“People don’t talk a lot about the grief part,” she said.
It’s true. I think that’s why it hit me so unexpectedly. Before I got pregnant, the idea of a new baby seemed like a joyful experience, carried out in an exhausted but happy haze. Once I was pregnant, I realized that in addition to joy and exhaustion, I was prepared for anxiety and doubt to creep into those early days; I already loved this tiny creature growing inside me so much that I was overcome with fear that I might not be the mother he deserved. But what I was never prepared for what the way grief would be an integral part of my experience as a mother.
As my son crosses the threshold from infancy to toddlerhood, I realize that grief is one of the cycles of motherhood, always returning and calling on me to feel its weight as we transition from one season to the next.
Grief first appeared in those early days after we came home with our new baby. Amplified by sleep deprivation and a Molotov cocktail of hormones raging in my body, it found me standing in the shower, shaking with sobs as I mourned my changing relationship with my husband, the loss of my freedom, my bodily autonomy. I had been determined that I wouldn’t be “one of those mothers” who lost her sense of self, but I was certain that it was happening anyway. I felt like my entire existence was chained to the tiny human I’d just delivered into the world, and it was a connection I both cherished and feared.
It wasn’t until my son was nearly a month old that I ventured outside the house on my own for the first time, and as I walked from my car to the building where my lactation consultant had a set of flanges waiting for me, I carried out a text-message confessional with a dear friend.
“It’s hard, but in way that’s different from any other difficult thing I’ve ever done,” I told her. “Now, I’m a completely different person, and it happened over night. I had to grieve for what I feel like I lost.”
“People don’t talk a lot about the grief part,” she texted back. “My biggest advice: talk to other mothers. Motherhood is supposed to be shared. It is a sacred club you just joined.”
That was the gentle ray of hope that started to pull me out of the fog of that first grieving cycle. I wasn’t alone. This was normal. And it’s okay to be sad about what I’ve lost, as long as I don’t lose sight of what I’ve gained.
Not long after that, the wheels started turning again. Grief reached up and pulled on my heart as I folded my son’s preemie-sized clothes and tucked them carefully into a box. I felt my throat tighten as I accepted that he would never, ever wear these tiny clothes again, which were too big when we brought him home for the first time. I mourned the sweetness of those early days, which had felt so heavy when they were happening. Now, with time offering perspective and wisdom, I held on to the memory of drinking in my son’s newness while I found myself in my new role.
It happened again when I returned to work at the end of my maternity leave, and when we dropped him off at daycare for the first time. Again, when we moved him out of our bedroom to his crib in his own room. And grief peeked around the corner once more when my son came down with a stomach virus, and it became clear that sleeping in bed with me and my husband was not comforting to him—he wanted to be in his own bed, and he immediately fell asleep once I moved him from my arms to his crib.
I think of the familiar image of an older mother warning younger mothers to “Enjoy this time now! It goes by too fast!” And I realize that all mothers carry a bit of grief in their hearts wherever they go, because motherhood is tied to change, and it’s change that takes place in the living blueprint of our souls: our children.
In a couple of weeks, my family will move from Pennsylvania to Iowa. Central Pennsylvania has been our home for three years, and I will forever know it as the place where I became a mother. As we pack up our belongings and prepare to move away from the landmarks of my early motherhood, grief has settled into my heart once more. I want to hold on to the walks my husband and I took around the neighborhood with our two-week old strapped into his stroller. I never want to forget the view of my son’s nursery as I rocked him in the glider in the corner.
It occurs to me that while grief is painful, it directs our attention to what holds the most meaning in our lives. It is inherently beautiful, even in its sadness, because we only miss the things that were truly wonderful. We don’t grieve what hasn’t served us. And when grief reveals to us what matters most, it also gives us the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been—and where we’re headed.
Today, my son crawled across the room to be with me. He climbed up my legs and reached for me to pull him into my arms, and I kissed the top of his head and breathed in his sweetness. It didn’t happen immediately, but at some point I let go of grieving for my former life, and turned my attention toward welcoming the joys and challenges of each day in this new existence. I know that I do not want to be any other version of myself than the one deserving of my son’s focus and energy as he treks across a room.