Friday, September 17, 2021

If You Love Something, Let It Go

Having a family is equal parts wonder, exasperation, and heartbreak. Lately, it's been heavy on the heartbreak.

My oldest daughter left for college recently. Though she's not even half-an-hour away, her departure felt like a death. I know I shouldn't compare the two things, because the dead cannot text or call or visit like a college student who lives nearby can, but the blow of her absence was as devastating as losing a loved one. You don't realize how many little, yet meaningful, interactions you have with someone you love and live with until they're gone. In many ways over the past year, I had become closer to her than my husband.

"I guess you'll have to talk to me now," my husband said. Before I could stop myself, I laughed out loud. Talk to my husband? Ha! The suggestion seemed ludicrous.

The first couple of days without my firstborn, it was a struggle just to get through each moment. I felt like I had a gaping wound right through the center of my chest. I tried to distract myself with outings and beauty and mind-numbingly stupid entertainment, but the sadness would break through and I couldn't stop crying. It was a bottomless well of emotion that kept surging up. Nothing helped me feel better.

Sure, I'd heard of Empty Nest Syndrome, but I guess I thought it was something that much older helicopter moms with no lives of their own experienced. I thought that being relatively young (for having a child in college already) and having a job would protect me from it. And just in case, I started having babies again to guarantee I would continue to feel like a mom and keep my house full and my life busy. But it doesn't work that way. You can't replace people, not with busyness and not with more people. That probably seems obvious to everyone reading this, and on a rational level, I knew that, but to feel it was a whole 'nother thing.

So instead of being too preoccupied with other things to grieve my firstborn leaving, I had to grieve while also managing a household, working, and parenting a very needy toddler – not to mention growing a baby that I still feel deeply ambivalent about.  

And the losses just kept on coming. No sooner did my older teen depart than my younger teen got a car, returned to in-person school, and started a new job. In other words, we never saw one another. 

Then my toddler entered daycare – and to say it was a rough transition would be an understatement. I thought we had carefully selected a quality Christian child care center, but taking a 10-minute tour and actually surrendering your child to a bunch of strangers for 20 hours a week are two completely different things. My toddler wailed and thrashed when I passed her off to the daycare caregivers (who suddenly seemed to be different people every day rather than one consistent, caring presence). I would hold my emotions in until I was out of sight, but I started crying in the hallway and continued into the parking lot and all the way home. 

Though the daycare sent me pictures of my toddler, looking complacent if not content, every morning, when she got home in the afternoons, she was more volatile than ever. She wouldn’t eat, her naps shrunk to just over an hour a day, and she acted out more often. She clearly wasn’t happy with the new arrangement.

Nor was I. All of a sudden, I found myself at the kitchen table in an empty house, the deliciously cool, autumn-esque breeze blowing through the screen door, hours stretched ahead of me with no one demanding my attention. This is what I wanted, wasn't it? Peace and quiet? Breathing room? So why, instead of relief, did I feel like I’d been deserted on an island? Why did it feel like I had lost all of my children in the span of only a few days?

Instead of luxuriating in the new normal, I regressed to old coping mechanisms. I baked huge slabs of brookies and binged. I answered an ex's email. I immersed myself in grisly true crime stories (my current obsession: all things Dr. Death). I was wasting most of my daycare time trying to avoid or medicate my feelings about daycare! I did every unhealthy thing in my arsenal to check out until it was time to go pick up my little one.

One afternoon when I went to pick up my toddler from daycare, she had dried snot stains running down her face, indicating she'd been crying, hard. Another day, I arrived and heard her wails all the way from the front door. I raced to the toddler room, where my daughter was so relieved to see me and so eager to get into my arms, she ran too fast and face-planted.

“What happened?” I asked, thinking my toddler had been injured prior to my arrival.

“It’s just a sympathy cry,” the teacher said, claiming a little boy had gotten upset and my toddler was simply reacting to his emotions.

I looked around the room. No one else was crying.

Perhaps impulsively, I contacted the center’s director that afternoon and announced I was pulling my toddler out of daycare. What I didn’t realize is that in doing so, I was forfeiting a week's worth of tuition and seriously limiting my childcare options. Now I'm racing to find a nanny (which I really can't afford and are in short supply anyway) or a different daycare center (which I really don't want to traumatize my toddler with, and besides, the good ones are all full) before the baby is born.

And speaking of the baby, you’d think that given how wrecked I've been over my older teen leaving for college, how in the hell could I even contemplate giving a baby up for adoption? But, in the midst of all this emotional turmoil and change, I initiated what's known as a "match meeting," meaning my husband and I are going to sit down with a childless couple to talk about the possibility of them raising our baby. 

Why did I do that? Because, I guess, I realized that children are no buffer against sadness, against loss, against heartache, against much of anything, really. They help you inch closer to understanding the meaning of life but they can also make you feel like death warmed over. As a mom, I often feel like my choices boil down to: whose heart should I break? My child's or my own?

I don't know how hard it would be to give up a newborn baby, but I do know how hard parenting is. And I don't know if I can take any more…

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