Author Paula McLain had to learn how to be the mother she always wanted—all by herself.

By Paula McLain
Updated February 10, 2011
Mom getting her son and daughter ready for bed
Credit: Brooke Slezak

I have had six or eight mothers, depending on how finely you mince the definition, and though the woman who gave birth to me is simply one figure in that difficult mix, she set everything else into motion and therefore looms largest. I was four when she vanished. No note, no tearful good-bye, just poof, she was gone. She was 25—a young 25—and though I now assume her life was sad, frightening, and essentially hopeless, at the time my two sisters and I couldn’t begin to fathom her motives. We were simply left staring into the black hole of her absence.

For the next decade and a half, we bounced around like pinballs. My father was unreliable—in and out of trouble, in and out of jail—and so others stepped in. We stayed first with our grandmother, then with a single aunt, and when no one in our family could commit to our long-term care, the three of us were shunted into California’s foster-care system. Because we rarely, if ever, knew why we were leaving any situation or where we would land, dislocation and bewilderment became the standard. Helplessly, we entered strangers’ homes holding garbage bags full of our clothes.

My sisters (one older, one younger) and I never really talked about what was happening. For my part, I fixed all my energy on the perfect family that I assumed was out there somewhere, waiting to embrace us.

Years later, when no such family had materialized and my disappointment threatened to overtake me, I spun my strategy 180 degrees. I decided the only way to survive was to give up my fantasy for good. I stopped watching the horizon; no one was coming to save me. When I aged out of the foster-care system, I swore that I would fashion myself a solid, reliably good life. I would become the mother I had been endlessly denied, loving and lovable, poised to kiss and bandage, bolster and encourage.

Easier said than done. At many points during the 17 years I’ve brandished apron strings, I’ve been flat-out schooled by my past. Parenting without having had positive role models is harder than I imagined. Of course, I had other types of models, so to speak: One foster mother was cold and controlling and never touched me if she could help it. Another was overwhelmed and mostly absent. A third really wanted a baby, cooing and gurgling and precious, not a shell-shocked schoolgirl. When I look back at my childhood, I think of it as war duty, the time I did in the trenches. Not all of me made it out alive.

My most treacherous period as a parent was the first year or two, the rookie stage, when I didn’t know just how much torque my history could wield. I was 27 when my son Connor was born. Old enough, I thought. Older than my mother was when she hightailed it away from me. And, besides, I wasn’t her. Safe and sound in my first marriage (or so I believed), I had a well-feathered nest. All the baby books were indexed and cross-referenced. I thought I was ready.

The practical business of parenting wasn’t the problem. Connor was a good infant. He slept well, breast-fed like a champ, splashed adorably in his bath. One afternoon I snapped a photo of him in his bassinet, napping in a onesie with red and blue stars on the tush, knees tucked toward his belly, thumb nuzzling his perfect nose. That picture breaks my heart. Present tense. It breaks my heart now. At the time, I didn’t feel much of anything when I looked at my son. Or my husband, or the television, or the fireflies crisscrossing my yard on a summer night. I had expected to feel awash with maternal love and contentment. Instead I felt empty and sad.

“You’ve got a case of the baby blues,” my obstetrician said when I fell apart during a checkup. She told me to get more rest and to phone her office if I thought I needed medication. Maybe I should have called her; I’m still not sure. Postpartum depression was most likely part of what was going on with me—but there was another piece of the puzzle that had little to do with hormones.

When I looked at my son, who was totally dependent on me to meet his every need, I was abruptly brought face-to-face with my mother’s leaving. The thought that kept running through my mind wasn’t intellectual but visceral and raw: I had been her baby. She had held and fed and dressed me—and she had left me anyway.

I had never come to terms with these feelings. I didn’t cry for my mother when I was a girl, and I don’t remember missing her. Neither of my sisters ever mentioned her name. It was as if we had separately and collectively erased her. Even when I was in full fantasy mode, imagining the family that would rescue me, my mother never appeared as even a minor character—and I certainly never pictured her coming back for me. Maybe I had already fully recognized that she would never pull herself together enough to return. Or maybe I wanted her to return so fiercely and completely that I couldn’t bear to wish for it.

At 27, I didn’t understand to what extent I was still a terrified little girl clutching a garbage bag—I only knew I couldn’t cope. I wanted to be a perfect mother and to give my son a flawless childhood, but that pressure became immobilizing. If I lost my patience, for instance, or couldn’t soothe him instantly, I felt like a failure. My moods swung wildly on any given day. Although my husband was understanding at first, he eventually became concerned, then impatient, then furious. He hadn’t signed up for a morose and barely functioning wife. He wanted me to get back to my normal self. The problem: I had no idea who that was.

