Distributed March 24, 2000
For Immediate Release
News Service Contact: Kristen Cole

Brown author examines the lifelong impact of losing a mother

In Motherloss, Lynn Davidman analyzes the impact of losing a mother during childhood. Based on interviews with 60 adults, Davidman's book provides an understanding of the need to talk about the death of this loved one.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Losing a mother during childhood has a lifelong impact and is aggravated by taboos surrounding the discussion of death in our society, according to Brown author Lynn Davidman in Motherloss (University of California Press; April 26).

Davidman interviewed 60 men and women from a variety of class and religious backgrounds who had lost their mothers during childhood, between the ages of 10 and 15. For many, the extent of conversation about their dying mothers involved platitudes like “be strong” and “everything will be OK.” Most said they never talked about their mothers after the death.

“I hope the book might have an impact on society by providing a broader understanding about how devastating silence can be,” said Davidman, associate professor of American civilization, Judaic studies and women’s studies. “Fathers or other relatives need to be honest and not say ‘everything is going to be fine’.”

The impact of losing a mother, she argues, is shaped by how society idealizes the role of mothers and the nuclear family.

The adults Davidman interviewed tended to give their mothers attributes that are cultural stereotypes about the perfect mother – unconditionally loving and all-nurturing. Most felt their families stood out as deviant and stigmatized without a mother. Most felt denied care in childhood because of the mother’s early death. Most also said that traditional religion did not, on the whole, serve as a source of comfort or meaning.

The loss often influenced major life decisions, including their choice of spouse and career and their decision to have children. They tended to try to find spouses who were nurturing and to provide for their families in ways they believed they had been denied. Some women based their decision to stay home with the children and be full-time mothers on their loss.

Davidman hopes the book will convey the message that although silence surrounds the discussion of a mother's death, those who suffer the loss are not alone. After a mother dies, it is important to keep alive memories and talk about feelings.

That type of dialogue would have helped Davidman with the loss of her mother to cancer when she was 13. She recalls being chastised by an aunt for telling someone her mother had cancer. She only had “thoracic surgery,” said the aunt, a statement which confused her.

Davidman weaves her own experiences throughout the book with those of the narratives of 10 people she interviewed, and her analysis of their stories.

“I spent much of my adult life examining what impact her death had on me,” said Davidman. “If you learn early on that talking about it is OK, you may not be faced with as much of a gaping hole in your life.”