My baby was born

I had it really easy growing up. I come from a loving family, with wonderful parents and great friends. I graduated with honors and attended an Ivy League university and landed a prestigious job as soon as I finished. Basically, I had it all and life seemed pretty easy.

Things got even better a few years later when I met the love of my life and we decided to marry. My wedding was straight out of a book, with my perfect bridesmaids and beautiful gown and sunny afternoon for an outdoor ceremony overlooking the beach.

Little did I know that my perfect life and perfect plans and perfect pregnancy were only in my dreams

For the first few years of our marriage, I continued to work full time and my husband, who had a great position, was then promoted to vice president of the company alongside an impressive raise. With his new salary, it seemed like the ideal time for us to try having a baby. We looked at the calendar, just like we did before setting our wedding date, and found what we thought would be the perfect time. We figured if we wanted to go to Hawaii in May, we would probably want to wait until June to get pregnant, then I would give birth sometime in March, spring time, ideal.

Little did I know that my perfect life and perfect plans and perfect pregnancy were only in my dreams.

We went to Hawaii and had an amazing trip, and then we started to try to conceive. I figured that getting pregnant would be as easy for me as everything else had been in my life. After all, when I really wanted something and worked hard for it, it always seemed to fall into place. So we tried, and a few months passed by, and nothing happened. I was a bit surprised, but not in the least bit concerned. If anything, my greatest fear was that if I didn’t conceive soon, I would not be giving birth until the summer, and I really didn’t want to be pregnant in the heat.

More months passed. Then a year. Then two, three, four, five.

During this time we went to every possible doctor. Nothing was wrong, or at least nothing they could find. The doctors weren’t anxious, as after all I was still young. Relatively.

I didn’t care if I was young, I didn’t care if I still had time. I wanted a baby, and I had been wanting a baby for years. The stress, both emotional and physical from doctor’s appointments and treatments, was overwhelming. My husband was loving and supportive, and it was definitely hard for him, but I don’t think he could ever understand what it meant every month when I got my period. He knew it meant that we didn’t conceive, but he could never know what it felt like when my stomach ached and I felt it begin, and then I would have to stare at the cruel and bold blood, reminding me and screaming that I wasn’t pregnant.

After six years of trying, I finally fell pregnant. We were thrilled. I couldn’t believe that I was actually carrying a baby. I immediately stopped working, since I wanted to make sure that I could sleep when I wanted, eat what I needed and not have any unnecessary stress in my life. Fortunately, my husband was doing extremely well financially, so I did not need to work for monetary reasons.

As the weeks passed, I watched as my body began to change. First everything seemed so tender, then slowly I noticed a small budge in my tummy. In time, it was hard to have anything around my waist. I was in love with my baby and with my pregnancy. Every morning I woke up with a smile on my face, so grateful for being able to carry this child. We had already picked out names, I had been eyeing a stroller I really wanted, and knew exactly where I would be headed for adorable baby clothes.

I didn’t realize that while we were struggling for a baby, others just assumed that we chose to wait

Everyone was thrilled. By my fourth month, it was obvious that I was expecting and no matter where I went, people would speak about it. I had always been very private about how hard it was for us to conceive. I didn’t realize that while we were struggling for a baby, others just assumed that we chose to wait. Now that I was showing, I started to hear comments, “Wow, so you’ve finally decided to have a baby!” I didn’t know how to respond. I just couldn’t believe that others thought that any of this had been my choice. But then again, before I knew how hard it would be, I also thought that it was all in my hands.

I did everything perfectly right. I ate all the right foods, did the recommended amount of exercise, slept well and took my daily vitamins. I went to my doctor’s appointments like clockwork, and left each one relieved and thrilled to discover that everything was exactly how it was supposed to be. When we first heard our baby’s heartbeat in the doctor’s office, we both broke down crying. We had been waiting for so long for this.

As my due date approached, I read every book on labor and delivery that was available. I knew every medical term and felt confident that I had a wonderful doctor. My mother had flown in to be with us and to help after the baby. My in-laws were also around to make sure that my every whim and need was being taken care of.

I knew that most first-time mothers don’t deliver on their due dates, so I was shocked when the very morning of my due date, my water broke. My husband joked that our daughter seemed to already be following in my footsteps—always on time and very organized.

We waited until my contractions were five minutes apart, and then headed for the hospital. Everything was routine. Everything was fine. I was progressing nicely and by the intensity of the labor figured it wouldn’t be much longer.

The nurses were supportive and helpful and tried to get the monitor strapped on properly to check for the baby’s heartbeat. I was already at 8 centimeters and they kept telling me how great I was doing. But for some reason they couldn’t get the monitor to read properly. They tried a few different ways before a look of concern crept across their faces.

Before I knew what was happening, my calm and supportive environment became frantic and panicky. I just started crying and praying, not knowing what was happening. I was wheeled into the surgical ward for an emergency c-section. There wasn’t time to explain but it was clear that they had to get my baby out and immediately.

I didn’t feel any pain, though it didn’t make sense since there wasn’t even enough time to give me much in the way of anesthesia. Even if it had hurt, I wouldn’t have cared, since all I wanted was my little baby girl to be alive and well.

They couldn’t get the monitor to read properly. They tried a few different ways before a look of concern crept across their faces

My husband stood in the corner crying, knowing that he needed to be strong but fearing that he couldn’t. They opened me up and the doctors screamed to one another about the cord. I watched in a daze as they tried to unwrap the cord from around my baby. I could see her, but I hadn’t yet heard her. She never screamed.

