When You’re Mothering From Scratch (Coping With Absentee Mothers)

I popped into Sally Loo’s this morning (espresso con panna + molasses spice cookie = happy mama), before I headed into the iFixit office, and the place was crawling with babies and toddlers. Makes me wish I had Ellie with me, so she could meet some kiddos, and I could have an easy transition to talk to other coffee-loving parents, but I digress.

There was a woman in front of me, presumably about my age, with a little girl on her hip who looked to be about 12 months. Judging by the still-matted patch of hair on the back of the little one’s head, and her lack of desire to be put down, I’d guess she’s not a proficient walker, so maybe she was younger than 12 months. Regardless, the little girl was adorable. Bright blonde hair, rosy cheeks, and tiny little fingers that unconsciously swirled themselves in her mama’s hair. As she rested her chin on her mama’s shoulder, we had a staring contest. She won, on account that I smiled first. (Couldn’t help it.)

After a minute or two of us making eyes at each other, the little girl’s nana walked up, and gave her rapid-fire smootchies on her big soft cheeks, and the little girl giggled. It was too cute. Shifting the little girl to her other hip, the mama looked over at the nana, and asked “ya want a cappuccino? I know how you love ’em.” Nana nods her head, but never loses the little girl’s gaze, now playing tickle on her tiny palms. “Ooooohhh, I just wanna eat you up,” coos Nana, again with the rapid-fire smootchies.

It’s a perfectly normal, perfectly natural interaction, and I’m sure I’ve seen many like it in recent weeks, but for some reason this particular exchange stung me. My throat got tight, and my eyes began to well up, and I ditched my spot in line in favor of the privacy of the restroom.


It’s harder, some days than others, coping with the absence of my mother. Most days I recognize her absence the way one recognizes a blank wall in their home, knowing that there should be a photograph, or a piece of art in that spot, but not having a vision for what it might look like exactly. But other days–days like today–I see a completeness, and a love that I know I don’t have, and I feel envious.

I’m not kidding myself into thinking that if my mother were in my life, that our relationship would be as warm, or as familiar, as the two that I saw in the coffee shop today. I’m not idealizing the relationship. But I want the chance to know what our relationship would look like, if it were healthy. I’m 29 years old, and to this day, I do not know what that feels like. I suppose it’s okay to respect those feelings, even if they hurt, in order to grieve properly, so long as I’m not wallowing. I have very little patience for wallowing.


In so many ways, I feel as if I’m doing this mothering-thing from scratch. Seeing three generations of women all together really pushes that button for me, I guess.

I wonder, does having an active and involved mother of one’s own give one more confidence as a mother? Does having that support, and that wealth of knowledge and experience equip women better for their marriages, and for raising their children? Does everyone else have resources, and support, and knowledge that I don’t have? (That’s my insecurity speaking.)

I wasn’t planning on posting anything today, but it’s rare that I spontaneously cry in public, so I figure maybe I needed to get that off my chest. And hey, silver lining: I’m not wearing makeup today, so no scary mascara tears!

Some of you have shared having similar relationships with your mother. Do you experience “flare-ups” the way I did today? What triggers them? How do you cope?


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  1. Even the best parents have bad habits or poor techniques. My (good) parents didn’t teach me how to do everything right – they taught me that it was possible to get a good outcome in spite of human frailty.

    And you’re not doing it from scratch. You are surrounded by good examples at church and in your social sphere. You’re also surrounded by bad ones, and the difference is not always obvious… but crucially, you can use the Holy Spirit to help you separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Remember that your Father is the one who really knows your heart and that of your daughter, and how you two will knit together. You’ll beat yourself up for doing things wrong (like all of us), but don’t allow yourself the vice of discouragement. He has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of a sound mind. Get back in, stay close to Him, fix your failings bit by bit, and you will be as good a mom as He can make you. Which is pretty darned good.

    What you’ll really have to do without is the support and love of a mother who helps you through the difficult times. This happens a lot — living far away from your parents, or losing one early, has the same effect. Forge forward. You’re right to get misty-eyed, missing and mourning that ideal which may never come.

