Brown University News Bureau

The Brown University News Bureau

1996-1997 index

Distributed November 13, 1996
Contact: Richard Morin

Lynn Davidman explores growing up motherless in American society

Lynn Davidman, associate professor of Judaic studies, sociology and women's studies, has interviewed 60 men and women from various economic backgrounds for a new book that explores the consequences of growing up motherless in American society.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Thousands of Americans know the heartache of losing a mother as an adolescent. They also know the collective silence that accompanies their experience.

Lynn Davidman, associate professor of Judaic Studies, sociology and women's studies, is trying to break that silence by examining the meaning of attitudes toward death and mother-loss in American culture. The project, begun in 1994, will culminate in a book scheduled for publication in 1998. It will be the first full-length sociological study dealing with mother-loss and its consequences.

"My mother died when I was 13. I always wished that I had some way to understand what this meant for me in respect to my life and whether or not my experiences were different from others," said Davidman, whose mother died of cancer at age 36.

As part of the project, Davidman has interviewed 60 men and women who lost their mothers as adolescents, ages 10 to 15. Despite varying circumstances, many interlocking themes have emerged from the often tearful interviews. "Many [interviewees] said they had been waiting for years to discuss the loss of their mothers and its impact on their lives," said Davidman, who noted that many of the mothers had died of cancer - a disease that also carried its special stigma in American society for many years.

The overwhelming majority of those interviewed reported a loss of nurturing and caring for themselves and others. "I found people have sought various ways to replace that lost caring," she said. " Some seek others to care for them, but many search to replace lost caring by searching for others to care for." Many interviewees said they began taking over the emotional and practical care of their siblings and fathers after their mothers died. "I have tried to nurture students as one way to replace lost caring," Davidman said. "But many of the women went on to have families of their own to replace lost caring and the loving family that they had lost."

The lack of maternal caring and nurturance was reported to be heightened by silence surrounding the death of a mother. "They were not allowed to express grief," said Davidman. "They were told not to cry and simply move on. I was really surprised by the amount of silence that surrounded the loss of a mother. It happened in my family, but I thought we were just an inarticulate bunch."

A number interviewees reported that their fathers remarried soon after the death of their spouse. "By and large, the majority of stories about stepmothers were not good," said Davidman. "To a large extent the stepmother stories concurred with fairy tales. They were interested in their own children, rather than the motherless children [of the families] they married into. Some didn't care about children or didn't like them at all; some found themselves in over their heads." Some respondents reported having aunts and grandmothers fill in for their lost mothers, but many people said they had no one, Davidman said .

When asked to describe their mothers, the majority of the respondents provided rosy stories about their mothers. "In the absence of a real live person, they were exposing the culture ideas of motherhood," she said. "One woman had a mother who beat her as a child; nevertheless, she was convinced if [her mother] were alive today, she would be her best friend." In listening to the stories of those who lost their mothers, Davidman hopes to learn more about the cultural attitudes toward death.

The loss of a mother had a different impact on the gender development of the men and women who were interviewed. A number of the women said they struggled with the meaning of femininity in the absence of their mothers. "This emerged for women in ways large and small, from feeling they didn't know anything about make-up, clothes, and home decorating, to saying that they didn't have a role model for raising their children and hardly even knew what it means to be a woman," said Davidman. Some of the men said they lacked guidance in forming relationships but did not report difficulties in developing their ideas of masculinity.

Many of those interviewed kept their mother's memory alive through pictures and other mementos. Some even had imaginary conversations with their mothers. "One woman placed a picture of her mother under her veil when she was married," she said.

Davidman believes her interviews highlight the resiliency of the human spirit. "All these people, including myself, are survivors," she said. "In one way or another we all have found ways to make our lives work for us. It is a testament to the human ability to take adversity and survive and transcend."