As parents, we tend to think a lot about what it means to us to have children. We don’t focus very much on how difficult it is to let go of them. We know it’s important to be present in their lives, and we want them to know that they can count on us. There’s an inherent dilemma, however, that catches parents, mothers especially, by surprise. As we create meaningful relationships with our children, we are simultaneously becoming deeply attached to them.
Feeling this deep connection is wonderful. It helps our kids develop inner security and self-confidence. Watching them grow up and away from us is a source of pride and joy, but it’s also sometimes painful.
Adjusting to separation begins early. Allowing babies to amuse themselves alone in their cribs and encouraging them to reach out toward other people begin the process. As we support independence, children will look forward to starting school, making friends, trying new things. Eventually, they learn to drive and finally go off to college or out into the workforce. It’s a step-by-step repetitive process of their leaving and returning, leaving and returning. Our task is to face the emotional storms these milestones stir up.
I can still remember how I cried as I prepared to stop nursing my children. When I left them at daycare, I could hardly bring myself to walk out the door. I couldn’t wait for them to go off to camp, but then I missed them terribly every day they were away. As much as I was ready for our son to go off to college, it hurt my heart that he was really gone. And when it was time to launch our daughter, I was excited and proud. But the reality that she was grown and ready to fly also made me feel sad and lonely.
Don’t get me wrong. My children’s developmental milestones generated feelings of relief and delight. As they became more independent, I loved the growing sense of freedom that went along with it. When arguments about bedtime and homework time became things of the past, it felt pretty darn good. And when the worries about where they were and who they were with were finally over, there was cause to celebrate.
Nevertheless, part of the normal parenting process also includes mourning. Feelings of sadness and loss that we have to address over and over as our children grow and change.
Mourning our losses may seem like a painful idea. “Shouldn’t I try to forget about my sadness and move on?”
Mourning is painful but not mourning is painful too. Holding our feelings inside and denying their existence doesn’t mean our feelings are gone. It’s a little like leaving food in the refrigerator for too long. At first we are completely unaware the onion is even in there. But, gradually, the whole refrigerator smells bad.
Grieving is like taking the onion out and wiping down the inside of the fridge. Not a chore we like to do but one we feel better about after it’s done.
“So, what do I have to do? Sit around and cry all day?” Not exactly. Mourning is allowing your thoughts and feelings to wash over you: crying, remembering, laughing, thinking about the good times and the bad ones too. From time to time, allow what comes to mind to linger there. It will, eventually, help you to feel better.