“What do you fear most in this life?
What is your biggest fear? Right now.
…I am afraid that I’ll die without having lived fully.” ~ Stephen Cope, The Great Work of Your Life
These words, as I re-read them now, continue to tug at my heart with the same intensity and urgency as the first time I’ve read them.
Until now, the fear of not living fully mostly had to do with what I felt was my unfulfilled personal potential. Having made a choice to stay home to raise my children, I have lately confronted highly uncomfortable feelings that I may have made wrong choices in life…That I have diverted all of my attention to other people, forgetting my own needs, my own life.
Working on coming to terms with my choice, I’ve dealt with feelings of shame, regret, and even anger. Regret that I’ve defined myself so narrowly. Shame at wasting my potential. Anger that I have allowed that to happen.
When my first published article was on motherhood and my confusing experience with it, I felt inadequate that my “coming out” subject was not more “sophisticated” or more important. Always my own harshest judge, I felt that as other “accomplished” women debate politics, go to rallies, and make a “real” contribution to the world, all I can really talk about is how difficult it is to raise happy people.
A lot has changed since my first article. My horizons have broadened, as has my impact on the world outside of my home. Yet, as I congratulate myself on how far I have come, and try to get excited about the possibilities in the new year, I notice that I am still questioning my choices in life.
My eldest daughter was just home for the holidays for the first time since she left for university in August. The anticipation of her impending arrival was filling my heart with joy and trepidation for weeks. On the morning she was due to arrive, as I savored the dream of reuniting my children under my wing, I had posted one of my favorite pictures of me and my three girls, when they were still little.
It is a perfect reflection of what I thought motherhood would be, when I dreamed of having a baby. Smiley children, all looking into the camera at the same time, not a frown nor a hint of temper tantrum in sight. Amazingly, they were still wearing the beautiful bows I’ve strapped into their hair! The picture must have been snapped in that elusive moment between me staging it and them revolting. Each one does have a lollipop in their hands, which may explain the real reason for their cooperation. And then there is me, much younger and triumphantly smiling: the proud Mama Bear with her three cubs, licked clean.
Within the first few hours of posting that picture, as admiring likes, hearts, and comments started to pour in, I began feeling like a total fraud. In my mind the picture became a metaphor for a world I have lost, the world that perhaps never was…
The moment my daughter arrived, too thin and exhausted, was a collision of dream and reality. She was once my baby. Now she wasn’t mine at all.
Yes, she was that girl in the picture, the baby I carried within me, the child on whom I focused all of my intelligence, creativity, and dreams. She was my project, my reason for being, and the one who always found such a load too heavy to bear. With additional piercings and a tattoo, my adult child came home, more intolerant of anyone restricting the full span of her wings than ever.
As I attempted to process the spectrum of my reactions, from tears of joy to tears of sorrow, I landed in a temporary safe space of philosophical detachment. I sensed that I must make sure this new person feels at ease here, no matter what. I want her to feel welcome, accepted, and loved for exactly who she is and not my idealized memories of her as a child. She needs to feel safe with me to be herself, now that she finally has the space and the freedom to be her.
One evening, as I was telling a story, I mentioned my daughter’s favorite food when she was still a little girl. I felt the tickling and burning in my heart and the unexpected tears came immediately and in a great flood: it used to be so easy!
It was so easy when they were the age pictured in this photo; I knew how to make them happy! It could have been a favorite food, or a surprise trip to a new park, or an extra story at bedtime. The list was long! There were so many ways in which I could light up my children’s world. And yet, in the daily haze of life I was not always aware of it or took the time to indulge them with their favorite things. I often felt overextended. I sometimes even felt resentful, because it all just felt like too much…
I mourn those days when I was the light that could illuminate the world of my children, when one kind word could make a difference, an extra kiss at the right time could set everything straight.
Those days are over. My eldest daughter is now adult. On the second day at home, when I asked her what she loves most about university she said: “Freedom! No one telling me what to do!”
It is hard not to take this personally, not to feel rejected.
Could I have done more? Could I have done more then to make her happy now?
So much of the joy of motherhood is seeing the happy faces of our children. Their smiles and thriving is also our feedback. As they grow into adults those smiles are harder to come by. A favorite food, an extra treat is not going to do it anymore. A different kind of effort is required from us.
We actually need to focus on ourselves and let go of the need to control others. Understand who we are, what makes us happy and fulfilled, and take that responsibility off of other people. Learn about what real love is, expand our capacities for tolerance and compassion, and accept others for exactly who they are. Stay in our integrity and let them be in theirs.
As our children grow into independent adults it becomes their task to make themselves happy. To know who they are and what they need for fulfilment. It is no longer our role. Our role now is to step aside from protective hovering and give them space to dare greatly, all the while making sure they know that the safety net of our love is always there, without doubt.
The holidays weren’t easy for me. But the evening before my daughter left back to school, we hugged. It was one of those moments. The way we stayed in it. The way we both equally gave ourselves to it. The way she applied pressure, just as much as I did. How open and unguarded we both were at that moment, no distance between us at all. No words were exchanged, but our hearts were saying, “I love you. And I thank you for everything. Everything. And I am here for you. Always.”
It was no longer me giving and her taking, as is often the dynamic between mothers and children. No, we were both giving, sharing, partaking fully in that rare moment, a stolen moment of bliss in the stream of life.
I no longer regret posting that picture. Those perfect moments do exist, as fleeting and short as they are. And that is what makes life worth living: it is those rare sparks in the middle of struggle and everyday drudgery that stick out in our memories. They are the symbols for something that is perhaps a mixture of fantasy and reality, but they fill our hearts, nourish our minds and make life feel harmonious, beautiful—almost perfect.
What is my biggest fear? Right now?
It is that I will die without having loved fully. That I will die and leave the people who matter to me the most with a sneaking suspicion that I did not love them enough.
Not enough to appreciate our differences. Not enough to accept with ease the fact that they are not like me. Not enough to transmit to them that they are enough.
Parent-child bonding is directly related to the development of our self-worth. It is also the basis for all further relationships.
The happiness of our children is our most precious contribution to the world.
It is also the most challenging role of my life. I have made so many mistakes and will continue questioning myself, but I am finally at peace with the choices I’ve made.
Author: Galina Singer
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Khara-Jade Warren
Copy /Social Editor: Sara Kärpänen