Opinion | Learning to Be a Mother Can Take Generations — and Sometimes, Distance

“The human grand-maternal relationship is nearly unique in the natural world,” writes Abigail Tucker, a science writer, in a guest essay for Opinion. For new mothers in particular who are lucky enough to have their own mothers at hand, there are “tremendous benefits to our mental health and maternal behavior in ways that emerging science increasingly underscores.”

We asked readers how their mothers and grandmothers shaped their maternal behavior and the lives of their children. In hundreds of submissions we read about late-night breaks for new parents, cultural traditions passed down through generations and the showering of unconditional love on grandchildren, even from those who may not have given the same to their own children.

We also heard from readers who lost their mothers, through death or estrangement, and how they forged maternal relationships with friends, aunts, sisters and others who stepped in to provide support or share advice.

A selection of their comments, edited for length and clarity, follows.

‘The impact on my son, and his sons, is clear’

My mother showed us the idea of unconditional love before it was a fashionable term with the simple expression, “I’m on my way.” No matter the time of day, she would be there to help, cradle and comfort. Her words live on years later whenever my son calls with a worry or concern about his boys. She continues to watch over us, as I now instantly say, “I’m on my way.” — Joan Kenny, Morristown, N.J.

My mother was a huge help at the births of my sons and even more so when my husband left me with two preschoolers. I moved 1,200 miles to live near her so I could work to support the boys and myself. With one son often ill, I could not have held a job without her help. My parents and my older son are gone now, but the impact on my younger son, and his sons, is clear. She held us together. Now it’s my turn. — Barbara Sloan, Conway, S.C.

My mother is still strongly connected to my now-adult children because of the consistent time she spent with them. My late grandmother is still a big part of my daily life, as I hear her voice in my head all the time. — Sharon Greenthal, Long Beach, Calif.

She showed us how to care for our ‘precious and terrifying newborn’

My mother instilled a belief in me that I was strong enough to birth my big babies — a trust in my body. She also helped me trust my judgment in the early days. She’s a sounding board of unconditional love. Both of my parents bring wonder, play and joy to my kids. They are creative, free and wild with them. — Sophie McClellan, Encinitas, Calif.

I gave birth to my first child one month ago and honestly feel that my mom has been the most important person in my son’s life. She showed me and my husband how to take care of our precious and terrifying newborn while simultaneously helping us navigate the way that our relationship was changing. Knowing that she’s just a phone call away makes me feel invincible, like I have all the backup I need. — Quinn Rathkamp, Bellingham, Wash.

I am privileged to live with my mother and, astonishingly enough, my husband feels the same way. We moved in right before I got pregnant with our first child and have lived together (mostly harmoniously) for five years and counting. My mom (affectionately referred to as Momlet) has a special bond with our daughter. Now that I am pregnant with our second child, we have the choice to move into an apartment of our own and leave Momlet behind or to find a house big enough for multigenerational living in this horrid market. Despite the difficulty, we want to remain together. — Alexandria Nunez, South Elgin, Ill.

‘Not having a mom, she struggled being a mom’

My mom died when I was pregnant with my firstborn. The loss of a mother during parenting is such a deep grief because it isn’t just the sadness of losing your mother, it is also the millions of sadnesses for your children because they also lost someone who could have loved them.

Raising children without a mom can be done — and is being done joyfully with a lot of love. But there are many missing pieces, and I have a continuously broken heart because no matter how much grief and trauma healing work you do, the loss of your mother is like losing a piece of yourself. It turns you into a person you’ve never known because you’re now in a motherless yet child-filled world. — Rosia Parrish, Louisville, Colo.

I am a much better grandmother than mother, I think because I’ve gained distance from the pain, the disconnection and dismissal I felt because of the way my mother raised me. My mother was cold and unemotional, and considered it an intrusion for me to ask for help with my two infants. She kept score of how many times she watched them. I’m used to handling life on my own, without her support, but I foolishly continued asking for it.

I give my grandkids my love and time freely, and watching them grow is as rewarding as being a mother. I wish I had been the same with my own kids. It took time for me to understand why I wasn’t. — Tracy, Troy, N.Y.

