We talk a lot on this website about active mothering: about mothering our living children, as well as our precious babies lost to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. But what about us mamas who lose our own mothers? As our mothers get older and begin to suffer from old age–or from the demons that have followed them during their own lives–many of us find ourselves mothering our own mothers.
In this essay, Cassie Childs, PhD, explains her complicated relationship to her mother, and what losing her taught Cassie about makeup (particularly eyebrow pencils), grief, and isolation. At the end of this beautifully candid essay, Cassie offers pointers for taking care of ourselves during grief and resources to help get you through it.
In April 2020, On Day 30 of strict quarantine in Bilboa Spain with my husband and two small children, I was reminded of my mother, Susan, and her dedication to putting on a full face of makeup and doing her hair each and every day–even though in the last years of her life she often only saw my dad at home.
Her devotion to makeup even expanded to video chat, as me and my two children would wait for her to finish her makeup for our call. And even then she would often not show her face.
My mother passed away on October 23, 2019. She was found unresponsive in a psychiatric hospital. Her journey to that hospital is complicated and is framed by a narrative of long-term prescription drug abuse and addiction.
While her health had been deteriorating for years, and some might think her death shouldn’t have been a surprise, her final weeks were rapid, sped up, and confusing.
My relationship with my mom had also been failing for years. We hardly spoke or saw each other in person, and while I know she deeply loved all eight of her grandchildren, she barely knew my two children.
For a long time I had been very angry with her, and it meant I often did not have empathy for her or the decisions she had made.
My biggest source of grief is how much was left unsaid and unresolved between us, but as I struggled to parent my own two children in isolation from a raging pandemic spreading across Europe, I found that I could find connection to her through the ritual of applying makeup.
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Eyebrows as Warning
One of the funniest memories I have of my mom is not my own memory at all but a warning, a prophecy, you could say.
As she often told me, her best friend shaved my mom’s eyebrows off when she was a teenager and, unfortunately, they never grew back. And so my mom religiously drew on her eyebrows every day.
They were a reflection of her mood or how drugged she was–the shape and thickness of her brows revealing how much, or little, to expect of her. On good days, they were drawn perfectly, not too thick or thin, with precision. On bad days, they were too dark and too thick, like caterpillars above her eyes.
Once I started to wear makeup at thirteen, my mom always commented on how I “did my face,” repeatedly insisting that I put on more blush and more lipstick. I would, to her despair, leave the house for school with only mascara, and, worse, wet hair.
I joke that on my wedding day she chased after me all day telling me to reapply my lipstick, advice I ignored.
In retrospect, I should have listened, as my lips look washed out in my wedding photos.
Makeup in Isolation
In quarantine, I have noticed that I continue to put on makeup most days.
I am living in Bilbao, Spain and in March 2020 we were put under strict lockdown laws. My family relocated to Spain for my husband’s job at the end of December 2019, only two months after my mother’s death and a little more than two months before Spain announced a nationwide quarantine.
The government mandated that we could go out for necessities like the grocery store or medical needs, but we could not go for walks or take the kids outside our apartment’s gate.
Since our move, we struggled to adjust to a new home, country, schools, language, and way of living, but one thing has remained constant: I put on makeup.
It struck me then that I was mimicking my mom’s own behaviors. I was seeing only my children and husband. I could not go anywhere, and I had no place to be.
Similarly, my mom did not leave her house and saw family members only occasionally. Yet, she devoted time daily to put on her makeup, using the same brands – Estée Lauder, Lancôme, Chanel – she had been a devotee to for years.
What this behavior tells me about my mom is that she had both the ambition to look good and put together and that she cared about looking good.
I wonder, too, as I struggle to fill my days incessantly indoors with two small children, if it might also have been something for her to do with her time.
Putting on makeup in quarantine, and yes this includes blush and lipstick, makes me feel more pulled together; it makes me feel prettier; and it takes up time in an otherwise monotonous day filled with cooking, cleaning, and homeschooling.
Choosing to Not “Put On Her Face”
I did not see my mother before she died, but my sister shared a photograph of her in the hospital with me. What shocked us all was that she had stopped drawing on her eyebrows.
She had also stopped eating, drinking, and taking medication, and yet one of the things I will most remember is seeing her bare face, almost unrecognizable without the features we expected from her – precise eyebrows, a pinkish lipstick, and blush to brighten her cheeks.
My aunt, or maybe it was my sister or my dad (it could have been all of them), once told me when they were picking up my mom from the hospital after one of her surgeries that her only request was for an eyebrow pencil. She wouldn’t leave the hospital without her eyebrows on.
At the end of my mom’s life she must have been choosing to not “put on her face.” For a woman to insist on an eyebrow pencil in order to be wheeled to the car, to declare she couldn’t show her face on video chat to talk with her grandchildren if she wasn’t wearing makeup, to be critical of her daughter when she would go without makeup out of the house, choosing to not wear makeup at the end of her life meant she was not herself. She could not have been.
Honoring My Mom Through the Ritual of Makeup
In a way, my practice of putting on makeup honors my mother and her devotion to beauty and daily rituals. Mirroring my mom’s behavior helps me to understand her a bit more and to dig into the pain of losing her.
It especially helps me try and unravel the unknown of whether or not my mom in any way encouraged or helped herself towards death.
I will never know what made my mom stop putting on makeup and what made her stop eating and drinking, but I contemplate these choices as I wear red lipstick, even when no one sees it.
And in doing so, I am reminded that makeup and beauty are not frivolous or extraneous, they can be a reflection of our self care, our need for daily practices and rituals, and as a way to connect to one another, even in isolation.
The basic act of applying makeup, and conjuring my mother’s habit as I also work to differentiate myself from her, reminds me that in the midst of death there is also life, in isolation there is still connection, and in anger there is empathy.
Little Acts of Self Care When Grieving
- Make daily connections with the people you love. If you do not feel the energy to talk to someone, maybe you send a WhatsApp message to a family member or a Marco Polo video to a close friend.
- Send a letter or a postcard. I have loved using the Touch Note app to send birthday cards and postcards with my personal photos to friends and family. I have even received a few cards myself, which has been a real treat and surprise.
- Find small moments of joy. I am grateful for the ocean view from my living room window, my first cup of morning coffee, and the plants I have managed to keep alive. What little things bring you happiness?
- Keep a ritual that makes you feel good. For me, I have a daily skincare and makeup routine, but maybe you want to wear your favorite scent or re-watch a favorite television series or take a nightly bath.
A Few Resources to Help Navigate Grief
- Listen to: Griefcast: Funny People Talking About Death. A podcast hosted by Cariad Lloyd. A dear friend, Jessica, recommended the interview with beauty columnist Sali Hughes, an episode I highly recommend if you are a first-time listener.
- Read: The Dead Moms Club: A Memoir about Death, Grief, and Surviving the Mother of All Losses by Kate Spencer. Kate also co-hosts the podcast Forever35 with Doree Shafrir, where they often discuss grief, parenting, and beauty (amongst other topics!).
- Follow: Claire Bidwell Smith, an author and grief therapist.
- Share: the website Modern Loss is an accepting place to read and share personal essays on life after death.
If you’ve experienced the loss of your mom, what ways have you found to take care of yourself?
Cassie Childs earned her PhD in Literature from the University South Florida (USF) in 2017. She is the former Assistant Director of the USF Writing Program and former Managing Editor for ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts. Cassie currently lives in Bilbao, Spain with her husband, Jordan, and two children, Everett (6) and Eliza (2)