I love being a parent, though I’m not exactly sure why. Early on I imagine it had to do with the idealism of unconditional love, and then later maybe it became about the feeling of having a permanent posse. Now, on reflection, maybe my motivation was more narcissistic… because it gives me the chance to be the kind of parent that is able to show her kids the love I have always longed for. You know the kind…the squishy, huggy, I-just-want-to-be-around-you kind. I remember all too well being the kid of parents and longing to see even the smallest of signs from mom and dad that I was worthy of being adored and cherished, the way I adored and idolized them. Becoming a parent meant that I would be able to pay attention to my kids in a way that ensured they never had to long for anything. I want them to just know. Yes, I would be THAT parent. The one that sets the perfect stage for perfectly confident, happy, and love-filled children.
It was going to be perfect.
Yeah, right. Perfect. I’m no peach of a parent…high standards, wedded to manners, a neat-nick…just to scratch the surface. And of course, I didn’t manage to keep my marriage to the kids’ father intact. That said, I’ve always been there…with a snuggle, pearls of wisdom, a punishment, cash. I’ve made sure my children haven’t been deprived of anything – the coolest backpack, the funnest vacations, and an ever-present sense of possibility. I’ve doted on them, bragged about them, and captured their gorgeous smiles in innumerable pictures starting from even before they exited my womb. I even screen shot pics now that they intend for their social media audiences, and I think about them constantly.
Why then, even with a solid sense that I have done and am doing a pretty decent job, can parenting leave me feeling so empty?
Ellie culminated the fall of her “gap year” with, well, a fall. She ended up in a hospital in San Sebastián, Spain with a fractured ankle, the threat of surgery, and doctor’s orders to go back home. Thanks to Ellie’s Westover classmate, with whom she had been traveling of late, Ellie made it to Barcelona via bus, got on the direct flight to Oakland that I booked (premium class, natch), was met by yours truly at the end of her wheelchair ride through immigration and baggage claim (apparently the injured shouldn’t have to wait), and was accompanied by her personal Sherpa back to the Big Island the next morning (first class, naturally). Jim surprised us at the airport with fragrant lei.
Living most of the time thousands of miles away from my kids, it feels really nice to be able to flex my on-the-ground parenting muscles again. I am able to express my love by carrying her bags, getting her food, clearing her path, and sneaking in a stroke of her sweet cheek whenever I can…it is awesome. And she is grateful. Clearly. Exhausted from keeping her shit together while abroad, she has slipped easily back into the role of being taken care of by mommy. Or, more accurately, being served by her mother.
I guess that’s a distinction I need to tease apart. Ellie needs me more than ever – trip to the ER (apparently medical records in Spanish do not constitute a diagnosis in the US), drilling down to get answers from the ortho (no surgery if she behaves), transportation (no driving for at least eight weeks), water-bottle filling (millennial), and laundry (even clean clothes smell god awful when they’ve been hostel-hopping across Europe).
But it feels like she doesn’t need me emotionally. My fledgling attempts to snuggle with her – or even just hang out on her bed – feel like an imposition on her and certainly not an opportunity. “Hawai‘i is not too shabby a place to recuperate” does not strike the emotional chord I long to hear. Honestly, I am not really sure what I was hoping for, but I think it is something more along the lines of bluebirds’ chirping and peace in the world. That’s not asking too much, is it?
Alas, the reality is that our relationship feels like a compilation of transactions and not an amalgamation of rich, affirming emotion. Sure, I would say we do have a deep connection, but we don’t live out loud in that space. It’s clear my little girl wants to be independent – or more clearly stated, not dependent on anyone. She doesn’t like to impose, which seems borne of a shame of having to rely on someone rather than not wanting to be any trouble. It’s a difficult crossroads for us. I want to care for her, and she – somehow – feels unworthy. Every act of kindness directed toward her seems to feel to her like a spotlight on some imagined shortcoming. Rather than basking in the warmth of love and safety, her shell hardens, my desperation for connection becomes palpable, and the distance between our hearts seems unbridgeable.
