The Pain Of Parenting While Losing Your Own Parent
It was Mother’s Day 2015 when I got out of the shower and my water broke. We headed to brunch, as one does. My mom told everyone in the buffet line that I was in labor while I enjoyed a waffle or seven (you know they don’t let you eat while you’re in labor, right? It could have been days before I ate again!). We left the two “big kids,” as they are known, with my parents and headed to the hospital. A quick 13 hours later, Finley entered this world with her arms up, screaming, “Hello world! I am here now and you’re never going to be the same!” And she was right.
That baby girl is six today, and I’ve done some reflecting. I know what they say about third kids. And a lot of that rings true for her. She has to fight to get a word in; she can be feisty. She has been dragged from field to court to class to school to store for her entire life. And never once does she have a choice in the matter. She gets to control very little in her world, so when she finds something she can control, she holds on to it. I can’t blame her. And yes, to keep her happy I will admit that we acquiesced to her, probably more than we should have, in the first handful of years. Hearing “no” isn’t her favorite; thankfully she has gotten used to it and we no longer chase her down the street. But, in fairness to Finley, she dealt with more as the third kid than she bargained for.
Finley was 16 months old when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. We had just moved to a new city, I knew no one, and my world was shattered. Mom, my guiding light, my forever cheerleader, was dying.
When a parent is diagnosed with a terminal illness it is almost an out of body experience. This can’t be happening to me, these things happen to other people. Not me. And from that point forward, you take on another layer. You now exist with an extra “thing” to take care of. That “thing” wasn’t my Mom — she had my wonderful Dad for that. That “thing” is the illness, the grief, the anticipation, the anxiety.
The thing takes on its own identity as you navigate what to do with it. You have to nurture it, experience it, learn how to live with it. Because, much like a child, it never leaves you. Not even when you pee, also like a child. So now, here I am in a new town with three kids, one at home with me all of the time, and this thing has also moved in.
I would love to say I handled the thing with grace and dignity, but that would be a lie. I stumbled around with it, tripping over it, oftentimes being overcome by it. And Finley was with me, needing me like babies and toddlers do. She watched me as I did my best, but my best was piss-poor at times. My fuse was short; I was quick to anger. I have spanked her more times than I care to admit (it doesn’t work, by the way, and I regret it terribly). I tried to potty train her (per school’s request) and grew so frustrated that I have spent the last three years trying to help her understand that going to the bathroom isn’t embarrassing. I have squeezed her too tightly out of frustration and anger. Why won’t she just listen? Why can’t she behave?
We sought counseling. There’s something wrong with her, there has to be. This isn’t normal behavior. My other kids never behaved this way. You tell them to do something, they do it. You tell her to do something, she gives you the finger (figuratively). We tried sticker charts and reward systems. Filling a box with chips to earn a prize. Stars on the door, chain link rewards, you name it, we tried it. She couldn’t care less about stickers or rewards. She wasn’t looking for a toy for being a good girl.
What she needed was much bigger than that. She needed me. She needed me when I literally didn’t have enough of me to give her.
Finley is a feeler. She feeds off my energy more than my other kids (to be fair, the big kids also feed off my energy, but they had more words than she did to express their emotions, they had more distractions, they needed just a little bit less of me). If I am anxious, stressed, sad, feeling life too much, she feels all of those things too. Only toddlers can’t put words to those emotions. So they throw fits, scream, take off running down the street, do whatever they can to express themselves while also trying to unload those emotions — the emotions she was getting from me.
So, as a feeler, she also felt it. For those years where my mom was sick, Finley’s mom was sick too. Sick with anger, anxiety, frustration, fear. And not present. I wasn’t ever all there. The thing was always there too.
It’s been more than a year since we lost Mom. I have done a lot of crying, a lot of grieving. I have walked through the fire and come out on the other side. All of me, without the thing. And so has Finley. She has come through it right alongside me. She has become kind and funny. She listens to and follows the rules, most of the time. She is a different kid than she was before. She needed her mom.
Would it be better if Mom was still here? Of course. But it would have to be Mom here whole and healthy. I wouldn’t wish the thing on anyone. It’s heavy. Too heavy.
Finley just turned six. I’m not beating myself up over not being able to give her what she needed when she needed it. I’m celebrating that girl, that girl who walked through the fire with me before she even knew what fire was.