I struggle with mom guilt just like any mother. I have days where I feel like I just don’t have anything under control. I have a toddler and a newborn and I understand that sleep deprivation can literally make you crazy. The first year with my first born was a huge challenge. My son had acid reflux and we had all kinds of sleeping and eating challenges. I was a novice and bewildered by conflicting feelings about being a parent. I have also witnessed several close friends battle postpartum depression and I’m grateful to those who speak out about the reality that parenting is not all roses and cotton candy.
As grateful as I am for the discussions around the “not so nice” parenting feelings, I am also growing tired of them. Recently I decided to try to embrace all the moments with my children—even the difficult ones. In my relatively short career as a psychotherapist I have had experiences that have changed my perspective on life forever. It started shifting when I was a wide-eyed, idealistic 25-year-old volunteering in pediatric oncology because I wanted to do something meaningful with my life; the start of my quarter-life crisis if you will.
Of course it’s easy for your perspective to change when you are surrounded by children with cancer, but nothing prepared me for meeting Hazen, a 3-year-old who had been diagnosed with the deadly childhood cancer neuroblastoma. Hazen and his parents did not take a single moment for granted. The way they lived in the present, appreciative of every second with each other, was a great example. It’s impossible to live that way all of the time, and our problems are all relative, but isn’t it important to remind ourselves—particularly when we get carried away with the insignificant stuff—that everything is fleeting?
During my training, I worked with patients with terminal diagnoses. I sat with people on their deathbeds and listened to their stories and, sometimes, their regrets. I held their hands, wiped tears from their eyes and left hospitals many times knowing that patient would never leave the hospital. I would exit the hospital, promising myself that I would never take the little moments for granted. Just the ability to walk in the fresh air on a beautiful fall day was something to savor. Even though I don’t work in palliative care or oncology anymore, those lessons have never fully left me. Those cliches you hear about the dying’s regrets are true. What matters in the end is our relationships with our loved ones.
Isn’t it strange that that so many of us don’t appreciate some of the best moments of life until they have passed us? We’re often nostalgic for many of the moments that we once wished away. This is all normal human behavior, but it is important to keep sight of what’s most important. The ability to do this is what ultimately makes us content. It’s like that famous saying: “Happiness isn’t having what you want, it’s wanting what you have.”
My life was incredibly different before I had children. I don’t have much time for myself anymore and tropical romantic vacations with my husband are currently a thing of the past. I’m okay with that, though. Whenever I get aggravated with daily annoyances, my lack of sleep or my toddler’s tantrums, I catch myself and I remember Hazen. I remember the dying patients that I worked with. I remember my friends who have struggled with infertility, the loved ones who lost babies in the womb or their children at various ages. I don’t want to wish away these precious moments or take anything for granted—especially my children.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t express our frustrations about parenthood. It’s important that we vent and that we have people we can vent to without judgment. I’m trying, though, to do it mindfully and then let it go. I want to be present in the moment and still full of gratitude on the bad days because at the end of the day the only thing that matters is the happiness and health of my loved ones. Everything else is just details.
I also want to be mindful about the way I vent my feelings and frustrations. I want to carefully select my words in both speech and in writing. Words can be so damaging and sometimes they are irreversible. I have seen many relationships dissolve during my years as a practicing psychotherapist. Often, it’s because people are stubborn or full of contempt. They use harsh words that cannot be undone. People unintentionally wound their children with words all the time because they are not being mindful.
When my children are old enough to Google my name and read this, this is what I want them to know:
I want my 2-year-old son to know that he is my best friend. That he makes me laugh more than anyone. That when I go to bed at night I can’t wait to wake up in the morning and see his face.
I want my daughter to know that my heart bursts with love every time I look at her. That watching her sleep makes the sleep deprivation worthwhile. That I can’t wait to see her personality develop.
I want both of my children to know that they are the best things to ever happen to me and that even when things were hard I reminded myself to treasure all of it.
Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington DC. She has a toddler and a newborn.
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