Finding Balance and Asking for Help as a Working 'Motherless Mom'

Juggling work, and life, after my mother passed away

The year 2000 marked the beginning of a new millenium, and was one of the most transformative years of my life. I graduated from Emerson College with a degree in TV and film production, met my future husband, and landed my "dream job" with ELEMENT, a top production company based in Boston. 

In addition to all of that, my mother was diagnosed with endometrial cancer and would live for only a few months after her diagnosis, ultimately passing away in February 2001. I was 21 years old. 

The passing of my mother was a pivotal moment in my life. She was a single parent, so the responsibility of her estate fell on my shoulders. I instantly had to become my brother's guardian, make sure he finished high school, take over my mother's business, and prepare to pack up her belongings and sell my childhood home. 

I was crushed by the passing of my mother, but I also had to compartmentalize those feelings and take care of all the tasks I had to deal with in the wake of her absence. This was not in my five-year plan. 

It wasn't until years later, when I became a mother, that I truly felt the loss of my mother's presence in my life. I fear that I took my mother's shining example for granted. She was a single mom after my parents divorced when I was 6. My father remarried and moved to Arizona. Despite this clear challenge, she launched and ran her own business, raising me and my brother with full support and attention. 

At the time, I thought this was perfectly normal. She cooked us breakfast in the morning and walked us to the school bus. Every night, we ate a home-cooked meal—a ritual that is still a priority for me and my family. Losing her was hard enough, but I didn't know how difficult her loss in my life was until I had my first child. This is when I became a "motherless mom." 

After I gave birth to my son, I didn't know where to turn for advice. I constantly wanted to pick up the phone and call her so she could tell me stories of my childhood. Was I breastfed or formula fed? Did I wear cloth or disposable diapers? How do you entice a picky eater? How do you get an infant to sleep through the night? On top of that, I was advancing in my career in the same time frame. The number one person I wanted to turn to for business advice was also my mom. She was an amazing entrepreneur and ahead of her time. She was always the only woman at the table with a bunch of men, but she was more than capable of holding her own. 

I found myself asking how I could possibly juggle it all. It takes a village, but what do you do when one of the key members of your village is gone?

Then one day I saw a posting on a neighborhood message board looking for women with young children who had lost their mothers. It was a discussion group run by a therapist who had also lost her mother, and she wanted to reach out to other women who might be struggling. When I found this posting, I knew I had to sign up. I couldn't believe I wasn't alone in these feelings and struggle. I thought this could be a place of solace and healing. 

The first thing I remember about this group of women was how different we all were, and also how different our relationships with our mothers were. But we were all battling the same issue—how do you raise a child without having your mother? I was in such a lonely place before. I had a supportive husband and loving in-laws, but they weren't my mother. I learned that I may not have a mom, but I have other women in my life who understood what it was like to juggle young children without such a pivotal figure. Like, how do you discuss your mother with your children? Do you call her Grandma? Do you discuss death? 

They enabled me to work through these questions and also learn how to build up my "village." It may not look like other people's villages, but it is my support system made up of friends, relatives and neighbors. 

As I finally started to find balance, my career continued to expand. Rising through the ranks at ELEMENT and ultimately becoming an executive producer alongside the company's co-founder and close colleagues, I was again without my mentor and the female boss I most admired. Navigating the competitive production field without the tether I wanted most is always at risk of becoming a lonely endeavor. 

I was lucky. I work for a company that allowed me to grow and make mistakes as I came into my own. Not only did they take me back after I took time off to settle my mother's estate, but they challenged me and trusted me with bigger and bigger projects. Not a day goes by where I don't think of her and wonder what she would do in my place, or how she would advise my path forward. But I was able to create my own village of support—fellow women in production, an amazing boss and mentor, and friends I can always bounce ideas off of.

I now have three children, ages 10, 8 and 6, and have been able to cultivate career success through a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. Nearly two decades from the date my mother passed, her loss is and will always be felt. For those in my shoes—and especially other working moms without a mother figure of their own—the biggest takeaway I can offer is that you have to find other people to round out your personal village, in work and in life. You're not alone and it's never too late to ask for help. 

I know I'll never be able to do it all, but with the support I've been fortunate to surround myself with, I know I can do enough.

Kristen Kearns
Kristen Kearns is executive producer at ELEMENT Productions.