(Author’s note: This post, as evidenced by the title, is kind of a heavy one. If you’re not up for that today, feel free to keep walking!)
There are so many ways in which parenthood alters one’s reality. Over the years, I have talked with many women about how motherhood has impacted the way they view the world. When my first daughter was born seven years ago, I noticed an immediate shift in my tolerance for movies, TV shows, and books that involved child abductions or death. Even scenes where pregnant women died were enough to make me close a book or turn off the TV. And that was just fiction.
Hearing about tragedies involving children in real life is so very much worse. I had a rough week last week. Three things happened.
- I found out that one of my former music class students died suddenly last year just before her third birthday.
- It was the one year anniversary of the abduction and murder of a local child.
- Friends of my parents lost their two-year-old grandson to an unimaginable act of violence at the hands of a man trusted by a member of the family. The child was born within weeks of my youngest daughter. My mom held this baby in her arms for hours one evening at her friends’ home.
The call from my mom was quickly followed by a call from my childcare provider, informing me that my toddler had a fever. After my initial wash of concern and disappointment, I was flooded with relief- Thank God, I could go pick up my baby and hold her right that instant. I suddenly felt as though I couldn’t be separated from her for one second. Yet another horrifying reminder to cherish every moment we have with our children.
Except what about the moments that we don’t cherish? I feel a bit ashamed to confess that my favorite part of the day occurs as soon as my children are both in bed asleep. I suspect I’m not the only parent who would claim this time of day as their most enjoyable.
There is something so rewarding about that moment of relief and accomplishment that happens when one sinks down into the couch to savor the quiet and lack of responsibility. Who among us doesn’t eagerly count down the minutes leading up to bedtime, often beginning hours earlier at the onset of Crappy Hour? How many real parents would cheer their children on as they select one more tedious bedtime story, request yet another glass of water, or in an act that reveals their bedtime-delaying desperation, plead for a coat of ointment to be slathered onto their irritated hiney? As much as we all love our kids, don’t we all breathe a collective sigh of relief, do a nationwide parental stadium wave of enthusiasm, and pour a collective nightcap the second those little #$%ers are in bed?
Just as I reflected on why I prefer to gaze backward nostalgically on our family vacations, soothed by the balm of hindsight, rather than endure the bedlam of the family adventure through gritted teeth, I suppose I appreciate my children that much more once they are asleep. The pressure is off. I can look back on the day, chuckle about their abhorrent behavior at the dinner table, and even crave the sound of their musical little voices. I am safe. My parental duties are concluded for the day. (Ha- as if. Someone is bound to need another drink of water or coat of butt-cream sometime around 2:00 am.)
When they are sleeping, I have the luxury of integrating the dichotomy of emotions they have evoked in me during the previous 24 hours. It’s the concept of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” on a somewhat feeble, maternal scale. Because, let’s face it- who among us really does savor every moment with our children, even in the face of other parents’ tragedy and loss?
The day after I found out about the two-year-old boy who had been killed, our family visited the pumpkin patch. It was, perhaps surprisingly, an utterly delightful outing. When we returned home to carve the pumpkins, I grabbed the camera and snapped some photos of my husband and the girls covered in gooey orange strands, crouched on the driveway. I sat down for a minute, and my oldest child, 7 years old, snapped, “I need some help! This is too hard!” My husband replied to her that he would help her in a minute, but she barked impatiently, “Why doesn’t Mommy help me? She’s not doing anything but sitting around taking photographs!” Her tone was icy and contemptuous, and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I couldn’t believe my own child would speak to me that way; my feelings were hurt, and I got in the car to run an errand, feeling like a petulant teenager. The intense urge I felt to be near my children was suddenly replaced by a disturbing sense of deflation. So much for gratitude.
Whenever I have those days and I find myself grumbling about all the indignities I have suffered, the countless times I have stood up from the dinner table to fetch someone some essential condiment or Humpty Dumpty fork, or how much more freedom my friends without kids have, I quickly shame myself into remembering those who have lost children, or who have struggled with infertility- people who would give anything to eat their dinner standing up at the counter or spend the wee hours of the morning applying ointment. And I STFU.
Except that, in spite of that complex wave of chagrin, contrition, and yes, gratitude, I feel that parents do have a right to gripe about their daily challenges. The reality of parenting is not rosy- it’s not all sleeping cherubs and peaceful bedtimes. When we send ourselves the message that, lest we forget how lucky we are to have our children, we’d better enjoy every single second of our time together, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
I think this phenomenon is fairly normal even outside of parenting. When you take a day-long hike, which part are you most looking forward to- the exhilarating moment when you reach the top, or the 15 minutes prior when your legs are burning and you are hallucinating with fatigue? When I take a yoga class, I love the feeling I get when I sit up from Savasana at the end; I feel refreshed, tingly, peaceful. I do not love the part of class when I have done 14 Chaturangas, my arms are shaking, and I am fantasizing about kicking my instructor in the face. But the struggles- the burning legs on the mountain and the shaking arms in yoga class- are part of what make the view from the top or the post-yoga Zen buzz so gratifying.
Parenting is the same way. The meltdowns, messes, and time management disasters all contribute to the overwhelming sense of satisfaction we have when we settle into the couch after the kids are tucked in. We can appreciate our hard work, our small victories, and reflect on how lucky we truly are, all from the safe vantage point of the day’s end. Even though we are always mindful on some level of the aching love we feel for our children, and the privilege we have of being their parents, it is sometimes easier to tap into those feelings when they are asleep.
I am a mother who has experienced pregnancy loss three times and the accompanying layers of grief. Earlier this week I announced that I am a contributor to the new book Sunshine After the Storm: A Survival Guide for the Grieving Mother. If you know any families who have experienced pregnancy loss, infant loss, or the death of a child, please share this book with them, as it may be a valuable coping resource. You can download the book here, and follow the Facebook page here.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post.
This week’s sentence was: “The best part of my day is…”
Next week’s sentence is: “One Halloween, I….”
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