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Gina Barreca Headshot

What If You Don't Have a Mom (or Children) on Mother's Day?

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My mother died when I was a teenager and, although I have grown step-sons, I have never raised a child of my own.

My mother, who was sick for years and died and when I was 16, hungered for a broader view of the world. She sought a vision of the world in the books of Milton and James, Hemingway and Dickens, Mailer and Steinbeck, a wide and diverse range of alpha males; she devoured these books in a language that was not her mother tongue and without even the benefit of a high school education. (Like her sisters, she left school early to go to work.) But she was disillusioned by real men, the ones not on paper -- most notably my father.

She died just at the moment when I was being offered extraordinary opportunities -- cultural and educational -- and needed her for support. In that way, perhaps I also was given the chance to offer her entry to that larger world, and possibly redemption for her own losses and suffering, but it came too late.

While I can only surmise how she might have responded to my journey, the fact remains that I watched my mother suffer and die before she could give me the support and encouragement that might have made my transition somewhat less lonely, fraught and traumatic.

And yet I loved my mother and thought I, too, would be a mother. But instead, I am closed off, with no woman in the past to look back to and no daughter in the future to look towards.

But I've always considered myself a mother-type, absence of young children notwithstanding. I look like somebody's mother, I sound like anybody's mother, and heaven knows I act like everybody's mother.

I advise, I worry, I scold, I applaud, and then I worry some more. I love many -- and, by a great stroke of luck, some of them love me. As a teacher, as a mentor, and as a friend, I consider myself a Mom-by-proxy. The connection with those I love in what I consider a motherly manner is far less complicated than the relationship I had with my own Mom, and in part that's because we've been able to choose our connection to one another.

I've had women fifteen years older than I am tell me I'm "like a mother" to them and I take it as the great compliment it is; I've had students from classes fifteen or twenty years in the past call me in the middle of the night to weep, confess and talk their hearts out. I hand-write notes to the grandmothers of students I've met at graduation ceremonies who have Roman Catholic masses said for me and my family because I believe in the strength of their faith even though I have no faith of my own.

My office walls are covered with colorful paintings and my shelves are covered with toys not because I've asked for them as compensation for not having children of my own, but because they've been given to me as fabulously generous presents, not only by kids but by adults who have, in my presence or somehow with my permission, been able to find or rediscover the playfulness in the toy shop of their hearts.

My mother was denied that by her own fiercely deprived, bone-scarred and sad childhood; I was too young and too fragile myself when she died to offer her much. But although I might have liked to have raised young children myself, I believe I am better with these old children -- ones who find what they need, or might just enjoy, for a brief moment, in my company or my books.

Others mothered me. It is a privilege to give the gift to those who might, as I did, find solace and joy in someone's willingness to offer it, to hold it out with open arms and say "Here you go, sweetie. This is for you."