When Hope Edelman’s book Motherless Daughters came out in 1994, I was 25 years old and had lived without my mother for six years already – she died when I was 19, from breast cancer. Her death was, and remains, the central defining fact/tragedy of my life, and Hope’s book was like an oasis in the desert for me. Much in the way our What Would Virginia Woolf Do? Facebook community makes women feel less alone and understood, Hope’s book made me feel less isolated in a time when almost nothing could soothe me.
While everyone eventually loses her mother, this book is focused on the profound effect of early loss, generally when the daughter is under 25. It’s built on interviews with hundreds of mother loss survivors, Edelman’s personal story of losing her own mother when she was young, research in grief and psychology, and explores things like how the legacy of loss shifts over time, how present-day relationships are impacted by past loss, and how the absence of a mother shapes a woman’s identity through her lifespan.
The book has been updated twice, sold over 500,000 copies, and spawned workshops and support groups. We’re so honored to have Hope in our community.
Tell us about your writing life since Motherless Daughters. How many books have you written, and on what subjects?
Thank you for those kind words! Motherless Daughters always manages to find its way into the hands of women exactly when they need it most. I gave up on trying to figure out how that happens a long time ago. Now I’m just grateful that it does.
The first edition was published in 1994, which means the book is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. Unbelievable, really! I’ve updated it twice, in 2006 and 2014, and those new editions have kept me busy over the years. I’ve also written six additional books. Motherless Mothers (2006) looked at the specific challenges and triumphs that women without mothers face when they become mothers themselves, and in 2009 I published a memoir, The Possibility of Everything, about taking my daughter to indigenous healers in Belize when she was three years old to get rid of her imaginary friend. (That’s kind of a reductive, wacky description of the story, but it’s also pretty accurate.) I also wrote a book about granddaughter-grandmother relationships, published a collaboration with two Hollywood actors, compiled an anthology for nonfiction classrooms, and released an e-book called Boys Like That: Two Cautionary Tales of Love. Like many writers, I hold several jobs at once to keep everything afloat, so I also teach nonfiction workshops, lead Motherless Daughters retreats, and do private coaching and consulting. Right now I’m under contract for a book about the long arc of grief. It’s about how we never fully put down or move past the significant losses in our lives, but carry them forward with us in different ways, at different times. I’m hoping to finish it by the end of this year, for publication in 2020.
How do the Motherless Daughters support groups work? Are they like book club groups? How does one find one?
Grief is an emotional, physical, and psychological experience, but I believe it’s meant to be social, too. We need each other to get through both the acute phase and its aftermath. That part tends to get diminished in contemporary Western culture and it’s the basis on which the support groups began in 1995, to bring women of similar historical experience together and foster a community of solidarity and support. Today, the groups make up a loose network throughout the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, Europe, and the Middle East. Each group chooses its own guidelines and decides on its mission. Some welcome women who were up to age 18, or up to age 25, when their mothers died, and others are open to mother loss at any age. There’s a distinction between support or therapy groups, which are led by a therapist, and social groups, which are organized by women to help other women. Most of the groups I’m in touch with are social groups that meet for specific activities or informal gatherings a couple of times a year. New York City has a very active group, as do Minneapolis/St. Paul and Vancouver, B.C. New groups are starting all the time. St. Louis and Berlin are among the newest in the network.
Every spring the groups hold luncheons on or around Mother’s Day weekend so women have a place where they can honor mothers who are no longer living. The luncheons in Detroit and Los Angeles have been held consistently for 23 years, thanks to some very dedicated repeat organizers. This year luncheons will take place from Brisbane to Louisville to Toronto. I’ll be hosting a workshop and tea in Boston on May 11 to mark the 25th anniversary of the book. It’ll be in conjunction with the empowerHER nonprofit organization that serves motherless girls. The luncheons are all posted on the Events page of my website and the local support groups are listed on the web site as well. The workshops and retreats can be found here.
Please tell us a bit about the workshops you run. What happens there? Who is the ideal attendee?
If you lost a mother as a child or teen in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, or 90s, you probably didn’t receive emotional support at the time, and you may not have been allowed to even speak about her afterward. That was my story – my mother died in 1981 when I was seventeen. The focus back then was all about letting go and moving on. Kids then have a very hard time maintaining an inner relationship with a parent who died when they have to do it on their own. A lot of the women who come to the four-day retreats became disconnected from relationships with their moms and are looking for ways to reconnect. They also hope to sit in a room full of women who can understand the significance of their loss and who’ve experienced similar ripple effects and can offer wisdom and encouragement.
The typical attendee is a woman who lost her mother during childhood, adolescence, or young adulthood and developed coping strategies that successfully helped her get to where she is today. By now, though, some of those strategies may have outlived their utility and might even be working against her best interests. “I feel like a part of me is stuck in the past,” is a phrase we hear a lot. She wants to get unstuck. Women also come when they’re on the brink of a big life transition like they’re about to get married, or they’re pregnant for the first time, or they’re about to turn the age their mother was when she died, or maybe their child is about to turn the age they were. All of these events can cause resurgences of grief, even decades later – which is totally normal! — and they may feel the need for support and community at that time. We’ve developed activities to help with all of these challenges.
I often hear, “Your work sounds so sad. How do you do it?” Yes, there are tears at the retreats, but there’s also a lot more laughter than people expect. Participants tend to share the same dark humor and bond very quickly once they start sharing their stories. Many of the women arrive carrying the belief, “No one understands me; I’m all alone with my experience.” That message gets debunked on the first night when they look around the circle and realize that 25 other women really do understand what they’ve been through. You can see the relief settle into their bodies. It’s extraordinary to witness. So how do I do it? Because I know the women who arrive at a retreat on a Thursday will be leaving in a very different space by Sunday, and I trust that all of them can get there.
How would you describe your mission for the second half of your career?
Good question! I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. My goals are slowly shifting toward action and service-oriented projects. I’m interested in how we shape meaning and purpose from tragedy, and how we can then move beyond ourselves to do good in the world. My next book will be for both men and women who’ve been bereaved at any point in their lives. It will explore questions like, What kind of stories do we tell ourselves about our past? How much is objectively true, and which parts are open to updating or revision? In my experience, the facts of a loss remain static over time, but our relationship to those facts can change quite a bit. And we have agency over that. As children, we may have been dependent on the choices of adults, but as adults, we can decide what kind of relationship we want to have with those facts. Then we can direct our efforts toward a goal of our own choice.
My younger daughter will be heading out for college in the fall of 2020, and as parenting shifts into a different phase I’m laying the groundwork for what comes next. I’m doing recon work right now about starting a nonprofit or possibly linking up with an existing one to create a structure for this type of action. About a year ago, when I seriously thought my brain was going berserk, a very smart doctor told me, “You’re not losing your mind. Your brain is switching over from being estrogen-dependent to being dependent on different hormones. When you get to the other side you’ll have a whole new kind of clarity and energy, I promise. You just need to stick it out.” She was, thankfully, 100% right.