    But watch how they act together, and learn the moves. Some years hence, you can create for your daughter what you saw there. And some other young woman will look at you three together, and her tears will flow, and she’ll want just what you have. It’s a good desire to have.

    • You and you’re ever-wise words. You’re really gifted at validating, challenging, and encouraging, all at the same time. So many people are gifted at one of those things (and I’m grateful for them), but I don’t know many people that are strong at all three. Thank you. (Again!)

  2. I can speak only from my own experience, but I didn’t have the best “mothering” experience. My mother was over-bearing, manipulative, jealous and extremely controlling. Yes, there were good times in there somewhere, but for the most part I have prayed and tried so hard to NOT be like the example she set that I have hurt myself in the process. I have 3 grown sons and 3 beautiful grandchildren. I love them all so very much but because of how it has been for me, I went the other way and just wait til they call me to communicate with them. I didn’t even realize I had done that or why I had done that until it had been that way for a long time.
    So, sometimes even if we do have the role model, it may push us in a different direction. Perhaps you will do better at this than I did because you aren’t trying to overcome a bad example?

    • While our mothers are different, our understanding of them as role models is similar, and we’re each trying to overcome bad examples. Though my mother has changed and improved significantly since I was a child, it’s her destructive/abusive influence that’s the cause for our separation. So I get what you’re saying about trying to not be like the example that was set for us. Strange how that comes with its own set of issues. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Roger

     /  October 25, 2012

    Aw MJ, that sucks. My wife’s mom is 3000 miles away and that’s tough. I can only imagine not having your mom in your life at all is very hard.

    Chin up though….it looks to me like you’re pretty good at the from-scratch mommy thing.

  4. I’m so sorry about your mother not wanting to be in your life. My mother stepped out of mine, briefly, while I was pregnant. It was heartwrenching, and sometimes I think I’m still not over it.

    My mom is now very active and present in my life, but it’s not always a good thing. I don’t feel that she is a support to me. Physically, yes–like, could you pick up some baby food on your way home, or would you mind watching Rowan so husband and I can have a date? She lives 4 hours away, but we see her at least once a month. Emotionally, though, it seems like she lives to tear me down, get me to second-guess myself, or defend the way she did things with me and my brother. I have a serious case of Anxiety Disorder (and so does she! the irony) but I can’t call her when I’m having a panic attack or she’ll tell me it’s my fault I have anxiety because I don’t live in a way she approves of.

    Seems to me that having the freedom to figure things out on your own could be as much of a blessing as a curse.

    • Seems to me that having the freedom to figure things out on your own could be as much of a blessing as a curse.

      How had I not seen that perspective until you said it? What you said about your mom living to tear you down, and defending the way she did things with you and your brother reminded me of what me and my mom’s conversations were typically like. I do not miss that at all. I guess what I “miss” (if you can call it that) is the opportunity to have a healthy relationship with my mom. And I know that the longer we’re not in contact, the less likely it is that we’ll ever get a “do-over.” Here’s to hoping that your relationship with your mom improves, too. 🙂

      • Exactly! That’s what I was trying to say – only it didn’t come out right. I feel as though it could be a definite blessing for you as well.

  5. Mary

     /  October 25, 2012

    What a touching post. This really hit me. I don’t even know where to start. My mother passed away over 15 years ago and I still have moments of tears that come from now where…a picture, song, holiday or anything and everything triggers it. I know it is not the same situation, but all painful too. Plus, I am a mother of three children, 24, 25 and 26 years old. They are my world…I cannot imagine life without them. So my initial response is to want to reach out to you and take you into my family!! 🙂 Do you have a church family? I know many women that have empty nests that would take you under their wing in a heart beat. Family isn’t just blood…it is also brought together by the shedding of Christ’s blood. Just like the church isn’t a building…it is us. Look around and see who is by you. I am sure that someone would start filling that void. If not…You are always welcome with us! 🙂
    Have a blessed day and thank you for sharing.

    • Oh Mary, you made me cry again. (THANKS A LOT. 🙂 ) I’ve been keeping my eyes open for other women to grow close to, but everyone seems so busy with their own lives. (Which totally makes sense.) Add to that that I’m kind of hard to get to know, what with all my trust issues, and it’s been a loooong search. 🙂 I’ll keep looking though. And heck, I could always join-up with your family. 🙂 Thanks so much for your support, and for sharing your heart. This made my day.

