The Underbelly of Motherhood

Posted 05/15/17 6:17 PM by
Aiden sailing ahead of me

There are times the universe speaks to me, lands in my lap the lessons I need to learn, what I need to know to grow. This week I had an email, a book and a conversation that conspired together to get me thinking. Raising teens, and young adults, has been the most trying time of my mothering journey. I look backward when they were babies and toddlers, in elementary school and I know the struggles were significant, the feeling of being bone tired was real, the panic and worry when a fever struck, or a bully challenged their days kept me awake many, many nights. But this. The physical work is so much less. My boys can feed themselves, wash their clothes (although I still choose to do it for them – don’t judge me please), take themselves to practice.  They are independent in their physical need of me. The toll I pay now is one of mental clarity and emotional peace.  Of sleep in a way that makes me crave a newborn crying and needing to nurse.  Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not lessening the work of young children and babies.  The task is huge. What I am saying is that for me, this stage of parenting is not my shining moment. I was better at it when they were babies. I really was.

When they were small, I owned their lives as I should. I clothed and protected, fed and nurtured, taught and played with them. When they were broken I healed them, when they cried I held them, I was their nurse when they were ill. I smiled when they smiled, I laughed when they laughed and I cried when they cried.  I owned their struggles and their happiness. It’s been said that a mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child. I have lived this, carried it on my head like a crown. Unable to be free of worry, to be present, to be grateful because the weight of their struggle has become my struggle, the absence of their joy has become my sorrow. I believe that worked for me when they were young. Part of growing a baby into a child and then an adult is the process of separation, of becoming two people who were quite literally one. This has been the greatest struggle of my life, how to untangle my life from theirs.

Quite recently I reached out for support from a woman I had never met, but had always admired. My email to her was simply to find a way to speak about the trials of raising my sweet babies into young men in a forum that provided their safety and protected their privacy. Raising teenagers humbles you – in ways that are both prideful and painful. One of the things I find most difficult is that their story is not mine to share. I talk, I laugh, I write, I cry, I express myself and look for meaning and answers — that is how I survive life’s challenges. When my life’s greatest challenges became those of my children, what I always knew ceased to work. I can not write about their struggles I can not tell their stories, they are not mine to tell. I know that.  What I should have also known – and what took the words of a woman I don’t know to gift me clarity is that I can not own their struggles any longer. I can not fix what I could when they were babes. I can not take their tests and can not decide where they should go to college and I can not mend their broken hearts and I can not decide whats right and wrong when they are challenged. I can not. But yet, I try. I continue to try and own their struggles as my own.

A mother can only be as happy as her unhappiest child. My crown. The definition of who I am. The reason I exist. My why.  My children.  I have held onto this belief as I would a raft in the ocean.  This is the core of who I am. My happiness comes after my sons. My happiness comes after my family’s.  My happiness comes after my husband’s.  But what if.  What if I am wrong? The words my mentor spoke to me were exactly that. My son’s must carry their own struggle, I can not own it. They need to feel the weight of their choices and circumstances, they need to own their lives. What they need from me is to show them an example of a life well lived. Of a mother who is present and grounded, who is grateful for all that she has, despite what may have been lost or who may be hurting. Clinging to the anxiety and guilt and frustrations of motherhood are not guiding my son’s out of their teenage years.  Resting on hope and peace and the fact that my children are resilient and strong will show them the path to success.  Their success, not mine. Their failures, not mine. Their challenges, not mine.

I know myself well enough to know that frankly, I will suck at this. I will probably write about it a few more times, in many more ways. That I will ruminate and look for ways to set down the guilt and the pressure and the anxiety over mothering.  I will take on their failures and tasks and I will see it as a reflection of my work; of my life’s greatest accomplishment. My hope, for both me and them, is that I can become a mother who doesn’t pressure them with anxiety and worry. That I can be a mother who is present with them as they struggle, but who is not drowning in their trouble. That I can be a mother who sees it will be the body of their work, the collection of their years, the nuances of years of impact that will decide who they are. A mother who believes in her work, and her children, enough to let them fail and succeed. On their own.

One of my favorite writers is David Whyte, my mom introduced me to him, in efforts to help me handle the role of being a momma to near adults.  My favorite book of his is “Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words”.  It’s a small book, a simple compilation of short essays on different words we use every day.  Alone.  Touch.  Gratitude.  Memory.  Procrastination. The essays convey Whyte’s thoughts on the words and how they impact our lives.  My two favorite are Courage and Gratitude. I read them often in the early morning, before I start my day.  Gratitude came to me yesterday; Mother’s Day. So I picked up my copy and read it again.  “Gratitude is not a passive response to something we have been given, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.”  Being present. So often my mind wonders from the physical place I am, to the dark underbelly of motherhood: worry, guilt, anxiety. I can’t let go of the fear that holds me, I can’t reign my imagination in as it races across the landscape. I can’t hear the birds or feel the breeze, I can’t feel the cold of the winter air or the snow on my eyelashes. I can’t feel anything. Except worry. Except anxiety. Except fear.

What am I teaching my children? That the world is a frightening, worrisome, dangerous place. That I don’t trust them. That I believe they are fragile. That even though I say “Learn from your mistakes and start again.”, what I really mean is if you make a mistake it will saddle you — and me — with guilt and pressure and worry until … until the end of time.

“Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness … Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences.  Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.”  Whyte. Do I want to teach my children, with my distracted worry and fear, that I am not present? That I am not grateful? That I am not so blessed to be their momma — even when the reality of their lives is different than what I might have pictured? That despite our challenges my pride comes from knowing — better than anyone — who they really are and what they hold in their heart?

As my children age and my dreams and visions of their futures mold into the stories of their lives, I want to remember what really matters.  That they get back up. That they keep trying. That they are brave and bold. That they do the right thing — and when they inevitably fail they make amends and try again.  That is what success should look like. That is what pride should look like. And I am damn proud.

Take care,


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