How is it possible given my perfect plan for being a perfect parent in order to guarantee a perfectly happy child? I mean I entered into this whole parenting gig so that I could prove that with the right amount of love and attention, there would be no need for feeling insecure, no moments of self-doubt, and certainly no feelings of despair… just boundless trust and emotional connectedness. Eternal wellness. Ahhh…
And yet here we are.
I think I am fully recovered from thinking it is my responsibility to solve my kids’ problems, if not to prevent them altogether. That is neither in my capacity nor my role. A friend once said that parenting is like piloting a plane: you’re responsible for getting the beast into the air and bringing it back to land safely; everything else is about keeping the plane aloft through the turbulence. Believe me, I have found plenty of solace in her words over the years during one particularly bumpy time or another.
What’s missing for me in that metaphor, though, is the emotion. Where’s the love?
Interestingly, Ellie and I are able to talk about all of this. Why is expressed intimacy so elusive for us? What is at risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable? Why does it require extreme measures, say alcohol, to help us let down our emotional guards, particularly when it only results in deeper shame and distance the next day? Why do we unintentionally retreat when there is no safer place than the here and now, in the pure company of one another?
Honestly, I feel myself teetering on that same deep emptiness of those years spent longing to feel adored by my parents. And, if I am totally real, I am longing to feel worthy of the love of my kid.
When I moved to Hawai‘i, I did so fully believing that Dave and the kids would follow in short order. Well, that didn’t happen, and divorce followed. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time thinking about why the universe had taken me so far away from everything and everybody I knew. I mean, really. What the heck??
What the universe clearly knew was that I would have to untether myself from the past version of myself in order to embark on my real journey: to discover love. Not romantic love per se, but the kind of love that opens the heart and feeds the soul. I’ve fantasized that love existed for as far back as I can remember, but my fuel was angst and stress, disappointment and self-loathing, all of which rendered me way too exhausted to experience – much less feel – love. Fast forward to five years ago and my early days in Hawai‘i, and it was immediately clear that it wasn’t going to be about finding people who could prove they loved me more than those I’d left behind. It was going to be about learning how to love myself without needing people to convince me I’m worthy.
Yeah, it’s a cliché, but in order to be loved, I needed to learn how to love myself.
Despite solid progress on my evolution (just ask me), here I am, resisting the current that seems to want to take me backwards. I find myself confronting, once again, that same longing to feel lovable that I felt as a child. Why is it such a struggle to see – as she snuggles in her bed wrapped up in a cocoon of blankets, squealing with joy that her clothes are “really clean,” fading in an out of napping consciousness – that Ellie absolutely is happy, feeling safe, and feeling loved? Why am I channeling even one flick of energy into a futile search for some undefined signs that I am worthy of her love? I’m 51 year’s old, forchristssake! Why the hell am I still on that pointless hunt?? Sheesh. It’s clear as day…I am preventing myself from feeling her love… just as I had done for so long with my parents: adoring and idolizing and not welcoming it in return.
I really need to cut this shit out. It’s debilitating in general and totally destructive to our relationship. Truly. What a colossal waste of time. When I allow myself to really see her peaceful, recuperating self sitting out on the lanai admiring the afternoon light, my heart feels chock-o-block full. Wake up, woman. THAT is love…in both directions.
This parenting thing just keeps getting better.
To read more about our Tiny House #1, view a gallery of that completed project’s progress photos, and join me in my musings, take a wander around my website.
4 thoughts on “The Emptiness of Parenting”
Thanks so much for joining me on this journey! It’s bumpy and scary and awesome all at the same time. As they say, parenting is not for the faint of heart. ❤️
Thanks, Lucy! I love reading your posts, and this one on particular struck a chord, as I feel in a similar space of late. We have daughters the same age…keep the reflections coming
I don care how perfect you are at all! It was during the toughest moments that you taught me strength, courage and poise and grace. You taught me how to be a mom without even knowing, Nick and Ellie never i am sure of it didnt feel loved, You always made sure they know by a snuggle, a hug or a cheer from their corner! I am so fortunate to have and still be apart of your world, As it was when you traveled even though we are far apart our hearts always find their way back! love you!
Awwww, thank Kelly!