The challenges of estranged grief

My late mother. Elegant, complicated.

By Caitlin Kelly

There are times that a deeply personal and private experience intersects with the larger culture. In journalism, it’s called the hook or the news peg, i.e. since everyone is now talking about it or thinking about it, it’s worth discussion and an assignment.

And my primary goal, often, for writing about a topic, especially a difficult and painful one, is to be of service, to comfort and to connect people to others who know their journey and who truly understand.

To explain to those who don’t understand and might become less judgmental as a result.

My mother Cynthia died Feb. 15, 2020 in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C. a seven-hour flight from our home in suburban New York. We had not spoken in a decade and even though I sent cards every Christmas and included a newsletter, no reply.

We had had some good years and some good visits.

But we had also had some very very bad ones.

She had been through so much in her life, including divorcing my father when she was 30, traveling through Latin America alone for years, living alone in such places as London, New Mexico, Mexico, Bath, Montreal and Toronto, surviving multiple cancers. She never re-married.

Intimacy was not her strong suit.

So, have I grieved this loss? Yes and no.

Which is why I wrote this story for The New York Times, probably the most revealing and personal words I’ve ever published there.

I was scared.

I’m actually a quite private person, and choosing to discuss painful issues before millions of readers worldwide is objectively somewhat frightening.

Here’s some of it:

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

As I write this, the story has gathered 49 comments, and they are so so painful to read, as so many others share their stories.

I was stunned to see how many people — through Twitter and Facebook — praised the story’s honesty about such a difficult topic and how many people struggle with estrangement in their own families. I had no idea.

It’s very hard to be estranged from a family member, as I still am from a half-brother who is 23 years my junior and father of year-old twins, a boy and girl I may never meet.

It’s also hard because it’s really taboo to admit you don’t speak to your mother or father or siblings or any of them. The myth that “family” equals love is a strong one. Those of us who don’t have that experience seek out others who get it. Our husbands and wives and best friends know. Our therapists know.

But it tends to remain secret and private because you can never trust someone new not to gaslight you or deny your lived experience since theirs has been so happy.

There is a great deal more detail, of course, I couldn’t include in this article. There are more characters and more history.

But the gratitude readers have shared has been deeply moving.

What makes “home” truly home?

An earlier version of Jose’s desk

By Caitlin Kelly

Some people live their entire childhoods in one home, maybe in a house, maybe an apartment, maybe a trailer. But it’s home. There’s no doubt.

They feel safe, welcome, happy and well-nurtured there. They can’t wait to get home and miss it terribly when they are away.

For others, it can be a place to flee, for a while or forever.

Here’s an astonishing essay about home and house keys from a writer who — oddly — recently moved into the same small coastal British Columbia town my mother lived in for many years.

It brought up so many feelings for me.

Like this passage:

I first visited my father’s house when I was sixteen; we’d not shared an address for fifteen years. A few months later, I moved in, having nowhere else to go.

I used the keys like a tenant on a month-to-month lease—non-committal, curfew-blind—as did everyone else there: my father; his second wife; his stepson; the woman from church his wife invited to stay; the woman from Mexico his wife brought back to stay.

The whole crew pushed off eventually. My father sold the place and took an apartment next door to his office. I slept in his RV for a December and a January, then left for a commune six-and-a-half thousand miles away.

It was already my observation that you can peg the quality and tenor of your in-house relationships by how you feel when you’re steps from the door, key in hand, about to let yourself in. Are you braced for a hurricane? Ready for the dull emptiness of dead air? Smiling before your foot crosses the threshold? Quiet like a mouse?

My parents split up when I was seven, and sold the large house we lived in in one of Toronto’s best neighborhoods, on a quiet street where I played with the neighboring kids. My mother and I moved into a two-bedroom apartment downtown and I went off to boarding school.

But at 14.5, I also plummeted, with almost no notice, into my father’s home, shared with his live-in girlfriend, only 13 years older — a 28-year-old poorly suited to nurturing a troubled teen. It was often challenging for all of us.

They sold the house we later lived in when I was in my second year at University of Toronto, giving me a month’s notice to move out and find a place to live at 19.

I found a ground-floor studio apartment, at the back of an alley in a not-great downtown neighborhood — the sort of place a more attentive parent would have immediately ruled out. But he didn’t.

I was attacked there, so I only lived there for about eight months, glad to flee.