I kept waiting for them to remove the cord since I figured that it was preventing her from crying. It was preventing her. Unknown to anyone until that point, my cord had been so tightly wrapped around her little neck that it had strangled her. They removed the cord. But my baby girl was no longer.

No one needed to tell me what had happened. The tears streaming down their faces was enough. The doctors cried as they started to explain that as she descended in the birth canal, the cord tightened and tightened. There was nothing they could have done. There was nothing I could have done.

I was asked if I wanted to see and hold my baby. I did. We did. The nurses washed her off and wrapped her perfectly, so caring and loving. Then they handed me my daughter, peaceful and beautiful, as if she was sleeping.

We stayed with our baby for a while, holding her and crying. She was perfect. Absolutely perfect. Everything was developed, ten little fingers and ten little toes. She was exactly how I had envisioned her. Only she wasn’t alive.

We decided to name her Bracha, meaning blessing, since we felt that despite all of our pain, she was truly a blessing, and we prayed that our journey with her would also be the beginning of future blessings. When we felt we had said our goodbye, I kissed my Bracha and handed her to the nurse.

I can’t explain it, but I wasn’t distraught. I wasn’t hysterical. I was broken but not in a destructive way. Bizarrely, I felt that my time with Bracha had been complete. Deep down, I somehow knew that she had lived for the exact amount of time that she had needed to. And even though it was the most excruciating experience I had ever gone through, I felt I had been blessed to have been able to carry her around and love her and give to her for nine months. We had been blessed to see her and hold her and tell her we love her.

The strangest part was that this strength wasn’t coming from within. Both my husband and I knew that Bracha was helping us through this and was responsible for this attitude. While I may have been prone to spend the next year in bed crying and feeling sorry for myself, Bracha instilled me with a sense of purpose and responsibility that until then I didn’t have.

A few days later I left that hospital, a mother without a child. But being a mother, I was filled with love and caring and passion that needed to be shared. And I knew I needed to find a child or children to share it with.

Following our loss, we tried again to have children. But for whatever the ultimate reason is, I never became pregnant again. Yet Bracha always was our reminder that we needed to have hope and we needed to give hope.

I felt that if I had suffered such an experience, there had to be a reason and a meaning. I knew how much I loved Bracha, and I knew how I would have taken care of her had she lived. And yet, as I mourned my loss, I read in horror of stories of women who had abandoned their babies, left them for dead, or abused them terribly. Those babies were more fortunate than Bracha since they were able to live, but something had to be done to ensure that they live a life of joy and not suffering.

I was filled with love and caring and passion that needed to be shared. And I knew I needed a child to share it with

Furthermore, our whole experience had also brought my husband and I much closer to our Judaism, since during our pregnancy we felt the need and desire for a community and spiritual meaning in our lives. Our increase in Torah study and practical observance gave our lives a structure and security in an otherwise very difficult and traumatic period. And from our learning, we began to understand and believe that our ordeal had a higher purpose even though it was hard for us to see.

We discussed with our rabbi our decision to dedicate my time and energy to helping children. He suggested I contact a Jewish organization that took care of orphaned children whose parents had either died or couldn’t care for them. Within a week, I had a position working with the babies. My new full time job was caring for these precious souls, feeding them, bathing them, playing with them and loving them.

I will never forget the first time one of these children hugged me and called me “mommy.” I wanted to correct him and tell him I wasn’t his mommy, when I realized that I really was. To them, I was their mother. And to me, they were my children. No, I hadn’t given birth to them, but I had given them the security, love and care that I would have given to my own Bracha. And Bracha had given me the ability to do so.

I’ve been working with this organization now for over 20 years. Next month is what would have been Bracha’s 21st birthday. Over the years, I have helped raise hundreds of precious and beautiful babies, and watched them develop into productive and successful children and young adults.

Twenty-one years ago Bracha made me a mother. But it was the children who I dedicated the rest of my life to who made me a mommy. And thanks to the hope and ability that my Bracha instilled me with, I now can also proudly call myself a bubby (“grandma”), since one of the girls I cared for just gave birth to her first daughter.

And you can imagine how much I cried when I held her little girl as they named her at the Torah.

You see, they named their beautiful baby Bracha.

Moms are great. I have one. She is super cool and gave me the impression that kids are the ultimate art project. So I thought I’d want some, too.

However, when it didn’t happen naturally, I did not pursue the matter, leaving the miracle of life to the gods and not doctors or adoption agencies. Although I’m pretty damn determined at times, I discovered that I did not want to try with all my might to have a child.

In great part, I reached this conclusion because it became so apparent that the desire to do so was expected of me and that there were very few other positions I might politely occupy in society. The notion that I should be willing to do anything and everything to be a mother only made me suspicious and resistant because it implied that no other life was worthwhile, and I found that implication both offensive and dubious. Frankly, it seemed downright anti-feminist and, it turns out, I was willing to test the limits of my principles.

Here are the options

There is an expectation that women will do everything in their power to have a baby. Any whiff of trouble conceiving—which, by the way, is mostly kept secret—and people will suggest in-vitro fertilization, as if it’s guaranteed to end with a kid and is no big deal. But in the US especially, IVF is very expensive, apart from which it’s invasive, time-intensive, and often ends in failure. The odds of a happy ending decrease with age, which is why British women over 34 are increasingly seeing this option, when paid for by the state, limited by medical professionals.

Adoption seems like a noble option, and it is. But it’s also a bitch. This method is probably best attempted by people who don’t mind collecting letters of recommendation from friends about their suitability for parenthood, and are OK with being inspected by state and private agencies, and waiting and paying and praying.

