“Mothering Without a (Good) Mother” Featuring Visual Art Piece: “Mom’s Sparkling Water”

Mothering Without a (Good) Mother

Nonfiction Piece Written By: Brandi Lawless

About the Author: Brandi Lawless lives in San Francisco with her son, partner, and two cats. She is a social justice trainer/teacher and a pumpkin enthusiast. In her spare time, she likes to read, visit piano bars, check out local restaurants, and travel internationally.

I was six weeks away from my due date, bent over my swollen belly in the shower with tears falling as quickly as the water from the showerhead. It was supposed to be a happy day—my baby shower, “little pumpkin” themed, but I was so angry. I wanted to chalk it up to hormones, but the truth was that I had a right to be angry. I had just planned and executed this shower myself. My mother-in-law, who was listed as the “host” on Paperless Post, showed up two hours late, without the tables and chairs she had promised to bring. The poor woman doesn’t have a Martha Stewart bone in in her body, but I had a vision of what I wanted. I knew I would only be doing this once and I wanted it to be perfect. The one shower my husband’s mother hosted before amounted to a table cloth and some soup for the mom-to-be. I wanted the whole shebang—games, favors, door prizes, and a photobooth. I was already feeling like less-than when I saw the wife of an old high school teacher post pictures of the beautiful shower she hosted for her daughter on Instagram. I wanted that. I wanted it so much that I wrote to tell her, “Laura, I have to tell you I’ve been crying almost every day because I’m getting close and know that I don’t have a mom to help me through labor. I keep thinking if I had a mom I would want it to be you. I just see how much you love Ellie and Elizabeth. Just wanted you to know you’re great.” I wanted a great mom to teach me how to be a good mom. I was crying because I didn’t get anything close to that.

My mother, Renee, was many things; she was intelligent, the life of the party, manipulative, an abuser, and an addict. The latter took her life in 2011. I was 26 years old, the age she was when she had me. I have fond memories of going to an amusement park with her and watching her dance naked in her graduation robe after completing a degree as a single mother in her late 30s. These scant happy memories hide in the shadow of our abusive relationship, her addictions, and her pain. I thought that I had put all of this behind me as time marched on, but everything came back up when I was preparing to have my son. The anger leaked out of me like hot water boiling over. Didn’t I deserve to have a good mom to help me through this?


There was a knock on the door. I jumped off of the couch to open it, but didn’t stop to say, “Who is it?” When I opened the door, I was towered over by four or five police bodies, staring down at me, pushing past me, and one, who I recognized, asking, “Where is your mother?” My mother sat up from her stoned stupor on the couch and said, “Ok, ok, let me first say that there are drugs here.” She stared from the blonde female officer to me, her eyes closed to a deep sneer that said, “How could you open the fucking door?” As if, by not answering the door, her subsequent search, seizure, and arrest would not take place. The police were there for hours, taking everything from piles of marijuana, to scales, to sandwich bags. My sister and I were 5 and 10 years old, respectively, and nobody seemed to know what to do with us. The blonde officer’s job was to keep my sister and me occupied while the search took place. I remember my sister asking if she could have the bracelet that draped the woman’s wrist. The woman, seemingly frustrated, said she could “borrow it” while she was “visiting.” She sat on the couch occupying us while a hurricane swept around us, for what seemed like hours. As the sun dipped below the horizon, my Aunt Kara and Grandma arrived to take my sister and me to stay with family. My mother stayed behind, crying, angry, and defeated.

“It was a miracle,” she said, as she recounts the judge ruling, “no incarceration.” In lieu of more jail time, my mother would serve one year of house arrest while on probation, submitting to random drug testing. To make this happen, two officers visited our house, installing a bracelet around my mother’s foot and setting up a computer monitor in the kitchen. This was 1996, when computers were large, loud, and looming. This monitor was no exception. The monitoring station was so large that we had to set up a separate table to house it, which took up a third of our kitchen. To shield our embarrassment, when guests came over we put a large box over the structure, hoping it wouldn’t beep or overheat. We would rather look like slobs than admit that there was a convicted felon in the house, something that might prevent us from keeping and maintaining friendships.


My husband and I attended a birthing class at our local Kaiser. One by one, partners went around and introduced themselves. Some women were with their spouse, but a few were with their mom. I felt disdain bubble up inside of me. How could they bring their mom, when I can’t bring mine? The irony of these angry thoughts is that even if she was here, I would never want her to be that person for me. I just wanted to have the option. I wanted the type of love that only a good mother could give. The one that emits itself when you are sick and still feel a kinship for your mother making you ache for her hug, smile, and soup. I felt a hole where that was supposed to be.  

