Parenting: the Good Kind of Pain
A long time ago, probably about ten-years or so, I remember a fight my husband and I had. It wasn’t a fight as much as a misunderstanding. It had been a long day, a long week, probably a long year, of dealing with small children. A toddler and a baby, most likely, depending on exactly when the fight happened. I was a stay-at-home mom, looking after the kids, which I have often said were the hardest, loneliest, and sometimes darkest times of my life. My career, my life it felt, was on hold, so I could raise these children.
And then I thought to myself….what an insanely huge sacrifice, all this work, all this time, all this love, put into these kids, so they can turn around and leave you in eighteen-years. That’s what I’d done: left home the moment I graduated high school, with no plans on going back, so why wouldn’t my kids do the same? It felt like such a huge sacrifice for such horrible pain at the end.
And in came the fight/misunderstanding. My husband thought I was being callous, heartless, cold. “What a negative, bitter way to look at it,” he said (or something like that. This was ten or so years ago, as if I remember it word for word).
You see, he thought I was bitter than I’d have to put in so much work, so much time, that I considered wasted when the kids turned around and left to become adults themselves. Like if you spent all your free time and money building a house only to have someone else move into it, or your entire life saving for retirement only to die within a few months of that retirement, or, a year short of it. What would be the purpose of that kind of sacrifice?
But I wasn’t being negative. In fact, I was thinking about the day when my kids leave me and how painful that would be, that I wasn’t sure if I could handle that kind of grief. I was so in love with my kids, even if I was miserable and lonely and having a hard time raising them, that I couldn’t bear the thought of losing them. That maybe, I should have skipped out on the kid thing entirely if only to avoid the pain of their leaving
It’s like that oft-used scene in so many books and movies, love stories especially. Take Cold Mountain for example. The entire story (movie, I never read the book) is about them getting together, their search for one another. He survives the civil war just to be with her, and then he gets with her, for one amazing night. One night together and then he is killed. How fucking tragic. But, lo and behold, she is pregnant! That one night was enough because she has his child inside her so he will live on.
I hated that movie, can you tell? Because, is the grief worth it? Was that one night worth years and years of grief? It’s that famous Tennyson quote, “’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
But is it? Really?
I used to disagree. I wanted to protect myself, barricade my heart so I never had to feel any pain. No love story was worth it in my mind if they never ended up together. If I watched a movie or read a book, where they ended up apart at the end, or the character died, I was enraged! I attached myself to that character, fell in love with them, and then they went and died on me? Bullshit!! I never signed up for the pain, I didn’t want it.
And that’s what I meant when I said to my husband, all those years ago. It seemed pointless to put all that work into these kids, sacrificing time, energy, career, self, for them to leave. And what I really meant by that was, I’m scared to give them all I have because when they grow up, I’m worried the pain will be too much for me to take.
And of course, it really is that Tennyson quote: they have changed my life so much that I would do it over again. And again and again and again even if they do walk away from me when they turn 18 and never look back (which, obviously, won’t happen. They’ll need money at some point…). I am a better person because of them, hell, I had to be or they probably wouldn’t have survived kindergarten without severe scarring (now, they’re only slightly scarred).
I was exhausted when I had that argument with my husband. Every minute of every day was spent with my kids, and it was hard. Now, my kids are getting older and it’s honestly not that hard. Sure, it has its moments, but it has gotten better and better every year they’ve gotten older. But the older they get, the closer they get to that high school graduation and then the inevitable leaving of the household (yes, I know, many kids stay later than that, I’m using 18 as the typical age for ease of writing). It’s been said that you’ve already spent 80% of the time you get with your kids by the time they hit 18. 80%! Which means, I only have about 20% left between the ages of 18 and my own death, and that also means, with my daughter finishing elementary school today, I’ve already used up about 60% of the quality time I get with her.
I want more! I want so much more time with her, because I know these next five years are going to fly by much quicker than I can imagine. I want to hit the pause button and stay right here, right now, before I have to share my time with boyfriends and jobs and parties and friends.
I don’t want the pain of her leaving. I don’t want to miss my kids. As much as I deny that I’m that self sacrificing mother, I have sacrificed all of me, all of my heart, and I’m not sure I’m going to be able to stand by while they take it with them when they head off into the world. Hell, I can’t bear the thought of her growing up enough to go to Middle School.
And yet, to watch them grow has been the greatest joy of my life. And maybe that joy will supersede the grief of their leaving. And maybe, they won’t walk away and never come back. My childhood was so much different than theirs is now, they may not mind having me around. And if not, well, I guess that’s the deal I signed up for when I had them. Maybe, they really weren’t mine to keep in the first place. Someone else will need them and I’m just getting them ready for the next phase, like their teachers in school, preparing them for the next year and the next and the next, taking pride in the fact that they did their best and will leave them in the hands of the next in line for the task.
And I will enjoy the 20% or 30 or 40 or whatever percent of time I have left with them. I will put down my phone, I will get out of my office, and I will book a few more trips so that the memories that remain when they’re gone, will be so precious that we will both know it was worth every moment, no matter how painful or wonderful or stressful or lonely. And when I wave goodbye when it is finally time for her to embark on her own, I will smile and know my heart is full, even if I am losing it because I know she’ll be taking it with her.