Mothering without a Mother: coping with loss and parenthood

Four months after her mother died from breast cancer, Rachel Clarke found out she was expecting her first baby. In this moving piece, Rachel describes how it feels to enter motherhood without your own mother there to guide you…

When you were younger how did you imagine your life with children of your own? You probably wouldn’t think that it would involve coping with the loss of a parent – I certainly didn’t.

I lost my mother to secondary breast cancer in 2016 when she was aged just 59. Four months later I found out I was expecting our first son.

Pregnancy without a mother is a challenge but I wasn’t reminded of her absence as you are focused so much on the new bundle – protecting it, sorting out maternity leave, tasks like that are great distract you from the pain of the loss.

Once you have a real, physical child of your own then what happens? You are constantly reminded of your own childhood and the parent you have lost. Every decision, every milestone and every obstacle you find yourselves wishing that they were there to guide you through the minefield that is parenting.

It all came to a head about eight months after my son was born and I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. I was struggling with grief, the loss of my identity and the overwhelming nature of looking after a newborn.

No-one tells you how many times you will relive the loss.

The loss of a grandparent to your child.

The loss of the new relationship that would have inevitably evolved once your baby arrived and you need all the help you can get. You know she would be able to settle the baby who just wouldn’t sleep without you.

The loss of all the future opportunities your mother would have had to spend getting to know and fall in love with their first grandchild. It’s rubbish and it hurts.

So how can you deal with grief as a mother?


  • If you are pregnant, ask to see the mental health midwifery team, available in most NHS trusts, who specialise in supporting women who are experiencing grief.
  • If you are a new mum, talk to a professional. Your GP can signpost you to local talking therapies like grief counselling or CBT (Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy) although waiting times can be long. Personally I couldn’t wait and found a local psychotherapist who specialises in maternal mental health issues. You can find a local therapist via the UKCP (the UK Council of Psychotherapy), the BACP (British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy) or visit the MIND website. It is around £50 a session so isn’t cheap but I have put aside the cost in my weekly budget as it has such a profound impact on all aspects of my life, it might just be the best purchase I make all week.
  • Acknowledge how hard it can be. Having a newborn and not having the emotional and practical support of your loved one is tough. I find it reassuring to remember that my mother will have passed onto me the skills and love needed to be a mother through her parenting and so a part of her lives on.
  • Be kind to yourself. I sometimes take a walk to reconnect with nature and get some fresh air. Do whatever you need to do to clear your head. It might sound a bit woo woo but getting out of your house and having time to yourself really helps. I try and time it with naptime so I stick my son in the buggy and he gets a sleep whilst I stick on a podcast and get some exercise.
  • Open up to your closest and dearest. I try to be mindful of my feelings and the impact of these feelings on my behaviour. If I’m snappy or distant it’s probably because I’m not feeling great mentally so I will try and talk about how I’m feeling. There is no shame in admitting you need help and for some antidepressants can play a role in recovery.
  • Be present. I’ve found that if I put my phone down and ignore all the distractions of housework and focus on being with my son I feel better. I also try to practice gratitude in the morning – going over what I am thankful for helps me to focus on the positive.

Facing up to these losses (and to the grieving process as a whole) is an ongoing journey. The pain doesn’t go away however with time you will be more aware of when you are feeling a bit rubbish and have the tools to take each tough moment as it comes.

For me, grief and new motherhood opened up a creativity and self awareness that pushed me to retrain in a new career and set up my own business.

Rachel Clarke is founder of Hey Mama Hypnobirthing Co.