My mother’s mother died when mom was 3, so she was raised by her father, who was an immigrant to the United States. She wanted nothing more than to be a mother, and I was raised in a nuclear family. But not having a mom, she struggled being a mom. It is difficult to explain how this manifested, but from an early age I knew I wanted nothing to do with motherhood. At 70, we are still glad that we made that decision. Being a parent is very difficult, and having worked with parents and children most of my career, it is so apparent to me how the parenting style in one generation impacts the parenting in the next. — Diane Taylor, California

‘I did better than many moms who had their extended family’

I fear some parents who cannot tap family to assist in early-stage parenting are pathologized by our culture. I am a solo parent who took the subway to the hospital while in labor and was by myself post-C-section with my newborn. I had to walk half a mile to the pharmacy with my daughter strapped on me in the carrier to get medications. And I did fine. I did better than many moms who had their extended family surrounding them. Some mamas are meant to be lone wolves who do it all for their babies. — Anna Davies, Jersey City, N.J.

I’m so glad I was able to raise my family apart from the ravages of intergenerational abuse. Our species is well equipped to provide many intergenerational friends, formal caregivers and community members. I’m grateful for the absence and polite distance from my biological mother, who is unable to provide healthy love. — Megan M., Chicago

My parents raised their children beautifully. And while they loved their grandchildren, they cherished time alone. When will the burdens on women end? — Krista Conley, Washington, D.C.

‘We became each other’s mothers’

My mother was warm when I was a young child, but unfortunately her love chilled as soon as I began to assert my own identity. By the time I became a mother she’d become disinterested. In one of my life’s greatest blessings, I was essentially rescued by a slightly older, dear friend whose children were grown. Her gentle, low-key guidance throughout my sons’ childhoods nurtured us all. When she died suddenly a few years ago, I finally understood the pain of being orphaned. — RoseAnne Cleary, Glendale, N.Y.

Some of us weren’t so lucky. My mom wouldn’t even babysit for a few hours. “Not my thing,” she would say. She hasn’t spoken to or seen my daughter in years. It took a long time to create holiday and birthday traditions with other people. Friends my own age have been my biggest resource. Now every other week, holidays and birthdays, all us parents get on Zoom. The kids started asking to join too, and even our college-age kids hop on for a few minutes because they want to be a part of it. — Alane, Los Angeles

I moved away from my small town and was never closer than a two-hour drive to my mother. Luckily, in a childbirth class for my firstborn, my husband and I met another couple our age, also motherless, and they lived six blocks away. We became each other’s sources of support from infancy all the way through college. She and I still call ourselves “twin daughters of different mothers,” and we’re still best friends. We became each other’s mothers. — Sue MacDonald, Cincinnati

‘It was important to me to pass down traditions’

After my dad died, my family moved into my childhood home with my mother. We’re a multigenerational home and a thousand percent stronger for it. It’s wonderful to see my mother teaching my children the old ways of Appalachia: canning and preserving, our language, our music and stories she learned from her mother, who passed them down from her mother. She has been integral in teaching me and my children our heritage. — Lauren Dodgin, Black Mountain, N.C.

I’m Chinese-American, so my mother did the traditional monthlong sit-in after each of my pregnancies. This included making many soups to help me recover after childbirth and to boost my breast milk production. It was invaluable to have the support, and the free child care, but it wasn’t all roses. There were some disagreements on parenting. It took us a while to find our balance. The tradition of my mother doing for me what her mother had done for her is something I’ll treasure. I think I’ll do it for my daughter as well. — Andrea Wang, New York, N.Y.

It was important to me to pass down my family’s Indian traditions and time-tested ways of taking care of a newborn. My mother taught me how to bathe my baby while positioning the baby on my legs, to put a little black dot on her face to ward off evil eyes and had me eat certain foods to enhance my milk production.

As my children grow, my mother helps me figure out ways to make Indian food palatable to them and how to celebrate cultural festivals in ways that make them feel connected to our ancestry. Most important, as I’ve felt some resistance from my children to these things, my mother has reminded me to meet my kids where they are, that their experiences don’t have to be the same as mine. — Vani Krishnamurthy, Summit, N.J.

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