Before becoming a parent, it never really occurred to me that one of the many feelings I would experience as a parent would be heartbreak. I pictured heart-pounding love, unexplainable joy, and overwhelming responsibility. If I pictured having any negative feelings at all, they could simply be summed up as fear, anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion. After all, none of the moms I knew back then ever spoke of heartbreak.
Then, I had a baby. A beautiful, healthy baby. And I felt joy—and love and fear and anxiety and exhaustion and hope.
We experienced all the normal milestones a mom plans for and looks forward to with a newborn: the learning to nurse, the first bath, the first signs of a smile. And then a giggle, rolling over, sleeping through the night, and the first real (Whoa! That was louder than I imagined!) laughter.
And then, suddenly, it was time for me to go back to work.
After 14 weeks at home with my baby, I pulled out the work clothes and found my long lost hair dryer. I prepared to return to the job I did really well and to the friends and co-workers I realized I hadn’t really missed all that much.
That’s when it hit me: I was feeling heartbroken about the idea of leaving the next day. Heartbroken at the thought of someone else feeding and snuggling and soothing my baby, even though it was a family member who would be there with him.
From this moment on, I would come to recognize that heartbreak is indeed part of the experience of mothering. I also appreciate that in light of other parents’ experiences, this type of heartbreak might seem small, but I believe even small heartbreaks leave their impact. A small series of cracks on a mother’s ever expanding heart.
As our family grew to include three children, the feeling of heartbreak sometimes got clouded by or confused with pure exhaustion or even regret for rushing through a certain baby’s milestone. Still, with each passing phase, the heartbreak was always there with its nagging reminder that I was about to “lose something” special.
When my twins simply could not get on the same sleep schedule and the entire family was suffering from sleep deprivation, we decided to separate them. It was practical, and it helped us all get some much-needed sleep almost immediately. But it also broke my heart.
For the first 18 months, we had watched them play and connect and comfort each other as they shared a room with cribs side by side. Suddenly what was “right” and “practical” and “worked” was the very thing that broke my heart. I knew they would prefer to stay side by side. 18 months later, now 3-year-olds, they are once again roommates and their whispers and giggles as we turn off the lights each night have returned.
This year, my oldest son transitioned out of Montessori school. He also started playing the piano and joined Cub Scouts. There is no way that I can pretend he is still a little boy. All the evidence that he is turning into a young man is very present.
As I watched him practicing piano one afternoon, carefully ensuring his wrists had the right curvature and straining to match his tempo with that of the metronome, I felt that sharp pang of a heartbreak coming on again. My hands got a little sweaty, there was a catch in my breath, and I knew deep in my soul that something was shifting inside my little boy—little man—I reminded myself.
And then, just as suddenly, I realized that the tears welling in my eyes were not the tears of heartbreak that had become all too familiar. Instead, the sharp pain turned to fierce pride and the fast breathing turned to sweet anticipation. I realized that these were tears of joy, not tears of the sadness that comes with letting go of a treasured phase so that a new one can begin. I was experiencing a heart-burst rather than a heartbreak. My heart was literally bursting with excitement that my boy’s world was opening up and that I get to stand beside him and take it in.
While I will surely have days where I miss his chubby little cheeks or the sweet smell of his toddler days, I realized that I am not about to “lose something special.” Rather, I am standing watching the fireworks of discovery and exploration explode in dazzling color at the most spectacular show on earth.