When Mom Is Gone

updated 04/17/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/17/2006 01:00AM

After her 1994 blockbuster Motherless Daughters, about the challenges facing young girls who lose their moms, Hope Edelman—whose own mother died of breast cancer when Hope was 17—thought she was done with the subject. "It's so heavy," she says. "It takes a lot out of me." But then she had kids. Now 41 and parent (with husband Uzi Eliahou) to Maya, 8, and Eden, 4, Edelman is back with Motherless Mothers, about what happens to all those motherless girls once they have families of their own. She sat down at her Topanga Canyon, Calif., home with PEOPLE's Champ Clark.

How was this book born?

When I was pregnant with my second daughter in 2001, I was on partial bed rest, and it was the first time since my mother died that I had more than I could handle. I started crying. I was thinking, "I wish she was here to take care of me!" I found out that friends who had lost their mothers shared similar feelings. So I started interviewing.

What did you find?

Many motherless women feel ambivalent about motherhood. They think, "If I have children, will I die like my mother did? Will my children have a childhood like I did?" There's also a lot of concern about not knowing how to be a mother.

What happens when a motherless woman first has a child?

She's suddenly seeing the world through the eyes of a mother. A lot of women talked about this. They realize how much they love their child and how attached they have become. They understand that their own mother must have felt the same way about them once. They come to know her in a way they couldn't possibly have known her before. This often brings up a lot of grief—they understand how sad it was for their mother to have left them and how scared she must have felt if she knew it was going to happen.

Does the age they were when their own moms died make a difference?

Psychologists say that losing a mother between ages 7 and 11 is the hardest. I found that girls who lost their mother before age 12 held a very idealized version of her. The ones who went through adolescence with her had a more realistic picture—and were less tough on themselves.

Can parenting help heal old wounds?

Yes, profoundly. You can see your child, a part of yourself, flourish in a way that you didn't get to.

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