It’s 3 a.m. Well, it’s actually 9:39 p.m., but I’m in bed, it’s dark, and my kids have been asleep for more than 45 minutes, so it’s 3 a.m. TMST (toddler mom standard time).
Instead of claiming the sleep that is one of the rarest commodities for the mom of a toddler and a newborn, I’m going through old photos trying to find every single picture that has ever been taken of my four-year-old and my mom, her Grandbunny. We lost my mom this past January. To say it was a big blow to our family would be an insultingly drastic understatement.
I gave birth to our youngest son this past November, and while we were in the hospital, my parents took care of our older daughter (then a rambunctious three-year-old) with no problems. Everything seemed normal. Thanksgiving came and went, and our biggest worry was whose house was going to smell like turkey for days. We visited my parents’ house for Christmas, and we could tell Mom looked different, but she shrugged it off, saying she was having a health problem and had lost some weight. In mid-January, she went into the hospital. A week later, she was gone.
Grief is always painful. Grieving a parent is excruciating. However, in the three months and three days that have passed since then, I’ve been on a daily discovery trip to realize how much it sucks to lose a mom when you’re also a mom yourself.
My daughter worshipped her Grandbunny. They spent time together more days than not, especially toward the end of what was a pretty rough pregnancy with our youngest son. So my first realization was that, when you should be struggling to deal with your own immediate grief at losing a parent, a mom doesn’t have the luxury (if it could ever be called that) of focusing on her own grief. We inherit the unbearable, inhumane job of breaking the hearts of the tiny people we care about more than anything else in the world, whose emotional states even more fragile than ours. You have to sit down with your kids and watch as their tiny worlds collapse around them and know you’re powerless to fix it.
And that’s just day one.
You then all start the grieving process, but you still aren’t absolved of being the glue that holds the family together. Your kids act out more because they just lost a major part of their lives, and you have to be patient, understanding, and forgiving, even though you just want to curl up in a ball and sob. And it gets even worse, because every time your kids act out, your first impulse is to reach for the phone and ask your mom for advice on how to handle it. I’m only three months out, but this reflex isn’t going away.
So you learn to cope quietly. To draw out whatever inner strength you can find under the couch cushions of your soul, and you try to strike the right balance between keeping your kids distracted with the best smiles you can fake and shepherding them through the grief process with stories, photos, and videos of them with the grandmother they’ll never get to see again.
Toddler parents have it even worse because we don’t just have to break the bad news once. No, we have to re-explain the most painful event in our lives every day, to break it down into simple and easy-to-understand language, and to repeatedly answer questions so brutal only a small child could get away with asking them.
But, as always, time passes. You think it will get easier with time, but it doesn’t quite work that way. As they are wont to do, your kids start to grow and then you discover a new type of pain because every first is one more thing your mom isn’t going to see. You have to resist the urge to text her every time you take a cute picture of her grandchildren (because she was the only one in your life who didn’t mind when you texted her basically the same picture of the baby napping every single afternoon). Every adorable moment now becomes bittersweet because you know how much she would have loved it.
You get used to living your moments with the devil on your shoulder silently whispering that things will never be the same without her here to enjoy these precious moments with you. Some moments you are actually happy, and all the others you get better at faking it. Everyone else begins to move on, and you not only get to grieve, but you learn to do it without the initial outpouring of support that accompanies the loss of a relative. You realize that the grief isn’t going to go away, it’s going to become a part of you, and you will just get better at carrying it around.
And then, just as you slowly adjust to the emotional trauma (as if such a thing is actually possible), you begin to realize just how much you relied on her for help on a day to day basis. I never realized that I used my mom as Google until I couldn’t anymore. Any time I wanted a recipe, couldn’t get a stain out of something, or needed to know how to calculate some figure for my taxes, I didn’t look it up. I called my mom. The only time my husband and I had “date nights” were when my parents came over to babysit for us. Now with two kids under five, there’s no way we’d saddle my recently-widowed father with that level of chaos, so I guess we’ll be dating at home until our five-month-old son starts preschool. It’s only three years, right?
If the initial emotional damage, the trauma of having to tell your kids, the process of parenting through grief, the dampening of what should be incredibly happy moments that follow, and the loss of a major source of practical help don’t get you, what surely will is the hollow realization that your kids, especially if they are on the younger side, might not even remember this person who had such a major influence on both your life and theirs.
So here I sit, blatantly ignoring my better angels’ attempts at getting me to go to sleep, culling through old family photos to make a “Grandbunny and Me” photo book for my daughter. She’s only four, so I know that there’s only a small chance she’ll retain any of the memories of the Grandbunny she spent four days a week with every day of her early childhood. However, I know that the more she is reminded of the memories she does have, the higher the chance she’ll retain them into adulthood, so here I sit.
While sorting through photos I had the most jarring realization of all. Despite the fact that my daughter spent more time with my mom than with anyone else aside from me and my husband, there are shockingly few pictures of the two of them together. There are hundreds of pictures of her with the gifts my mom got her and the occasional few pictures I was able to take of the two of them, but the overwhelming majority are photos of my daughter that were taken by my mom.
A majority of our most cherished family photos had my mom on the other side of the camera. It wasn’t because she was camera shy, but because she was doing what moms do best: being the invisible glue that held everything together. She was the person who remembered every little holiday and mailed my daughter cards because she remembered that kids still think getting mail is fun. She was the person who made trips to the grocery store and the gas station into an adventure. She was the one making sure every family get together was fully photographed and happily documented.
After making this discovery, I realized that the same is mostly true of our family photos. I’m usually behind the camera, so an overwhelming majority of the photos are just of my husband and kids. I’m sure it’s like this in many families even though no one ever really notices. And there’s a very good reason for this. To use my glue metaphor, the mom isn’t usually in family pictures because the only time glue is ever really noticed is when it fails to do its job.
As the glue of a family, a mom’s work is usually silent, unnoticed, and often without any external validation whatsoever. There are days when this can feel horribly unfair. There are days when all I want in the world is for someone to thank me for unloading the dang dishwasher (again).
However, sitting here and looking at all these photos that have my mom invisibly behind the camera, I realize that this is the biggest compliment in the world. If I can do half as good of a job as she did of holding the family together so well we didn’t notice it was even happening, I’ll know I’ve done my job as a mom. And after living through the last three months and three days, I know how much my kids will appreciate it too.