Cancer took my nearly 16-year-old daughter in March and now I am the mother of one daughter, not two. My youngest is 13. Her wings are feathering while I anticipate the day she will leave this broken nest.
As my friends and acquaintances age with me, my Facebook feed is filling with the triumphs of their parenting acumen. Gone (for the most part) are photos of anxious children on their first day of kindergarten or elementary school.
They’ve been replaced with pictures of young adults bound for college. In only a handful of years there will be engagements, weddings and the miracle of a new generation of parents holding their own babies.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Right now, these newly grown adults are not unlike kindergartners, smiling uncertainly in their decorated dorm rooms, escaping their teary-eyed parents into college campuses located miles from home.
My daughter was two years away from her own much-anticipated flight, but she didn’t get to leave this house, this nest. She’ll remain with me forever, living in my heart and memory, her potential unrealized.
And so, I must turn to my youngest and watch, with more dread than excitement, as she becomes her own fully feathered being. I must suppress the grasping need within me that wants to keep her close. I must not be afraid.
I’ve been a mother for more than 16 years, but there is always fear, there is always worry. “If you are lucky,” a voice in my mind yammers, “she’ll live to graduate.”
It is the internal voice of a parent who has experienced the worst-case scenario. There is no silencing it. It tells me, insistently, that there are a million ways the world can take my child away.
In five years, my baby may go to a school as beautiful and remote as the ones that fill my Facebook feed. If she can rein in her propensity to avoid homework, if she eschews too much temptation, if she does not get into a car with a drunk teenage driver, or discover a taste for opioids, or develop an eating disorder …
It’s that voice again, presenting worst-case scenarios in a neat little line. When I ignore it, I can focus on my daughter and the years I have left with her. My job is to carry her through to adulthood and help give her the confidence she needs to fly free.
And then it will be over, the daily task of mothering.
I want my daughter to grow up in a way most parents, thankfully, don’t understand. I need her to survive so that she can experience life. I crave her success more than my own. I am happy, as the saying goes, to bask in her reflected glory. But what does that say about me?
I’ve recently read some articles and essays about how parenting diminishes women, turning us into beings that exist solely for our children. And while there have been moments like that for me — when I didn’t know where my baby’s body ended and mine began, when I gave up vacations and other luxuries so my children could go to a good school, when I yearned for an extra hour of sleep like a drowning person yearns for air, I reject the notion that motherhood has diminished me.
Life has diminished me. Grief has diminished me. Age and time and worry have diminished me, but motherhood? Never.
Sixteen years ago, I didn’t know who I was going to be when my babies were teenagers. I don’t know who I’m going to be 16 years from now. What I do know is that motherhood has been a path to self-discovery and fulfillment in a way that has strengthened me. I am more than I was before my children were born. I am amplified.
I have learned to tap into a well of patience that I didn’t have before the days of tantrums in supermarkets and hurt feelings that needed soothing and feverish little people who needed snuggles until 3 a.m.
I have spun in circles in my living room in a way I’d thought long gone, drawn crayon landscapes on bright construction paper and observed the moon beside my little students on cold October nights. I learned how to bake delicious cinnamon bread cookies and trained myself not to sweat the mess afterward.
I have read books to and with both my children, and written books for and about children. I have walked through the grounds of a bucolic little private school and watched, transfixed, as children shrieked and played around me.
I have met other parents who have taught me almost (but not quite) as much as my children have taught me. They are writers and educators and breathtaking cooks. They’ve cried at school plays and dance performances and end-of-year ceremonies — not just for their kids, but for mine, too. They cried with me when my daughter died.
My world expanded when my older daughter was born and it expanded even more when her sister was born three years later. It will, undoubtedly, contract as this miraculous phase of my life comes to an end — one child gone, another grown and flown.
I already feel bereft, but I understand that this is all part of my journey. Now the trick is to figure out how to look forward without the sinking feeling that my life will diminish in their absence.
This article was originally published in the Washington Post on November 21, 2017. My younger daughter is now 14 — she will be 15 in April and remains the light of my life.
Jacqueline Dooley is a writer and entrepreneur living in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting a child with cancer and parental grief have been published in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss, Pulse, Mothers Always Write, PulseVoices, The Wisdom Daily and more. Find her on Twitter at jackie510.