      • Mary

         /  October 25, 2012

        Consider it done. You are apart! Where do you live? (I am in Arkansas) Is this going to be a long distance relationship? 🙂 I will still take it. Halloween at my house…dinner and trick or treating. Bring the whole family.

        • Mary

           /  October 25, 2012

          After reading all these comments, I want to adopt all of you…Halloween, dinner my house, bring the family.

          • Isn’t that just the picture of the kingdom of God, here and now? Strangers loving each other, and inviting those that are hurting into their homes and hearts? Just beautiful! ❤

  6. vegmom02

     /  October 25, 2012

    I am mothering from scratch, and I am probably a better mother for it. I know what was missing from my childhood (and adulthood), and I desire a better life for my son…one filled with hugs, kisses, conversations, and the certainty that he is wanted and loved. My mother was a very selfish, emotional, and moody person. She did whatever she pleased, including screaming obscenities at us, putting us down, and leaving us (my father, brother, and I) for another man when I was 13. She did not try to keep in touch with me. Over the years, I would search for her, and when I did find her, we would communicate for several months, then she would “break up” with me. We would go another several years, same pattern. The last go-around in 2009 brought me peace, as we are able to have some very productive conversations that led me to a better understanding of WHY she left, and why she just was not capable of being my mother, and why she was unable to maintain (healthy) relationships with others. Eventually, she did “break up” with me again, but this time, I was not left with the sad and longing feelings of previous years. My brother and I discovered by accident in March of 2012 that our mother had passed away in March of 2011, but no one had bothered to notify us. This was hurtful, yet not surprising, due to the nature of our dysfunctional family. Sometimes, I still experience scenes as you described…and wonder what that phenomenon of a healthy mother/daughter/grandchild relationship must be like. No one besides my husband and I is interested in developing a relationship with our son. If we want a sitter, we have to pay for one. None of this is do to any poor choices on my part, arguments, or a falling out with family members. I just so happen to have been born into a family of very selfish, lying, and manipulative people. I choose NOT to live like them. Instead, I see myself as someone pioneering a new generation…one that understands respect, love, and appreciation for others.

    • Goodness. I feel as if we could be related. I’ve used the phrase “break up” to described what my mom did to me and my family a few times, and I’m never sure people get what I mean, but I can tell that you do. What you said about having peace about the situation struck me. I think that’s what I’m missing. I keep hoping, and waiting, for the situation to turn around, expecting that we’ll reconcile, and have a “new” relationship. While maintaining hope isn’t bad, I need to have peace about the situation the way it is, unattached to the expectation of reconciliation. Thank you so much for your insight. You have a more mature perspective on this kind of thing than I do, for sure. 🙂

      • vegmom02

         /  October 25, 2012

        Melissa, I am sure that my insights have to do with my age and experiences. I felt the EXACT same way you do when I was your age. Yes, you will be at peace when you can accept the situation for what it is. That is VERY hard, especially when we desire something different/better/more. Now that I have peace about my mother, I am working on feeling the same way about my father. He married a woman who is not at all unlike my mother! His wife is EXTREMELY manipulative, and he allows it. We recently saw them in person, and she did something very mean to me, on purpose. I handled it as I usually do…gracefully, with hospitality, and kindness. I did duck into another room to ask G-d if/how I should address the elephant in the room. Let’s suffice to say that we still shared a pleasant visit, the wrong against me was not righted, and my dad’s wife got her way, including maintaining her manipulation of my dad’s and uncle’s brains.

  7. I have witnessed many families that were very close knit – my daughter in laws family being one of them and have often wondered what that would have been like, having family that cared about one another! What a concept!
    I am 48 now and have finally gotten past the “what-if’s” as it seems many of us have had, and some still do I’m sure. Would my life be different? I’m sure it would. I used to be jealous of those families and think something was wrong with them. Now I know that there was something wrong with MY family. But going through everything we do makes us who we are, and those in this type of situation – you are stronger than you will ever know because of it!!
    All I can say is put God front and center, as I know you do, and then your family will be one of those that is close knit and loving!!!

