The Joy and Surprises of Being a Parent

Of course, joy! Being a parent has its share of surprises, too, something most of us could not appreciate until we begin the journey.

One of the surprises is the depth of love one feels towards their child.

Most of us have experienced love and friendship, love for our parents, other family members, and our spouses. Our love for other individuals can ebb and flow in its intensity, but the intensity of love one feels for a child is hard to describe until actually having experienced it. Along with that deep, almost overwhelming love, many other surprising feelings can occur because of the depth with which we experience them.

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

It can be helpful to realize that one of the emotions parents often feel as their children grow is that of grief. Any parent who hears the song Sunrise, Sunset from Fiddler on the Roof is usually brought to the kind of tears that catch you off guard and have your throat constricting with sobs emanating from your heart.

[The song begins “Is this the little girl I carried? Is this a little boy at play? I don’t remember getting older. When did they? When did she get to be a beauty? When did he grow to be so tall? Wasn’t yesterday when they were small? Sunrise, sunset quickly go the days. Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers, blossoming even as they gaze.”]

New realizations

In the late 1990s, Judy Viorst wrote a best-selling book: Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have To Give up in Order to Grow. This woke readers up to the idea that losses are more than what we experience when someone dies; losses occur in so many other ways and are just as deserving of the respect we give when we lose somebody through death.

Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross wrote in her classic book, Grief and Grieving, about the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Sometimes as our children transition from one stage to another, we can experience each of these stages. We sometimes struggle to accept that our sweet, cooing, affectionate baby becomes a much more independent, sometimes defiant toddler, or our school-aged child becomes old enough to get on the school bus or walk to school one day, leaving us with a literal and emotional emptiness.

Some of us who have had children leave home to embark on their own lives appreciate that becoming an “empty nester” brings with it a blend of celebration, gratitude, excitement for our child and then the deep sadness that comes from knowing this season of life as we knew it is over.

Seasons of childhood

I know that as I moved through the seasons of my children’s childhoods, there were many times when I wanted to deny they were actually no longer in a particular stage, especially when it was one of those very sweet stages.

I sometimes felt angry that my child had passed a stage—which doesn’t make sense, because my child wasn’t choosing to get older. Nonetheless, there can be almost a feeling of betrayal and then an illogical bargaining with a child, “Please stop growing!” (Maybe this is why adults sometimes like the story of Peter Pan more than their children do!)

The depression parents feel as children move through their childhoods can be very real and often goes unacknowledged. The assumption is everyone is so happy to see children growing up healthy and strong, which is true.

At the same time, being able to acknowledge the grief attached to growth can free parents to experience their grieving processes in healthy ways as they acknowledge the many feelings associated with their grieving. Just as it is important for children to learn that they can be ambivalent at times—meaning they can have more than one feeling at the same time—it is also important for parents to know it is normal and healthy to have a sense of loss, and therefore, the need to grieve as their children grow.

Being able to share this with other parents can be extremely helpful, because we as human beings need the opportunities to come together when we feel sorrow as well as when we feel joy.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. As a parent, what have you noticed about your feelings as you move through the many stages of childhood? Have you noticed the range from joy to confusion to grief?
  2. To what extent have you allowed yourself the freedom to grieve as your child leaves the particular stage and moves on to the next one?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network