Lynn Davidman's pathbreaking study analyzes the immediate and continuing impact of a mother's premature death on the children she leaves behind. Drawing on interviews with sixty adults from a variety of class backgrounds, Davidman argues that the experience of motherloss is shaped by our social conceptions of women's roles in the family and in society. Speaking candidly, often with great emotion and insight, Davidman's interviewees were glad for the opportunity to break cultural taboos and silences about death and to create stories that reveal the power of this early loss to influence their lifelong conceptions of self, family, community, God, and love. With a profound sense of purpose and keen insight, Davidman highlights the narratives of ten respondents, weaving them together into a powerful book that reveals the numerous common themes--as well as the individual variations--in people's stories. This first study of the lifelong impact of motherloss on women's and men's lives will become the definitive work on perhaps the deepest and most complex disruption to occur in the course of a life.
Davidman, who was thirteen when her mother died of cancer, enriches the narrative with her own insights of growing up as the only female in an Orthodox Jewish home with her father and two brothers. The book is enlivened by her movement back and forth between herself and others, individuals and society, thereby challenging the assumption that the personal has no place in our quest for knowledge and understanding. She successfully uses others' experiences to better illuminate her own, and at the same time develops an empathic understanding of their stories by reaching deep into her own memories and feelings about her mother's death and its impact on her life. Despite the silences, isolation, and confusion that accompany a mother's death, and the cultural messages to "move on," Davidman's respondents find ways--in thoughts, prayers, memories, symbolic objects, and practices--to retain their mother's presence in their daily lives.
The Researcher and the ResearchedOn Sunday morning, November 7, 1993, my father died. I was thirty-eight, he seventy-one. To say we were not close would be an understatement; he and I had hardly spoken for twenty years. But that night I accompanied my brothers to Jerusalem, to bury him there, next to the new grave to which my mother's remains had been transferred four years earlier. I had not seen this grave before; I had been opposed when my father and brothers had moved my mother's grave. Yet that night, at the cemetery where my mom and now my dad were buried, I was transformed into the thirteen-year-old girl whose mother had died. "I want my mom," I repeatedly sobbed, mourning the lost opportunity to have known my mother over the course of my life, to have her know me now as a woman. And I wondered about the many ways in which my life would have been different--and easier in significant respects--if my mother had not died when my brothers and I were young.
While I was crying for my mom, women in my extended family surrounded me, held and comforted me. My older and younger brothers were there, crying for our father, but they did not react to the expression of my longheld grief for our mother. We were together, but alone in our experience of loss. We had never talked about our mother before and were not about to talk about her then. Yet later, in replaying that cemetery scene in my mind and trying to fathom my brothers' reactions, I began to wonder not only about myself but about how their lives would have been different if our mom had not died of cancer at the age of thirty-six.
For more than thirty years I have pondered the ways in which the loss of my mother at a young age shaped me as a woman. But after my father's funeral another question struck me: How did the early loss of our mother affect my brothers' lives? How did our experiences, which were clearly shaped by gender as well as by our particular family constellation, social class, and religious and ethnic affiliations, compare with those of other adults whose mothers died when they were children? My passion to answer these questions has led me to research and write this book, Motherloss.
This book, at least in some ways, has been in the making for over twenty years. I began my career as a sociologist, exploring people, places, and issues that have great resonance for me personally. Throughout my academic life, beginning with my undergraduate coursework, I have engaged in intellectual work at least partly as a way to understand my own life. I pursued the fields of psychology and religious studies before coming upon the sociological lens, which provided me with the most satisfying ways of asking questions and seeking answers. By placing individual experience within larger contexts and by tracing the linkages between self and society, biography and history, sociology offers a broad perspective in which to understand individuals' lives and the factors that shape them.
The issues that have been most central to me, given the facts of my biography, revolve around the themes of meaning, identity, and gender. While I was growing up, I experienced two major biographical disruptions. The first was that my mother died of cancer when I was thirteen years old, leaving me in a patriarchal Orthodox Jewish home with my father and two brothers. The religious certainties with which I had been brought up immediately dissolved: I reasoned that if the rabbis my parents had consulted had assured them that everything would be fine, then the religion made no sense and there must be no God. Six years later my lack of religious beliefs led my father to disown me, and I was thrust into the world on my own to build a new life. These two experiences produced in me an ongoing passion for studying issues of gender equity, the quest for meaning, the construction of identity, and the intersection of all three.