It also means that if you adopt a child with different racial or ethnic origins from yours, you’ll probably be dealing with the added angst of controversy and identity politics involved in adoptions. A history of systemic injustices have led to the disproportionate removal of minority children from their homes in the US, and international adoptions are fraught with problems. Both of these approaches have been criticized as ethically questionable, an extension of a colonialism mentality, as Madonna discovered when she wanted to adopt a child in Malawi and sparked outrage.

And while it is fair to say that loving a child who doesn’t have a home is better than doing nothing because you might face criticism, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that children of one race or ethnicity adopted by parents of another are increasingly discussing the unique identity crises these arrangements can generate. Wherever you fall on this debate, we can probably all agree that the questions it presents are complex.

The truth is that both of these processes, IVF and adoption, can take a long time and be extremely harrowing, as outlined in this Scientific American article in March, written by eight women in STEM who struggled to have children and mostly had to slog through it all in shame, humiliation, and secrecy.

For me, neither of these very difficult options, which in no way guaranteed a child, seemed to offer any obvious relief. The more I thought about them, the less clear it was that I should choose to do anything at all. What about letting the chips fall where they may?

Childfree or childless?

Of course, some women declare themselves happily childfree, like the actor Anjelica Huston, who recently told Vulture she could never have seen herself caring for a baby but apparently tried to have one in her youth. Society doesn’t totally like this response because it’s offensive to many when women reject the premise that their best and highest use is as a vessel for life incubation. Not wanting kids is also often seen as selfish, and if you’re going to take this position, you should probably always add something about how much you enjoy your nieces and nephews, or love volunteering with kids and giving to your community.

That said, at least childfree women are not viewed as depressed and depressing, unlike the childless. Since at least biblical times childless women have been considered tragic, and things haven’t changed very much over millennia. As Megan Garber wrote in The Atlantic in December, criticizing the film Mary Queen of Scots, “ promises heady feminism, but it endorses a pernicious idea: Whatever else she might achieve, a woman who is not a mother is to be pitied.”

The tragically barren put a damper on the lives of friends and family, so it’s advisable to grin and bear it or you’ll ruin all the occasions that people still need you to participate in so as to confirm their life choices. I went on family vacations to hotels crammed with children and parents and spent a lot of time observing, attempting to find my answer in their interactions while also feigning engagement, playfulness, and pleasure because no one goes on vacation to hang out with someone who is a bummer.

It can be heartbreaking to face the question of childlessness when you want kids, but it does no service to women in this position to view them with pity. Listening is good. Being patient and understanding with their pain is great. But pity implies that they cannot go on without offspring, and that if they do, they will always be viewed as deficient. This is hardly reassuring to a person in a state of dismay. I didn’t and don’t find it heartening, helpful, or respectful, though perhaps that is because raising children was only part of my vision of the future.

Doubt is not an option

Being ambivalent about it all is not among the popular options, and being totally philosophically flummoxed in the face of the question of creation isn’t something that’s much discussed. Yet when forced to make some decisions, I felt ambivalence.

I wanted kids. But I didn’t think people should be so certain that I ought to be determined in this regard. It made me suspicious. No one ever seemed as sure that I should be a writer, for example, and yet I had a much longer track record scribbling than I did with children.

And this sense, this doubt which never occurred to me before I was meant to try to have a child (as opposed to just being blessed with a pregnancy), arose from the disappointing realization that, despite all the trouble that had gone into cultivating me, society was implying that my sole purpose was maternity and that failing to take up this mission would render my existence utterly meaningless (which I kind of assumed it would be anyway, like all lives, in the grand scheme).

By urging action above all else, friends, family, doctors, nurses, and fertility bloggers (I read a lot of them!), seemed to be saying there was no other way for a woman to be fulfilled. This was it, the make-or-break life situation. I was warned explicitly and implicitly that if I didn’t act fast my whole life would turn into the story of an absence, the tale of the missing limbs I never even had to begin with.

Surely, I thought, that had to be wrong. Are there no other possible outcomes? Couldn’t a person want something, not get it, and still end up fine? Isn’t that really how most lives go? And if that’s impossible, if a person can only be happy when things go the way they thought they would in youth, is that human someone who can prepare a child for life’s many disappointments?

Thinking it through

I always thought it would be cute to make a small human, a distillation of me and my true love, a doll to call our own. And we were both into it, as long as it just happened. When it didn’t, we were also both unclear about just what measures should be taken.

Still, only I, the woman, was crying and being advised and chided and expected to be willing to do anything, while my husband could keep being complete without any additional effort at all. He required no doll, at least not in other people’s view. Ultimately, the responsibility to make something happen didn’t fall on him, and he is far too polite to insist that he knows best what I should do with my body, time, or life. But the fact that he faced far fewer questions about kids and far less often than me seemed to be a bad sign about the society I was supposed to want to add another human to.

It should also be noted that I was a public defender at the time when this was foremost on our minds, so I knew that dolls often grow up to disappoint their parents profoundly. Meanwhile, my husband, working in immigration law, saw no end of family woes. We’re both inclined to question the conventional wisdom about everything working out in the end, given how many broken people seem to be walking this Earth, so neither of us could be sure the trite advice that a nice life necessarily involves making more humans was more than a rationalization for the biological imperative.

However, only I was under serious pressure to decide something.

The good life

Our jobs weren’t the real problem. In fact, everyone I knew, whatever their class or circumstances or immigration status, seemed sad or angry and not particularly good at living. The incarcerated and the ostensibly free all seemed to be in prison. Having families didn’t change that. Yet all the struggling, troubled people seemed to think continuing with this miserable existential rigamarole, passing on pain at all costs, was the only possible response.

