 2.25 million copies worldwide. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Editor's Picks Essay Grief Motherhood Mother's Day Parenting