When I first became a mom, the first few postpartum days and weeks were hard. Really hard. Cracked nipples, swollen bottom, and sleep deprivation took its toll on me physically. The magnitude of caring for a being who was often inconsolable for long stretches of time quickly drained any emotional reserves I had left. The joy of new life was there too, but it was overshadowed most of the time by the ever-present anxiety of being in uncharted territory.
I got myself through those first few weeks the same way I’d gotten myself through many other challenging stages in my life – by telling myself it will get easier. This is what grown ups tell their children who are learning new skills like tying their shoes or reading or navigating the social waters of puberty, and they can say it with confidence because it’s true. With practice, many things do become easier.
But life itself is not one of those things.
I remember the moment this first dawned on me. My son was two months old, and I was bouncing him while walking around the kitchen at about three in the afternoon, hoping he would stop crying and fall asleep deeply enough that I could lay him in the crib without waking him, get some rest, and get dinner started by the time my husband came home at 5:30. So far that wasn’t looking likely. And with tears streaming down my face, my inner voice acknowledged to myself the truth – it does not get easier. It freaking gets harder. And as it gets harder, the skills I mastered yesterday get tested in new ways today. My skills continually improve. My cracked nipples and swollen bottom heal. But motherhood? That just keeps getting harder.
I’m glad I came to this realization early on. Knowing this truth has not made each progressively difficult stage of parenthood any easier, but it has kept my expectations a little more realistic. Imagine how much harder motherhood would be if I had clung to the fantasy of things getting easier?
More recently, I’ve learned it’s not just parenting that gets harder, not easier. Tomorrow I turn 41, and as I pass out of the milestone midpoint year, I do so with a new set of physical limitations. I have some subtle joint pain. My muscles ache after doing yard work. My eyes strain when I read. If I cross my legs, my feet get numb and tingly. “Old” people for years have been saying, “Just wait until you get older,” and “Growing old sucks.” They have been forthcoming about it. They may have said it with a chuckle, or they may have said it heartbroken, but they haven’t kept it a secret. Why is it I’m so surprised?
When I was a child, the world was a great unknown waiting to be explored, and the only limitations were my size, my skills, my age, and my parents’ rules. My teens and twenties were spent consciously overcoming those limitations, and still believing in a promise of limitless opportunity. In my thirties, I had to make hard choices about which opportunities I’d pursue, and which ones I would set aside as the demands of survival and the responsibilities of adulthood increased. This year, I’ve been mourning the losses. Hard.
Grief is simultaneously crippling and healing. Crippling because the weight of it makes me want to not get out of bed in the morning. I’ve had memory loss and a lot of careless mistakes. Anxiety and depression have all but overtaken me at times this year. Healing because every ugly cry feels cleansing. In letting go of misplaced hopes, I’ve opened my hands to receive new gifts.
The end result of the grieving process is acceptance, especially acceptance of myself and my limitations. Acceptance of life on life’s terms gives me new choices, especially the choice to change my attitude, to forgive, to show mercy, to focus on what is essential, and to ask for help when I need it.
Life may not get easier, but it can get healthier as I practice acceptance.
The difficulties give me gratitude for the brief moments of respite – the sunset, the spontaneous hug from my child, the early morning writing, the exhilaration of singing at church.
Happiness may be elusive, but joy is not. Joy is the sweet in every bitter moment. I need only open my eyes and my heart and grab hold of it for comfort.