How to thrive unmothered



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.



caitlin team

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.

It doesn’t have to be your mother.

16 thoughts on “How to thrive unmothered

  1. Lovely piece. Reading it made me grateful because I was fortunate to have my mother and grandmother supporting me as a child and on into adulthood. My mom died when I was in my 50’s. Along the way, my best friend died leaving her 3-year-old daughter motherless. She is now a mom herself and in her thirties. She had many women who supported her as she grew up including me. I knew her mother longer than her dad knew her so when she had a question about what her mom was like in college I could share it with her. It is amazing how resilient we are as women. I am thankful for all the opportunities I had to be a mom to those who crossed my path along their journey. Since I am a nurse sometimes it was just holding the hand of an adult who wanted their mom during a time of physical or emotional stress. Thank you for your thoughtful writings. We are all so connected!

    1. This is great — and thank you.

      It’s really hard not knowing many people who knew my mother well. She was ferociously private — and you, a nurse, will appreciate this detail: when it came time for her brain surgery the neurosurgeon showed me the image of her tumor. How BIZARRE to see inside my mother’s brain (literally) when she never allowed (me) access to it.

      I know what tremendous comfort a nurse can be. I go back and visit my radiation techs, Yadi and Susan and Katrina, who were both skilled and humane.

  2. It is such a small world, I worked at Phelps Memorial in the ’70s as a young nurse. I grew up in Yonkers and went to high school at Marymount in Tarrytown. It was a good hospital and I loved working there!

    1. Wow.

      That’s amazing.

      I have spent WAYYYYY too much time at Phelps — so much so (!) that when I had my lumpectomy (july 6 2018) the Latina head of anesthesia said “I know you!” 🙂 It was actually really comforting.

  3. I’m glad to see you navigating the emotional minefield so skillfully. You have to keep both eyes open, even when it hurts to look. My mother is still among the living and our relationship is complicated. Your writings hold many lessons for me. Thanks for showing us how it’s done.

    1. Thanks.

      I’ve had what’s needed, probably. A lot of time, a lot of physical distance, a lot of emotional distance, helpers like Jose, therapist, minister and friends. It’s not done alone, that’s for sure.

      I haven’t even mentioned the most difficult element as it’s very complicated, a local woman my age who hurt and alienated me, becoming the “better daughter.”

      It was very difficult, and she’s now executor of my mother’s will.

  4. I “speak” with you on Twitter, and know we have much in common – from lacking maternal guidance and nurturing in life, to choosing the one field that offers the chance to be heard. This post makes clear all the important little things that fall by the wayside, for those of us coming of age without a mother central in our lives. Thanks for the brave and honest essay, and know that your words will certainly help many. I know it helped me.

  5. Yep, exactly what happened to me. Growing up unmothered makes you independent. I wouldn’t want it any other way. Definitely grew up a lot since college. 🙂 Actually even before college it was like we raised ourselves. We did have our basic needs met but you know, life is just not the same for everyone.

    1. Thank you! My life was materially privileged (boarding school, summer camp) — but it also meant I only lived with my mother at home in Grade 6 and 7 === then briefly in Grade 10. When people go on and on about their mothers (and lucky them!) it simply doesn’t register.

      I prize my independence too.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I can really relate to some of this. It struck me especially that you wrote about, in a nutshell, having no mother to please. It is very different from seems to be the typical experience of other women who feel constrained by parental expectations. My mother wouldn’t be happy if I grew a halo and learned to walk on water, so to hell with it. But there is an odd gap

    1. Thanks…so good to hear from you again.

      I have only really started to examine this more closely. I think it was, mostly, a big advantage. I hate the way women are so heavily socialized to “be nice”…and I was taught to be (surprise!) competitive. That has certainly cost me in some ways, but I’m OK with it.

      I am sorry about your Mom…my father is also like this. The hell with them.

      I’ve been meeting or exceeding professional expectations since I was 19. That’s what I needed most.

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