As a sociologist, I am aware that the various ways individuals create a sense of self and build their lives are shaped by numerous social factors, such as gender, race, ethnicity, social class, religion, education, and the general cultural norms and values of the time. I was drawn to this discipline precisely because I found that highlighting these broader influences helped me to understand my own life and the lives of the people around me. For example, one source of the conflict between my father and me had to do with his upbringing in an immigrant Eastern European family and my coming of age and being educated at a time when the ideas of the contemporary U.S. feminist movement were widely available. His family had warm memories of the shtetl; I grew up in a secular, pluralistic society in which traditional religious norms were no longer taken for granted. By seeing our individual life choices in the contexts of these larger historical patterns, I was better able to comprehend the nature and sources of our differences. Although I was still unable to resolve these differences, the application of a sociological perspective was liberating; it enlarged and transformed my own understanding of myself and of others by seeing how our lives are molded by wider social and cultural patterns.
Questions about how people make sense of their lives are best understood through the use of interpretive, qualitative sociology. As research methods, in-depth interviewing and participant observation allow the researcher to explore individual and group experiences within the context of the local, particular settings in which they are lived. The intensive conversations that produce life history narratives yield "thick," rich material offering insights into the processes through which meaning is created and transmitted.
I have sought to answer my own questions about my disrupted biography, in particular the break from Orthodox religion and the premature death of my mother, by understanding how these personal issues are reflections of and are shaped by broader social processes. My research projects have brought me into contact with people who struggle with the same issues I do, or ones that are closely related. I seek to interpret and comprehend our experiences through a continuous movement back and forth between my own memories, feelings, and responses and those of my respondents. This process of digging deep into my psyche in order to develop a subtly nuanced, rich, and empathetic understanding of their lives and simultaneously using these insights to better comprehend my own life deepens the sociological interpretations and analysis yielded by this research. As I write this book, I incorporate my own experiences where they seem appropriate. I include them not simply to reveal myself to readers but because their presence serves a larger heuristic purpose. By entering into my own feelings of pain and loss I am afforded a pathway to understanding the experiences of others and the general issue of loss in our culture.
My two major studies, Tradition in a Rootless World: Women Turn to Orthodox Judaism (1991) and this current book, both focus on how people make sense of and rebuild their lives after experiencing a major, unanticipated "biographical disruption."1 In focusing my research projects on narratives of disrupted biographies, I do not assume that all other people have smooth, seamless biographies without interruptions. Many individuals experience various biographical disruptions. In fact, postmodern thought points out that the overarching metanarratives through which groups of people in Western cultures have understood their lives have come into question. People's life experiences are often in tension and interaction with the expectations and scripts of cultural metanarratives. In my research, however, I highlight those particular, major disruptions that shatter people's culturally derived expectations of their life course, requiring them to reframe their biographical narratives. In this work I focus on the predicament of premature motherloss, a phenomenon that may have been more common in preindustrial societies but is relatively rare in the contemporary United States. My earlier study highlighted the ways people who adopt a religious way of life that is quite different from their parents' attempt to create consistent narratives that incorporate these changes into their ongoing sense of self. Both studies reveal that people who live through these sorts of momentous changes are uniquely situated to engage in the narrative production of identities and the reinscription of meaning. The disruption in their expected life course must be integrated into an ongoing, consistent narrative that traces and creates a coherent sense of self.
For me, writing Tradition in a Rootless World was a way of coming to terms with my disrupted relationship with my father, an issue that was central to the way I understood and presented myself to others. Completing it allowed me to move on, both in my psyche and in my research. This book, on growing up motherless, forces me to probe my memories and confront my feelings about my mother's death and its impact on my life, a subject that has been deeply repressed by me and my family. The silences around my mother's sickness and death began when she became ill. I was not told what was wrong with her, and when I guessed it was cancer (what else was unnameable in the late 1960s?), my father and aunt denied it. Their responses made me terribly confused about why my mother continued to be ill, recited Psalms all day, and clutched a piece of rock from the Western Wall in Jerusalem from the time of her surgery in September until her death in March. Needless to say, I was shocked when she died. The silences surrounding her illness and death have continued until very recently; my brothers and I have almost never discussed our mother, nor was it a topic I brought up even with my closest friends.
