Grieving the Idealized Parenthood
After working with grief and loss for many years, I am better at recognizing it in its many forms. It's not just for mourning the deaths of loved ones, we can also feel grief for a hope or an expected future when present reality is different -- like parenthood. Just like traditional grief, these "phases" I describe are not in order, but circular; they are not discrete, but can intersect and blend with each other in a mess of emotions. I wonder if any of these sound familiar . . .
On the morning of St. Patrick’s Day, my children asked why leprechauns went to other people’s houses but not ours. I kept my response simple and real: “I don’t know.” And I moved on to getting ready for gymnastics, the leprechaun dream extinguished in a flicker by my own indifference.
Before I was a mother, a friend of mine told me about the elaborate leprechaun hijinks she set up at home for her two young children. The vision of magic engineered by clever parents filled me with hope for all the fun and frolicking that lay ahead of me as a mother. The leprechauns were just the beginning – we had Easter bunnies, tooth fairies, and of course the greatest magic of all, Santa. Why not a Valentine’s Day sprite? There is no end to the potential of giving my future children a childhood full of magical creatures.
Of course this fantasy did not account for the reality I did not yet know: exhaustion, days/weeks/months full of menial tasks to keep the household functional with extra little people who don’t take care of themselves, the utter depletion that leaves making magic feeling like it truly does require a miracle or a saint. And here I enter Disappointment. This is not what I expected.
This disappointment can become masked by Anger. Why does this Elf on the Shelf stare me down from the store shelves because I refuse to buy it? Why do the schools make me feel bad because they make the kids green waffles for St. Patrick’s Day and we can’t even find a piece of green clothing in our messy closets? Why aren't a few quarters under the pillow enough? These anger-infused questions may bring up a deeper resentment: Why am I not enough?
This anger and resentment then spins itself into another spiral: Self-blame. If I were . . . more together, more inspired, more organized . . . just, better, I could keep up with all the holiday magic. This can lead to the loveliest phase of grief: Hope. NEXT YEAR, I’ll be more together, more inspired, more organized, and I will be able to make it happen. Hope gives us energy and optimism. Until the reality of the next year comes . . . and nothing has changed.
I also admit spending some time in Envy. The truth is I want to give my kids fun and fantasy. When I see other parents with their elaborate Elf on the Shelf shenanigans on Facebook, or hear the super clever tooth fairy gifts (but oh my goodness, there are so many teeth!), I wish I could be that Mom. I wish our lives had room and space for this escape from reality. Good for those parents for making it happen and I wish I could be more like them.
As I write this, I remember a moment one Easter when our middle child was 4. She and her sister had become captivated by fairies, so we included fairy dust (glitter in tall, thin glass bottles) in their Easter baskets. That afternoon, our daughter put on a pair of her dress-up fairy wings, went outside with her fairy dust, threw it in the air, and jumped. She was ecstatic she could “fly.” I grabbed that moment tightly, to keep in my heart's memory of her childhood. Sometimes I forget the power of the child’s imagination can truly be the greatest magic of all. And all I have to do is believe it with them.
Here, if I allow myself, I can evolve into the calmest phase of grief: Acceptance. Accept that what our family does for our holidays is worthy and enough. Maybe that's why my children could so easily accept my non-magical response about leprechauns. Maybe the reality of how my husband and I parent, and how I am a Mom (through the normal days and the special days) is giving my children exactly what they need. Even with no Elf on the Shelf watching them. Or watching me.
Holidays is only one lens through which to see ways we may grieve what we thought parenthood would be -- who we thought we would be as a mother. It is more lighthearted and fun to talk about fairies and elves than some other ways we feel a sense of loss through our parenting journeys. However, this loss is often accompanied by great meaning, even if with an altered sense of purpose.
There is no question that being Mom has the greatest meaning of any other identity or phase of my life, full of deep emotions and transformations. The question is how I choose to look at each of these experiences: as a "failure" of what I thought was a "good Mom," or as a humble confidence that I am exactly the Mom my children need, creating their world with a fine blend of reality and fantasy, sprinkled with a bit of fairy dust.