The Mother I Never Had

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


Photo by 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.