Previously, it hadn’t occurred to me to think that parents should have to answer to their children for having brought them into existence. I wasn’t an anti-natalist and am not now, but I do understand why philosophers like David Benetar make the case for not being born.

It’s not that life is never fun. Still, it is pretty much relentlessly uncomfortable. So once I was forced to really think about it, I didn’t feel equipped to answer to a kid for their painful existence. Would I just tell my child that though I didn’t yet know how or why to live, I figured I’d bring them into the mix because that’s what’s done?

So I asked people, friends who were more determined than I, “What will you tell your children about how to be fulfilled, how to handle disappointment?” They provided platitudes about teaching kids to be good, and when I pushed them to define this, they looked at me aghast, as if it was a monstrous query.

I had crossed the line from ally to enemy with my doubts, just as I would later discover that by not being a mother I had unwittingly joined some weird order, a silent minority (?) who must be reverent about motherhood or risk being dismissed as bitter.

And I didn’t have any answers either, which seemed to me to be a kind of answer. Maybe life requires no explanation. It’s a biological imperative, the way of all Earthlings. Certainly that is what some people told me. But my own sense was that this response is only possible when the questions of why or how never present as an obstacle to begin with.

An experiment called existence

Life is not only suffering, of course. But any kid you bring into the world will suffer. That’s just how it goes. And one thing that will cause them pain is when things don’t go their way.

How do you teach a child grace in the face of disappointment if you resist reality and insist on particular outcomes in a world that’s a crapshoot? That question continually plagued me in the face of what seemed like a bunch of unpalatable options.

Life only requires no explanation if it just happens or you don’t feel one is needed. But what my experience struggling with the questions of motherhood and not-motherhood showed me was that I didn’t believe that was true in my particular circumstances. I was fine with the notion of sacrifice for a child and had in fact arranged my work life to meet a kid’s needs, but I wasn’t willing to discover what who I’d be if I spent years and a fortune trying for a child only to be perpetually disappointed. That, it seemed, would be more destructive than cultivating acceptance immediately.

It seemed entirely possible that at some point I would have to make peace with the possibility that it would not happen, and I didn’t think I could live with myself if I ignored everything else I meant to be in service of a dream that was turning into a nightmare.

Some people may not question life. But all I could come up with were more questions. How do you show kids happiness if you are miserable? How do you convey humor when you are deadly serious? How do you raise a “good human” if you don’t know what that means, much less how to be one? How do you define success for them if your own answers are severely limited?

That’s when I alighted upon my answer. An experiment. I’d try to resolve these questions myself, in my life, instead of acting when no right action was apparent. That way, if ever the questions were presented to me, I might be able to say something true and liberating instead of peddling conventional wisdom and limiting the possible positions a person might occupy.

Reconsider the definition of “mother”

The world is filled with mothers. A mother selflessly gives and helps those around them. She nurtures children. She helps those around her deal with difficult things. A mother can be a teacher, aunt, or friend. Mothering has less to do with having children and more to do with how you treat the children in your life.

Redefine what the word “mother” means. It can mean a stepmother doing all she can for a child she didn’t give birth to or a teacher who worries about and helps students in her class. As you redefine the word “mother,” the focus on Mother’s Day changes from honoring women with children to honoring all women.

Give them permission to stay home

Mother’s Day is filled with outings. Does your friend attend a church where mothers in the congregation will be singled out and honored? Give her permission to stay home. Don’t push her to attend an event where she’ll be uncomfortable whether she stands to be recognized or not. Do you meet as a family for a Mother’s Day brunch? Let her skip it. A lot of people are unsure whether or not to invite a friend or family member to something of this nature. A good rule of thumb is: Always invite, but let her know you’ll understand if she decides not to come.

Ask her what she wants

The best way to know what your childless friend will want for Mother’s Day is to ask her. Let her be selfish for one day, just like you would with any mother on Mother’s Day. If she wants to take a long bubble bath by herself, let her. If she wants to be recognized like any other mother would (complete with chocolates and flowers), make it happen. If she wants to stay home watching movies, that works too. Her experience and her desires are just as valid as any other woman’s.

Reconsider your greetings

Are you quick to throw out a “Happy Mother’s Day” to every woman you meet in the week or so proceeding the holiday? It might be time to stop. Because every woman’s experience is different, your greeting may not be welcome, and Mother’s Day for them might not be all that happy. Instead, opt for a simple, “have a good day” or “it’s so good to see you.”

Mother’s Day is a time to celebrate all women, whether they have children or not, and part of celebrating all women means being aware and respectful of all women’s experiences on Mother’s Day. Even women without children. A little extra thoughtfulness can help make this day enjoyable for everyone.

The older I get the sketchier my memories of my parents become.

Yes, their images remain frozen in the photo boards on our bedroom wall and in frames on mantelpieces about the house. For a time after they died my prosaic memories of them were so vivid; something of them continued on in the places where we’d shared so much life.

But time and geography seem to have conspired so that now I have to stop, concentrate, and summon my recall of them. How easily we can slip from active memory.

For a few years after Dad died, a decade ago now, I’d hear his voice often. Like when I’d pass certain pubs in Melbourne that he’d sworn me off as we’d driven past when I was a kid (“Blood-houses – don’t ever set foot in there.”) or later as he eschewed the posh restaurant (“Looks like a clip-joint.”) for sausages and chips at the local RSL. Each Saturday I’d recall from habit the morning telephone call when he’d tell me that he was “off to the match with the boys – what about you?”. This was the weekly Melbourne Cricket Ground ritual when he’d catch up with a stoic band of old mates, no matter who was playing, until he was the sole survivor, too weak and captive of dementia to catch the tram in any more.

