Parenting Without Your Parents

14/08/2014 16:59 | Updated 20 May 2015

Grandmother, baby and mother

When I had my first child in 2004, my mum had already been dead for five years. My dad died last December after suffering from Parkinson's for about six years.

I am what American journalist Allison Gilbert calls a "Parentless Parent". Gilbert, author of Parentless Parents: How the Loss of our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise our Children says: "The absence of grandparents impacts everything about the way mothers and fathers raise their children - from everyday parenting decisions to the relationships they have with their spouses and in-laws."

Much as I missed and mourned my mother, it's only really now that both my parents have gone that I really see the impact it has on being a parent myself.

Even now, seven years on, I can barely bear to think about how much my mum would have loved my two boys, and how much they would have loved her. And while seven-year-old Harry and two-year-old Joe knew my dad, his illness meant they didn't know the real him and he couldn't enjoy them the way I know he would have liked.


One of the things I've found the hardest is the loss of any direct link to our family history.


Yes, my sister and I joked about how often our Nan told us the story of Grandad getting out of the air raid shelter to shout abuse at the German planes, but we've always remembered it and I'm glad - it's part of our heritage. Of course, I tell my boys all the stories I can remember, but there are so many more we'll never hear again.

After Dad's death, my sister and I retrieved boxes and boxes of old photographic slides, most of them childhood photos we haven't seen for about 30 years. I'm incredibly excited to look at them and share them with Harry and Joe, but am so aware that I have no one to ask about anything or anyone I don't recognise. So much of the pleasure of looking at photographs is remembering the stories behind them, and it's hard to accept that it's too late for that now.

Along with the obvious emotional issues is the more practical aspect. My parents can't offer me support or give me parenting advice. I can't ask them what I was like as a child or compare milestones. What age did I start walking? Was I scared on my first day of school? I have no idea. And as wonderful as my in-laws are, it means that any influence they have over my boys is completely one-sided. I'm also almost jealous of the relationship they have with my children - not for myself, but on my parents' behalf. It's wonderful how much they all adore each other, but it breaks my heart that my mum in particular never got the same opportunity.

Andrea Jones, whose mum died in 2004 and who lost her father earlier this year, has a 10-year-old daughter, Maddy. "Not having Mum or Dad here makes me question myself more," Andrea says. "Am I doing OK? What could I do better? I have a tendency to go back too far into my childhood and question all the things I didn't like about how I was brought up, what I always wished for from my parents that I never got. But the biggest thing I miss out on is the reassurance. Just to have one of them tell me I am doing a good job."

Something else I struggle with is making my parents "real" for Harry and Joe. Even what to call my mum (they knew my dad as "Grandad Nincompoop"!) to differentiate her from my mother-in-law, the "Grandma" they spend so much time with. I have photographs of both my parents around the house and my boys they know who they are, but it's so painful to realise that to them they are just faces in photographs.

"I make sure I talk about my parents all the time," Andrea says. "Maddy asks me questions, some that are often really painful and I try so hard not to cry, but I do cry and she will cry too because she is sad for me, and she is sad for herself. She sleeps in Dad's oversized massive T-shirt - it kills me to see it, but it comforts me too, knowing that she loved him just as much as I did."

It's a huge regret of mine that I didn't have children sooner so that both my parents and my children hadn't missed out on what can be a wonderful and important relationship.


If anything good has come out of losing my parents at a relatively young age it's that I don't take things for granted. I spend as much time as I can with my boys and try to avoid the mistakes I feel my parents made with me. Mostly, though, I just miss them.


Parentdish's agony aunt Liat Hughes Joshi has some excellent advice for other Parentless Parents.

She says, "Parents shouldn't be afraid to talk about Grandma and Grandpa for fear of upsetting their children. Of course in some instances, especially where their deaths were very recent, you might well need to be sensitive to your child's reaction but generally, talking about them and telling stories will be a lovely way of keeping their memories alive for you all. By all means get the photos out and show them what they looked like, talk about what they enjoyed doing, what jobs they did and funny stories."

"Even if your children never knew their grandparents, because they died before they were born, or when they were babies, discussing them will help them get used to the idea that people do die - death is a natural part of life and by sheltering children too much from this we make it even harder when someone close to them does die.

"This might bring the odd fearful question about what will happen to them when you are no longer alive but you can reassure them about that (without lying and saying you will never die!) A good way to do this is to say something along the lines of 'Everybody does die one day but I don't plan to do this for a very, very long time and by then you will probably have your own family to be with and will be a grown-up.'"

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