In November of 2018, having accepted that I was severely depressed, I went on the Mainstreet Mamas Facebook page and posted, “Hi moms–Have any of you dealt with PRE-partum depression? I’m six weeks away from labor with my first kid and pregnancy is bringing up a lot of issues around not having my mom around and I’m just feeling depressed. I hear a lot about post-partum depression, but nothing about depression during pregnancy…in fact, everyone keeps expecting me to be on my most excited behavior. Hoping I’m not the only one and wondering how you dealt with it.” 60 comments followed. All 60 presumed that I lost a good mom. Several suggested I join the “Mothering Without a Mother” group. I did. Again, I was bombarded with posts about how much these women missed their wonderful mothers and didn’t know how they would mother without them. I felt isolated. I was without a mother. But more than that, even while she was alive, I was without a good mother. It hit me that my biggest fear was learning to be a good mother, when I never had one myself.


Renee was only allowed to leave the house for work, and because she agreed to attend “useless” drug counseling group sessions, she could pick us up from our afterschool activities. Not a day went by where she didn’t remind us of her great sacrifice, while pretending that we hadn’t sacrificed part of our childhood to live with her under surveillance. I was an 11-year-old in 6th grade, trying to find things that made me feel like a normal kid. I auditioned for and was cast as a chorus member in my first school musical, Anything Goes. Rehearsals ran from 4-6pm, at which time I had to promptly walk out the door and meet my mother who had a ten-minute window to pick me up before she had to be back in close proximity to the monitor. Normally, this wasn’t a problem. However, during dress rehearsal, I learned that it was common to stay late to receive “notes” from the director. In fact, we were told we must stay until the end of all the notes and if we failed to do so, we would be cut from the play. At 6:05 my sister was sent in to get me. I gave her a nervous look and refocused my gaze at the director who was only on the first page of notes. At 6:10, my sister was sent in again to pull me away. She stood in the doorway frantically waving her hands as tears ran down her face—a six-year-old who was told that her mother would go back to jail if she didn’t successfully bring me to the car. I threw my hands up, signaling to her that I didn’t know what to do. The director shot a look at my sister and then to me, followed by, “Is this some kind of joke to you? Do you want to be a part of this play?” “I do!” I replied, as my voice cracked, not knowing how to communicate that something very bad was about to happen and I would be blamed again. At 6:15 my mother walked in, herself, screaming, “Do you want the fucking cops to come get me you ungrateful…” I ran out the door crying. My mom screamed at me the whole ride home. I tried to explain what happened, asking, “What was I supposed to tell her?” She screamed and cursed the whole way home, rehashing how it was my fault in the first place, because I opened the door to let the police in. To my knowledge, there was no consequence for being late. None, except my mother’s fear and my embarrassment. When I returned to rehearsal the next day, nobody said a word, silently acknowledging that it was not my fault and perhaps things are better left unsaid. I went back to rehearsal each of the following days, sweeping what happened under the rug. I had my performance, with no mother in the audience, because she was not allowed to leave the house for those 3 hours on the weekend. 


Prenatal/perinatal depression is a predictor for postpartum depression. I was watching it like a hawk, but it still snuck up on me and attacked from behind. While I don’t remember the moment I realized that I had lost the battle to postpone or overcome PPD, I do remember the worst parts. I was sitting in the glider during a 3AM feeding. I was frustrated that breastfeeding required me to do ten times the labor that my partner was/could do. But more than my frustration with him, I just kept thinking, “There is no way she did this for me. And if she did, there is no way she did it happily.” I never knew my mother as a sober person, and as she admitted to me, she wasn’t sober when she gave birth to me, breastfed me, or cared for me. When she was awakened from a pill-induced nap, she would rustle, sit straight up and snap, “Mother fucker, son of a bitch! Jesus fucking christ. Leave me the fuck alone.” These words would be spewed at an 8-year-old simply asking if she was going to get a ride to girl scouts, or a 14-year-old who needs to make it to her choral recital. My mind put two and two together and imagined her either putting a pillow over her head while baby me screamed in the background, or grabbing me and cursing under her breath while she begrudgingly gave me a bottle. At 3AM I was fighting how tired I was by channeling all of my anger toward this woman who wasn’t there to defend herself. I looked down at my son, his eyes closed as he nursed just to get through the night and thought, “How could you do that to me?” Even though these scenarios were self-invented, I felt wronged. I felt outraged.   