First I moved to the couch, then to a friend’s house, and then left for good, taking Connor—by then a toddler—to a town a few hours away, where I attended graduate school. We lived on student loans in bare-bones cinder-block family housing. My days were a blur of macaroni-and-cheese and Hot Wheels, of pausing in the middle of a term paper on the poet Wallace Stevens to be quizzed on the names of Pokémon or to wrestle Transformers into beast mode.

The move and new challenges helped bump me out of my depression for a short while, but my improved state of mind didn’t last. Connor and I looked nothing like the dream family that had carried such tremendous weight in my childhood. That image was even more powerful now that I feared my choices were leading me further and further away from it. How could I give Connor a happy childhood if my own happiness was never within my grasp?

I began to spend whole afternoons in the bathroom crying. During commercial or Lego breaks, Connor would come to the door and knock lightly. “What are you worried about, Mom?” I sobbed harder. I had no words for how I felt. But I feared that I was making a hopeless snarl of our lives. That no matter what I did, Connor and I were going to end up back where I had started, in a landscape filled with chaos and desperation.

When I look back, I can see that I wasn’t depriving Connor of anything vital; he was loved and cared for. But at the time my expectations threatened to topple me over like an oncoming avalanche. It wasn’t enough that my son was well fed and sheltered. I wanted Utopia straight up, right out of the package. Until that happened, I wouldn’t feel safe from the gnawing worry that I would one day become my mother and repeat all her mistakes.

A few months later, Connor and I were in a drive-through line waiting to order hot-fudge sundaes, the car warm and idling as a light snow fell. I looked across the parking lot at a drugstore and thought about buying a big bottle of aspirin and killing myself. The urge came bloodlessly, without any emotion at all, and that scared me the most. I didn’t want to die. And I couldn’t leave Connor without a mother.

I asked for help, a real departure for me. I phoned friends until I got the name of a good therapist, and it was then that I began to unpeel the painful layers and grieve for my girlhood for the first time. Becoming a mother had reopened scarcely healed wounds and plunged me back into the trauma of my early years. No wonder I felt so broken—I was.

Unfortunately, even the best therapy doesn’t fix you up good as new. From my late 20s to my late 30s, I watched as my friends morphed into parents, buying minivans and bottle systems and diaper bags that seemed to do everything but fly. By the time Connor was about 10 (and seemed pretty well-adjusted, too, amazingly), I felt a longing to give parenting another go.

It wasn’t a simple matter. The part of me that wanted marriage and more children was in conflict with the part that was out-and-out terrified. What if things got as bad as they were the first time, or even worse? I thought. And then I forged ahead anyway.

I was 38 when I remarried, and within months I was carefully charting my basal temperature. When I mentioned wanting to get pregnant to my gynecologist, he raised an eyebrow and proceeded to deliver dire statistics about the odds of conceiving at my age. Ultimately, I got lucky—so lucky.

In 2004 my daughter, Fiona, was born in the middle of a lightning storm. Outside, branches seesawed and telephone wires swung wildly, but our birthing room was dim and quiet. When she drew her first breath, it was quiet, too. She looked at me with eyes that belonged to a baby owl, and I felt something ancient shift. She seemed to know everything about me already and to be saying, with her gorgeously arched feet and the small shells of her ears, that she would take me as I am.

The next day, as my new husband snored on a cot in the corner of our hospital room and my baby owl slept in my arms, I watched a TV special about Aron Ralston’s ordeal at Blue John Canyon. I was transfixed by his story and felt a strange kinship with it. Ok, I had never been pinned for days under a boulder or amputated my own arm or rappelled down a canyon wall. Still, I related to his will to survive. My mother had given up on me; at times I had considered doing the same. But I was still here, thrumming with a desire to live—and so was my family.

Two years later, after more charting and even more ominous statistics from my gynecologist, Beckett was born. Connor was 13 at the time, and as I handed him Beckett, squirming a little under his blue-striped hospital hat, I said, “You have a brother. What do you think about that?”

“Weird,” he said. But he was smiling.

It is weird to be potty training one son and lending the other my car, but it’s wonderful, too. Somehow I’ve managed to create the family I’ve always wanted. I’ve had to work hard, building from scrap metal and making it up as I go along much of the time, but my children are three of the most remarkable people I know. The old anxieties threaten me at regular intervals, but facing them down helps diminish their potency—and strengthen mine.

When I ask Connor what he remembers from those years when we were on our own, he recalls only good things—this treasured toy, that favorite book, a trip to the petting zoo with friends. You know, typical magical childhood stuff.

Imagine that.

Paula McLain is the author of the new novel The Paris Wife, as well as A Ticket to Ride. Her memoir, Like Family, is about growing up in foster care. She lives with her family in Cleveland.