“Perhaps it takes courage to raise children..”
― John Steinbeck, East of Eden
No-one told me that once that tiny human emerges from the womb, a mother opens herself to grief of an eternal order. The reality I have had to reluctantly recognize and accept, from the earliest moments, is in parenting, mothering, grief is a steady co-participant.
As a disclaimer, I use the term grief in a general sense, one of letting go, alongside a melancholic revisitation of life will never be the same. I have not trod the path of witnessing a child suffer gravely through illness or death or addiction. The parents who endure such suffering are my heroes, for they exist within a span of reality unbeknownst to many.
With the good-bye’s, grief is a familiar companion – the cute lisp that disappears with teasing, or the permanent teeth that make mouths seem gapey, or the independent defiance of a two year old, or a growth spurt that results in the inevitable and unpleasant effects of puberty. While none of these is tragic, the cumulative result is a new, different, foreign child.
I have known the mothers who occupy themselves with an anxious busy-ness to avoid the threat of passing time. I have also known the mothers who live in the present, embracing the process, aware of their minefield of mistakes. I have known mothers who yell, who don’t sleep, who succumb to worry and fear, who lie awake waiting for the front door to unlock. I have known the mothers who second guess and the ones with full and unwavering confidence in their parenting skills.
I have known the mothers who resort to withdrawal for self protection and I have known the mothers who fight for what they believe to be true and right. I have known the mothers who leave and the ones who stay, deep in the trenches. I have known the mothers who weep and I have known the mothers who scream. I have known the mothers who appear perfect and the ones always frazzled. I have known the involved mothers and the relaxed mothers. I have known the demanding mothers and the laissez-faire.
I have known these mothers for I am them all.
I’m not sure there is an objective or right way to parent. Many have touted their expertise, but never is there a replicable combination of child and parent. The myriad of personality traits and quirks and expectations and past experience render recommendations moot, the equations can never add up beyond guesswork. The path is murky, pockmarked with equal parts joy and landmine. Each footfall potentially yielding an explosion of relief or one of fear. Parenting is the greatest gamble, the grandest experiment. Raising the next generation is not a work for the feeble or uncreative or ungracious.
The task of working oneself out of a job is far harder than it seems – that I have to anticipate ten, twenty, thirty years down the road for where this grand experiment might result. My greatest fear, regret. I, an imperfect human with my particular flight of flaws is the one to usher my children into adulthood? As my engineer husband often quips: This is bad design.
I think I know best. And in many ways, I do. I’ve lived a couple decades more than my oldest. I know things. But the world is different, too. My children do have their own way. They thrive on being different, on finding other methods. This is good and I am grateful, for each generation must be a step or two ahead of the previous. I know my children could change the world if I get out of their way. So, here’s the rub, right? My push, their pull is as it’s designed, the defining work of becoming is bumping against and dwelling in the tension on this journey.
Our family’s days are numbered. This is the truest grief of it all. Each day, week, month that passes, we are a new unit. The dynamics shift and we all readjust. The work is never easy, but we do it. We dig in, make mistakes, slam doors and apologize. We laugh and joke and call each other out. We relinquish control as parents and do our best to relinquish comparisons. No family has the same DNA as ours, no-one. To compare is to diminish, always.
I have a young man, a beautiful young man yearning to be released. We push, he pulls, we give, he takes, we withhold, he still takes. This is his work, cracking the bond between parent and child, mother and child. The bond never disappears, but it alters, the material becoming pliable, lengthening, and less visible in certain light. This is the truth and beauty, the grief of launching our people into the world. The infant I held and memorized is no longer the boy in my home.
And this is the great sacrifice, the grand experiment – the request and demand, the push and pull, the tension and hopeful resolve. We let them go, send them off, once again reminded as we’ve been over and over and over –
Good parenting is not always about us.