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Growing Up Without a Mother Is Painful, but There Is Hope

Monday, January 01, 2024

A community of women appeared when I needed them most

By Angela Hartman

If you are a daughter missing your mom, it hurts.

Some of us have mothers who are sick and spend most of their time in hospitals. Some of us have mothers who are distracted by jobs or hobbies or boyfriends and make us feel unimportant and unseen.

Some of us have mothers who cannot take care of us because they are not able to take care of themselves. Some of us feel like we must take care of our own mothers. We are the ones who count out her pills and remind her to take them.

Some of us take care of brothers and sisters because our mothers can’t do it, or won’t do it, or aren’t around. We check their homework and brush their tangled hair. We make food for our family and make sure the dog is fed.

Some of us have mothers who blame us for their problems. Or they shame us for being who we are, what we look like, how we act. Some of us have a mother at home who suffers from substance abuse. She may not notice we are there, much less notice our wants and needs.

Some of us have a mother who hurts us. Or does not protect us when someone else is hurting us. We feel betrayed because mothers should make sure we are safe.

Some of us have a mother who disappeared from our lives.

Some of us have never met our mother.

Some of us have mothers who have died, and we are still grieving.

You will always grieve.


I grew up with a mother who had a mental illness. She sat in a chair and smoked cigarette after cigarette, lighting the next one off the burning butt of the one she just finished. She talked to people on the television and thought they answered her back. She embarrassed me by talking loudly in public places, swearing at my school, crying in the grocery store. She made me mad. She hurt me when she called me names and made fun of me. Seeing her cry was sad, and I didn’t know why she was crying. I didn’t know how to help her.

Even though I had a great dad and two silly brothers, I regularly thought life was hopeless. Unhappiness settled deep inside me. But as hard as it was, there were people who helped take care of me, people who cared about me. I didn’t realize how important these women were until I grew up.

This community of women appeared when I needed mothering. There were teachers who could tell I was exhausted, wearing dirty clothes, and extremely unhappy.

Some looked right into my eyes, talked to me with a gentle voice, and brushed my bangs back with a warm palm. Some gave me grace on homework assignments that didn’t get done or let me do special jobs in the classroom, like cleaning the chalkboard, which made me feel important. They defended me when other kids laughed at me.

A librarian allowed me the reward of sitting on the library carpet to read books at recess. We talked about those books. She asked me what I thought about them, and she listened to what I said. The school nurse stopped in our classroom with a smile every week, quietly checking on me. She welcomed me to her office for quick visits, opening the door for talks, and asking what I needed.

A neighbor noticed our unusual life and invited us in for grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken noodle soup when we were home alone. She drove us to school if we missed the bus. Silently, she watched out for us and turned up when everything seemed miserable.

There were aunts and second cousins, moms themselves, who fit us in their homes when we needed a place to stay. One took care of us for a whole school year, sewing clothes for me just like she did for her own daughters. One cut and permed my hair and pierced my ears. One took me on an embarrassing shopping trip to buy my first trainer bras.

My grandmother tried to teach me to crochet, and played Crazy Eights with me. She walked the dirt-road loop of her town with me, picking up the mail and yakking with friends. She acted proud of me.

Mothers of classmates saw me. They handed me invitations to birthday parties, asked me to their homes after school for snacks and to play Barbies, included me in the Girl Scout troop.

All these women gave me a sense of belonging and taught me how to trust. They taught me that I could do hard things and I didn’t have to do them alone. They showed me what empathy was and helped me feel connected and cared for.

Did I still feel disappointed, abandoned, rejected, confused? I did, but not as much.

This community of women appeared when I needed mothering. There were teachers who could tell I was exhausted, wearing dirty clothes, and extremely unhappy.

Growing up, I thought I was the only one who had a strange family life and I tried to hide it. But working as a school librarian for 28 years, I saw girls who were hurt for the same reasons I once was. The library became a safe place for all kids and I became the person I needed when I was younger.

So look for your community of women. Notice them.

They are there. We are mothered by many women throughout our lives. They might be coaches, people in the place you worship, relatives, or club leaders. They might see you and offer help. If they do, please let them in. They don’t want to embarrass you. They may not know you need help because you are exceptionally good at keeping your struggles hidden.

Some of these women may have lost their mothers in some way too.

Look for them.

They are there.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Don’t be afraid to talk.

Talking can be scary or painful, but it can heal.

The pain of missing a mom will likely never go away, but it can hurt less. Be truthful. Be brave. Let someone help you and take away some of those burdens. Even if it’s just for a while.

And maybe one day, you’ll see a girl who reminds you of yourself. You’ll recognize a look on her face or a word she says. You’ll know. And then it’s your turn to be the person you needed when you were younger.

Look her in the eyes and ask how you can help.

Angela Hartman was an educator for 32 years, and spent 28 years as a school librarian. She was born on an Air Force base in England and raised on Air Force bases in several states. She currently lives in Austin, Texas.