For 30 years I had a mother. Now I do not. I am unmothered.
I have been meaning to start a Mental Health Monday (MHM) segment on the blog for almost a year now because mental health is something I am deeply passionate about. If my mum were still alive, she would be turning 62 today so when planning my 2021 content calendar it felt profoundly predetermined to put up the inaugural MHM post today as a way of honouring the love of my life.
If there is something I have written about extensively on the blog, it is the grief that became a part me and my life when my mum died on December 13, 2017 at 1:10 a.m. It is no coincidence The Grief Diaries is the first category on my blog because being unmothered is a vital part of the fabric that makes up who I am.
To be unmothered is exactly what it sounds like. The first time I came across the term was within the first year of my mum’s death in an article in The New Yorker by Ruth Margalit. In the article the author says:
Meghan O’Rourke has a wonderful word for the club of those without mothers. She calls us not motherless but unmothered. It feels right—an ontological word rather than a descriptive one. I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless, or odorless. The emphasis should be on absence.
I, like so many other people on the planet, am part of The Unmothered Club. A club whose membership I did not sign up for but was bound to receive eventually because parents are not supposed to bury their children. It happens, because life can be really fucked up sometimes, but I find it grossly unfair when parents outlive their children.
Almost everyone will join The Unmothered Club eventually, but sadly some of us get our membership sooner rather than later. I was getting a facial done the month after my mum died when I told my facialist that my mum died three months shy of her 59th birthday to which she responded, “oh no she was so young!” My mum died four months ten days after my 30th birthday, which is probably why it did not immediately strike me that she died young because I know people who lost their mums much younger. My BFF Adelle Onyango, for example, was only 23 years young when her mum died. But when I thought about it I realised my facialist was right because my mum did not live long enough to see 60. Lots of people live well into their 80s which is why, 1,181 days after my mum died, I am still struggling to make peace with the fact that my mum did not live long enough to see 60.
Grief is deeply unique but one thing that is common to all of us in The Unmothered Club is the fact that being unmothered comes with what Margalit terms ‘the private calendar of grief’. For me the days marked in red on my private calendar of grief are March 8th, Mother’s Day, August 3rd, October, December 13th and Christmas.
To the world over March 8th is International Women’s Day but to me this day has always been, and will always be, my mum’s birthday first and IWD second. I have said many times before that it is no coincidence my mum was born on IWD as she was the quintessential woman and personified what it meant to be a woman with every fibre of her being. So it is always extremely triggering seeing all the Women’s Day posts on social media yet my quintessential woman, the birthday girl, no longer exists in this world. With every “Happy Women’s Day” post/message I see/receive I want to scream, “WHAT ABOUT MY MUM’S BIRTHDAY!!??” But of course that is just my grief doing the most because the world neither knows nor cares about my mum’s birthday.
This year is the first time since our mum died that my
siblings sister and I are not celebrating her birthday together and I am feeling deeply disconcerted about that, but my sister lives on Mombasa road and I live on Ngong road and it being a Monday we are both busy at work. However, just because I am unable to see my sister does not mean my mum’s birthday should go by unobserved, so I am taking myself out for lunch at a dope ass restaurant today to celebrate my mum and the life she lived.
I fucking hate Mother’s Day and over the last three years my hate has expanded from just the day to the entire week as I now hate every fucking thing about the week leading up to Mother’s Day. Ever since My Last Mother’s Day As A Daughter I have learnt to limit the time I spend on social media that week and I completely avoid going online on the day itself. Last year though life threw me a curveball as my boyfriend’s mother’s birthday is on May 5th and Mother’s Day was on May 10th. It filled me with immense grief to see him celebrate his mum’s birthday and Mother’s Day just days apart, yet I have not celebrated any of those days for four years now. But as much as it hurts I have to learn how to cope with it because Mother’s Day falls on the first Sunday of May so more often than not his mum’s birthday will always be on the same week as Mother’s Day.
I learnt to love my birthday from my mother so my first birthday without my mum was extremely difficult, but also very encouraging as my family and friends were there for me. They knew how difficult it would be for me to celebrate my first birthday without mum so they formed a group chat and did all they could to make sure I did not get swallowed whole by the loss and despair. My birthday has become easier to bear with time, but it always breaks my heart to know these are the last birthday messages I will ever receive from my mum:
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month so the month in its entirety is extremely triggering for me because my mum died from stage IV breast cancer. Before my mum was diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer, for me October was simply about pink ribbons and the various gimmicks used to raise awareness. Remember the one where you had to tweet just the colour of your bra with no explanation? That was fun. Then my mum was diagnosed with, and died from, stage IV breast cancer and there has been nothing fun about October since. To make matters worse, after October ends my private countdown to my mum’s anniversary begins in earnest, making Q4 now synonymous with the death of the love of my life.
My mum died on December 13, 2017 at 1:10 a.m. and my life has never been the same since then. 2018 was the hardest year of my life as I had to learn how to live in a world where the love of my life no longer exists. I had to get through an agonising year of firsts without my mum – Christmas, New Year’s, her birthday, Mother’s Day, my birthday – each seemingly more unbearable than the last.
Every year since my mum died, I write a letter to her that I post on the blog at 1:10 a.m. In my 2018 letter it was plain to see I was deep in the throes of grief, but with time my grief moved behind other things instead of always being in front of them. As such my 2019 and 2020 letters were less mournful than my 2018 one but the grief is always there because being unmothered wears heavy on the soul.
December 25th has always been my favourite day of the year but ever since my mum died 12 days before Christmas the holiday season became sooo fucking hard. To make matters worse, my mum was buried on December 23rd meaning less than 48 hours passed before I experienced my first Christmas without the love of my life. It has been three years since my mum died but the holidays are still sooo painful because as Franscina wrote in this post:
While those may be the six standout days on my private calendar of grief, they are ironically easier to bear than the random days because with time I have learnt coping skills for the standout days. It massively helps that I know they are coming so I can prepare, both mentally and emotionally, to survive those days. But what happens on the days I receive some really good news and I want to share it with my mum before anyone else? And what about the days when life is kicking me in the balls and I just want my mum to hug me and reassure me that everything is going to be okay? Or the days when my boyfriend and I are talking about our future and I get reminded, for the millionth time, that my mother will never meet her future son-in-law. She will not be present on our wedding day. She will never know her grandchildren. Those days, the ones I could not have foreseen, are the ones where my grief threatens to make me its bitch because how the fuck can I prepare for something I cannot see coming?
To be unmothered is to live the rest of your life without the one person who will love you like no one else ever will. To be unmothered is to hear everyone else in your life talk about their mums, whether in passing or in detail, and know that the only stories you can contribute to such conversations are in past tense. To be unmothered is to do everything you can to stay connected to your mother and her memory, then be heartbroken when you start to forget things like her voice or her laugh. To be unmothered is to find a way to exist in a world without the person whose body was your very first home in this world.
Today’s post goes out to my siblings, Adelle and her sisters Anna and Amanda, my friends Mumo, Nyawira and Xtatic, my readers Frankie, Miriam, Mucabwa and Aymarose, and everyone else who, like us, is part of The Unmothered Club.