…and how to focus on what you DO have instead of what you’re missing out on
A few months ago I was approached by an organisation called Motherless Daughters to speak to a group of women who’d also lost their mums at a High Tea event planned in Sydney.
I immediately agreed to do it without really knowing what I’d say, or thinking through the implications that preparing for a talk like this might have on me emotionally.
As it turned out, I moved home only days before the event date, and among the flurry of boxes and packing tape left the preparation for the speech till the day before – partly because I was busy, mostly because I was procrastinating.
Preparing for this was like going through ten huge dented and dust-covered cardboard boxes that had been taped firmly shut for a long time to find them filled with tear soaked memories and glorious rainbows.
I was forced to unpack and sift through everything inside and figure out what had value to share in this context.
The process not unlike filling a bowl with your favourite flavour of ice-cream, scoffing it down fast, then being knocked down with crippling brain-freeze – equal parts pleasure and pain.
I realised I’d gained some valuable lessons over the years growing up without a Mum, and that’s what I ended up sharing with the group of women who gathered together that sunny Sunday.
Here’s the script I’d prepared, followed by a recording of the talk:
And then we find ourselves on a Sunday three weeks before Mother’s Day in a room filled with strangers.
We’ve all paid $50 or so to be here and it wasn’t because of the Champers (although that’s always a bonus).
I’m not sure exactly why you came here today – although maybe it was because of the Champers – but I suspect your motivation might be similar to mine: you don’t want to be alone on this journey anymore.
Today is about being in a place together with people who have found themselves in a similar club: We are Motherless Daughters. And we’ve come – bravely – because we don’t want to be in our cubbies alone anymore, especially in the lead up to Mother’s Day.
To introduce myself, my name is Andrea Michelle. I’m no more qualified than anyone else in the room to have the mic for a bit. But I guess I’ve been asked to talk today because I’ve spoken in public before about being motherless – I’ve written about it on my blog Fox in Flats, and I’ve done a few interviews about my thoughts on it.
My Mum’s name was Jan, and she died from breast cancer when she was 34. I was 11.
I’m no expert on death. I’m no expert on grief. But I have learnt a few things over the last 35 years growing up without a Mum, and that’s what I’m going to share with you today.
Your mum dying is not your destiny
It can be easy to fear that what happened to your Mum will happen to you. Many women – myself included – live in fear that history will repeat. Your Mum died in a car crash? You have a fear of cars. Your Mum died of cancer? You expect you will get it too.
When I was younger I truly believed that I would get breast cancer and die young like my Mum. It felt like a fait accompli.
But that’s what happened to her. It’s her story. You have your own story and you are the author.
What you CAN do is learn from what happened to her and do all you can to not be a copycat.
She died in a car crash and wasn’t wearing a seat-belt? You buckle up.
She had breast cancer? Get genetically tested, understand your risk and manage accordingly.
This is exactly what I did 8 years ago.
I realized that I had been living in crippling fear of getting breast cancer like my Mum. And each time I’d find a lump I’d go into a spin.
I realized that I did have a high risk of getting it, and ultimately had a preventative double mastectomy, ensuring that I would never get breast cancer.
And ensuring that my Mum’s destiny remained hers, not mine.
Don’t try to “live up to her”
In death people become “perfect”. Even more so than how great they were in real life. I guess it’s tempting to think “If only I could be more like my Mum”.
Think about your Mum for a second and her qualities and things she achieved – I’ve no doubt she was impressive.
My Mum – well, she did loads of high profile work for the Anti-Cancer Foundation and was a beauty queen – literally. Big shoes to fill. Huge.
But I’ve learnt that it’s important to not compare yourself to your Mum.
You’ve got your own brilliant qualities and achievements.
You know what? You are perfect just the way you are – you’re perfectly you.
Your only goal should be to be the best version of yourself.
So don’t compare yourself to her – she’d tell you that too, don’t you think?
Don’t put expectations on others to fill the gap
My poor, long-suffering Dad… He was only 36 when he was left with pre-pubescent me.
Instead of my Mum it was he who guided me into womanhood – he taught me how to shave my legs by demonstrating on his beard, he went with me to buy my first bra, and gave me the bucks to buy tampons.
He did his best.
But I always wanted more.
I wanted to be cared for and nurtured the way my mum did.
I used to wonder why no one stepped in or up to try to be a mother figure for me – Aunties, my Mum’s friends, my Step Mum. It made me feel sad, lonely, unwanted and unlovable. And I felt some resentment toward these people for not wanting to play that role in my life.
Yet what I learnt is that when I stopped having these expectations I felt less sad, less lonely and could appreciate the relationships that I did have with them for what they were.
The grass isn’t always greener
It’s easy to romanticise what your relationship with your Mum might be like now, but not everyone has a great relationship with their Mums. It’s good to remind yourself of this if your mind starts going down that track.
