An Ode to Surrogate Mothers by
(354 Stories)

Prompted By Generation Gap

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With Connie, as a little girl

“Don’t trust anyone over 30!” I remember the phrase well, but somehow, though I did some eye-rolling back in the day at things my parents said, I never embraced the philosophy. My parents were the babies of their respective families and were 39 when I was born. I am the youngest in a large generation of first cousins. The oldest had children my age or older, so I grew up accustomed to being with “peers” much older than myself, and a diverse lot of relatives. Though it took a long time for my cousins to treat me as an adult, they always treated me with kindness. I never felt a generation gap, as I was always with older relatives. I felt no need to rebel in my personal life.

What I did have was an unstable mother and a father (like others of his generation) who worked long hours. My mother was very artistic, loved music, dance and fine art and took me to see and appreciate all of it. But she suffered tremendous anxiety, depression and self-loathing. Somehow, I was supposed to make up for her supposed short-comings…something that no child could ever live up to. She loved me, not for myself, but for how I reflected on her. My father was a loving, kind man, but couldn’t deal with my mother and worked six days and two nights a week. He nurtured as best he could, but he just wasn’t around much. It was only later in life that I learned what a remarkable human being he was.

I became adept at seeking surrogate mothers to nurture me. I found them amongst my cousins, in a teacher and from my friends’ mothers. I was lucky to turn out a whole human being thanks to the love and continued support of these wonderful women. They know how much I love them to this day and I still turn to them for support and guidance. I am lucky they are in my life. No generation gap here. Only love.

The first such relationship was my cousin Connie, shown, pregnant with her first son and 7-year-old me. I was the 6-year-old flower girl at her wedding and I just adored her. I have three Polaroid photos from that day. I kept them by my bed at all times. The featured photo is the least crumpled. She was kind to me and always had time to talk, even with three little boys of her own around. When we moved from Detroit (where we lived a few blocks away from her father, my dad’s oldest brother) to Huntington Woods, her husband built our house. It was a few miles from hers. If things got too intense in my house, I’d bicycle over to hers, just to be close. I was always friendly with her three sons, though they are younger. They all came out to Boston for both my kids’ b’nai mitzvot. When my parents took a two week vacation to Palm Springs (a trip my father won through his car dealership), when I was an 8th grader, I stayed with Connie and her family. Though we did not live in the same community, they got me to school every day, took me to all my activities and Sunday School, and even left me in charge of the three little boys one night (quite an adventure for this 12 year old non-babysitter). I stay with Connie whenever I go for a Detroit visit now. She held the shiva when my father died. She remains a close confidante. She has known troubles in her personal life, which she has shared with me, but she is strong and brave. She worked as a physical therapist and after retiring, as a yoga instructor.

Connie’s 6 year old flower girl

My father was always close with his first cousin Richard. When I was very young, he divorced and remarried Harriet (a dead-ringer for Jackie Kennedy with her dark bouffant hair style). My parents and Dick and Harriet often socialized, even vacationed together. They lived close to us in Huntington Woods, in an expanding, beautifully decorated home. Harriet is a marvelous hostess and cook, decorator, bridge player, but above all, a docent at the Detroit Institute of Art for over 50 years. Always patient, pleasant and friendly, she put up with Dick’s large dogs in her elegant house and always had time for and interest in me. This was my short bike ride, if I didn’t have time to get to Connie’s. I loved to see all the beautiful objects in Harriet’s home, listen to her discuss them, go with her to the DIA to learn about the art. She struggled to have children and they eventually adopted a baby boy; she treated me like her daughter. When I was home from Brandeis over Christmas break my junior year, she took me to Bonwit Teller and bought me two outfits. One lovely pink dress I wore to my two best friends’ weddings and my rehearsal dinner. The other, a pantsuit, was my go-to, chic, around-campus outfit. I wore it in my senior photo. Harriet had style, which I greatly admired. She threw one of my bridal showers. I still have the fully-outfitted sewing basket that was the present. She called a few months ago to tell me, at the age of 91, she is alive and well, and has moved next-door to her son, where he could care for her. I was so glad to hear from her.