Between 1982 and 1989, I changed my place of residence a lot: Toronto-Paris-Toronto-Montreal-New Hampshire-New York. That included two apartments in Toronto, a student dorm in Paris, a gorgeous two-bedroom apartment in Montreal, a farmhouse in New Hampshire and then, finally, a one-bedroom, top-floor apartment I bought, thankful to never deal with another landlord or rent increase or cracked window or drafty kitchen, in suburban New York.

I haven’t budged since.

I love this moment when the rising sun hits the windows across the river!

In this apartment, with a stunning view northwest up the Hudson River, I’ve been through plenty: a marriage, divorce, being victimized by a con man; two knee surgeries, a shoulder surgery, hip replacement, early stage breast cancer. Three recessions. Jobs won, jobs lost. Friendships gained, friendships that withered.

A happy second marriage, now almost 21 years!

Bu throughout all of this, it’s been a good home.

I love our street — atop the highest hill in our county. Across the street is a low-slung townhouse development (so never a blocked view) and downhill another two-story apartment complex. Our street is winding and quiet, with old growth trees and stone walls. At the bottom are dozens of raspberry bushes — and yet (!) we can also easily see the towers of downtown Manhattan, 25 miles south.

So, yes, it’s the suburbs, and yes it’s pretty damn boring. But also quiet, clean and beautiful. Our town is so attractive it’s often used for film and television locations. It’s diverse in age, ethnicity and income, unlike many others nearby.

Our town reservoir

So, for me, home isn’t just the physical structure where I sleep and eat and work, but a larger vibe where I and my husband, who is Hispanic and a winner of a team Pulitzer for The New York Times, feel welcome.

I keep trying to envision our next home — whether a second home or selling this and leaving — but haven’t seen anything yet (affordable for us) that makes my little heart sing.

I have always longed to live in a private house again, with a fireplace and a verandah and a bit of land and privacy, although I am also very wary of the costs of renovation and surprise/expensive maintenance. The one downside of living in our 100-apartment building is having neighbors who keep opposing its very badly needed renovations — which could easily boost our apartment’s market value by 50 percent.

Tell me about your home — the residence, your town or city or region.

Do you love it?

Or long to flee?

And go where?

Home for the holidays?

By Caitlin Kelly

Not for me!

I haven’t been back to my native Canada since summer 2019, when I was reporting a major story and attended a northern Ontario conference.

My father lives alone in rural Ontario; at 91 he has to be very careful about exposure to the virus, even though he’s in pretty good health. If I tried to go up, I’d face a two-week quarantine, so I’ve chosen not to.

The pandemic has killed almost 250,000 Americans and infected millions worldwide.

In the U.S. Thanksgiving is a huge event for many people, the one holiday that gets people to travel far and wide to celebrate with family or friends.

This year?

It’s just too dangerous!

We’ll be at home, just the two of us, but that’s been our norm for many years, as Jose’s family all live very long drives away from us and his closest sister heads further south to visit her own adult children.

Yet many Americans — as usual — insist they’ll host as many people as they like and the virus is a hoax and all those morgue trucks full of COVID corpses are…some sort of illusion.

How about you?

Do you have Thanksgiving plans?

What about Hannukah or Eid or Kwanzaa or Christmas?

How do you self-soothe?

 

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Baby Elephant was a gift after my tonsils were removed — age five or six. Sawgy is a stuffed green crocodile my husband brought back from a golf tournament.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The ability to moderate one’s emotions — especially sadness, fear, anxiety — is one of the skills we all learn to acquire. It’s essential to our mental health, especially in times of trouble, like right now!

It’s called self-soothing.

When we’re little, we might have a favorite blanket or stuffed animal. We might also (as I did for many years) suck our thumb or obsessively twirl a lock of our hair, as I once saw a Big Name writer do in the audience of a writing conference.

This recent post by a therapist is extremely detailed and helpful, with lots of great suggestions.

The reason this interests me is that what we choose is so individual — and this recent story for HuffPost by writer Aileen Weintraub about sleeping with a stuffed animal very quickly drew negative comments:

I can’t remember the magic age when I felt it became taboo to sleep with a soft toy. It may have been after college or perhaps when I landed a job on Wall Street and began wearing business suits. When I ask close friends if they sleep with a stuffy, they scoff, wondering if I’m serious. So I open up the conversation to find out how they self-soothe when they can’t sleep. One confesses to sneaking down to the fridge and eating ice cream out of the container, another obsessively reads medical mysteries, and another says she pets her real dog more than she feels is normal by other people’s standards, whatever those are.