The saddest thing he ever said to me was, “Paul, I don’t think I’ll renew my membership this season.”

He didn’t. He died before the first round.

He still feels close on the rare occasions I go to a match at that football mecca, a place where I’ll always catch-up, unarranged, with blokes I’ve known for 45 years, among whom so much history is understood without ever needing to be spoken of.

After Mum died I’d also hear her whenever The Simpsons came on. “So you think that’s suitable for the children, do you?” she’d ask, looking at me but addressing their mother.

For those first few years after we buried her eight years ago in a week or so, we’d joke (affectionately) at Christmases or 21st birthdays or weddings about how, when it came to the group photo, Mum would shoo the in-laws (most notably my wife and brother-in-law) out of the frame with a declaration – “Family only” – that implied a hard-heartedness that she never possessed. She was soft and loving, yet compromised by her troubles and, like so many women of her generation, so many regrets. And even if I can’t hear or even adequately imagine her voice any more, that, perhaps, is the big lesson she unintentionally bequeathed me: life is too brief to dwell on disappointment.

My mother-in-law, at once the most practical and emotionally generous person I’ve known, has been gone almost five years. Every time we spread the takeaway Thai containers on the bench one of the kids will mimic her – “Hey, we’ll never finish all that.” We did every time. For years I could still hear her saying it. I miss her most in some ways. She filled the house with her songs and her wise advice to the kids and the smoke she’d raise from my favourite cooking pans.

Children grow out of nursery rhymes and leave home, the toys go into boxes for the shed, favourite dogs die. That’s time.

We have one surviving parent now, a ripper bloke, modest and funny, who fights and fights, like the old boxer he is, to hang in there with us.

Those three of our dead parents seem a long, long way away to me now. Something changed a year and a half ago when we moved cities and left the house where we’d lived for the best part of two decades. In that old house and in that city the parents who’d spent so much time with us there seemed, even in death, to retain a strong presence.

I don’t feel them or hear them with us in the same way in Sydney.

My father and mother, as dedicated Melbourne people as they were, none the less loved Sydney for all the reasons – its boastful raw physicality, its seductive light and water and temperate air – that we do. I shared some holidays here with them, not least when I returned from a conflict in 1993, traumatised and afraid of the future.

None of it was spoken of. But they knew. My dad’s remedy was a ride across the harbour for fish and chips at Watsons Bay and a few beers on the way home at his favourite pub on the water on the lower North Shore. Not a bad remedy, you’d have to say.

And so it is that I can sometimes fleetingly feel my parents’ presence, as if they were by my side, when I stand out the front of the ferry as it slices across that Whiteley-esque expanse, everything above and below and all around me insanely azure, under the bridge and past Utzon’s shimmering sails, to berth at the quay.

And I think of my little girl on that trip, then just five, jumping over the waves in the shallows at Manly, oblivious to my troubles. And how, before long, we will start making the memories for her soon to be born child.

And about how Joni Mitchell’s carousel of time will render the most fortunate of us into memories one day.

• Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist

My mother died a month ago — my siblings want me out of the family home in 30 days

Dear Moneyist,

My mother and I lived in this home for 48 years. My family was raised here, my kids were raised here, I tried to move out, but my mother’s house has an apartment attached. When all of my siblings escaped and made lives for themselves, I was left behind to help keep up the house. It’s a big place and requires much maintenance.

My mother became physically disabled in 2016 and couldn’t do anything for herself; my siblings stopped visiting due, they said, to their busy lives. When my mother made me promise not to let my siblings put her in a nursing home, I realized I was going to have to accept my role as primary care giver.

She is my mom and I was OK with that. There have been arguments with my sisters and brother, who have accused me of taking advantage of my mother in order to live rent-free. That was my thank you from them. The past three years were emotionally and physically exhausting.

My mother was heavy — around 300 pounds — she was a night owl. Between lifting her and staying up nights, I was laid off from my job a year and a half ago.

My mother was heavy — around 300 pounds — she was a night owl. Between lifting her and staying up nights, I was laid off from my job a year and a half ago. My mother passed a little over a month ago. My brother came to the house the next day with my sisters and informed me that I had to move out.

The “for sale” sign was up five days after my mother died. I couldn’t even mourn my mother in peace. Each day, they would call me and harass me about the house. I put my money into this house and so much work throughout the years. Shouldn’t I be given time to move out? I have belongings and a son, my cat, my mother’s two cats, and my mom’s stuff.

I can’t afford to keep the house, but I’m not ready to move in 30 days’ time. They promised me at least till Aug. 17, but now they broke that promise and told me today that I have to be out in 30 days. I think I have rights, am I right?

Good Son

Dear Son,

You did the right thing by taking care of your mother. Not everyone would do what you did, but you fulfilled her wishes by managing to take care of her in the family home. That’s no easy feat and one that your siblings were either unwilling or unable to help you with. That’s their lot. You should be proud of how you navigated this time in your mother’s life. Your siblings’ actions are resentments — they have nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

The legal situation is complex and you should certainly consult a lawyer to find out your rights in your state, but you may be in a more precarious situation if you did not pay rent and if your mother did not make a will outlining how she would like her house to be divided upon her death. An elderly parent, for example, might decide to give an adult child care giver rights to live there for the rest of his/her life.

