Navigating early motherhood is hard. Doing it without your own mother—because she dies unexpectedly while you’re in the throes of it—is perhaps harder. In the wake of loss, middle-aged first-time mom Julie Patterson considers whether grief dramatically changed her children’s personalities, or if her children dramatically changed her grief.

I was everything in those stories that I thought I couldn’t be in real life: a sassy smart aleck with an uncanny ability to insult and/or shame all those who wronged me in any way. I also wrote letters to my mom (my frequent antagonist) and then tore them into tiny undetectable pieces and threw them away. I suppose it was always about the process of writing for me, about how I felt after writing, not about publishing my end products.