May 11, 2006
Comforting Mothers Without Mothers
"My childhood skidded to a stop on a Tuesday afternoon in the middle of my 15th year, with my mother's first mammogram results," writes Hope Edelman in her moving new book, "Motherless Mothers: How Mother Loss Shapes the Parents We Become" (Harper Collins). For Edelman, her mother's illness and subsequent death from cancer two years later in 1981 were the beginning of a journey of loss, self-exploration and eventual emotional redemption that has spanned nearly a quarter-century and spawned three well-received books on the subject.
"I wanted to find ways to help women cope, and even thrive in the absence of a mother," says Edelman from her home in Topanga Canyon.
A native New Yorker who graduated from the Northwestern School of Journalism, Edelman first explored "mother loss" while studying creative nonfiction writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop in the late 1980s. She discovered that, other than a few pieces of clinical work gathering dust in university archives, women seeking guidance and reassurance had few resources.
Her first book, "Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss," published in 1994, fused her own experiences with research and with excerpts from interviews with hundreds of women. She received thousands of letters from women who heard their voices expressed in her pages. The book became a New York Times best seller that sparked dialogue and helped pave the way for a more open discourse on the subject.
In the midst of this success, her own life was about to change dramatically -- a seismic shift that would inspire her next major book project.
Edelman was living in New York in 1996 when she began dating Uzi Eliyahou, an Israeli high-tech executive based in Los Angeles. Seven months into their whirlwind long-distance relationship, she discovered she was pregnant. Within the year, she was married, living in Los Angeles and the mother of Maya, now 8 (Eden, 4, followed a few years later).
Through this experience, Edelman became convinced that as a motherless daughter, she faced a unique and different set of challenges that she wanted to share with both laypeople and medical professionals.
She was motivated in part by a disturbing interaction with the first gynecologist she saw after becoming pregnant. When faced with Edelman's particular concerns about coping, as a pregnant woman, with the loss of her own mother, the doctor just wasn't interested.
"Let me know when you get it figured out," he told her.
She later heard similar tales of insensitivity from other women.
Edelman hoped that in her book she could help doctors and psychologists develop empathy for the experience of the motherless mother.
"As with most of the women I interviewed, the big question that arose was, 'How will I know how to be a mother?'" Edelman says.
Other issues that loom large for soon-to-be or new mothers include the fear of dying young, the anxiety of losing a loved one and the desire to give their children an emotional security they did not have themselves.
"I'm about to reach the same age my mother was when she died," Edelman says. "And that looms large."
In the course of her research, Edelman discovered that becoming a mother often brought the pain of her mother's passing into the forefront, but that the process of pregnancy, birth and childrearing can be healing. Even so, there's a multigenerational effect to account for.
Since most women keep photographs of their late mothers prominently displayed in their homes, the pictures spark curiosity, and discussion.
"We talk about my mother often and openly," Edelman says.
Another unexpected result of motherhood has been reconnection with faith.
"My mother was the center of Jewish identity in our house," Edelman says. "When she died, our family's connection to Judaism loosened."
According to Edelman, the mother typically serves as "kinkeeper," the one who brings friends and family together for holiday meals and rituals.
"When a Jewish woman loses her mother, she loses the most important role model for how to sustain a Jewish home." Edelman says. "You are suddenly without the person who is primarily responsible for cooking Shabbat dinner or preparing the seder. We became religious orphans when my mother died."
It was her older daughter, Maya, named for Edelman's mother, who helped bring the family back into the Jewish fold. Edelman and her husband enrolled Maya in school at Chabad of Topanga. Maya soon came home bursting with knowledge about all of the holidays. "She wants to observe all the holidays," says Edelman. "It's a connection I only recently made," she added, explaining that the process of Jewish ritual and community has helped heal the wounds of her mother's premature passing.
Edelman is pursuing a variety of writing projects, but doesn't want to overlook a main theme of her work: the importance of spending meaningful time with your family.
"There were far too many 14-hour days in the past three years," Edelman says. "I'm enjoying spending more time with my husband and children."
Hope Edelman regularly holds one-day Motherless Daughters writing workshops For more information, visit www.hopeedelman.com