Grief plays tricks. It sneaks up and slaps you in the back of your head. Today, I was watching my car go through the car wash, soapy brushes swirling away the dirt, when I heard the chiming chords of the Faces song “Ooh La La.” I immediately began to cry.
“Ooh La La” was on frequent rotation in our household three years ago, when COVID delivered my two adult daughters home in a panic. Anna arrived first, her senior year at college abruptly over. Julia came in from Chicago a week later, spooked by the empty grocery store shelves and the abrupt closing of her work. We huddled together for months, a most unusual development for a family with two adult girls. We played games, ate meals, comforted each other, argued occasionally, and listened to music. Music like “Ooh La La.”
I know plenty of parents of adult children who derived secret pleasure from the Covid lockdown. It wasn’t seemly, surely, to be a little bit happy about Covid. Who could feel such a thing? But there was indeed pleasure in that unexpected time, a crowded dining room table, a full back seat, week after week of a reunited family.
Years later, my daughters are back where they are supposed to be. Read that as: far away. Julia lives in LA, living her best life with her boyfriend, and their new puppy. Anna lives much closer, in Philly. But she is busy with two jobs, a great apartment, and her new relationship.
Will Julia be home for the holidays? No, she has to work. Will Anna attend my next big talk? No, she will be at a wedding.
This is how it is now. I am a late middle-aged woman who has raised two amazing daughters and they are off, being amazing somewhere without me.
What a bitter pill motherhood can be. When you have either had exceptional luck, or done a good job, your adult children are confident enough to move far away. They are strong, smart, and self-supporting. Off they sail to California, like my daughter, or Colorado, like my friend’s daughter, or on a cruise ship sailing the world, like my friend’s son.
We moms know what to say. “What a wonderful opportunity! I’m so proud of you!” we proclaim brightly, choking back our tears. “California is gorgeous; you are really lucky to move there.” We say the right words. We mean them too, or at least part of us does. The part which isn’t grieving.
My innards ache. My heart hurts. I could cry at the drop of a hat. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” No day feels complete. Only the sound of my daughters’ voices, chatting together, fills me with complete happiness. My heart has been ripped out of my body and I will never get it back.
No one dances in the kitchen. No wide grins beam across the table. No blond hairs lay in the sink. No sneakers crowd the back door. Where is the pile of jackets? Where is the wet laundry at the bottom of the washing machine? Where is the rap music when I wash dishes? Where are the girls who don’t feel like hugging their mother, but do anyway, draping their arms reluctantly around my shoulders?
I worked so hard to raise these girls right. Having been a neglected child whose parents rarely paid attention, I had no internal roadmap to guide me. I figured out how to parent using three models: my brother, parenting books, and desperate consultations with my friends. Adding to the challenge, I had divorced the girls’ father, and we did not usually function well as co-parents. I did have my husband Doug though, and he was all in. But we only had the girls half-time. I did everything possible to bond with them, teach them, love them, and help them during that precious half-time.
All that effort, all that devotion, all that self-sacrifice. Making lunches and packing snacks. Spreading sunscreen on wriggling protesting bodies. Climbing out of bed at 3:00 AM because a tiny voice is howling (To be honest, this was mostly my husband). Enduring elementary school band concerts. Yawning through middle school band concerts. Miraculously arriving at high school jazz band concerts, astounded that my daughter played the saxophone like a rock star.
Vacations which consisted of taking all my tasks and doing them in a more attractive location. Sweating through Disney World, standing on line after endless line so “Snow White” and “Belle” would sign their precious autograph books. (Autograph books which now lay abandoned and discarded in their closets.)
Driving to day care. Driving to school. Driving to camp. Driving to the pediatrician. Driving to the dentist. Driving to the orthodontist. To tennis lessons. To gymnastics lessons. To basketball .To the voice teacher. To tap class. To ballet class. To jazz class. To the flute teacher. To play rehearsal. To the dermatologist. To the gynecologist (GOOD LORD!). To the eye doctor. To band practice. To college visits. To SATs. To “Accepted Students Weekends.”
Onesies, footie pajamas, overalls, kindergarten dresses, soccer cleats, winter jackets lost on the bus, unitards, sweaty band uniforms, prom dresses, graduation gowns.
What is the reward of being a good mother to a blessedly healthy child? They leave you. You show them the world and they go out and take it. The only consolation is knowing that you are lucky. There is a worse prospect: the child who never leaves. Either because they won’t leave, or they can’t leave (which I guess could be the same thing.) So, not only am I heartbroken that my children are so independent, but I also feel guilty. I am fortunate, am I not?
A number of my clients are older mothers like me, dealing with the same loss. Two are new empty-nesters, with both of their children now in college. Another’s son is moving to Vermont. Another’s daughter moved to Colorado. Another’s son moved to Nevada. Somewhere during the course of their sessions, they begin to cry. “It’s so far away!” Another says, “What am I supposed to do with myself now?”
I validate. I comfort. I suggest they read Judith Viorst's book Necessary Losses. I point out that the alternative to these losses are the kids who never leave home. I validate some more. I encourage them to move into this new stage of life, when they are free to return to art class, to book club, to travel, to writing. I do not say that I feel exactly like them.
Like all long-term grief, this mourning is not constant. I do not always feel like this. Many days I bustle about, happy in my clean, neat house, with no piles of shoes by the door, and all the coats hung neatly in the closet. Many days I enjoy the quiet, luxuriating in peaceful dinners for two with my husband. I can read, I can think. I work on projects and dream big, unencumbered by parental obligations. Many days, I am perfectly content, not grieving in the slightest.
But then ‘Ooh La La” comes on at the car wash. Or I hear “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” and remember my Julia, who was once a perfect Liesl. Or a picture pops up on our family photo frame, with my Anna’s dazzling smile. Or any one of a thousand tender memories tumble into my mind.
How could it all be gone? Where did it go? If I loved them less, would it hurt less? (I think this was my mother’s accommodation to the endless losses in her life. She either stopped caring, or perhaps she never had.) I don’t know. No, I never wish to care less. Loving this hard also feels like being alive. I would rather love like this, feeling the knife of grief occasionally twist in my heart than love less deeply. Its better this way.
We birth our precious babies, we raise them, we give them the best years of our lives, and eventually (if all goes well) we smile and wave as they drive away. We go inside, have a good cry, feel the pain. Like all grief, it comes and it goes, and we learn to live with it. That is what we do. We all do it.
Like everything else, we do it for them.