A Motherless Daughter, Mothering

An unexpected pregnancy not long after her troubled mother’s passing forces Ashley Abramson to navigate a kind of dual citizenship she couldn’t have anticipated.

Ashley Abramson | Longreads | May 2018 | 11 minutes (2,633 words)


An unplanned pregnancy — the abrupt realization that you’re not alone in your body — feels like being haunted. But even more terrifying than a cluster of multiplying cells turning up uninvited is the idea of going about life not having known that as I got drunk on boxed wine, as I got out of the shower and grimaced at my then-small body in the mirror, as I swallowed three aspirin and walked to work, I had been inhabited. But now that I think of it, unprotected sex by virtue of generous pours of liquor thanks to an after-work panic attack is a pretty surefire way to find yourself both with child and without your go-to methods of self-medicating.

The summer of 2013 and the three years before it, I had no serious responsibilities but to grieve my mom’s death and to make peace with the body I had been afraid of fully living in my entire life, thanks to her addiction and mental illness. Instead, I relied on my own vices to blur her imprint on me: alcohol, a Xanax prescription, and over-the-counter sleeping pills. This insular mode of self-protection, my attempt at grieving from the outside in, quickly became toxic, rendering me wholly incapable of tending to anyone’s needs but my own. I would find out about seven and a half months later, when my son was born, that peacemaking only works from the inside out — but not without a fight.


At the time I found myself unexpectedly pregnant — barely 25 — I had completed three of the seven items on my “before babies” note on my iPhone. My remaining prerequisites, including pay off debt, get off anxiety meds, eat healthier, and be emotionally stable, reduced growing up (or growing at all) to something quantifiable, something I could, if I mustered enough willpower, master. Motherhood, I had decided, was a privilege reserved for those who had graduated from their own needs, or a responsibility to be exclusively enjoyed by the amply mothered.

So I wilted at the sight of the positive test, whose all-caps PREGNANT seemed more like an accusation of what I wasn’t than an affirmation of what I was. I had never gotten to be a daughter — how could I be someone’s mother? How could my body betray me like this, selling the real estate I had reserved for my grief? Suddenly I wanted to belong fully to my sadness, to expose myself to the tragedy of being untethered from my primary source of nurturing. And I wanted to do it alone.

The idea of sharing my body — and soon, my life — with someone whose needs I would have no choice but to put before my own felt impossible. I feared my own body would shatter under the weight of this sudden responsibility like my mother’s had, severing the thin wisp connecting me to her, to my childhood, to all the things I had not yet grieved.


I dream that I am standing between them, stretched so thin I am nearly invisible. They both need me on levels that feel inhumane: my mother, to care for her in the ways my dad couldn’t, the ways her own parents never did, and my son, to be for him what I never had and fear I will never be able to give. Somehow I must mother them both, across the two-decade expanse separating us. Somehow, I think, I must mother me.


To the two of them, I am strong, but what they don’t see is everything I once had is inside of them. I have no choice but to give until I am depleted. I am the weak clasp between two generations. I am her child, but she wants me to be her mother. I am his mother, but all I want is to be someone’s child.


I never wanted to be two things at once, to wade through the mire of whatever feeling would take me from belonging to my mother to belonging to a child. I wanted the next epoch of my life to be one I had decided on, a season of which I bravely took hold. The decades leading up to my becoming a mother had taken hold of me, held me under their strong currents, carried me against my will out of my own childhood: my parents’ divorce, my first panic attack shortly thereafter, my hypochondria, my OCD-riddled adolescence, plus my mom’s addiction to prescription painkillers and her related death. All of it had been imposed on me; how could a child I did not ask for be any different?

Now that I think of it, unprotected sex by virtue of generous pours of liquor thanks to an after-work panic attack is a pretty surefire way to find yourself both with child and without your go-to methods of self-medicating.

The morning after I found out I was pregnant, I peed on another stick at the doctor’s office, hoping my 99.9 percent accurate digital test was somehow mistaken about what was happening in my womb. “Do you want to have a baby?” the nurse asked as she quietly shut the door behind her, preparing me for what I knew she was about to tell me. Nauseated, lightheaded, and dazed by the sensation of being held captive in my own body, I looked to my husband, Tim, who answered affirmatively for us both. “Well, we weren’t really planning on it right now, but we probably would have started trying in the next year,” he told her as she primed the vaginal ultrasound. Another invasion.

