Grieving As They Grow: Motherhood & Loss
From the moment your baby is conceived, whether in body or mind, a symbiotic relationship is formed. And, at the same time, an individual is created, with their own body and mind and soul. Symbiosis is critical to the survival of our offspring - our parental instinct to preserve their life is heightened due to the sheer fact that we think they *are* us. Much to our dismay, as the baby grows, it becomes glaringly apparent that this is in fact not true.
As my kids get older, I realize more and more profoundly that I do not have control over them anymore; they are individuals, with strong opinions and interests that matter uniquely to them. They want independence -- to know and to prove that they can stand on their own two feet. “I do it!” the two-year-old demands! “Don’t get involved!” my teenage daughter says with an eye roll I’m worried might cause an aneurysm. Meanwhile, I’m thinking of all the “teachable moments” I can get in – how I want to protect her from getting hurt.
But when I really look inside myself, underneath the teacher and the manager and controller of all the things, I find grief.
I don’t know exactly when I realized that motherhood is wholly intertwined with grief. Maybe it was when I had a miscarriage in 2001, and two more after that. That seems obvious. But it’s not just death I’m talking about. It’s the intangible things: the loss of my own identity, the loss of control, the loss of the idea that she is me. Pauline Boss (1999) coined the term ambiguous loss to try and define and understand the complicated confusion that happens to a person when there is no ritual or tangible thing to grieve. (I wrote another blog about ambiguous loss and the pandemic if you want more on that.)
I have said for as long as I can remember: parenting is like wearing your heart outside your body. That sentence can be heard two ways: my baby is part of me and she is outside, and her heart is exposed. But it’s the first part - my baby is part of me - that is the hardest. Whether you share genetic code or not, the instincts are there: we commit to raising a child and biologically a switch gets flipped and we are forever devoted to keeping that person alive, mind, body and soul. “It’s my job to keep you safe!” I’ve said to my kids again and again. This statement becomes less accurate as they get older. Parenting is so vulnerable and at times downright painful. YOUR heart is exposed. It’s exposed to the elements of life, and the person who can hurt you the most is often the one you love the most.
It’s hard to accept that motherhood can be a thankless job. We put so much effort into conceiving (first the idea, then the baby), growing, nurturing, teaching, loving, caring so so much…..and then they leave. They leave us in mind before body. They realize that they can run away from us on the playground, not toward. They run into the kindergarten classroom. They don’t tell us when they have a fight with their friend. They break up with their girlfriend. They get in the car and drive away. They break their curfew. (Don’t they know I’m lying awake waiting and will never fall asleep until they are safely in bed???) It’s hard to remember sometimes that they leave, not because they don’t love us, but because that’s the way things are supposed to be. It’s their prerogative to break the symbiotic ties, and doing that is actually a sign of health. Because it hurts us so much, we want to fix their pain. (How do I console her when she didn’t get the role she wanted in the school play? Didn’t make the team? Failed the test? Got dumped?) A friend of mine says, “Observe, Listen and Get Out of the Way.” In Lisa Damour’s book, Untangled, she talks about how we, the parents, are like the pool wall. It’s our job to hold steady while our kids kick off of us every time they do another lap. I would add that it’s also our job to learn how to stay steady without it being personal. How? With curiosity. Remaining curious about our children’s individual experiences reminds them that we are there and interested, without condition. It reminds them that maybe they don’t have to kick so hard, but when they do, we will love them anyway.
So then what? Well, we have to sit with the grief. Allow the grief to be here and be noticed and cared for. Acknowledge that it is hard to be the pool wall. It is hard when we are not noticed and don’t feel loved. It’s devastating to feel obsolete. And ultimately, it’s not our kids’ job to provide the reassurance for us. We provide it for them, unconditionally, so they can go out into the world and pay it forward. And then we have to turn back to our grief with love and compassion.
In a last ditch attempt at control, I say a little prayer asking for their safety… In the words of poet David Whyte:
“...And so to these
and this broad night
to hold her
when I cannot,
to comfort her
when I am gone,
to help her learn
to take it
for the way
to help her see
light will not help her,
where happiness has fled,
And then, as we care for the wounds of motherhood, we can begin to reinvent our identity once again. Let’s not forget our own vitality that sits beside the grief.
P.S. I’m writing this while wearing my daughter’s sweater. Because sometimes you just need to feel close.
Boss, P. (1999) Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, President & Fellows of Harvard College
Damour, L. (2016) Untangled, Ballantine Books
Whyte, D. (2007) River Flow: New & Selected Poems, Many Rivers Press
Written by Rebecca Geshuri, LMFT, PMH-C