Issue 8 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Katherine Forbes Riley

A Quasi-Scientific Study of Women with No Mothers

Every study starts with a feeling. To some scientists it reads as gut instinct, but in my case it was more like fierce joy. No, not joy. Solidarity. Self-recognition. Also steroids. Because the first time I met another woman with no mother, I felt myself grow a little larger. Revitalized. More present in the world.


From this initial impulse the scientist derives a hypothesis to be confirmed or denied. In my case, spring having just arrived, I went on a playdate to the park with the mother of another first grader, one of my son’s school friends. This being only three months since my last conversation with my own mother, the shock of it still rang in my brain. A solitude like pariah-hood still draped itself over me, and I was still subject to frequent possessions, during which I relived our prior exchanges in minute and excruciating detail. This could occur at any time, even in the midst of shallow conversations, such as the one I was having with this other mother at the playdate about our respective summer plans. And so suddenly I hear her casually remark that her mother has backed out of a planned summer visit but it’s probably for the best, what with her mother being such a horrible person anyway. Seeing my face, she immediately tried to laugh it off, move on. But I begged her not too. It was all I could do not to fall, weeping, into her arms. I didn’t cry, although I probably teared up, as I confessed to her that my mother was horrible too.


So it wasn’t the case, as I had been so afraid, that I must now be a kind of social outcast, damaged goods and so rightly repulsed as the only women in my little town’s society to be estranged from her own mother. On the contrary, after my confession the floodgates opened between this mother of my son’s friend and I; our stories poured out and with them came a certainty not only of our personal strength but also of our rightness. Two tales so different on the surface and yet remarkably similar underneath, we were like twins in our understanding of how loveless childhoods, with all their consequent risk-taking and rebelliousness, continued to affect one even into adulthood. And after, even as we spoke of other things, how plainly did I perceive in the fine architecture of her public defenses the mirror image of her private pain. How clear it became to me, seeing it reflected in her, that anger at one’s mother could spiral down and down forever, without ever reaching an end.


But how common were they, these women with no mothers? To me this was the obvious next question; indeed it was one I now felt propelled to answer, found myself needing to know, before engaging any woman, exactly the kind of relationship she had with her mother. And while a complete answer required an intimacy most interactions lack, I had plenty of opportunities to observe, at parks and playgrounds and library children’s rooms and all the other places where other women with young children like myself congregate. Moreover by targeting a specific question, I soon discovered there were indirect ways of answering it. For example, as the summer progressed, I would overhear some women say things like, The kids love it when my mother comes, or, She’s taking them so we can go to Mexico. While other women, in contrast, would complain to each other of all the problems their mothers’ visits engendered. On rare occasion I was even able to observe the relationship firsthand. However I found these the most difficult to judge because nothing was ever spoken aloud. Instead I’d have to draw my conclusions based on visual cues—a certain tightening I perceived around the mouth, or else something gone puerile in the eyes. Sometimes I’d see grandmother treating her grandchildren like the very center of her world and feel a flash of resentment that soon dissolved into loss.


Early on I decided it was best to include both WNMs and WDMs in my study. After all, the distinction was clearly one of degree; my own case had proven that the distance between a difficult mother and no mother at all could be as little as one nasty comment, one angry reaction away. Moreover, could any woman ever be said to be fully WNM? WNM2 had told me that some years—on birthdays or major holidays—she still spoke with her mother on the phone. Over Christmas and then again in February and May as my children’s birthdays approached, my heart would race and I’d lose my breath every time my cell phone rang. And even after I knew it wasn’t her I’d still be unable to plan even a single word of what I would have said, if in fact it had been my mother on the other end.


Following a 9 month period (36 weeks or 271 days) of observing an average of 7.1 women per week (SD 2.3) for a total of 257 women, roughly half were classified as WDMs (115/257 or 44.7%), while only 6 (6/257 or 2.3%) were classified as WNMs. Moreover 3 of the WNMs could be considered outliers, coming as they did through word of mouth, except for the fact that it was my husband’s mouth and I view him as kind of a co-principal investigator, since he’d been even more shocked than me (frankly, he was outraged) by my mother’s behavior leading up to the estrangement. Each time he discovered another one he carried the story home to me like revelation—like proof. First there was WNM3, a colleague of his whose mother was a textbook narcissist (straight out of Kafka’s letters), then WNM4, the wife of a colleague whose mother kept her from her father’s deathbed, and finally WNM5, the wife of a friend whose mother kept an inheritance intended for her. All these women, moreover, I had met previously to undertaking the study, and though I’d never been particularly interested in knowing them better once I found out they were WNMs their images radiated in my head with a far stronger force. Although every WNM in the dataset seemed to us justified, WNM6 was by far the most extreme case. We met her at a New Year’s Eve party. Small, dark, and still feral-eyed at 58, she’d been abandoned by her mother in a stranger’s house for a year when she was very young, during which time she’d been starved and raped repeatedly.


After talking to WNM6 at that party I found myself almost grateful. Also wondering more generally: how do WNMs and WDMs fare in life, as compared to women with mothers? Probably most people would assume they suffered by comparison. And yet WNM6 put herself through Harvard medical school. WNM5 is a successful New York artist. The rest are admired in their roles as teacher and gardener and book editor, and I myself was a respected scientist in my field for twelve years before having children.


This last was a question not so easily answered. For awhile I had found WNMs willing, even eager, to discuss their mother situations, the same could not be said of the remaining 251 women in my study. However, knowing the woman’s classification was a start; every time I saw her again something more might be ferreted out. Another year went by as I made lists. Drew comparisons. Calculated correlations between observed attributes. In the end, while not statistically significant, my results are suggestive. For example, overall the WWMs in my study tended to treat their children somewhat cavalierly, suggesting they perceive someone else as the “real boss.” They also tended towards childishness themselves, for example acting cliquish or even cruel to women outside their circle. Generally larger atmospherically, they formed groups easily, and perhaps not surprisingly, given the fact that they closely orbit a mother-sun. The WN/DMs, in contrast, were like small Pluto’s, possessed of little visible atmosphere and revolutions that tended to wobble and waver irregularly. Their friendliness towards other solitary women together with a strong protectiveness towards their own children may suggest a fear of facing their task alone.


Two years to the day after I last spoke to my mother, I woke to the realization that we would never speak again. It was a feeling of weightlessness. Of rising. No mother judgment weighing me down. I’d traveled beyond the reach of her gravity. Occasionally memories of her will still bus through my mind, but never anything good. Because memory access is linked to emotion and mine about her are all still negative. Mostly though, I feel free. I’ve been thinking about ecstatics lately. Prophets. What kind of mothers did they have? Bob Marley, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King. William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Mother Theresa. Both Gandhis, of course. And then there’s Hitler, and all those jihadists, those kamikaze pilots from WWII, what kind of mothers did they have? Why limit my study to direct acquaintances? Or women, for that matter? What connections might be made from all that data! There’s still much to be understood. There’s a pattern, I’m certain, and an urgency too, because my children are growing so fast, and my worst fear—my worst fear—


Katherine Forbes Riley is a computational linguist and writer in Vermont. A Dartmouth College graduate with a PhD from University of Pennsylvania, her academic writing appears in many places. Her creative writing appears in Fiction Southeast, Noö, Mulberry Fork Review, Spartan, Halfway Down The Stairs, Crack the Spine, Storyscape, Whiskey Island, Lunch Ticket, Eunoia Review, Literary Orphans, Eclectica, BlazeVOX, McNeese Review, Akashic Books, and Buffalo Almanack, from whom she received the Inkslinger’s Award. Selected by Karolyn Gehrig.