When I got the call, I was in the wilderness on a retreat, assisting my mentor, MJ, by facilitating poverty simulations for 25 students. In the middle of the simulation, my phone rang. MJ shot me a look because we had told the students to keep their phones in their cabins. My mouth stretched into a remorseful grin and I switched the phone to silent. Twenty minutes later, we were finished and I walked my phone to the cabin. I saw a voicemail, so I quickly listened. My sister was wailing. In between the cracked breaths I heard her say, “Brandi, you have to call me right now.” I did, immediately, but there was no answer. My heart set into an arrhythmic pattern. When you know your parent is an addict, every call could be that call. My sister and I had made an agreement long ago never to call crying without an explanation. She had once done so and I thought the worst. As it turned out, she got into a fight with her friend. That’s how I knew this time was different. 

I ran out of the cabin to MJ. My wide eyes, quivering lip, depleted breath, and sharp gaze told her something was wrong. “I think my mom died.” We walked outside where I began pacing, waiting for a phone call. I had already confided in her that my mother was a heroin addict. She knew where my worry came from. I was anticipating this. After 15 minutes, my phone rang. “Hello?!” I couldn’t stop myself from screaming into the phone. “She’s gone Brandi” was all my sister could get out between choking back tears. I fell to my knees and screamed. MJ wrapped her arms around me, pulling me in for what felt like an hour. She left me for a few minutes and came back with something small in her hand—an elephant bead. Did she know that my mother collected elephants? She wrapped my fingers around the small burgandy bead and told me, “I want you to look at this and think of nurturing on a BIG level.” Was she my new nurturer? Was I to nurture myself? Was I the nurturer all along?


“I’m not the nurturing type.” I was the first to tell people, those who knew me and new mom friends, that this didn’t come naturally to me. I used this as a way to explain why I couldn’t deal with a colicky baby—one that cries three or more hours a day. I couldn’t tell them that I had to sometimes leave him in his crib and walk away. Or that I could relate to those parents who had to fight the desire to shake their babies. It was all I could do to get through a day. I felt isolated. I felt taken advantage of. I didn’t want to do this, but somehow, I had to. For him. For myself. And, yes, to prove that I am better than her. Because, if I succumbed to those feelings of despair and anger, then I was just another bad mother. I would not become her. So, when he would cry, I would look at him and plead, “Please, baby, don’t make me become her. You deserve better.”


After my mother died, I had a hard time coming to terms with a lot of things. I felt guilty that I couldn’t save her. I was deeply depressed about our relationship. And, part of me wanted to know what those final moments were like. I was gifted a session with an intuitive. I was skeptical, but intrigued. This particular woman was a hypnotherapist who only got clients as an intuitive through word of mouth. I made an appointment and waited in anticipation. When I arrived at her office, she sat on a couch and closed her eyes. She asked for my name and birthdate. She asked for my mother’s full name, birthdate, and date of death. As I gave her the information, she seemed to be tuning in. We spent an hour together while she told me about how my mom died, how she felt about her life, who she was with now, and what she thought of my choices. This session did more for me than any round of therapy. She described my mother to a T. Yes, it was her. She told me things that nobody could have known: “Your mother had a younger sister who also passed. She is with her now and they are talking a lot.” “Your mother was very smart. She had her own rules.” As I look back on this session, there was something much more important than a verification that she was tuning into my mother. She said, “In another lifetime you were her mother. You’ve been going back and forth about who the mother in the relationship is. In a way, you had to raise her.” I never thought of it this way, but she was absolutely right. I had been the mother my whole life, and perhaps in other lives too. This was already a part of me.


On my first Mother’s Day, my husband gave me a card that brought me to tears. He knew I was depressed and that Mother’s Day was (and had been for 34 years) a complicated day for me. I needed to know I was doing a good job. The card said, “You are the best mother for Griffin. You are loving, you are kind. You have nourished his body and his soul. He responds to your voice and music like nobody else. You will be a strong role model. You will be the mother you deserved.” Tears streamed down my face once again. In this instance, all of my fears, sadness, anger, and happiness were swimming together in one school. It was affirming and heart wrenching. And, it was all I wanted to hear.


Visual Art By: Veronica Voss-Macomber

About the Artist: Growing up in the wilds of Saskatchwan (you know where that is, eh), Veronica created with whatever was at hand – the family Super 8 camera, sidewalk chalk. Now a grown up (sorta) Veronica mostly uses a computer to create, but she has been spotted using a pencil and paper.

moms_sparkling_NoSignat copy

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