  8. Mrs. Marino

     /  October 25, 2012

    I have the same issues with my father. He didn’t even make it to my wedding because of other circumstances. The bummer was that I had just been to a wedding right before mine where the father of the bride walked her down the aisle, cried, gave a toast, and did the Father-Daughter dance. Watching the love playing out in front of me, I started to cry, because I knew I would not ever have that experience with my father. I have felt his absence off and on in many of my life’s events, and here was another one he would miss. I am blessed, however, that my Step-Dad stepped in to fill the void. It is not the same as having my Dad there, but it was still wonderful for me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the one who really missed out was my father, who doesn’t get to be a part of all the wonderful things that happen to me in my life.

    It is hard to say how this will affect my future parenting, as I have yet to become one, but I feel it is safe to say that I REFUSE to miss out on my child’s life. They are small for only a brief time, and there are no do-overs… No “second” first steps… No “next time” first words. Every moment spent with a child is precious, no matter how frustrating or exhausting, and I hope to be present for them.

  9. Grace Wisthoff

     /  October 25, 2012

    We live in an imperfect world. There are gaping holes and wrenching pains in every life. I don’t like it, but it’s what we have for now. I am blessed to be close to my mother, but it was my father I loved more. And he came from at least 4 generations of twisted, painful relationships, passed parent to child. Physical and emotional violence. With God’s help, I am the chain-breaker in my family branch. I wanted a father, but got a mother. And a truly wonderful husband who helped me work on the healing. I think I could grasp at some of the razor-edged lack you have shared. It is also hard to want a father and have one living who has missed the mark every time I needed him. But it does get better with time. I am 52 and I don’t need a father anymore. I have the life resonance of a growing nest–married daughters and grandchildren. My great relationships with them are part of my healing and my answer to my father’s behavior. It is right that you feel the lack now. But it won’t be this intense always. Your perspective will change with the landscape of your life. But once in a while I do think about heaven and wonder what it will be like to be encircled in the love-filled embraces of my father and my Father.

  10. My mom and my grandmother had a very estranged relationship- to the point that I have never met my grandma. I suppose I should be sad, but when I see my mom and how she has covered my brother and me with so much healthy love and validation, I don’t really miss not having a grandma. My mom was terribly pained from not having a relationship with her mom (she tried- in the end, it was best to part ways), but was more determined to be the mother she always wished her mother would have been. And when I look at my mom and see what a strong person she is, yet so full of compassion, I feel so blessed and proud. I know that’s how Ellie will feel when she gets older and your relationship becomes deeper. Hang in there, sister!

  11. Emily

     /  November 4, 2012

    We are imperfect people in an imperfect world. If only all relationships, and life in general could be as ideal as the ones in our head. That would be awesome! I’m so sorry about your relationship,or lack thereof rather, with your Mother. A good friend was disowned by her parents. It’s heartbreaking. She’s been an excellent Mother in spite of it, and I’m sure you are as well. Your post struck a chord with me. I’ve lost two babies, and as of now am not able to try again. I’m 30 in a month and feel like I’m a total failure as a woman. I’ve coped with my losses fairly well, most of the time anyway, but there are times when I’m out in public, and see a little dark haired girl that’s the same age as my daughter would be, and I just lose it. In that regard, I can somewhat sympathize with your sorrow over your Mom…not being able to have what you so deeply desire.
    I pray that you have other Godly women in your life that can fulfill the role your own Mother has abandoned. Continue to be a great example to your own daughter, and fulfill that role for her.

  12. This brought tears to my eyes for different reasons. I have a fabulous relationship with my mom. In fact, she just flew home yesterday after a 2 week visit helping us move. But I have stage 3c ovarian cancer. Diagnosed last year at the age of 35. I worry all the time that my own daughter, age 6, is going to grow up motherless. That she will be the woman in the coffee shop watching other mothers and daughters missing me.


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    Melissa Jenna Godsey

    I’m a wife, mother, accidental entrepreneur, wisdom seeker, and truth lover. We're trying really hard not to keep up with the Joneses. Click through for the whole story.

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