How deeply I sought to avoid talking about this issue can be seen in my self-presentation at my first appointment with the therapist I sought out when I was struggling with the blocks I faced in my dissertation research. When I told her my life story and got to the part about my mother's dying when I was thirteen, she immediately said, "That is a very tough age at which to lose a mother." I breezily replied, "Oh, it would be tough at any age," thereby making clear that I didn't like to talk about this experience, and instead tried to normalize it, primarily through silence, as best I could.
It has taken me many more years to feel ready to deal with and probe into my experience of growing up motherless. I had known for a long time that I would eventually have to write a book on this subject, as a way of compelling myself to break the silences and better integrate this powerful piece of my biography. Nevertheless, I felt unable to take on this challenging, potentially painful task until I had a sense of stability in my life. At the age of thirty-nine I had a tenured appointment and a house of my own; I knew that the time had come. I was already three years older than my mother had been at her death.
While the particular focus of this book is the social context of mothering and its impact on the experience of early maternal loss, this study weaves in an analysis of other cultural issues as well. Motherloss reveals and breaks a series of overlapping silences and prohibitions in our culture, in families, in the academy--which frowns upon the use of the "personal" in scholarly work--and in our capacity for knowledge (of self, other, culture, etc.) in circumstances of rupture (a common feature of human life). I am working against the assumption that the "personal" should not be an acknowledged or explicit epistemological component of our quest for knowledge and understanding. Without exposing individual and collective taboos and assessing their sources and origins, academic research runs the risk of simply reproducing social barriers and deepening silences. This book points to one, albeit challenging, path out of this danger. In writing this book I have tried not only to place or re-place my mother in my life story and my interviewees' dead mothers in their stories, but also to reintegrate parts of our experiences that have been fractured and denied within social and academic discourse.
As I worked on this study, I was more informed than in my first project by the postmodern turn in ethnography that has led to the production of more critical, experimental forms of fieldwork narratives, particularly within the discipline of anthropology.2 It has become less plausible to present material on others' lives that rests on the naive assumption of the authority of a researcher who goes to live among "others," discerns what manner of lives they lead, and simply reports these findings back to an audience of outsiders. Instead, contemporary ethnography rests on the assumption that all knowledge in the field is produced through the interactions between a researcher, who is a socially situated self with particular life experiences, and her respondents, who bring to the dialogue their own embedded assumptions and meanings. Analyzing the ways in which these conversations we call interviews create and shape the narratives produced is as essential to our comprehension of the subject matter as are the actual words of our interviewees. Thus I have chosen to write a more self-reflexive book this time, one that seeks to balance and mediate between the inside and the outside, self and others, individuals (including myself) and the social.
Although I represent my own experiences of motherloss at relevant points throughout this book, the project is not primarily autobiographical. My goal is to explore the various ways that early motherloss, as it is experienced within particular social contexts, shapes the narratives people construct about their lives. My interviews for this project provided a context in which I participated with my respondents in creating narratives that make sense of their disrupted biographies and tie together the diverse parts of their lives, while doing the same for myself. Narratives, like memoirs, are constructed ways of making sense of a life. People tell stories or write memoirs to say something about who they are as individuals and the combination of personal experiences and social/cultural contexts that shaped their identities. Our stories root us, give us identity and grounding and a guideline for action. The particular linkages and connections people make in these narratives--such as "I can't nurture because I had no mother"--help them account for their life choices and constitute the primary basis for my analysis. Narratives not only render human experience meaningful and comprehensible, they also become part of human experience by enabling people to create and direct their present and their future expectations. The act of telling is as much a glance at the past as a guide for the present and future.