The nurse flipped off the lights in the exam room and squinted as she zoomed in on a black-and-white portrait of my fist-size uterus. “It looks like you’re about 5 weeks along,” she said, gesturing to the screen. “You said you think you conceived at the end of July? If that’s the case, then this embryo stopped developing about a month ago.” Tim and I exchanged looks, internally calculating alternate scenarios that would warrant a five-week-old embryo. The only time we remembered having unprotected sex was on our anniversary, at the end of July. He had booked a hotel south of the city where we had dinner and several very sugary cocktails. I was sure I wasn’t ovulating, but I must have been deceived by my drunkenness. It was September then, so if we got pregnant in July, I should have been more than eight weeks pregnant — but to the nurse, the baby didn’t look more than five weeks, indicating it had likely died, unless I’d conceived later than I thought.

“Wait, what about my birthday, in August? I must have been ovulating then,” I interjected, suddenly defensive of my unborn baby. A blurry memory of another sloppy night a few weeks after our anniversary began to surface in my mind. “An August conception date would make much more sense,” the nurse replied. “If it was July, unfortunately, I don’t think this pregnancy is viable. But let’s do some blood work to see how your hormones are before we jump to any conclusions.”

Not viable. Not a viable daughter, and now not a viable mother. I waited more than a week for the nurse to call me with my test results, toggling between potential identities all the while. What would be scarier, losing a baby or becoming a mom before I had processed that I didn’t have one myself? Which would be more painful, the loss of the child I didn’t plan for or the loss of the child I never got to be? Before I settled on an answer, the nurse left me a voicemail while I was at the chiropractor’s office, recommending I start on a progesterone supplement to lessen the risk of miscarriage. I was, she thought, six weeks pregnant. My hormones were on the rise. And I had nowhere to go but ahead, into a world that would surely demand more of me than I had to offer.


When did I stop being a daughter? When my mom’s last breath departed her body? Or did I resign my childhood 10 years before when I cried at a sleepover, confessing to my twin best friends that I knew I would lose her before I got married? (I was right.) Was it when she took her first hit of weed, or when she surrendered herself to the drug that kept her from replaying the pain of her childhood, the little white pill that would steal her from me until the day it stole her life from her? Did she think, as she swallowed the pill and chased it with Pepsi, about what her grandchildren would look like, how she would spoil them like she spoiled me? If not for me, why didn’t she save herself for them?

When did I stop being a daughter? When my mom’s last breath departed her body? Or did I resign my childhood 10 years before when I cried at a sleepover, confessing to my twin best friends that I knew I would lose her before I got married?

When did I become a mother? When my womb flickered with life and encircled my unborn son with a cocktail of favorable hormones? Was it the moment I heard his heartbeat echo inside me, 145 beats per minute, surely a boy, or when I readied the nursery and hung a banner with his name over his crib? Was it when my water broke while I was sitting on the toilet, unlocking the gateway by which he would emerge? When I held him in my arms with my eyes closed because I was afraid I would discover, after all that work, that he didn’t even look like me? Or did my body know all along what it would be home to? And if it did, why didn’t it prime me for the occasion?


As my baby’s body grew into mine and I grew sicker in response, I became increasingly aware of my deficiency. His blossoming avocado, then papaya, then spaghetti squash–size body occupied both physical and emotional space in my life, making a home in the landscape I needed to both house and manage my unfinished business. This baby interrupted my routine. He stole my regimen for dealing with my anxiety. He frazzled my hormones, absorbed all my energy and my nutrients, disconnected me from the only version of myself I knew. For the first few months of my pregnancy, I was convinced my unborn child was hell-bent on devouring the last shred of my livelihood.

Three weeks after I found out the surprise pregnancy was, in fact, “viable,” I nestled in an armchair in my office building and called my best friend, who lived halfway across the country in San Francisco. Hiding tears from business-casual passersby, I told her how I resented the baby for the responsibility it had inflicted on me and how I felt I needed to protect what was left of my love reserve for myself. “It feels so unfair,” I sobbed. “I don’t understand how I’m supposed to be a mom when I don’t even have a mom to take care of me.”