Stuffed toys are “transitional objects,” meaning they provide stability and comfort for children when their caregivers aren’t there. But maybe we are always transitioning. Becoming a parent is a transition. Heading into middle age is a transition. Right now, we are collectively transitioning through a pandemic. Admitting this can be hard. We keep these secrets to ourselves, letting only a select few witness our vulnerabilities. It goes against every cultural norm we have learned to honestly discuss our need for softness and comfort because perhaps by acknowledging it, we are acknowledging our deepest insecurities.

In the light of day, I might consider myself a confident, successful woman, but at night I’m reminded that I run on anxiety and self-doubt, and George makes it better. Sometimes I sleep with him on top of my chest like a weighted blanket.

I’ve long had a collection of stuffed animals and have no shame or embarrassment about it as an adult.

I don’t use drugs — while others do.

I don’t drink a lot of alcohol — as others do.

Both are perfectly acceptable ways, publicly, to self-soothe as an adult.

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Yay, Rhiny!

 

Not a stuffy!

I want to wake up and go to sleep feeling calm and happy — and if the faces of a collection of small furry friends is helpful — who is there to criticize that choice?

 

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This little guy traveled across six European countries with me in the summer of 2017, no doubt amusing many hotel chambermaids.

 

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A return to earlier pleasures

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Age six or seven, in our former Toronto back yard, with one of our two Siamese cats, Mitzpah and Horowitz

 

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m very lucky to live with a skilled photo editor and archivist for the United States Golf Association — whose ability to rescue faded, torn, wrinkled images is amazing.

I’d lost hope for this photo, which is in color and was so so faded! But he brought it back.

Me, back.

This photo means a lot to me, because it’s the only image I have of the last home I shared with both parents, on Castlefrank Road in Rosedale, a lovely neighborhood of Toronto. It would prove to be the last time I lived in a house until I was 15, as my now single mother and I lived in different apartments in Toronto and Montreal.

Bored by isolation during this pandemic, I’ve recently returned to two activities I haven’t done in decades and used to really enjoy —- swimming and playing the guitar.

In my teens, I was a skilled swimmer and used to compete, do synchronized swimming and worked part-time through high school as a lifeguard. But I’ve never enjoyed swimming at the Y — the pool is enormous and even one length daunting.

Luckily, our apartment building pool is open this summer, even if only for two months, and I’m trying to do multiple lengths every afternoon. To my surprise and joy, I’m finding it really relaxing, and a great time to stretch out muscles cramped from too much sitting.

I used to play guitar and write songs and haven’t even touched it in 20 years. But it’s time! I’m excited and nervous to start building up the calluses needed to play without pain. I love singing and really miss it.

 

Have you taken up new skills or activities in the pandemic?

 

Or re-discovered older ones you’d let go?

 

On not wanting to have children

 

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I do love this photo of my late mother and me. I always found her glamorous. In this photo she’s probably 28 or 29, as she left my father when she was 30.

 

By Caitlin Kelly

The Guardian has been running a fascinating series recently, of essays by women who don’t want to have children, and it includes a 6:57 video with five interviews of women ages 22 to 45, explaining their feelings as well.

Here’s an excerpt from the essay by American novelist R.O. Kwon:

 Throughout history, people without children – women, especially – have often been persecuted, mistreated, pitied, and killed for their perceived lack. In ancient Rome, a woman who hadn’t borne children could legally be divorced, and her infertility was grounds for letting a priest hit her with a piece of goat skin. (The blows were thought to help women bear children.) In Tang Dynasty China, not having a child was once again grounds for divorce. In the Middle Ages, infertility was believed to be caused by witches or Satan; worse yet, an infertile woman could be accused of being, herself, a witch. In Puritan America, it wasn’t just having no children that was suspect. Giving birth to too many children could be perilous, too, and grounds, yet again, for being condemned for a witch.

Also in the US, enslaved women were expected to have babies, and were routinely raped, their potential future children considered a slaveholder’s property. Some of the only times women without offspring have garnered respect might be when they have formally devoted their lives to a god, and to celibacy: nuns, vestal virgins.

Which brings us to a word I haven’t yet used, but which often is levied against childfree women like me: selfish. Despite everything, it’s still common to view parenting as a moral imperative, to such an extent that voluntarily childfree people can be viewed with such outsize emotions as anger and disgust

The series is interesting, with reasons from not making enough money or not wishing to pass on a genetic disposition to addiction to having watched their own mother really resent having had children.

I knew from childhood I didn’t want kids, for several reasons:

— My mother started having manic breakdowns when I was 12, several times when I was alone with her and with no one to turn to for help or advice. It was terrifying and overwhelming. I felt burdened too young with too much responsibility, “parentified.”

