I first had the idea to write Motherless Daughters when I was in graduate school in Iowa City. I was taking Mary Swander’s class in portrait writing, and we’d been asked to write a profile of a character, someone we knew or someone we didn’t—it didn’t matter, as long as we were invested in the person in some way. I chose Bruce Springsteen, whose music had deeply influenced me and my high school friends in suburban New York in the early 1980s. As I started writing the piece, I found I kept veering off to the side to write about the boyfriend I had during my senior year of high school, who was an avid Springsteen fan. Mary liked the work I was producing, but she felt there was something I wasn’t writing about directly and sent me home to write more. As I dove deeper into the story, I found myself writing about the year after my mother died, and how I’d hooked up with a boy who had a loss of his own he was trying to come to terms with. JoAnn Beard was also in that class, and I remember after I read the pages out loud at the table one day she said, “You know, this isn’t really an essay about Bruce Springsteen at all. It’s really an essay about grief.” She was right.
After class, I went to Mary’s office and we talked some about my pages. I told her I was thinking about writing a book for women my age who’d lost their mothers, because after my mother died I’d looked for such a book in bookstores and libraries and never found it. Mary said, “If you want to write that book, I’ll help you, because my mother died of cancer when I was in my early twenties and I took care of her by myself at the end.” My graduate school advisor, Carl Klaus, had also been orphaned at an early age, and he was equally as enthusiastic about the idea. So, buoyed by their encouragement, I decided to write a book proposal, even though I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing at first.
I was teaching in Evanston, Illinois that summer and I spent most of a month biking around near Lake Michigan, interviewing motherless women who’d responded to some pull-tab advertisements I posted in town. By the time I got back to Iowa City I had about two dozen interview transcripts, and from these women’s stories the scaffolding for a book had started going up in my mind. At first I wanted to write only about other women’s experiences, but Carl thought that was a bad idea. “You can’t write a book like this without telling your own story,” he insisted and, fortuitously, I listened to him.
My boyfriend of about a year had hooked up with a little blond woman that fall and started showing up with her all around our small town. To avoid seeing them I holed up in my apartment and wrote the book proposal. I sent it to a couple of agents, and the one who expressed the most interest is the one who is still my agent fourteen years later. We sold the book to Addison-Wesley on April Fool’s Day 1992, and soon after I moved back to New York to write it. By the time I’d finished, I’d interviewed 92 women in person and surveyed another 154 by mail. The book was published in the U.S. in May of 1994, and later came out in Australia and New Zealand; the U.K.; Japan; Germany; France; Italy; the Netherlands; and Israel.
In 2005, after the book had been in print for 11 consecutive years, my agent and I agreed it was time to update the material. A lot had happened in the intervening years—such as the tragedies of September 11; the highly publicized deaths of Princess Diana and Nicole Brown Simpson; and the proliferation of childrens’ bereavement centers and programs around the country. It seemed anachronistic to not have mentioned them in the book. Also, Motherless Mothers was almost completed, and I wasn’t sure about having a book about raising my daughters sit side-by-side on the shelf with a book in which I was single and childless and wondering if I’d ever become a mother. The second edition of Motherless Daughters, with about 15 percent new material, was released in March 2006.