By Miki Fire, Psy.D.
As a relatively new parent, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience of this new role. Like many of you, my experience in parenting has come with some unbelievable moments of joy; the feeling of holding your baby for the first time, of seeing your baby laugh or smile at you, watching as your baby begins to crawl and then stand and eventually walk and run. Of course, there are all the challenges as well; trying to soothe a colicky baby, endless hours of rocking and bouncing and shooshing your little one to sleep (not to mention your own sleep deprivation), or trying to communicate to a toddler that he needs to have patience and wait a few seconds before you can give him that toy he’s reaching for. Alongside these there might also be myriad challenges in parenting alongside your partner who may have his or her own different ideas of what’s best.
Most of what we are exposed to—in the popular media, in our pediatrician’s office, in the conversations at the playground and even at most new parent support groups—are these kinds of ups and downs.
What we hear much less about, if ever, is a much more subtle experience, yet one that is absolutely felt, and that is the grief and sense of loss that is also associated with parenting. Especially in the early years of being a parent, the feelings of sadness and outright grief and mourning can be quite intense, yet are rarely discussed. Because we don’t often talk about this grief, we sometimes wonder if it’s normal, we may pathologize it, push it away, or simply keep it to ourselves
Have you ever noticed, as a parent, how painful the experience can be? How much that sense of love for your child also brings with it a sense of sometimes overwhelming heartache? How in each moment, even if that moment has been unbelievably trying, there is sometimes a surprising sense of nostalgia for that same experience once it has passed?
Why is there such a sense of grief and loss in parenting?
I think that the first days and weeks and months of parenting can be so new and, for many of us challenging, that we tend to feel primarily the relief and joy with each new development. “Ah, she is finally sleeping five hours straight! She doesn’t need to be burped every time she eats! I can put her down for a few minutes and make myself a cup of tea without her fussing!” But what we don’t always feel as strongly, at least not on the surface, is the ending that comes with each new moment, each achievement.
Not one instant can be held on to. Not one day is the same. The minute a new milestone is achieved whatever preceded it is gone, simply folded into the next movement. Your baby’s balancing on two knees becomes a crawl, then a crouch, which becomes an unbalanced stand, a first step, a walk, a run. Even with language, those little gurgles and raspberries which become babbling and eventually actual words. Once you have a child that has mastered the art of language, it might be hard to imagine that you lived with an essentially non-verbal being for a couple of years! Whatever the development, each new movement echoes some past experience, but we never go back, ever. Our tendency is often to focus on the new step our baby has taken, but we don’t necessarily say goodbye to the previous stage that has now been mastered.
Of course there will be more firsts. In fact, all there ever will be are firsts. But every first is also a last. As parents we often joke about how once you have finally mastered some aspect of your child’s development she is on to the next milestone, leaving you to have to figure out a whole new set of tricks. There is joy and relief in moving onto what is new, but there is also a sense of ineffable loss for whatever phase has now come to an end.
If we really think about this experience for a moment, we can begin to touch on the poignancy of this ongoing experience. In a way, being a parent is to witness what it truly means to be alive, as a human being. To know that each day, each moment, each breath, comes and then goes. Parenting, in this way, gives us a very palpable sense of impermanence.
And of course this reflection of impermanence so perfectly revealed in our children is true for everything. As adults we tend to not see the subtle changes that are happening; maybe because they appear so much less dramatic they are missed, easily overlooked, or even denied. Changes tend to blend into one another affording us the illusion that things are essentially the same. It may not be until we are much older, or witnessing the aging process in our own parents, that we have a palpable sense of the passing of time. But it is simply impossible to not see how quickly everything ends when you are in the presence of your child.
And for many people, this constant experience of endings brings with it a feeling of deep heartache. People may have warned you about many of the other challenges of becoming a parent, but rarely do people warn you of the bittersweetness that comes as each day comes to an end and your child is one day older. Yes, there is a deep sigh at the end of a long day, after all the toys have been cleaned up and you can finally sink into the couch with a good book. But for some people there is also a sense of loss. This feeling may be experienced as a sense of depression even. It may be felt as a general fatigue or apathy. Maybe a tearfulness that you cannot explain, or even a feeling of agitation or irritation. We sometimes talk about post-partum depression or “baby blues,” but we rarely acknowledge that these feelings of malaise may actually be normal and appropriate grief for this new experience.
Because in addition to the sense of loss that can come with watching your child change so rapidly is also a very reasonable experience of mourning that may come with the huge transition you are experiencing as a parent. There may be a sense of loss for the person you felt you were before you had children, or the relationship you and your partner had that was just the two of you. If you already have children there may be a feeling of sadness and loss that you no longer can spend all of your parenting time with your other child or children, that this energy is now shared.
We are generally told that we should be happy and grateful to bring children into the world. But rarely are we told that it is okay to also feel pain for the life we have left behind. And this life is truly behind us, even when our children are older and we can work more, spend more time with our friends and alone, it will never be the same.
A part of you may wonder, what can I do about all of this? What should I do about all of this?
Grief is an experience that many people attempt to bypass because it can often be so painful. But my clinical experience has repeatedly shown me that grief is an incredibly important experience that, if possible, is best travelled through, not around. Especially for anyone who has experienced bouts of depression or anxiety that have not lifted easily, there may be a fear that if you turn towards the feelings of sadness and loss, they may just get bigger and more stuck. When you first turn towards your grief, it may feel like it does get bigger, more poignant, or more painful. This is normal. If it is too much to be with, then let yourself turn away towards something else. But notice when you are intentionally avoiding feelings of grief. Even just this noticing is a subtle acknowledgment of the grief that might be there. Here are a few suggestions for how to be with your grief.
- Begin my simply acknowledging that all of the feelings you are having as a parent are completely normal. Give them permission to be here.
- When you notice a difficult emotion, like sadness or some pain, just let yourself acknowledge it is there. You don’t have to do anything more. In fact, with the busyiness of parenting, you may not have space to really do more than this.
- Find a time in the day when you can turn more fully towards whatever feelings have been coming up. Maybe this is while your child is napping, at school, or in bed for the night. During this time, just give your whole body and mind permission to feel whatever feelings may be there and have been there. Even this is enough. You don’t have to do anything with the feelings, just feel.
- If it is hard to just stay with your feelings in an unguided way, here are some suggestions for ways to turn towards, and acknowledge your grief: Use a journal and let yourself write openly about your grief, paint, draw, or engage in any other art form on the theme of grief, set aside 10 minutes to simply sit quietly and invite your feelings to be with you. Just by setting an intention to be present with your feelings, any activity has the potential to be a practice in more fully processing your grief.
- Talk with someone. A friend, your partner, a therapist. Naming your feelings can be one of the more powerful ways of working with grief. When we put words to our inner experiences it often leads to a shift in the experience itself and a deeper sense of meaning.
In essence, my suggestion is, take it all in, let whatever feelings you might have in this process be here in their complete fullness. And know that, even whatever you are feeling now will not be with you forever. Grief (unlike some clinical depressions) does have a way of moving and changing. The grief you may feel as a parent will inevitably shift as your child changes.
And remember, really being honest about these feelings and letting yourself really feel is an extraordinary gift, not only for yourself, but also for your child. You are teaching him or her that emotions, even difficult ones, are okay, survivable, and can even serve as doorways to something new.