Don’t miss: My mom, 60, lives with a con artist with a history of theft, deception and bad credit

Here are steps others should consider: Put the house in a qualified personal residence trust. In this case, a parent would be able to stay in his/her home, but a trust removes it from his/her taxable estate. Tenancy in common with no survivorship rights could outline how much time a care giver or adult child has until he/she leaves. A “life estate” gives the care giver the right to live there for the rest of his/her life (there may be some tax implications in that scenario, however).

It’s also important to not view yourself as the victim. You felt pressured by your mother and, it seems, abandoned by your siblings, but you still had a choice. We all do. There are many ways to interpret this situation. Your siblings left home, sought out an independent life (you say “escaped”). Your mother asked you to take care of her so she would never be put in a home (you say “made”). There is always room for negotiation and family meetings, and personal accountability.

That, and this takeaway for readers won’t help you now. You’re in a tough spot. But anyone in your situation who is reading this should plan ahead to avoid being put in such an uncertain position. Unfortunately, as this column has indicated over the years, siblings sometimes turn on each other when a parent dies and old family resentments come rising to the surface. Put bluntly, for some people it’s payback time for perceived wrongdoings.

Recommended: My brother assaulted my mother—how can we get him out of our grandmother’s home?

These are some of the worst-case scenarios faced by adult children who are living at home and who are not paying rent. In Florida and New York, for example, ejectment is essentially an eviction for non-tenants, “such as temporary guests or adult children who have never been asked to pay rent,” according to The Reeves Law Group. State and city trespassing and eviction laws have also been used to oust unwanted guests. You can read more here.

Finally, you do have rights. You, Good Son, are in a stronger position than most adult children in these kinds of situations because you are one of the legal heirs to your mother’s estate and you were your mother’s primary care giver. Assuming there was no will, your mother’s estate will still have to go through probate and be divided equally between her children. A judge would likely take into account all of these factors. You could also apply to be administrator of your mother’s estate.

Good luck. I hope you find the life you have always wanted and, I’m sure, the life your mother would have wanted you to have too.

Do you have questions about inheritance, tipping, weddings, family feuds, friends or any tricky issues relating to manners and money? Send them to MarketWatch’s Moneyist and please include the state where you live (no full names will be used).

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Hello there, MarketWatchers. Check out the Moneyist private Facebook group, where we look for answers to life’s thorniest money issues. Readers write in to me with all sorts of dilemmas: inheritance, wills, divorce, tipping, gifting. I often talk to lawyers, accountants, financial advisers and other experts, in addition to offering my own thoughts. I receive more letters than I could ever answer, so I’ll be bringing all of that guidance — including some you might not see in these columns — to this group. Post your questions, tell me what you want to know more about, or weigh in on the latest Moneyist columns.

Quentin Fottrell

Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s personal-finance editor and The Moneyist columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @quantanamo.

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About two hours after I gave birth to my daughter, I heard a familiar, loud voice in the recovery room, just outside the curtain where I sat with my new baby and my husband. Could it be the drugs? I thought as the voiced continued. Oh God, I realized, it’s my father.

Turns out, he’d been circling the Manhattan hospital where I was delivering, doing loop after loop on foot waiting for word that his granddaughter had arrived. I wasn’t expecting him. In fact, I knew I would be recovering from a painful C-section, so I told him to give me a few days before visiting. What’s 48 hours?

Excruciating, if you ask him. “Let’s talk ‘boundaries,'” I’d later half-joke.

When he did find me inside the maze of the hospital, he burst in and immediately took my daughter in his arms. “Your mother would have loved her,” he said, his eyes filling with tears. And in an instant, he sent me off on a flurry of thoughts about my own mom, who died on Christmas Eve in 2014.

That very night, in my hospital bed, I had a dream about my mother. She told me she loved the baby’s name, Phoebe. Maybe, again, it was the drugs. Either way, I found it oddly comforting. Now, four years later, I’ve only had more thoughts of her — and more questions about how to be a mom.

My mom would never see me become a mom, and my own daughter would never meet her.

The author puts her arm around her mother, who died four months after the wedding. Steven Stuts

My daughter will never know my mom. She died after a long bout with dementia and a number of other mental and physical health issues. It was four months after my wedding; that was the last chapter she’d ever know of my life.

Becoming a mom, without a mom, I’ve found, is a singular, but not unique experience. Madonna’s been through it. Rosie O’Donnell, too, along with countless others. I know this because I’ve read everything I could get my hands on about parenting while missing a parent. There’s a void that just can’t be filled.

The author’s mother in her younger days. Courtesy of Marianne Garvey

Trying to understand what I’m feeling is a start. There are so many layers of loss: When I see Phoebe hitting milestones, it makes me wonder about my own. Was I born with hair? When did I get my first tooth? When could I read? Did I love to dance? (Dads are great, but it’s generally moms — especially of that generation — who hold the answers to these questions.)

Then there’s the emotional hole where a grandmother should be. The babysitting, the extra love and affection, all the grandmotherly things a grandmother does. My mom would have done all if it.

There are the things I will change. The personal stuff, like saying “I love you” to Phoebe 1,000 times a day because I don’t think I heard it enough myself. Or not being so strict when it comes to discipling her for dumb teenage mistakes. I won’t keep secrets and I’ll encourage her to talk to me, nourishing her with things I lacked and needed.

But there will also be cherishing and recreating the things I did love about my mom, like how she treated everyone equally, or how she always brought a cake to someone’s house or tipped someone a little extra just because.