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I was right about one thing: Responsibility is inherent to motherhood. From the very beginning — without question of her upbringing or her emotional well-being or her irresponsible drinking habits — whether she intends for it to or not, a mother’s body becomes her child’s source of nutrition and safety. It’s a mother’s job to pour herself out, and it’s a baby’s job to receive all she has to give. That’s what babies do: They just show up and need, with nothing to offer in return (except, of course, unending sleepless nights).

Growing up with a physically and mentally ill mom, I didn’t have much opportunity to have needs of my own. She needed me too much. Having given myself to my mother in this way for the better part of my childhood — having been needed — it was difficult to imagine myself taking on another identity I assumed had been designed to rob me of my vitality. Parenthood, it seemed, was the universe’s way of stealing me from myself, of reminding me of a childhood soured by my mom’s addiction, of interrupting the grieving process I began but never fully inhabited. So I resisted the invisible life swelling inside of me until I had no option but to acknowledge it.

To my surprise, as my body grew to make a home for my son, I found my sense of self — particularly as it related to my mom — growing alongside of it. While I envisioned the duties of parenting would sever whatever ties remained between my mom and me, becoming a mother not by choice, just like she had, expanded my capacity to empathize and relate with her. Face pressed up against the toilet seat for hours on end, I wondered whether my mom had been this sick for so long, too, and if anyone showed up to take care of her. Surrounded by piles of newborn onesies, I wept uncontrollably on the nursery floor after my baby shower, wondering how she coped with the sting of her own mother’s addiction. At ultrasound appointments on pitch-black snowy nights, at birth classes in the basement of the hospital, while I packed my birth center bag with an obscene number of chambray baby rompers, I daydreamed about what my mother would think of my becoming a mother, if she would see herself or a version of herself she never quite became in me.

When did I become a mother? When my womb flickered with life and encircled my unborn son with a cocktail of favorable hormones? Was it the moment I heard his heartbeat echo inside me, 145 beats per minute, surely a boy, or when I readied the nursery and hung a banner with his name over his crib?

Perhaps I wasn’t losing my mother. Perhaps I was becoming her. Perhaps what life had stolen from me, the surprise of motherhood could somehow return in greater measure. I latched onto the possibility that surrendering myself to loving someone I hadn’t met yet could be the most profound, subversive way to grieve what was never given to me.


In religious art, a mandorla — Italian for almond — is an oval-shaped aureole of light surrounding a holy person. Christian icons often picture Christ ascending to heaven in a mandorla to illustrate the space where two worlds merge — in this case, heaven and earth. The mandorla is also where two circles overlap, as in a Venn diagram, the place where opposites meet and the known touches the unknown, sparking something sacred. By nature, the mandorla empowers one to be in two places, or fulfill two identities, at once. Paintings of Christ in the mandorla depict him as both man and son of God, with one foot in heaven and another on dirt. The mandorla of a grieving mother creates space for her to exist in two places at once: grieving yet giving, being and becoming, clueless in the throes of parenting yet wholly equipped by a force of love she will likely describe as miraculous.


On a Tuesday afternoon in May, half a decade after my mom slipped away from this world, Oliver Abramson exploded into it, crowned with wisps of red hair and the most heartbreaking whimper-cry I’ve ever heard. He was born two days after his due date, and none of it went according to plan. Ollie’s arm was immobile for several minutes after birth from being wedged up against my uterus, and I lost several liters of blood during delivery, which left me with the feeling I was floating outside immediate reality, detached from the frantic scene around me.

“Do you think your mom is here in the room with us, watching over you?” my tattooed doula asked me as the midwife and on-call OB injected me with pitocin to stop the bleeding before they stitched me up. “No, I don’t really believe in that kind of thing,” I told her, somehow lucid enough to be fully aware that my mother had never left me, but was instead actually inside me, swimming through my veins and my son’s and through the veins of all my future sons and daughters.


My 3-year-old son is sleeping next to me. Long limbs sprawled across the sheets, he exhales through his mouth, smacks his lips, and rolls away. He has been amply mothered, charged by the power of my grieving — yet very much alive — body.

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Ashley Abramson is a mom-writer hybrid from Minneapolis, MN.

Editor: Sari Botton