The interviews for this study took place over a period of three years. I engaged in intensive conversations with sixty women and men from a variety of class backgrounds whose mothers died when these adults were children between ten and fifteen years of age. I chose this particular age range because at ten a child is old enough to retain clear memories and at fifteen she is still young enough to have significant growing up to do. Also, since my own mother had died when I was thirteen, I was particularly interested in the experiences of motherloss in early adolescence. My selection of this particular life stage, however, is not meant to confine the relevance of this book to a narrow range of people. My conversations with individuals who experienced a parent's death at any age, and the reactions of individuals who have heard me talk about this work, suggest that there are many commonalities in individuals' experiences of a wide variety of losses. The Loss That Is Forever argues that when people under twenty-one years of age lose a parent, they never fully recover from that loss, a feeling that was expressed by many of my interviewees.3 Similarly, Carolyn Ellis's account of her lover's death echoes many of the dimensions of loss outlined in this book.4 So do the narratives of many individuals who lost parents as adults5, as well as people whose parents were present physically but emotionally absent during their childhoods.6
Through my research interviews, I engaged in the co-creation of narratives about motherloss, using others' experiences to illuminate my own and developing an empathic understanding of their experiences by digging deep into my own psyche for memories and feelings about my mother's death and its impact on my life.
When I began interviewing for this project, several people I know introduced me to friends, acquaintances, or relatives whose mothers had died when these adults were children. Immediately I found that people were willing to be interviewed about their memories and experiences of motherloss. I obtained my first six interviewees through these methods. In addition, two students at Brown University, where I teach, responded to an ad I placed in the student newspaper and agreed to be interviewed. After a few months, however, it became clear to me that I would not obtain a large or diverse enough sample through word of mouth, and I decided to advertise more widely for respondents.
I placed advertisements in daily newspapers in several northeastern cities and in the Sunday New York Times--publications that would be seen by a large and diverse population. To broaden my sample I also recruited participants through a free weekly advertising magazine that reaches people across social classes, placed an ad in a newspaper read by African Americans, and placed notices in community centers and supermarkets. Through these advertisements and the earlier word-of-mouth approach, I recruited a total of sixty interviewees, half women and half men. The large majority of the mothers of these interviewees had died of cancer or other long-term illnesses; about a third had died suddenly from such diverse causes as a heart attack, a cerebral hemorrhage, complications after surgery, and a car crash. Six were suicides.
In the first two years of interviewing, I had many more responses from women than from men. As I tried to understand why, several female respondents provided some clues. Two women told me that their husbands were amazed at their willingness to be interviewed on such a deeply personal subject. One husband had said on the morning of his wife's interview: "You're going to talk to a stranger about this?!" Over the past several decades, popular literature as well as academic research has suggested that women's sense of self is more relational than men's and that women are more likely to be emotionally attuned and expressive.7 Perhaps this is one explanation for the fact that more women than men responded to an ad that asked them to participate in a study designed to probe their responses to a profound loss.
After I had interviewed thirty women but only thirteen men, I realized I had to be more proactive about recruiting male interviewees, since a central question I was concerned with was how gender shaped accounts of motherloss and its aftermath. An advertising manager of a newspaper suggested that I place an ad in either the auto or the sports section of the paper, and that instead of heading it "Interviewees Wanted," I should write, "Men Wanted." I followed this advice and received sufficient calls from men to complete my sample. (I also received some calls from women asking why I was only looking for men!) The ad stated that a sociology professor was looking for adults whose mothers had died when these adults were children, aged ten to fifteen, in order to interview them for a research project. I provided a phone number where I could be reached and assured readers of anonymity and confidentiality.
