Last week I sat with a man talking about his eight-month-old son—his antics, amazing accomplishments at his early age, how much he loves him. Suddenly the dad stared off with a pensive expression. “I told him he’s growing too fast,” he said.
All I could do was smile gently and nod. He’s right. They all grow too fast.
Loss is on my mind this beautiful spring day, when, finally, it’s warm enough to be outside without a down jacket. I’m on my enclosed front porch, my cat Blue curled asleep in the chair beside me. The sun is shining, birds are chirping. A woodpecker is climbing the trunk of the catalpa tree, making that familiar tapping sound. Bees harvest pollen from the bright yellow forsythia blooming just outside my window.
I once read an essay about spring being the “treacherous season.” I wish I knew the author who wrote of vulnerability—tiny baby birds, blind puppies, toddlers walking outside for the very first time. All tragedy needs is a hard wind, a fast rain—a moment’s distraction. Just weeks ago a late snow blanketed my tender lilac buds.
As an almost grandma, I’m tangled in conflicting emotions of late. I accost new mothers everywhere I go—beaming at their babies. Last month in Whole Foods I met a young mom with her eleven-day-old son, Quinn. He was strapped to her body with what I learned was a Solly Baby wrap. The mom said she loves it. I jotted down the name, researched it, checked in with my daughter-in-law, and ordered one by the end of the day. In black. For my very chic Brie and baby to be.
The Solly Baby website has a video tutorial about how it works for both babies and toddlers, so it’s useful for more than just infants. I told my financial advisor Jillian all about it, as she is pregnant with her second child. Jillian said, “Hop in! Time for soccer practice!” We laughed for five minutes.
I miss being a mom with young children. I remember an early morning in the spring of 1986 when my sons were already twelve and eight. I was on my way to Illinois Masonic Hospital, where I was a psychology intern, and had parked my car on a street lined with charming turn-of-the-century brick row-houses. As I rushed down the sidewalk, burdened with my purse and briefcase, I noticed a young woman standing on her front steps. She held a baby, less than six months old and wearing footed pajamas.
In a rush of longing, I felt the soft, moist, warmth of the baby’s skin, the weight of his body in her arms, the smell of his hair and the cereal and strained peaches she had fed him for breakfast. The young mother and I locked eyes, and in that moment I wanted to be her. And, I imagined, she wanted to be me. We smiled at each other, and I continued on, but the moment has stayed with me for thirty years.
That baby would be in his thirties now, maybe with children of his own. The young mom would be in her fifties. How quickly time passes. They grow too fast. Hold on.
No one tells us, when we anticipate motherhood, of everything we will experience along the way. When pregnancies or adoptions are announced, we are told, “Your life will never be the same!” This most profound truth is often delivered with a teasing laugh.
In psychology we call it “parental emergency.” It is the state of being we enter upon first learning of impending parenthood. It is the forever awareness of our child hovering in the periphery of our minds—no matter where we are or what we are doing—no matter the age of the child. Parental emergency is the primal bond forever linking us to our children—the psychic/emotional equivalent of an umbilical cord, except it cannot be severed.
Parental emergency is critical to the survival of our infants. It manifests in the physical pain new mothers experience when their babies cry, and the addictive pleasure found in touching, smelling, and watching our children, even when they sleep.
Parental emergency is when we feel their pain more than they do. When we grieve their loss of innocence when they go through bad times. When we feel their sorrow more than our own.
Parental emergency is what jolts us from sleep to see if our adolescents are home safely when we fell asleep waiting for them. It is why, when a child isn’t home on time, our minds immediately go to “dead in a ditch.”
Parental emergency is the pervasive sense that something is wrong, and the sudden urgency to connect—even when separated by states, time zones, and countries. And when we do, we learn they’ve been hurt in some way or another.
Parental emergency is the need to know they’ve made it home safely, even when home is only thirty minutes away, even when they are adults with children of their own. When they, or we, are traveling, it is the need to check in and say, “I love you.” Just in case.
Parental emergency is what makes us act like overprotective crazy mama bears! It is what those without children will never know. It is what parents are referring to when they tell their children, “You’ll understand when you have your own.”
The other thing no one tells us as we anticipate motherhood is all the losses we will experience along the way. One by one, we lose our soft, cuddly infants, our tentative and determined toddlers, our snuggly, adoring preschoolers, our ever-growing, peer-driven grade-schoolers, our truculent, confused adolescents. Our children are truly the loves of our lives, and while some traits and physical characteristics last a lifetime, with each new year and new stage in childhood and young adulthood, we lose the one that came before. We lose our child who came before. And we miss them! (Admittedly, some more than others!)
Our tears on their first days of school and at their graduations are as much for us as for them. We are proud when they leave for college as we grieve our empty nests. We celebrate their accomplishments and dance at their weddings. Our hearts are full and our arms empty. Pride and loss intermingled.
And if we have done our jobs well, their first tenuous steps away from us will continue our whole lives together. Every step they take is one more physically and emotionally away from us.
Marriage or partnership is a mighty leap. We lose a daughter/son and gain a daughter/son—but, if we’ve done our job well, it’s never, ever the same. And it shouldn’t be. And when they have children of their own—their own families—we have to learn a whole new way of being their parents. And that’s where I am right now. Learning a new way to parent.
As an almost grandma, I’m often told by already grandmas, “Your life is never going to be the same!” It’s said with nods and warmth and knowing smiles. “Being a grandmother is the best!”
I’m already attached. From that moment on the evening of October 11th, when I heard the tentative news, “we might be expecting,” I’ve been in a state of joyous anticipation. I suspect parental emergency can easily become “grandparental emergency,” and I’ll soon be a crazy, overprotective grandma bear!
Life as a grandparent, I’m told, is being given the opportunity for a “re-do.” Another go at the pleasures and pains of parenting, one step removed. And we get to start over with a soft, cuddly infant—mindfully savoring each stage of childhood because of what we know too well. They all grow too fast.