I recall the day my first child was born like it was yesterday. After a relatively comfortable pregnancy, Elena’s due date came and went without a stirring. As I sat in eager anticipation of our baby’s arrival, I had ample time to ponder how my life was about to change. Finally, on Friday, March 26, 1999, ten days after Elena was due, my water broke in the early morning. My husband, Bill wouldn’t be going to work that day. Instead, he whisked me to the hospital. After 24 long and exhausting hours of induced labor, including a failed attempt to deliver by pushing, Elena arrived and was absolutely perfect.
A few days later, Bill, Elena and I left our warm and cozy set up at the hospital to take on life on our own. My early days of motherhood filled me with wonder and at the same time were overwhelming. I quickly acclimated to the subtle needs of baby Elena. I recall those moments early on holding her, sometimes in the wee hours of the night, rocking her to sleep with her head nestled on my shoulder. I could only imagine a day in the distant future when she would be self-reliant and yet that moment seemed to come about in the blink of an eye.
My journey through motherhood included feelings of sadness along the way. Each step my children took toward independence felt like a loss for me. At times I yearned to be transported even for an instant to an earlier moment in the part to feel that tender and more intimate interplay with my children once more.
In the 1990s, Psychologist Molly Collins Layton wrote an article called “The Mother Journey” about her children growing up and leaving home, and it really resonated with me. Collins so eloquently summarizes her reflections on being a mother and the continuum of loss she felt as her kids grew up:
So there is a bittersweet paradox at the heart of maternal thinking. The mother aches for her child’s growth, but the growth is double-stranded with her joy and grief. In the baby’s cupholding, the mother thrills at growing skills – at the intelligence, at this demonstration of the capacity to survive without her. At the same time, she must prepare to leave behind the cozy and intimate warmth of the baby at her breast. The mother’s rock-bottom interest in fostering the child’s growth sets her up for the continual experience of separation.”
The bond between a mother and baby is so wonderfully unique starting with the breastfeeding relationship. I am in awe of the female body’s ability to completely provide nourishment and boost a baby’s immune system in the beginning stages of life. I am further amazed by the coordinated sequence of interaction between a mother and her child during nursing; the sensitivity babies have to this synchrony and how mothers naturally understand a baby’s demands, feeding cues, and needs. For me, however, the decision to nurse my children was a no-brainer. I simply enjoyed the physical and emotional closeness nursing gave me and my child so much so that that I fell into a brief mourning period at the passing of this very intimate phase after weaning each of my children.
As a parent, you become intimately familiar with every detail about your child, even the unpleasant ones. Nothing prepares you for the untidy details of parenthood; the countless times you launder sheets, changing table covers and your own clothes because of leaks or blowouts from diapers, bedwetting episodes, or regurgitated food. I developed a hardiness in dealing with the clean-up of baby snot, drool, milky spit, vomit, urine, and poop. Maybe even more challenging than cleaning after a baby is getting your child into regular sleep patterns. Elena demonstrated to us early on that she could pull an all-nighter. During this phase of flip-flopping day and night, she had boundless energy during the night that eventually wore off and turned into sleepiness right after the early morning sunrise. And as soon as I mastered understanding and dealing with one phase, my child was on to the next one.
Being a parent is by far the world’s toughest job, but as parents you manage to figure it out. I’ve turned to Baby Einstein, not so much to jumpstart my child’s learning, but to settle them down when nothing else would. I’ve abandoned semi-filled grocery carts during a mid-shopping tantrum from my inconsolable child. I’ve offered a listening ear to my children when they have been hurt by a friend at school. I’ve helped quell the voice inside my child’s head when it says they’re not good enough or smart enough. I’ve rushed home after a rough day at work and switched gears to become a baseball or softball mom for my kids.
Given the many challenges of parenthood, I wouldn’t trade any of it for anything in the world. I am truly the luckiest mother to have three wonderful children, who make me incredibly proud every day.
Being a parent not only requires taking care of your children, but also knowing when to let go, allowing them to grow up and learn from their mistakes. The more I think about Elena reaching college age, the more I feel the need to spend time with her and revel in those moments. At the same time, Bill and I need to acknowledge our losses given the impending departure of our children from home as well as recognize and take advantage of our gains. While I hope that we have given our children the roots to grow and the wings to explore the world, I pray that they also know that they have the wings to fly back and return to us at any time.
Mary is an IT professional and an Adjunct Instructor at a university in Chicago, Illinois. She and her husband, Bill, have been married for 19 years and are parents to two teenagers and a tween. When Mary is not busy on attending her children’s softball games, baseball games, dance recitals, and plays, she enjoys cooking gourmet meals, reflective and expressive writing, and curling up with a good book in the comfort of her lovely home.