My interviewees ranged in age from twenty to eighty, with the large majority in their forties, fifties, and sixties. Thus they grew up in the 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s--during the period of the postwar glorification of motherhood, the nuclear family, and the home. My respondents were spread across the range of social classes, although the majority were middle-class. In order to get a sense of their social class, I asked questions about their parents' employment and educational histories, the kind of housing they grew up in, and their sense of their families' economic situation when they were growing up. I then asked about their own (and their spouses') level of education, current employment situation, housing, and overall sense of economic standing. Five people described themselves as growing up poor; two of them remain poor today and live with the help of public assistance. Twelve interviewees described working-class backgrounds and current situations--their parents completed no more than a high school education (if that) and were employed in factories or had other low-income jobs. These respondents themselves did not have a college education, and worked at jobs that made it difficult for them always to be economically self-sufficient. A few lived with family members other than their spouses in order to make ends meet. Twelve other respondents who described working-class backgrounds had moved into the middle class, through either education, professional training, business ownership, or some combination of these. Fully half of my respondents, thirty people, had always been members of the middle class. Five individuals either had been born into or had achieved upper-middle-class status, with family incomes above $200,000 a year.
All of the interviews took place in the Northeast, in several cities and towns. The large majority of my interviewees were white and of European descent. Six respondents were people of color: a Mexican American man; one male and two female Asian Americans, all of them middle-class; one African American woman who grew up quite poor but was comfortably working-class now; and a biracial man who had a working-class background and was still working-class. Thus this book is based more on the experiences of white middle-class Euro-Americans than on those of any other group, and includes analyses of the impact of their social class and gender on their experiences of motherloss and its consequences. In the chapter that follows, and throughout the book, I discuss how motherloss affects the type of family that policy makers, social scientists, and often ordinary folk deemed "normative" when these people were growing up--that is, the nuclear family, with a wage-earning husband and a stay-at-home wife.8 It is this hegemonic model of the family embedded in our social institutions and idealized in our culture that is missed and lamented by my interviewees.
In families that live in extended kin networks or other varieties of household and family structures, more people than the mother may be involved in the intense emotional and physical work of caring for young children. Maternal death is thus likely to be experienced differently within these families.9 This study of motherloss cannot generalize to make claims about families that are arranged differently from the nuclear family model. I look forward to the work of scholars who will enlarge the perspective offered here by conducting new studies of the various forms and meanings of motherloss among people whose family structures and roles may yield narratives that vary in significant ways from those represented here.
Interviewing people about such an emotionally charged subject is quite challenging, especially since it is an issue about which I have my own (not always conscious) emotions. During the interviews, many of my respondents--over half of the women and a third of the men--cried as they told their stories of pain and loss. At those moments I paused and sat with them while they cried. To me this was the most appropriate response, especially in view of the fact that when their mothers were ill, when they died, and even afterward, most respondents were encouraged not to cry but to be strong and move on. Several people apologized for crying; some said, "I did not expect to do this." I assured them that this was a perfectly understandable response, given the depth of pain and loss involved in losing a mother at a young age. Sometimes the person's account touched on themes that were central in my story and my own eyes filled with tears; on occasion my eyes filled with tears of empathy even if it was not a subject that struck home personally. When the person was ready, we continued with the interview.
The silences and taboos surrounding early maternal death make it difficult to construct a coherent life story that weaves in the significance of this event. This became apparent during the interviewing process. When I began talking with people about motherloss and its aftermath in their lives, my intention was to ask a bare minimum of questions so that they would be free to tell their stories in any way they chose, including the order of the narrative, the relevant details, and the special emphases. I soon found, however, that this was not an easy subject for people to simply expound upon. Respondents asked me to prompt them with questions to help them focus, remember, and articulate. After four interviews it became clear that I should prepare an interview guide that would help jog people's memories and provide a framework for our discussions. Drawing on insights from the first few interviews, from my own life, and from a diverse body of literature on families, on mothering, and on loss, I developed a set of specific albeit open-ended questions that helped to draw people out.
Ethnographers are emotion workers. In order to do this work with integrity we need to seek actively to create a safe space for our interviewees as well as for ourselves. We have to rely on our instincts and on our general socialization as members of the society, knowing the norms of what to say and when. But sometimes we need to rethink our instincts in order to carry out our work. Because in our culture death is a taboo subject and we are surrounded by advertisements and elements of popular culture telling us that we should be happy, members of our society often instinctually try to smooth over others' expressions of sadness and loss; "Don't cry," they say, or "It will be OK." Ethnographers have these same conditioned reactions. During my interviews, however, that would have been an inappropriate response: it would have put me in the role of deepening and furthering the silences that nearly all of my respondents have faced throughout their lives. That would have constituted a violation of their feelings and their freedom to express them. I worked hard to establish an atmosphere of openness and acceptance, finding ways to validate and affirm the sentiments that emerged in the interviews.
