My mom died of breast cancer when I was 10 years old. This is a sentence I have grown used to saying, with a practiced neutral expression and a finality that deters further questions. Losing a parent so young is the antithesis of the gift that keeps on giving. Every special occasion, every achievement, every milestone in my life is a reminder that she’s not here.

I felt this even more keenly when I was pregnant with my first child. Midwives and ultrasound techs would ask me, “Is your mom looking forward to the baby coming?” Colleagues told me, “You’ll be grateful for your mom after the baby is born.” Even the books I read talked about how the bond between a woman and her mother is often strengthened after the latter experiences childbirth.

But she wasn’t there.

She wasn’t there when I wanted to ask if her pregnancy was like mine, if she experienced sickness as badly as I did, if she had the same nerves about becoming a mother, and how she dealt with working while pregnant. I didn’t get to discuss birth choices with her, and she wasn’t waiting anxiously outside as my son arrived in the world (as the baby books assured me she would be).

Afterward, when motherhood wasn’t quite what I expected, she wasn’t there to listen and empathize and tell me whether she felt the same when I was born. She couldn’t help me navigate my new identity as a mother, and reassure me that I’d come out the other side. I wasn’t alone; I had my husband and my dad and my stepmom—but I wanted my mom .

My mom was present in my life for only 10 years, much of that punctuated by her illness—she was sick for around five years before she died. I don’t recall specific events or conversations with her, but what I do remember is constantly feeling loved, cherished, and wanted. She made me feel like I was the center of her universe, like she had never encountered a more perfect being than me.

She was the center of my own small universe, too—a brightly burning sun. And when she died, the light in my life went out.

She made everything fun; her imagination and energy seemed limitless. She encouraged our shared love of reading and writing, passions that have accompanied me into adulthood.

She brought notebooks home from the school where she worked and helped me imagine stories to fill their blank pages.

She wrote journals, including an account of my own babyhood. She penned a beautiful collection of letters to me when she knew she would not live to see me grow up. I still find it hard to read them.

When my husband and I decided to have children, I knew right away what kind of mother I wanted to be. I would love my kids fiercely and openly. I would encourage them to explore everything the world has to offer. I would be their solid foundation, their safe place to fall. I would be the kind of mother my own mom was, the kind I know she would have continued to be throughout my life.

I’m not always that mother—I have three children now and a full life, and I am human. But I have this blueprint, which I come back to when times are hard and I am losing my way as a parent.

I also know there must have been times when my mother wasn’t that mother either, when she was frazzled and stressed and sick. Despite this, I never doubted her unconditional love and belief in me, and that’s what I want my own children to carry into their adulthood.

It’s also important to me that my children know they have a third grandmother, even though she isn’t here with us. We talk about Grandma Jane often and look at photos.

Now that our oldest son is six, he understands a little more that his mommy grew up without her own mommy. Last week, he stated out of the blue, “Mommy, I feel sad that your mommy died when you were little. That’s really sad for you.” His innocent empathy almost undid me, and I struggled to hold my emotions together as I cuddled him close.

My mother has been gone for more than 20 years, yet at every stage of my own mothering journey, I feel her absence all over again.

Mothering without my mother is a difficult journey, but having my children has been healing in so many ways. After my mom died, it felt like I could only remember the sad times—seeing her in the end-of-life hospice, her last visit home, her funeral. But watching my children often sparks lovely memories from my own childhood, and I can now talk about my mom without feeling overwhelmingly sad.

Most of all, my mother gave me a valuable roadmap for my parenting journey through her own mothering of me. And for that, I will always be thankful.

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