A few months ago, my friend Heather posted some thoughts on her blog about grief and motherhood. It really resonated with me and over several weeks the topic kept finding its way into my conversations with other friends. I finally asked Heather if she wouldn’t mind sharing it here on MotherRunner, and she graciously agreed. Without further ado, here’s Heather.
As I sat nursing my baby, Emily, this morning, I saw my phone sitting on the ottoman at my feet. I thought of a funny text I could send to my husband, Sam, but I knew if I picked up my phone I’d end up fiddling around on it till Emily was done eating. Knowing this was one of my rare moments of peace during the day with my son at preschool, I resisted and instead shut my eyes and tried to focus on the weight and warmth of Emily’s body against mine, her hand brushing my skin, her contented little mmm’s as she ate.
Eventually, my thoughts turned to my son, Levi, as they often had lately. We always seemed to be battling one another and we were both exhausted by it. And though I was trying not to wrestle with his formidable will, the other ways I tried to connect with and motivate him weren’t working, so we almost always resorted to threats to get things done. This of course left him feeling angry and me feeling guilty.
Though recently, I had started reading, “Parenting Without Power Struggles” by Susan Stiffelman and it gave me plenty of parenting wisdom to ponder on this quiet morning. Stiffelman suggests that at times when your child won’t be getting his way, you should approach them as if they were grieving. After all, they’re experiencing a loss of something important to them. As she detailed the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression or sadness, and acceptance—I realized these were exactly the emotions and tactics my son was experiencing several times a day.
Our job as parents, Stiffelman says, is to walk our children through those emotions more quickly and as allies. That way they then come to accept the situation on their own, without our forcing it on them. Instead of wading through the refusals, bargaining, yelling, running away, whining, crying, and resentfully cooperating, you give your child the freedom to mourn their loss. You’re on their side as you tell them how sorry you are to see them sad, and they feel supported as they come to understand they’re not going to get their way. So far, it had worked with Levi. He finally felt like someone was listening to him, and I was more compassionate towards him as I saw him grieving.
My thoughts then slid, as thoughts do, to what my life would look like in the context of grief. In the past several years I’ve dealt with anger, depression, and nearly constant change. I thought maybe moving too often—seven times in eight years—was the source of pain, but I’ve loved the adventure. I’ve seriously considered going back to school or work, but when it came down to it, I knew I would regret not staying home when the kids were small and we had the resources to make it possible. I’ve struggled with medications and injuries. But in the last year and a half, all that has gone away and I still get flashes of deep sadness or feeling adrift or feeling like something is missing.
As I sat with my eyes closed, snuggling my tiny baby, I finally asked myself, “Is there something you’re grieving or mourning?” Without knowing how, it was like a weight was removed from my heart. It’s not that I don’t love my life or my family. It’s not that I regret the choices I’ve made, because when I look back they really are indicative of my true desires. It’s that as a young woman I had expectations for my life and myself that have not been realized, and I am mourning them.
I had expected to be more involved in my community through a career or intense volunteering. I had thought running would always be a part of my life. I thought I’d be as healthy as I’d ever been. I thought I’d be an energetic and creative mother. I thought I’d have new friendships as deep and lasting as my old ones had been. I thought I’d be the person others needed rather than needing other people so often.
In the same way that it was hard to say goodbye to my grandmother and grandfather who I loved and admired deeply and who gave me hope, I was finding it hard to say goodbye to the woman I thought I would be, a woman who is strong and smart and fit and kind and capable and seems to be all of those things all of the time. I’m mourning the loss of her possibility.
Realizing this, that I had seen the long, slow fading of a remarkable woman who had long been my companion, tears came to my eyes. I was filled with compassion for myself. I sometimes feel so torn inside and feeling like there’s no reason for it just adds to the pain and shame of it. But stepping back and seeing myself in grief and mourning lets me be kinder and gentler. It lets me sit with the pain, quietly, and let myself say goodbye again, as many times as I need to.
When I was baptized into my church, I promised God I would be “willing to mourn with those that mourn… and comfort those that stand in need of comfort.” We are able to do this because each of us knows sorrow in our own way. Life never happens the way we expect, and when that woman who seems to be all the things we want to be holds our hand, or cries with us, or sits in silence with us, we know that she too has mourned her own losses and dreams.
Somehow, through that sisterhood, and through our quiet hours grieving with and comforting our own broken selves, we are slowly reborn. As we say goodbye to the person we thought we’d become, the person we are becomes more real, more true. Like a new child, we are small, fragile, and tender, but the weight of our hands and the warmth of our touch are undeniable.