Sometimes, when an interviewee was describing a situation or reaction we had in common, I interjected a brief comment about the parallels with my own experience. In general, though, I avoided talking about myself or my findings, unless the person specifically asked. Although I clearly recognize that interviews are conversations, I thought it would dishonor the person's focus on her story by intruding my own. The interview was meant to be a context in which my respondents could pull together and articulate what were usually buried and long-hidden reactions; to shift the focus to myself seemed disrespectful and potentially distracting. I know that feminist and other forms of progressive research aim to break down the subject-object hierarchy of the standard research situation, in which the interviewer retains power by asking questions and the interviewee becomes vulnerable by revealing personal information.10 When I began this project I thought I would try to minimize those distinctions, and that one way to do so would be to share information about myself. But early on I came to realize that the subject of the research was one that had caused great disruption in people's identities and their biographies. Through the interview, respondents had an opportunity to revisit this disruption and reweave a coherent life story. Interjecting myself into the construction of these narratives would have taken attention and focus away from the respondent and further disrupted the person's attempt to mend his disrupted biography. Many interviewees, however, inquired about my general findings at the end of our conversations; they were eager to know whether their own experiences made sense and could be understood as "normal," given the circumstances. At that point I responded to their questions in a general way, not offering information about any particular people.
While most of my respondents articulated the profound pain that accompanies early motherloss and were open in their emotional expressions of this pain, I also sometimes noticed someone controlling the amount of pain she allowed in during the interview. For example, an expressive fifty-two-year-old professional woman became tearful at the beginning of the interview, as she began to immerse herself in the details of her early experiences of motherloss. At that point she sat up, blew her nose, and said, "I did not think this would be so hard." I could see her pulling herself together and resolving then that she would not let in so much intense pain during the remainder of the interview. She sat up in her seat, arranged her face, and seemed to take on an air of resolve. She did not cry again during the three-hour interview.
Conducting such interviews--or doing research on any kind of trauma--is a very demanding process. Although I worked out my own reactions and solutions, I believe there are common dilemmas that arise for many researchers who focus on painful, deeply troubling experiences in others'--and perhaps their own--lives. It is my hope that as we and our respondents break the silences that keep these traumatic experiences invisible, social scientists will more explicitly develop an ethic of care--of ourselves and others--that we may apply to our research.
During several phases of the research, I did an interview nearly every day. At one point I was traveling by public transportation up to two hours each way to meet my interviewee, often in her or his home. (All respondents were interviewed in the place of their choice; a few selected my office in order to ensure their privacy.) The interviews themselves typically lasted for two hours; sometimes they went on for several hours more. Needless to say, the process was quite draining. After I wrote up notes from the interview, I found myself unable to do much else for the rest of the day; I frequently found myself sitting still, staring off into space. I felt like a rag doll, limp and exhausted. I was aware that these reactions stemmed not only from the rigors of the research process but also from the gut responses I had to so many of the stories. The themes of silences, loss of caring, and attempts to replace that lost caring were emerging loud and clear. People often spoke of fathers who simply could not cope with their own pain and loss, let alone their children's emotional (and sometimes physical) suffering. These themes struck deep chords in me, bringing up buried feelings of sadness and loss for my own similar experiences. And so with the help of a therapist I worked to become conscious of my own repressed memories and responses. Having a clearer grasp of my own sensibilities and sensitivities helped me focus on the similarities as well as the important distinctions between my story and those of my interviewees.
While this research has taught me a great deal about numerous dimensions of social life, it has also engaged my whole being: my conscious actions, such as having my mother's picture on my desk as I write; my conversations, in which I now am more likely to talk about my mother, what she was like, and what her death meant to me; and my subconscious life as well. Repeatedly while working on this project my dreams have given voice and image to my suppressed memories. In the middle of my research, I found myself quite depressed by all the pain and emotional devastation revealed by my respondents and the ways these feelings echoed in my own psyche. I felt paralyzed, unable to proceed any further. I discussed these feelings with some of my closest friends, and most felt I should drop the project, that it was too deeply painful to stay with for the remaining two to three years that it would take to complete the book. And yet just when I thought I had reached a clear decision to stop, my mother began to appear in my dreams, something that had happened only rarely before. I knew then that I could not give up; my mother had come to help guide the way.
