Being a mother is a series of lettings-go. From the day we give birth and bid farewell to the bump,
allow the cutting of the cord, release any illusion that we will ever be the same again, we are on a roller-coaster ride of letting go and catching up. The first time we feel the love that outshines any idea we ever had of how great love could be, we let go the fantasy that we are in control of anything. We know that this love owns us, and that we will go wherever it bids. All our boundaries are expanded by the enormity of this love. A tiny being has exploded into our carefully constructed life and is indisputably in charge. A brand-new person whose name is Paradox now calls the shots. Impossibly helpless and vulnerable, he is the most powerful person in the household. Tiny and knowing nothing of its workings, she is the most important person in the world. We must let go of everything we thought we knew, and begin again, as vulnerable as this precious little one who, terrifyingly, depends on us for everything.
As she grows, we let go our previous priorities and routines, perhaps some of our friendships, and attitudes towards our parents. We release our judgements as we’re humbled by what we can be, and what we wish to be, and awed by the magnitude of something as every-day and as miraculous as parenting.
I remember, when my first daughter was a few months old, trying to explain to a childless friend the bottomlessness of my love for her. I couldn’t do it, then or now. There are some things that words can’t touch. Only a mother can know, and even then no two women’s experiences are quite the same. But I remember talking about the agony and ecstasy of mother-love. The raw, nerve-trembling double-edged emotion. How, when he cannot be consoled, we feel our own hearts breaking. How, when she smiles, we feel the radiant warmth of a thousand sunny days.
Each letting-go cuts like a knife. No longer being her sole source of nourishment as she takes her first solid food. The end of breast-feeding. First day of nursery, watching him enjoy the company of others, overjoyed and devastated that he didn’t give a backward glance. Then there’s school, and those exclusive friendships that are made of pacts and secrets. Outings and playdates with new friends. Wanting to make their parents swear they will drive carefully, hold her hand as she crosses the road, not take their eyes off him as he splashes in the pool. Danger is everywhere, and it’s vital to detach from all the possibilities or we would go insane.
My children’s adolescence was, at times, a kind of purgatory for me. Advanced-level letting-go. Finding that exquisite balance between standing back to give them the essential space to discover who they truly were, and weren’t, and being there when needed, without putting my own life too much on hold. As an overstretched single parent, I got it wrong more often than I care to own. They made it through by virtue of their own brave hearts and shining spirits and have all made me proud, continuing to do so every day.
And now they are all gone. It’s four years since my youngest left for university, and just this month she’s graduated and secured her dream job. The last one to step onto her own life’s path.
I have a full and happy life, a wonderful marriage to my husband of five years, an exciting career, great friends, many interests. The three young adults who will always be my children keep in touch. I’m happy with their life-choices and the relationships we have. Yet, every so often, my heart breaks with the lack of them, in my home, my arms, the forefront of my every-day. My mind cannot conceive of the reality that those babies, children, teenagers no longer exist in this dimension. That I will never again play the series of roles to which parents get used to adapting, always adapting; always letting go and catching up, until the final role, the final letting go.
I keep thinking I have done it. I live my life, and I am happy, and they are happy, and I am happy that they’re happy, and then suddenly one of them is not happy and I’m no longer the default safe haven. I have to sit back and let her work it out for herself, trust that others will give him what he needs, that her own resilience will see her through, that he knows I’m here if he needs me.
I know they have to practice not needing me, not the way they used to, and I realise my process of letting go isn’t over yet. Perhaps it never will be. Because the love will not diminish. The need for them to be OK does not fade when I can no longer make it so.
So I get on with my life and they get on with theirs. Separate lives now, as it has to be. The desired outcome was always for them to be independent; to be able to live without me; and their ability to do so is a triumph of success. Mission accomplished. Hooray for all of us!
My mind knows this, and it is glad, it really is. My heart knows it too, and is content, even as it breaks again for what has been and what is now and what is still to come, and catches up with the double-edged reality of being Mother, in an empty nest.