While it can be sad at times, it’s not all bad. Allison Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, tells me there are actually some positives to raising a child while missing a parent — or parents — of your own, as weird as that sounds. “I’ve found kids of moms or dads missing their own parents are far more compassionate people,” she says. “They’re much better friends to their friends, and they are much more eager to show up — and what I mean by that is, if my children’s friends have suffered a loss, they know how important it is to show up and be there.”

Another unforeseen upside of going through this experience as a parent is that you have a very real, unique opportunity to model your own behavior when it comes to adversity. “If you’ve lost someone like a mom, that’s as bad as it generally gets,” she says. “So, when there are other downs or traumas or missteps that everyone comes across, you can actually help them put into perspective what a catastrophe truly is.”

But challenges do arise in ways that people could never understand if they’re not in your shoes. Gilbert reminds me that no matter how many amazing magazines or parenting books you read, they will never answer the very specific and personal questions you have about how you were when you were your daughter’s age.

There are ways to keep my mom an active presence in my daughter’s mind.

Fortunately, there are antidotes to the complicated feelings that have come with this loss. One is to keep my mom an active presence in my daughter’s mind. I’ll give Phoebe just enough age-appropriate information to keep her curious and keep the memory of my mom alive. “It’s 100% inevitable she’s going to ask about her, you may be surprised how it comes up,” Gilbert tells me. “Never lie, but you don’t have to deliver the whole story all at once.”

A stocking for Phoebe’s first Christmas Courtesy of Marianne Garvey

There are also healthy, fun ways to talk about her, things I find myself doing naturally anyway. One is active remembering, for instance — proactively keeping my mom’s memory alive by saying Grandma “loves” pandas, rather than “loved” whenever we see an illustration of a panda in one of Phoebe’s books.

Calling in what family you do have is key. You may be missing a mom or dad, but children do better when they are grounded in a bigger community. Luckily, my extended family is big. We’re looking forward to our annual Christmas Eve party, which is the date of my mom’s passing and also her favorite day. Multitudes of siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, and old friends will gather to eat and drink and celebrate my daughter’s first Christmas — and tell stories about my mom. How bittersweet.

Marianne Garvey is a former reporter and television host turned freelance editor and writer who covers pop culture, news, relationships, Real Housewives, parenting, food, and all things celebrity. Her work has appeared in The New York Post, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Dow Jones, E! News, and Bravo, among others. She lives in Manhattan with her husband, their daughter Phoebe, and their cats Tiki and Meepers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Marianne Garvey Freelance Writer Marianne Garvey is a former reporter and television host turned freelance editor and writer who covers pop culture, news, relationships, Real Housewives, parenting, food, and all things celebrity.

The truth is that you can be struggling and still be loved.

By Holly Riordan Updated June 12, 2018 By Holly Riordan Updated June 12, 2018

The best questions to ask your mom to figure out who she is, and who you are.

1. When I was little, what did you think I was going to be when I grew up?

2. Do you think I have more of your good qualities or bad qualities?

3. What is the funniest thing I ever said or did as a kid?

4. When was the first time you heard me curse?

5. Who was the first person you told that you were pregnant with me?

6. What would you have named me if I was the opposite gender?

7. Did I look more like you or like dad when I was a baby?

8. Which children’s book did you read to me the most when I was little?

9. What was the most annoying thing I did as a baby?

10. Who helped you take care of me the most often?

11. How did you choose my middle name?

12. Which one of my school friends did you hate having over?

13. What were my very first words?

14. What’s your all-time favorite picture of me?

15. Did you want me to be a boy or a girl?

16. How bad did giving birth hurt?

17. What is your very first memory of me?

18. What’s the first toy you ever remember buying me?

19. Did you find out my gender before I was born or after?

20. Were you trying to get pregnant or did it just happen?

21. Did you ever drop me as a baby?

22. When you were my age, did you want kids?

23. What made me cry the most when I was little?

24. What made me laugh the most when I was little?

25. What TV show would I watch every single day?

26. Did you ever lose me in the supermarket or anywhere else?

27. What was the first movie you brought me to the theater to see?

28. What song did I listen to on repeat when I was super young?

29. What was the nicest thing I ever said to you?

30. What was the meanest thing I ever said to you?

31. What was my favorite stuffed animal?

32. What age (of mine) did you hate experiencing the most?

33. What age (of mine) do you feel like we were closest?

34. What’s the first word that comes to mind when you hear my name?

35. How long were you in labor?

36. Which one of the parents at my school annoyed you the most?

37. What is the worst part about being my mother?

38. What is the best part about being my mother?

39. What was my favorite flavor of baby food?

40. What is my worst habit?

41. Which television character reminds you of me the most?

42. What song reminds you of me the most?

43. What family member did you try to keep far away from me?

44. Did I ever do anything creepy as a kid that scared you?

45. Was I a faster or slower learner than everyone else in class?

46. What was the best drawing I ever made for you?

47. What was I the most afraid of as a child?

48. Is there anything about our family history you’ve kept a secret?

49. Overall, did you consider me a good kid?

50. Are you happy with the way I turned out?

Parents’ tips: what to do if your mom wants to be there at your baby’s birth

Lots of moms want to support their daughters during labour. Only you can decide if having your mom in the delivery room with you will be a help or a hindrance. Here other BabyCenter moms from around the world share their experiences and offer advice.