— I wanted to become a journalist, especially (initially) a foreign correspondent, a job that makes parenthood pretty much impossible since you live out of a suitcase, travel constantly and have to be ready 24/7 to go where the news is happening, often with little or no notice.

— Journalism. It pays badly compared to many other industries, is very insecure (much worse now), offers a lot of obstacles to making better wages. Without money, raising a child, I knew, would be really stressful. And the hours can be terrible; news happens 24/7 and night, weekend and overnight shifts, if you even have a job now, are real at every stage of one’s career.

— My parents didn’t care. Neither pressed me hard to have kids and neither ever showed interest in doing what many grandparents do — move in or move closer to help out, offer financial aid for a nanny or helping me acquire better/larger housing to make parenthood more comfortable.

— Bodily autonomy. While I know some women absolutely adore being pregnant and breastfeeding, I had heard too many horror stories. The idea of carrying someone inside me for nine months, then being put through the agony of labor, then 20+ years of someone relying on me utterly? Not a chance.

— Freedom. As some of the women in the Guardian series say plainly — this has offered me tremendous freedom, in work,  in partners, in where I live, in how I work.

— Weird parenting. Having done a lot of therapy, I had to be persuaded that my childhood was in some ways deeply neglectful, because it was materially privileged but, often, handed off to others. I spent ages 8 to 16 at boarding school (8 to 13) and summer camp, all summer, every summer. My parents, it seemed, just didn’t want me around. So why would I choose to have kids when they found it so…unappealing?

I know,  everyone thinks we’re selfish. Because women without children have chosen a life that’s not spent, de facto, in service of others for decades — breast-feeding, changing diapers, rushing to the ER for the latest bleeding wound, doctor and dentist and teachers’ appointments.

It also makes clear that a woman who is not subservient to the needs of others ahead of her own, always, is deeply suspect.

Why not, missy?

Some people make a lot of rude and unfounded assumptions about us:

that we hate kids (I don’t); that we are incapable of sustained sacrifice (hello, work?!); that we shun intimacy (ask our husbands, partners and friends); that no one will care for us in old age (hah! as someone often estranged from my own parents, this is a fantasy.)

 

I’m in awe of the time, energy and attention it takes to be a good and loving mother!

 

I just didn’t want the job.

 

Do you have children?

Or not?

Have you enjoyed it?

Resilience is a learned skill

 

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By Caitlin Kelly

In my last blog post, I named some of the worst experiences I’d faced in earlier years, and several people commented on how tough they were.

Or how tough I must be to have weathered them.

I later realized there were two more years that were also very difficult, one when I was 14 and another right around my 20th birthday.

What I also realize, looking back now, is what made the first one excruciating and the second one less so, was having emotional support, people who love me who really stood by me through it all.

When I got a diagnosis of early stage breast cancer, right at my birthday in 2018, I was floored and deeply surprised by the flood of love and support and good wishes, cards and gifts and flowers, that people sent to me. One woman I know really only professionally, who lives far away from me, sent me a bracelet with the word I chose — onward. Even though I did a lot of crying and was very scared, knowing how many people were with me in spirit was incredibly helpful.

My late mother suffered a tremendous amount of health problems — multiple cancers (which she survived), COPD, a late-life colostomy — but she, until that point, was relentlessly determined to just get on with it.

Her expression, whenever face with yet another crisis: “What should I do? Jump out of my skin?”

I agree.

 

Life is rarely smooth and easy!

 

We get sick and injured and people we love get sick and injured and get dementia and fade in front of our eyes. We don’t get the dream job — or we do, and get fired or laid off. We may face (as I did, even at 30, when I arrived in New York seeking a journalism job) a six month job search. Or a search that never produces a job we want.

Or any job.

So the things I’ve faced and overcome are nothing compared to what others face — a drug-addicted or incarcerated parent; having to care for younger siblings; not being able to afford any sort of education with which to escape poverty.

Chronic poverty. Disability or chronic illness. Food or housing insecurity.

Or racism and daily microaggressions, as so many BIPOC are describing now. Police brutality and mass incarceration.

 

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Sometimes it’s all just a hopeless mess!

 

My experiences, for sure, have been much eased by my race, decent health, the skills to make a living, an excellent university education with no debt (Canadian) and the financial help of a relative.

But I also take pride in my acquired resilience when the shit — again!! — hits the fan, in not lying in bed in the fetal position weeping for days, escaping into drugs or alcohol. I’m not judging people who do.  People do what they can with what they have.

