by Rachel (@rachfeathers)
Rachel lost her mum to cancer. A month later, her first child was born. Here she writes candidly about becoming a mum without a mum.
In January 2020 we discovered my Mum’s ovarian cancer was back, now stage 4 with a life expectancy of up to 5 years. In March that year she started 6 months of chemo. We were hopeful, she had grit and determination on her side. I found out I was pregnant in August. I was so excited to tell her but also devastated I wouldn’t be able to hug her, because of course we were in a pandemic. Then in early October we found out the chemo hadn’t worked. She had six months to live. At the same time, I had six months left of my pregnancy. Two dates loomed, we knew they would be close – but how close? From that moment, I knew the birth of my first child would be forever entwined with the death of my mother.
On the 26th February last year, my Mum touched my ever expanding tummy and said “I’m going to meet this little one, I just know it”. We both held onto that hope. But just 8 days later, on the 6th March 2021 my Mum died, still in lockdown, her first Grandchild still in my tummy. One month later, on the 6th April 2021, my daughter was born.
We didn’t know what we were having but my Mum hoped I would have a girl. The sex was written on a card in a sealed envelope in her desk, to be opened in case she knew she wouldn’t make it. But the end came so quickly, and we didn’t realise in her final days she wouldn’t be able to communicate. The envelope is still there, in her desk, sealed. When the doctor lifted our baby up for us to see I couldn’t believe it was a girl, I remained silent until the midwife said “isn’t she beautiful”, and then I cried out “it’s a girl!!”; I felt my Mum with me in the room.
Many friends commented on the timing, citing the circle of life. Perhaps our baby girl was the angel sent to me, to help me through it all. To help me be a mum without a mum. In the operating theatre, meeting my daughter for the first time, and feeling my Mum with us – was this the circle of life that they speak of? But in my lowest moments, I scream f*ck the circle of life. It was not her time to go, she was too young. It was not my time to be without my mother. I need her, I need her more than ever.
Nearly a year later, and the grief is as raw as it was when I held her hand as she took her last breathe, my baby kicking inside me. I have discovered that the human body is incredibly resilient. That, and my Mum instilled in me the strength to carry on. To get up every day, to keep going, because I have a life to live and she so very much wanted me to live it to the max. And of course, I have a baby girl to care for. But my god it is difficult. How can I learn to be a mother when I have lost my own? When I am struggling, I want to turn to her for reassurance. When the milestones are reached, I want to share them with her. When my daughter refuses her food for the umpteenth time I want to ask her, was it like this with me too? When I see other Grannys pushing prams in the park I feel a stab of jealousy.
It’s not just missing my Mum that hurts; I’m also angry and upset for her. That she is not here to meet her Grandchildren (my niece was born in October 2021). She wanted more than ever to be a Granny. When I downloaded her Whatsapp chats and media after she died I couldn’t help but notice all the many photos of her friend’s Grandchildren. Grandchildren she knitted countless jumpers, cardis and hats for. She would have been thrilled for them all, but desperate to be knitting for her own. I want to shout from the rooftops: it’s not fair, she didn’t get to be the Granny she should’ve been. She didn’t get to see her two Grandaughters wearing the knits she so carefully made.
The loneliness of grief is like nothing I have experienced and when combined with the loneliness of motherhood – it makes for a tough ride, one I am still on every day. The long hours of the night that seem to never end, the guilt you feel…about everything, the feeling that no one else understands, no one else is going through it. I read somewhere that a mother is born when a first child is born, both unsteady on their feet; so true. The first few months of motherhood were tough – the pain of breastfeeding, the not knowing why she was crying, the not sleeping, the broken nights and broken days. And when she cried and I had no idea why….I was angry. How dare you cry when you have me, you have your Mummy who loves you so very, very much. Where is my Mummy? Where are my cuddles? And then I am wracked with guilt for feeling this way. For getting mad at my newborn daughter who knows nothing of grief and loss. And so I hold her tight to me, telling her how sorry I am, that I will love her forever, that she has me and I will do my very best for her. And we cry together.
The anniversary of my Mum’s death is approaching, the same day my daughter turns 11 months old. On the very next day, she starts nursery. The emotions that flow through me are stronger than ever. Soon I will return to work full time. The last time I was physically there, I had no clue what would lie ahead – a pregnancy and a dying mother, all played out in the shadows of a global pandemic. In the last year of my Mum’s life, we went 7 months without hugging her. I could never in my wildest dreams imagine this would be how my pregnancy and motherhood would play out, and yet here we are.
I can’t ever imagine coming to terms with my Mum’s death; but I also know that I am doing OK. I know that she would be so proud of me, for how far I have come, for all that I do every day for her first grandchild. She never knew me as a mother, but she lives within me; I am who I am because of her. Her strength courses through my veins, her love continues to fill my heart. My baby girl will know all about her Granny, because she lives within her too and we will keep her spirit alive together.
PANDAS Foundation (Perinatal Mental Health)