There was a pattern to my dreams about my mother. In some, she would reappear after being gone (dead?) for a while, and would once again be living with me and my father and brothers in my childhood home. Yet she was somehow not properly fulfilling her old roles, especially the task of feeding us, one of the key functions of women in families.11 In all of these dreams I and sometimes my older brother were quite concerned about planning meals, purchasing food, and putting it on the table. In some of these dreams I would confront my mother or complain to my father about her failure to feed us properly. These dreams continued over a period of three years as I worked on this project. At some points they would be repeated four or five nights a week. These dreams not only revealed to me how tough it had been for me, as a young adolescent, to take on a maternal role, but also provided insights that shaped parts of my interviews. In fact, nearly all of my respondents described the disruption in daily meals that resulted from their mother's illness and death. These conversations helped me understand how critical the mother's feeding her family is, not only for its nutritional value but as a symbolic manifestation of her caring. And indeed, the social organization of gender, with its assignment of the caretaking role largely to women, is the key structural and cultural factor that shapes individuals' experiences of motherloss and its consequences.
During my analysis of my interview transcripts I hit another roadblock. I found that the process of sitting in solitude at my desk and lingering over the interview material so that I could develop my analysis was quite painful. For a few weeks I found myself leaving my office every afternoon and treating myself to an ice cream cone, whose symbolic significance as a search for sustenance was suggested by a friend. At one point I came to a standstill. I was trying to read the transcript of an interview with a man who was in a deep depression and expressed his despair about making a satisfactory life for himself. The fact that this man had been disinherited by his father compounded his feelings of abandonment caused by the death of his mother--an event that can be perceived as a loss of something our society regards as a birthright. His narrative was a story of painful loss, of betrayal by his father, who allowed his new wife to take over the family property; she was currently residing there with her children, excluding my interviewee. For about two weeks I found myself barely able to work--I felt that I had to get through that particular transcript in order to go on, and I just could not make my way through that interview material. Again a friend stepped in to help, by pointing out to me the connections between that narrative and my own life story of being (unintentionally) abandoned by my mother and being rejected and disinherited by my father. Although I saw the connection, it did not ease the process right away.
At that time I was blessed with two undergraduate research assistants who were helping me with various aspects of the research process. I asked them if they would be willing to read some transcripts aloud to me, explaining to them what I was going through. They immediately said yes and so one of them read aloud that particularly painful transcript while I took notes. Somehow, by removing the isolation of working on it all alone, I found it much easier to make my way through this transcript. For the next month my students took turns reading one transcript to me each working day. Motherloss, as many of my interviewees reported it, often produces a deep sense of isolation and aloneness. My students' presence with me as we made our way through these painful narratives helped create a more comfortable environment in which I could continue to work. As I worked on the interview transcripts and the feelings they evoked, I understood that my task required my ability to function on several levels. In order to do the analytic work with the interview texts, I had to recognize the grief they brought up in me. During this stage, one key aspect of my work was grieving. As I came to a better comprehension of the meaning of my own loss and integrated it into my life, I was able to think through the wider theoretical implications of this study.
Two years ago I began to dream about being afflicted with some form of paralysis. In some dreams I was walking and suddenly found myself unable to move my legs; in others, my vision was impaired, and I could no longer see. To me these dreams revealed my anxiety about making my way through my own and others' repressed memories and feelings about motherloss, developing an analytic interpretation, and writing my book. But I also knew that I could and would complete this task and emerge more informed about the subject matter, the nature of ethnographic research and writing, and, of course, myself. The discipline of sociology, with its practice of breaking silences by probing deep beneath the surface of taken-for-granted assumptions and its emphasis on the interplay between the personal and the intellectual, the self and society, has both prepared me for this task and provided me with a way to do it.