Grief, not Guilt

Last week my 7-year-old son was indulging in the evening crazies at our house, when spontaneous dance parties and toddler tumbling break out (in this unending winter, they’ve been happening on the regular—almost as much as picking and fighting and screaming and tattling).  He ran up to me, panting, and begged me to pick him up and throw him on to our couch.  I was distracted by cleaning up dinner, and hastily replied, “You’re too big for me to pick you up like that anymore.”

It stopped me in my tracks, my hands still and deep in the dishwater.  When did my baby boy, who used to spend hours in a carrier on my back in the kitchen, curled around me like a baby koala, his heels and toes digging into my hips as he stretched to peek over my shoulder and watch me chopping and mixing and stirring, become too big for me to carry?  I could have dragged him to the couch, but it would have been awkward and ungainly and the key word would have been drop, not throw.  He’s too big.

My 3-year-old daughter has been sneaking into my bed at night lately, staying until my back stiffens and I’m forced to get up and carry her back into her room.  I scoop her up, my arm under her hot neck, her body relaxed, trusting, her hands still gripping her well-worn stuffed lovies.  One night in a sleepy haze, I thought, “someday she’ll be too big for this.”  And my heart hurt, beating against her cheek.

Parenting is a lesson in letting go from the start—packing away the tiny newborn clothes, washing up the last bottles, selling the swing and bouncy seat and baby gym.  It’s an almost daily practice in turning away from what’s done in order to make room for what’s ahead.  In a recent Facebook conversation between various pastors and mothers, one woman lifted up the difference between guilt and grief in parenting.  She wrote something like, “When I finally realized that what I was feeling wasn’t guilt, but grief, I found it easier to accept the changes and move on.”

It masks itself as guilt for the days/months/years we did/didn’t nurse/stay home/bedshare/wean.  But oh, is it grief—those moments of profound sadness when you realize you can give away the baby furniture, but not the beat-up and stained glider that rocked through countless warm, quiet, lonely, sleepy middle-of-the-night feedings.  To know it as the melancholy of change, the letting go of what will never be again, a recognition of growing older, we can move forward to what is ahead, to exciting new growth, to walking aside my kids instead of carrying them, to wonder why I ever wanted to stop holding them when they were babies—because thankfully time also blesses me with hazy memories of those difficult first months, and I can be glad they are over, without guilt, but with a little sadness.

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