Honouring mums

Marking Mother’s Day without a mum

To acknowledge those experiencing grief, perhaps Mother's Day could be about honouring the mums who are here, as well as those who are not.

Sandra Mittelman with her daughter Sharyn Kolieb.
Sandra Mittelman with her daughter Sharyn Kolieb.

Mother’s Day use to be one of my favourite days of the year. I looked forward to the colourful hand-made cards and creative crafts from kindergarten, the five-dollar knick-knacks bought at the Mother’s Day pop-up shop at school, and the breakfast in bed that I declared “delicious” no matter how it tasted. It is a wonderful day to celebrate mums. While parenting can be hard, being a mum has been my greatest blessing.

But since my mother, Sandra Mittelman, passed away over a year ago from cancer at 70, I now approach Mother’s Day with heartache. My mum showered her children with unconditional love and taught me how to be a mum from her example. I miss her every day – her absence is a devastating loss that I continue to grieve.

For many people, losing a parent is life changing, no matter the age it occurs. But losing a mum when you are younger can create unique challenges – you lose that anchor who was guiding you through life, that safety net to catch you if you fall, you mourn the reality that future grandchildren won’t have memories of her.

“Motherloss Awareness Week” takes place in the week leading up to Mother’s Day, to raise awareness of the grief experienced by those who have lost their mum. It was started by Motherless Daughters Australia, which was established by two women who lost their mums young to help others navigate the emotional distress and lifelong impact caused by the loss of a mother. They note that in Australia, around 3.9 million women no longer have a mother, and 1.2 million women experienced mother loss before the age of 44. While losing a mum is common, as a society grief is not something that is often openly discussed.

To acknowledge those experiencing grief, perhaps Mother’s Day could be about honouring the mums who are here, as well as those who are not. It can be a day to tell children the amazing things about their mum, Nana/Bubba/Safta or great-grandmother who is no longer here, to share stories, and keep their memory alive. Keri Kitay, author of The Long Goodbye, who lost her mother to Alzheimer’s when she was in her 30s, told me that she continues to celebrate Mother’s Day. “I’m a big advocate for celebrating Mother’s Day with my mum not physically being here … she was an incredible mum … and we still want to celebrate that.” Kitay said on Mother’s Day her family will visit the cemetery and share stories about her with her mother’s grandchildren.

Mother’s Day can be triggering for many people, not only for those who no longer have a mum alive, but also for those mums tragically grieving children, those desperately trying to have children, as well as those who have a fraught relationship with their mother.

Weeks after my mum passed away, I found a lump in my breast and needed treatment for breast cancer. Undergoing debilitating chemotherapy while looking after small kids was difficult. I felt so grateful to the family and friends who offered practical support – for the meals they dropped in, for having my children on play dates when I felt unwell and picking the kids up from school. Each small act of kindness was a big help.

This experience made me reflect on the mums in our community doing it tough who don’t have support – the mums facing terrible illness, the mums who are struggling to put food on the table, the mums trying to escape family violence. How as a community do we show up for them?

There are wonderful initiatives in the community that are helping mums out – like the National Council of Jewish Women of Australia’s Caring Mums and Mum for Mum programs, which provide support to mums after having had a baby, or the Australian Jewish Fertility Network, which offers emotional and financial support to those trying to have a baby who face fertility challenges. JewishCare NSW and Jewish Care Victoria also offer a range of services to those needing assistance, including those trying to flee domestic violence. But as a community and as individuals, we could be doing more.

This Mother’s Day our hearts also turn to Israel, to the mothers grieving children killed on October 7, and children grieving their mothers, as well as those desperately yearning for their loved ones still trapped in Gaza to return home. So too, we feel for the mothers in Gaza who have faced great tragedy as a result of Hamas’s terrorism.

These are distressing times, but are all the more reason to celebrate Mother’s Day to remind us to be grateful for our blessings. We can also use this day to honour the mums who are no longer here by keeping their memory alive and committing to acts of kindness in our community and abroad, to help out the mums who are in desperate need of a hand.

Sharyn Kolieb is The AJN’s arts and lifestlye editor.

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