I read a book several years ago called Necessary Losses by Judith Viorst. It’s a great book about how each stage in life brings with it a set of losses that are endemic to that stage and necessary for movement through it and the ones to follow. I’ve been thinking about that book a bit lately.
I have always fancied myself someone who is accepting of life evolutions and changes (changes in my everyday world, not so much; but movement through life’s phases and cycles, pretty much). My daughter used to say things like “Mom, can you believe it? I’m a teenager now!” and “Can you believe I’m in high school?” And while at some level it was impressive that we had made it this far alive, given that one day when she was 2 or 3, behind me as we walked down the stairs, I felt a sudden urge to turn around only to find her midair, leaping for me to catch her—an incompletely calculated plan about which I was fully unware. I spread my feet for better balance and managed to catch her in my arms and get us both down the rest of the stairs intact. I put her down, sat on the bottom step, and cried. How in the world am I going to keep her alive until she’s grown? I thought. So on that level, and given that particular memory and others like it emblazoned in my skull, it did seem rather striking that we had made it to 13 years old or 9th grade. But otherwise, it didn’t seem all that incredible that we had reached these points; it felt right, and timely. I felt every bit of the 13 life years, or the 9+ school years. Every bit. In fact, sometimes they seemed late in coming. Sometimes I thought, “Only fifteen? Are you sure? Wow. Funny. Seems so much longer.”
When I got really hit with “I can’t believe it” was last year when she went to college. She seemed ready for this stage so I wasn’t worried about her making it, at all. What I couldn’t seem to swallow was the fact that a great deal of my work was already done. What unsettled me was that if, at some point, I realized that I had left important components out of the life foundation I had lain with her, then I couldn’t really fix it. She’d just have to shore up that foundation on her own. And this seemed unjust somehow, having to fill in the gaps your mother left when you have your own life work to do, a life structure to build, without having to worry about whether the foundation team did their work right. I spent a good bit of time reworking that thinking and am, for now, in a better place but it was tricky there for a while. Heavy, and tearful. Almost unbearably. As part of my reworking I had to remember that the “foundation team” consisted of a great many more people than her and me, even though it seemed much of the time like we were more a duo than a team and like a good bit of our effort was poured into adjusting the “contributions” of the rest of the foundation team rather than doing our own work. But I was hardly the only influence. And maybe not even the primary influence I thought I was, for all I know. Besides, my therapist told me that if my children should seek the help of a therapist some day, it might very well have nothing to do with me. I must confess that in my own maternal narcissism this possibility had not occurred to me. I felt quite liberated by the new perspective, and that was probably the beginning of my reworking my thinking. Another part of it was realizing that no parent can lay a perfect or even finished foundation. All our foundations are sort of cobbled together and patched over and shored up by a variety of life experiences—those of the parents, the children, the other people that pass in and out of our lives. All of us have continuing work to do in shoring up and patching our foundations. And I found myself, in all of this reworking of my thinking, being more forgiving of myself, and understanding my own mother so much better. Being so much more gentle, sparing, in my appraisals of the foundation work these mothers have done.