Surviving hardships creates resilience. It’s a muscle we only develop by using it, probably repeatedly.

 

You don’t know how strong you can be until you’re sorely tested.

 

Right now, thanks to the news and social media, I see a tremendous amount of whining and complaining, mostly by Americans, some who just can’t tolerate the slightest discomfort (wearing a mask, staying out of crowded places indoors) and whose selfishness is lethal as it continues to spread COVID-19.

This behavior sickens me. It’s stunningly immature.

Ironically, I gained a new client this year who is Finnish.

And Finns take pride in a national culture with a name — sisu. It means grit, determination, the willingness and ability — and pride in so doing — to tough things out.

 

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The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

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By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Resilience is earned

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How did our ancestors do it?

 

By Caitlin Kelly

 

On social media, I’m seeing a lot of people freaking out, marinating in terror and anxiety, desperate for this pandemic to just be over.

There’s no way to remain unmoved by this crisis.

There’s no way to ignore the tremendous grief and shock it has imposed, certainly for anyone who’s lost a friend, colleague, neighbor or loved one — and in New York, where we live, that’s more than 10,000 people, with 600-700+ people dying every day.

But, every morning, New York governor Mario Cuomo addresses us, and one of his repeated refrains is this:

Emotion is a luxury.

If you spend every day and night for weeks, even months, terrified, your body is going to be ravaged internally by adrenaline and cortisol — the chemical reactions urging us unto “fight or flight” — when we can do neither.

That alone is wearying and exhausting!

And perseverating really is bad for your health, as this New York Times health writer explains:

 

There are important health reasons to tamp down excessive anxiety that can accompany this viral threat. We have a built-in physiological response to imminent danger called fight-or-flight. Hearts beat faster, blood pressure rises and breathing rate increases to help us escape the man-eating lion.

Underlying these stress-induced changes are hormones like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol that can cause trouble if they persist too long in our circulation. Sustained anxiety increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, digestive problems, clinical depression and, ironically, infectious diseases like Covid-19 by weakening the immune response to a viral infection.

 

Some of you have already weathered serious storms: cancer, job loss, unemployment, sexual assault, abusive workplaces and/or families.

 

The only silver living to any of this is resilience.

 

When you get a cancer diagnosis, people rush to cheer: “You’ve a trouper! You’ve got this!” and mostly, unhelpfully: “You’re so brave.”

But there’s only two choices — get on with it, or give up.

We live in a county north of New York City with a wide array of income levels, a few towns more working-class and some studded with millionaires, even billionaires, like Martha Stewart or the Clintons.

The town just south of us is an affluent one, where some people see “hardship” as their child not winning elite college admission.

So there are endless books and articles published to help the pampered and protected somehow learn to artificially acquire grit and resilience, when those are qualities one tends to discover — often unwilllingly, through circumstance — only through lived experience.

You walk through fire, emerging singed.

Scarred.

Wary.

Wiser.

Here’s former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, writing in The New York Times:

My life in the decades since, both in and out of government, has been enriched by the survivors of other extraordinary times. During my time as secretary of state, I met a 6-year-old boy in Uganda whose mother had been killed in a massacre. He had pulled himself out from under her body and walked several miles, carrying his little sister on his back, to a camp run by a religious organization. In Sierra Leone, I held a 3-year-old girl who had lost her arm to a bullet; she was later adopted and lived on the same street I do in Washington.

In Bosnia, I grasped hands with women whose husbands and sons had been murdered and dumped in a mass grave near the village of Srebrenica. In Thailand, I met teenage girls who had been rescued from sex traffickers; they braided one another’s hair while telling me of their determination to live fearlessly despite scarred minds. At Georgetown University, back in Washington, I taught alongside a professor, Jan Karski, who had escaped from wartime Poland carrying to Britain and America some of the earliest eyewitness accounts of the transport of Jews to killing centers ordered by Hitler.

During my tenure in the State Department, I worked closely with Vaclav Havel, leader of my native Czech Republic, and with South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; both had spent years as political prisoners. I also visited American soldiers, aviators, diplomats, aid workers and Peace Corps volunteers deployed to regions where each day brought intense suffering and renewed conflict.

As president, Bill Clinton talked often about “the quiet miracle of a normal life.” But what we customarily think is “normal” is neither as common as supposed, nor as inevitable. A generally contented society is a rarity that humans must do our best to establish and sustain.

 

 

How to thrive unmothered

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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.

 

 

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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.