I couldn’t have done it without her

“My mom was a tremendous support during my labour. It was just me and her when I was growing up, so we’ve always been really close. This, coupled with the fact that she had been through labour herself, meant that she almost instinctively knew what I needed throughout. This was such a comfort to me and I ended up with a very easy and natural birth.”
– Sophie
“While I love my husband and he’s done so well reading up on all the theory of labour, I also wanted someone with me who had some practical experience. My mom and my partner together were a dream team and really helped me to stay as calm as I could throughout.”
– Laura
“My mom was with me and my husband the whole way through. She even held onto my left leg while my husband was on the right. It was nice to have her there and I wanted to give her the chance to see her baby having a baby. It felt like a very special gift.”
– Tracey
“My husband was pleased that my mom was there at the birth of our first child because it meant that he actually got to see his baby being born and cut the cord. He wouldn’t have been able to otherwise because I would have needed him up the head end comforting me. There is plenty of time to adapt to being parents when you are at home so although you may want to keep visitors to a select few, don’t cut all the family off. They are probably as excited as you are!”
– Dawn
“When I was pregnant with my first baby, I decided that I definitely needed my mom there because my husband isn’t the most sympathetic of people. She was a real comfort to me and did exactly as I asked by staying up the head end. I’m so glad that we shared that experience.”
– Andrea

Keep it as a special time for just you and your partner

“I couldn’t even imagine having my mom there when I gave birth to my baby. It’s something that my husband and I have between us. I was surprised when I heard my mother-in-law wanted to come to the hospital. I really didn’t want or need anyone else there.”
– Clare
“My mom wasn’t in the room during conception, so I don’t see why she should be there during labour. I explained this to my mom, but sympathetically of course. It’s a special time that I want to share alone with my husband and our new baby.”
– Carly
“I let my partner tell his mom that it would just be the two of us, as she was under the impression that she would be there. I this it’s all very private just for you and your partner to share.”
– Sara
“I am constantly amazed by women who choose to have their mothers with them at the birth. It seriously never even crossed my mind. If you ask me, labour is not a spectator’s sport, but an extremely intimate time to be shared and enjoyed by the child’s parents. That being said, once you get going you really won’t care who is in the room!”
– Lynne
“I could not think of anything worse than having my mother or mother-in-law present during the birth of my child. My relationship with both is fine but the emotional and physical strain involved with giving birth is not something I want to share with anyone except my husband. He is the person I feel the most comfortable with in any situation, so his attendance is the only one that matters. In fact, I’m not all that impressed with being visited by anyone much during those first hours/days in hospital. Having a baby is such a life-changing experience, I think I would rather have those few days for peace, quiet, and learning how to care for my baby – rather than playing hostess with the mostest!”
– Tina
“I think this is a time where you should be allowed to ‘be selfish’ and be able to say exactly how you want things to go. It’s not a case of hurting anyone’s feelings, but this time is very special and others should respect that your decision is no reflection on how you feel towards them. It is these people, including mothers, who need to be selfless and allow you the freedom to make these choices without guilt or worry. Remember you will never again experience having your first child.”
– Becky
“I feel that no one except my husband should be there during the birth and my stay in hospital. I would prefer no family or friends to visit us at all, as we need time to adapt to such a huge change.”
– Julie
“This is the time to cut the umbilical cord as this is the start of your family and a very important time for you, your partner and the baby. Your mother can be close at hand if needed, just not in the room with you.”
– Leah
“The simple fact is that the whole experience is something very personal between you and your husband. After all, you are creating your very own little family. At the end of the day, you are the mom to this baby. Your mom had her child and no doubt made the choices she wanted to make at the time. It’s your turn now and you shouldn’t be influenced by anyone.”
– Angela

Don’t rush or be pushed into a decision

“You’ve got nine months to make this decision, so whatever you do, take the time you need and make sure that it is the right one for you.”
– Rosie
“It is most definitely a very personal decision, and one which you as a couple should make entirely selfishly together. This is no time to be worrying about pleasing others. Most would understand that, if the approach is right.”
– Nicola
“Everyone knows that moms can be pushy. No doubt I’ll be that way at times in the future. However, I refused to let my mom persuade me to have her at the birth of my son when after much consideration I had decided I didn’t want her to be. She got over it and I don’t regret a thing.”

– Laura

Let her down gently if you don’t want her there

“I told my mom that while her support is so important to me, I didn’t want her in the room where I could lash out at her and say something to hurt her feelings. She was fine with it, because she understood that it was my day.”
– Melissa
“To soften the blow, why not use the excuse that it’s psychologically not a good thing? I’ve read that having your mom with you at childbirth can have a negative effect. Apparently your mom could find it very difficult seeing her own baby in so much discomfort and pain, and there is the chance you will revert to the ‘child state’ where you expect your mom to help you when actually she can’t do a thing except support you.”
– Caroline
“I let my mom know that her being there would make my husband feel as though I needed a back-up partner because he wasn’t good enough. I asked her if she would therefore mind standing on the sidelines so that he wouldn’t get the wrong idea. It really worked because she was happy to take a back seat for the sake of my husband.”
– Frankie
“I explained to my mom that while I want her at the hospital, I definitely didn’t want her with me while delivering. She was happy to know that I want her there but understood that giving birth is a very private thing between a husband and wife. She’ll be in the waiting room on the day just in case I change my mind!”
– Susie
“I intend to give my mom some jobs to do at the time, like making phone calls, getting us something to eat or something like that, so that she still feels needed.”
– Fiona
“It is difficult trying to explain to your mom that you don’t want her there without hurting her feelings, but she’s your mom so she will understand! You’ll find your own way of telling her but just try and be as gentle as you can with her. Remember to say that you’ll need her support in lots of ways after the birth and that you love her.”
– Sarah
If you want to chat with others about birth choices then visit our community.
Last reviewed August 2018