By Caitlin Kelly
The word mother, like the word husband, is a noun and a verb.
Some are better being a noun.
Some aren’t given the tools to do that job well.
Some are distracted by mental illness or addiction.
Some end up incarcerated.
Some lose their children because the children, or the state, removes them.
Many people learn to thrive unmothered.
I left my mother’s care at 14 and moved in with my father and his girlfriend, later wife, who was 13 years older. I was 14 and she was 27.
Neither of us were equipped for this.
So, what happens when you’re not classically nurtured by another woman related to you?
You figure stuff out on your own
You read magazines and watch TV and listen to the radio and to podcasts. You talk to other adults. I was a teen and young adult long before the Internet or YouTube. But opening myself early to the world meant learning to pay attention and deciding what was important.
You learn to ask others for help — and know when you need it most
No crying wolf! When you know your requests are falling into the ears of people with their own lives and jobs and families, you know not to be a whiny pest but ask when you need them most. If you’re healthy and solvent (and if not, it’s much harder), you can manage a lot by yourself and grow massively in self-confidence as you do.
You’re fine challenging authority — because classic maternal authority isn’t there
Many people live in fear of what their mothers will say or do if…they say or do something that might offend or scare or anger her. When your mother isn’t around and your stepmother isn’t very interested, you get on with it, unimpeded.
You have to suss out what it means to be pretty or attractive or well-dressed
This was a big challenge, since I was taken shopping twice (both times with great success) between the ages of 14 and 20, once for a prom dress and once for a winter coat. But no one ever showed me how to wear makeup or what to do with my eyebrows or what stockings went with which shoes. It just wasn’t in the cards. So I learned to develop and trust my own taste, and work within a budget.
And how to cook!
My stepmother was an amazing cook but never taught me. I have a pile of well-used cookbooks, and recipes. I entertain often and make very good meals. I take a lot of pride in this.
Managing money well is essential
I had money from my maternal grandmother, which for four years of university was all I had to live on — $350 a month when my rent was $160 and annual tuition $660. It took me a few months to save the $30 I needed to buy a leotard, tights and slippers to take a ballet class. Wants had to wait behind needs. No one was there to bail me out and I knew it.
You learn to stand up — and fight for — your own needs
There’s no one calling ahead to smooth your path or help you battle whatever shows up. I learned very young to figure out what I need and to ask other adults for it — whether professional, medical, financial. That would be my job as an adult anyway. It just started early.
The world is full of “other mothers”
From Guillemette in Paris to Marcia in Toronto to Salley in D.C., I’ve found deeply loving women friends whose kindness and affection and loyalty have felt maternal to me. Salley was the witness for my second wedding, which my mother did not attend. Barbara sat with me for a whole day’s worth of hospital tests and Catherine, in Dublin, sent flowers after my breast cancer surgery.
When you can’t rely on your mom, you rely on yourself
Most things are quite manageable on your own. Many skills can be learned or, if you have the money, hired.
The terrific team at radiation, Phelps Hospital, November 2018, at the end of my treatment
The kindness of strangers is astounding
I’m always amazed and grateful at the kindness I’ve experienced, especially when traveling alone. When you haven’t been nurtured much, you forget — or never know — that many others have been well-loved by their mothers, and are happy to share their love with you as well. That generosity and acceptance, let alone affection, always surprises me and always delights me.
Friends are family
The truest lesson of all. If you can open your heart and arms — and without a loving mother you have to — there are so many people happy to take pride in you and your work and your character, to laugh and cry with you, to take you to the hospital, to visit you after surgery, to send you flowers and cards and remember your birthday.