Elaine Zeve was my second grade teacher. I began wearing glasses during that time and she made me feel OK, since she wore them too. I started down my ugly-duckling path during that period, but she asked if I had been named “Elizabeth” after “Elizabeth Taylor”, then considered the most beautiful woman in the world. I was ga-ga over this teacher. She encouraged my love of performing. She came to see me in my school plays. We had her to dinner, and she had me over to her house, where I met her daughter Rhonda, just a few years my senior. Our birthdays were two days apart and for 10 years we exchanged birthday cards, until my senior year in high school I didn’t hear from her, which I thought was strange. Two months later my mother heard that Mrs. Zeve had died of stomach cancer, aged 42. Mother took me to her funeral, the first non-family member’s I had ever attended. I cried my heart out for my lost mentor.

Friends’ mothers have also been surrogate mothers for me. One has been particularly meaningful. Millie is bright and vivacious, for all the world resembling Doris Day. Her daughter and I have been friends since we were 12, though we only lived in the same city for a year in Boston in the mid ’70s, then the 16 months I spent in Chicago, for Millie is a Chicago native. I saw her often in Boston, and constantly in Chicago. She always treated me like her own daughter and imparted wisdom that my mother never could. We puzzled through difficult situations together. She offered generous guidance, kindness, an open heart and perspective. She has lived an interesting life and shares her joys readily with me. She encourages and protects. She is political and wise. She has great taste, loves classical music, is a wonderful cook; she is what a mother should be. She wrote the best letter when my father died. I treasure it more than 27 years later. She taught me how to grieve, and I use it as a model when I need to write a condolence note. I love her with all my heart.

Thanks to these women, I have been able to synthesize a stable personality for myself. I didn’t distrust “The Man”, I was too busy trying to become a woman.

Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Tags: cousins, teachers, surrogate mothers, nuturing
Characterizations: moving


  1. John Zussman says:

    How fortunate you were to have these caring women in your life, and how wise you were to seek them out, knowing your mother could not provide the mothering you needed. It’s wonderful that you have remained close to them as you matured into adulthood.

  2. Suzy says:

    Sorry that you had not a generation gap, but a nurturing gap with your mother, but how wise of you to find other women to nurture you instead. You have turned out to be an amazing woman, and a fabulous mother to your own children, perhaps because of these surrogate mothers in your life.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Suzy. With my own children, I tried to remember how it felt for me as a child and do what I would have liked to have had…draw guidance from what I DIDN’T get from my mother – unconditional love!

  3. Kit says:

    I love how you were able to find these other women to turn to when you were growing up. Yes, you were lucky they were there. But it a testament to you that you were able to reach out to them and take what they had to give.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Kit. Obviously, some were relatives who knew my family situation well. One was a teacher, and one was the mother of a good friend (another friend’s mother was also like a mother to me, but I focused in on these four women). I think it was a combination of my need and these women sensing and being available to that need. I am an intuitive and empathetic person, whether by nature or I developed it through the years, I was able to get what I needed and am the better for it.

  4. Betsy, you’ve had enviable relationships with cousins. aunts, mentors and friends, and indeed all has helped to make you the whole woman you are! ,

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, Dana. Yes, I was lucky to have these women in my life, though three years on, it is somewhat bittersweet to read this essay again. Harriet died earlier this year. Millie is now 94 and has had significant health issues. I spoke with Connie recently. Her younger brother Tom lost everything in one of the Oregon fires. But I had to FaceTime with Connie, as she is SO hard of hearing, at the age of 83.

      And we lost another first cousin just this week, our cousin Ruth, aged 88. Though she wasn’t one of my surrogate mothers, as she lived in New York, we grew close when I grew up and could travel. She was marvelous to me in many ways; a strong, self-confident woman, who encouraged the same from me and I will miss her tremendously.

  5. Sorry for your losses and all
    our losses as we reach this age!

  6. Each paragraph could practically have stood as its own story. What a wonderful collection of parental mentors you managed to gather around you. The details, such as knowing which outfits you wore to which occasions and who helped you pick them out, really bring us into your world.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you for digging out this old story and commenting, Dale. As I said to Dana when she found it a few years back, it is bittersweet now, since Harriet has died, Connie is so hard of hearing that even with a cochlear implant, I can no longer speak with her on the phone. Millie just turned 97 last month. I did call her on her birthday. She remains in charge of her faculties, but her husband is not, so it was a brief conversation. But these women were paramount to making me who I am today. I am now 70, no longer a youngster, but my love for them does not dim.

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