Recognise the times when it’s going to hurt the most and plan accordingly
Her Death Day, Birthday, Mother’s Day… I’ve learnt that if I mark these in my calendar and mentally prepare for these days I’m able to deal with them better. Because if not, the grief can creep and hit you like a ton of bricks and you might find yourself bursting into tears in the middle of the supermarket (yes, this has happened to me).
It’s ok to talk about your mum or post about her on social media
For years and years I never spoke about my mum to anyone.
Because I couldn’t do without crying.
Because I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.
Because I didn’t want to be defined by it.
But I’ve learnt that doing so from time to time is a good thing. Because it’s cathartic for you, but also it gives those who love you the chance to show they care.
Jan 10th is the anniversary of the day my Mum died, and this year I posted some pics of her and shared some of my memories about her on Instagram and Facebook. The response was unexpectedly and overwhelmingly beautiful. Hundreds of people shared messages of condolences and support– it was an outpouring of care and love and it meant so much to me.
I think people really want to be able to show you that care and love – you just need to give them permission to do so.
Let yourself fantasize when need be, but give yourself a window then close it
Every couple of years – for only a minute or two – I let myself imagine what it might be like if she were sitting beside me. I let myself think about how she may have aged and what she’d look like now and how she’d look at me. How it may feel to have her warm squishy embrace. And maybe she’d smooth some hair from my face… I don’t know…
Things that are taken for granted by so many yet are so foreign to me.
No one has touched me like that since I was a little girl.
Doing this brings her back to life for a fleeting moment and it’s glorious.
But it’s a fantasy.
I never let this fantasy last for very long because that’s what it is.
You can’t live in fantasy world.
Your mum dying doesn’t define you
A couple of years ago a dear friend of mine since Uni shared with me that she has always thought of me as “her friend whose mother died”.
I’ll admit I was surprised by this given that I was the person who’d introduced her to vodka lime and sodas, girlie road trips, and menthol cigarettes. Yet all these years later this is how I was remembered and defined.
I’ll say upfront that that pisses me off.
I’m a woman with so many personal achievements and memorable moments in my life –I’m a mother of two awesome boys, I’ve built my own business, I’ve interviewed Dannii Minogue dammit! Yet that’s the sub title about me: Andrea Michelle – the girl who’s Mum died.
Yet reflecting on it, this sad thing that happened to me has shaped me in many ways and these have been positive.
There are SO many ways that we’ve all benefited and grown because of our loss:
- Because we know that life is short we live our lives with more purpose
- We purposely create memories with those we love – especially our children – and document these through photos, videos or letters knowing the importance that will be placed on these once we go
- We don’t settle for “good enough” when it comes to work or relationships, being more likely to change careers to do something we are passionate about, and ensuring that the people we invest and commit our time and love toward are worthy of it
- We’re more likely to be focused on gaining life experiences as compared to stockpiling money or things.
We are resilient.
We are independent.
We are empathetic.
And these are all qualities that every mother would want their children to have.
By her passing, these have been inherently instilled in us.
We know that nothing in life is guaranteed and we lack a sense of entitlement
These are incredible qualities that we all possess because of our loss.
We should be proud of these. And proud of our strength and our bravery.
Last week I was packing up my home to move, and I came across a scan of an article from 1978 in amongst my junk and treasures.
Headlined Now Jan is making the most of life the article shares her story of getting cancer at such a young age. She’s quoted as saying “Now I appreciate life and what it’s given me”, “My eyes have been opened to what I really have.”
As we head towards Mother’s Day – one of the trickiest days of the year for people like us – I’d encourage you to be like my Mum Jan and focus on what you DO have instead of what you’re missing out on.
Indeed it’s a time to acknowledge your Mum: if you haven’t done so already you might want to create some positive traditions around it – I take my boys to a cliff on the edge of the water and we release a balloon up to Grandma Jan each year as a way of saying “Hi”.
You might want to take time out alone to connect with her: I tend to head to the beach alone and have a moment with her – I always feel her presence and a sense of comfort.
But even more so, I’d encourage you to use Mother’s Day as an opportunity to celebrate you, and what you’ve become because of her;
- Your independence
- Your resilience
- Your empathy
- Your individuality
- Your strength
- Your bravery
- Your thirst for living
Think about how proud she would be of you.
And be proud of yourself.
I reckon that’s what she would have wanted.
Audio of the speech:
If you’re also without your Mum this Mother’s Day (or any day) I’d encourage you to seek out organisations like Motherless Daughters Australia whose mission is to improve the lives of young girls and women facing life’s milestones without the support of their mother from the unique perspective of first hand experience. There are variations of this not-for-profit worldwide. It certainly was a valuable and comforting experience to attend the recent event in Sydney as I met and immediately felt a connection with the group of remarkably strong and inspiring women who attended.
As I always say:
Being motherless is like joining a club you don’t want to be in and no one really wants to be a part of. But if you’re in it, you might as well make it bloody fabulous!
If you’ve lost a loved one – firstly, big hugs – and secondly, what are some of the key things you’ve learnt?
More Fox in Flats: