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  • The Reflective Doc

The Painful Joy of Raising Children

I was in the grocery store the other day, trying to remember my mother’s chili recipe while my boys took turns slapping each other in the head, a recent favored activity. I was about to suggest an alternative choice when another shopper further down the aisle bombarded me with that dreaded entreaty, “Make sure you enjoy every minute! They’ll be all grown up before you know it!”

Now, I recognize this woman was likely well-meaning, perhaps responding to her own sense of loss as she contemplated her far-flung adult children. However, what this request painfully implies is that I am somehow getting it wrong, not fully appreciating this precious time with my children. Whenever I hear this kind of comment, often hurled over a shoulder as I’m hustling the boys to their next educational activity, I try to reassure myself that I’m fulling embracing motherhood. But as my mind helpfully conjures recent examples, such as one son’s decision to “dig for gems” in the middle of the lawn, or the other one losing his 15th water bottle, I’m filled with guilt. I am most definitely not enjoying every minute.

Becoming a parent is not for the faint of heart. The intense love you feel for this being creates a constant, if occasionally suppressed, fear of loss. Each new experience or milestone produces a celebration, but is coupled with grief as we realize they will never again be the child from the moment before.

Rather than the self-critical thoughts that accompany these moments, wouldn’t it be nice if we felt like we were doing it just right? If we believed we found the perfect balance between giving them attention while offering freedom, living in the moment yet planning for a happy and healthy future? In fact, we will have moments when each of these is true, but setting the expectation of perfection in mindful parenting is unfair, even cruel.

Some of you with nerves of steel probably enjoy reviewing old photographs and videos of your children from a younger age. When I stumble into this by accidentally clicking on a “Your memories from 8 years ago!” Shutterfly email, I take a moment to look, but the ache in my heart is intense. “Did I appreciate that enough? Did I really enjoy that phase?” The truth is, there were times when I dove in fully, relishing the beautiful smells, sounds and embraces of my babies and toddlers, and times when I was exhausted, frustrated, bored, or all of these at once.

To the woman in the grocery store, may I suggest an alternative approach. If you see me in the aisle with my boys, and are struck by nostalgia for your own child-rearing days, I get it. I recognize that I will eventually be in your place, longing for these hectic days and wanting to help the younger generation take it in. But just as I wouldn’t shout “You’re only getting older! Enjoy your mobility while you have it!” I would love to receive a different kind of comment. How about, “You are doing great! Way to go Mom!” Or maybe an honest “I really miss that time!” This might allow me to ally with you, rather than shame-spiral into purchasing Lucky Charms.

The alternative to constant growth and change is to experience tragedy. Our children move forward because they must, because there is no other option. We are lucky to join them at points along the road, as our parents were with us, but the cost of this good fortune is our pain in letting them go. With intense love comes powerful grief, knowing they won’t always want to grab our hand or tell us their current (terrible) joke. Constantly facing these emotions makes us true superheroes. So let’s take a deep breath, clean up their spills, and try again each day to show them our love, if only for a moment.

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