A couple of months ago, I was talking with two of my colleagues about something we dubbed “mom grief.”
The three of us are at different stages of our parenting journeys, but we agreed that there is a not-often-discussed grief that applies to all involved parents. Just seeing your children grow is incredibly beautiful, but also kind of heartbreaking. When you’re about to have a child, countless friends say, “It goes so fast! Enjoy it!”
This still doesn’t prepare you.
I’ve sometimes tried to put my finger on why it’s so painful but irresistible to look at photos and videos of my kids when they were babies and toddlers – even though, at 13 and almost 10, they are still kids, and still great. Why do I feel like I miss them?
Eventually it dawned on me – I do miss them. They are still themselves, and have grown up in a mostly-undisrupted continuum (which is, of course, a great privilege), but somewhere along the way, they have shed many younger versions of themselves. They are, and are not, the same people they were.
And does any parent really have time to grieve those younger iterations of their children? No, because there’s more to each kid every day – more to see and more to attend to. We all shake our heads incredulously at their precipitous growth. People say to me, “Thirteen? Really??” and I wince a little and say, “I know!” So whether or not we have seen them every day, and witnessed each sudden or gradual change, our children’s development feels fast.
I think the kids feel it too, sort of. E has always been a nostalgic sort, missing his younger days when he had no worries and just got to play all the time. He loves things that remind him of our old house, or his time at Marcia’s (his early-childhood home daycare/aftercare), or anything about those carefree days when he was happy. (Overall, he’s still happy, but as a new teen, he seems to feel it less. Default consciousness is more… “mildly dissatisfied” than “joyful”.)
AB has been known to express similar sentiments. I think she was about six when she said, “I wish I could be a baby again… I was so young and it went by so fast.” I had to suppress laughter when she said this, but she’s not wrong. It did go by so fast. The sweet things we did when they were little – bubbles, splash pads, lullabies, playgrounds, bedtime stories, not to mention the most ridiculously adorable hand-me-down clothes – they’re mostly outgrown now.
My colleagues and I agreed that we wish for the superpower ability to go back and visit our babies. Not that I want to relive all that – it was HARD – but I’d like to pop in for visits, hear their little voices, touch their squishy faces. And if I had that superpower… I’d like to visit my family of origin when my siblings and I were little too. And maybe my baby ancestors too. We were all tiny artless humans at one point. We all had countless beautiful, precious moments of childhood that no one will ever remember.
I know that true grieving is a luxury. Some people never have the time, quiet, solitude/community, sobriety, or mental space to delve into grief in a way that opens the path for healing. For the most part, our society is not set up to let people experience their grief.
I have been extremely fortunate in this way. For teachers, there is a natural emotional arc to the year, and I find it kind of therapeutic, even as it’s wearying. There is time in the summer to process changes and grieve losses (and just be my actual self, as opposed to my teacher self). I am so thankful for this.
Even more, I am thankful for the timing of Sebastian’s birthday, in the first half of July. It meant that when he died, I had the time to plunge right into the grieving process – and those of you who bore witness to that here were a huge part of the healing.
Nowadays, that timing means that not only can I make time to think about Sebastian, but I have a built-in ritual connecting me to him – one that created itself, and always feels like the right thing.
When the berries ripen, it’s time to go. I spend that harvesting time feeling the sun, smelling the fruit, getting a bit sore or scratched-up, noticing the insects that share the berries, anticipating the breezes. It’s a full, simple, sensory experience that feels close to the essence of what humans have always done. Somehow, I can feel connected to my little one’s spirit there, without dropping into the past. When I am in an abiding place, feet on the earth, the years seem to fold in on each other. All the spirits could be there.
This summer, I have been determined to free our household of many things that we no longer need. It seems like a straightforward task, except that it’s actually very emotionally fraught for me. I am a sentimental pudding in these circumstances.
A) I can’t just “throw things out.” I have to make sure I am being as environmentally responsible as I can, or I am plagued. Marie Kondo’s garbage bags could never make me feel free. I fervently want things that are still useful to be used.
B) Getting rid of the kids’ things – the ones we loved – is just hard. Especially things you can’t just give to Goodwill… Like who is gonna wear the li’l tie-dye socks?? It is the physical divestment that parallels the personal shedding the kids did years ago… so obviously I’ve been putting it off.
I partly blame the kids – moms all know that thing where you get out some toy they haven’t used in literally years and suddenly it’s their favourite. Having to use subterfuge to get stuff out of the house is cumbersome.
But also… my soul resists.
Not all the time – sometimes I can just bag or box things up and off they go to the appropriate destination. Sometimes I have my eye on the goal and focus like a champ. But in summer, maybe the amount of time works against me. I overthink and overfeel.
For example, I have some beautiful, handmade, vintage dresses that my sisters and I wore as children. AB didn’t wear them much – some not at all, because we don’t often dress up – but I understand why my mom kept them. Now, they are not in fashion, and I don’t know who will use them, but they are much too lovely not to be used…. Ergo, paralysis.
Some parents, I’m pretty sure, are way too practical for this. They’re thrilled to get things out of the house, and do so in the most efficient ways. I’m envious of those folks – but not completely. The grief I feel when saying goodbye to those little-kid toys is inextricable from the joy of having witnessed their carefree play.
There is just something about children. I think that’s basically what it comes down to. They are the literal future of humanity. Of course we are hardwired to feel protective and caring of our young.
Yes, I know there are plenty of humans out there who don’t relate much to children – and some who don’t like them at all. But I believe that even those who don’t want to be around kids still want them to be okay.
Furthermore, we’ve all been children, and we all deserved (and still deserve) to be loved and protected. The children we used to be, however we were treated, are still part of us. They nudge us from time to time when we see them reflected in another child. That’s part of why we feel the wrongness deep in our roots when children are felled by gunshots, or found in a mass grave, or wash up on a beach. At those moments, grief flows through us all. Because we all know in our souls that children should be playing.
Marisa Renee Lee says that “grief is love,” which I know to be true. And I think that the “mom-grief” – which can belong to anyone invested in any child – is just one eddy in the pool of love/grief, connected to all our compassion and protectiveness and sorrow. The flow of love/grief laps at our heart when the baby can’t wear that little onesie anymore. It’s the same water that we cry when they graduate from school. It washes over us at those times when we know we can’t – and mustn’t – shield our children from pain. It streams compassion through us when someone else’s child suffers too.
And beneath all of it is the current of our own tiny child-selves. We have love and grief for them too, because they all had moments of joy and pain. And they all lost their innocence eventually.
Come to think of it, maybe there is just one river of love/grief – the same one for all of us. Maybe it’s what makes us human.