Late last spring I learned that a young girl from my town had recently died of cancer. I was told by an acquaintance from my church who had spotted me sitting in front of my computer at Starbucks. She sat down for a quick chat and asked me what I'd been up to. I told her about my freelance work and my blog, fumbling a bit as I described its theme of pursuing my goals and dreams while parenting.
When I asked my friend what was going on in her life, she told me she had just come from the funeral of a teenage girl. Eighteen years old and a senior at our local high school, this young person full of promise was headed to Yale in the fall.
I felt that combination of shock, horror and panic all parents experience when we hear about events like these. It's so very awful. What if that happened to my child? Is that going to happen to my child?
But on top of those feelings I was embarrassed to have been describing my efforts to change my life while raising kids to someone who had just attended the funeral of a young girl, a girl whose parents would certainly trade every moment of happiness they've ever lived just to have their daughter by their side again.
I told my friend about my discomfort, and she graciously reassured me by explaining that the girl and her family embraced life as fully as possible in spite of facing a terrible illness.
But even after the conversation ended, I felt empty and a bit shallow. Questions challenging the worth of pursuing my goals and seeking my dreams plagued my mind. Are these hollow pursuits? Am I failing my kids and even myself by putting so much effort into a life beyond parenting? Why can't I just be a mom, period?
Of course, these questions are not new.
The day my husband and I brought home our second child, my daughter, from the hospital after her birth, I sat on the couch holding her, exhausted. My husband walked into the living room from our office and handed me a piece of paper with a print-out of an e-mail message. It was from my dear friend in Spain, Marisol, and it started, "Luis and Javier are dead." Luis was her husband, and Javier, her 4-year-old son. I later learned that the entire family had been in a car accident, and she and Tomás, her younger son, had survived. The message was a response to the birth announcement e-mail my husband had sent to friends and family while I was still in the hospital with my daughter.
I called Mari on the phone as soon as I could. As we spoke, I tried to make sense of what had happened and gauge her state of mind, but I had just delivered a child of my own. My daughter was two days old. I was nursing her. My husband and I hadn't even begun to adapt to our family's new parent-child ratio. Thus began my struggle to understand my friend's struggle, and to try to be a supportive friend even though I didn't know what I could possibly do or say to help her. I worried continuously about talking to Mari about my own kids (my son was close in age to her deceased son), and I lived on the other side of the Atlantic.
Fast-forward to recent history and Mari is doing phenomenally well. She's remarried and has a beautiful daughter, as well as a very positive outlook on life. It would be a blessing to have half her strength and resilience if I ever were to need it.
A few years ago Mari and I were talking on Skype. Although I'm careful not to complain about my kids to her, I was feeling stressed. Frustrated with the repetitive minutia of motherhood and its tendency to close the doors of my dreams right in my face. And in response Mari said, "The only thing that matters is your family."
Hmph. Mari knows things about life and family and suffering that I pray to never know, so how could I argue with her?
But I'll be honest. I think at times it's difficult for me to appreciate my kids as much as she appreciates hers. Like my deep gratitude for my healthy marriage stems from being the child of divorce, surely her embrace of her children is at least partially an outcome of her tragedy.
The question is, could I make myself appreciate them more even if I tried? Should my love for my kids change the way I live from day to day? Does it trivialize my hopes and dreams? If I abandoned my blog, my fiction writing, and my desire to travel, what would I do instead?
For me, parenting requires a constant striving for balance. Balancing my kids' needs versus my own, my worries for their safety and well-being versus their increasing need for independence, and moments of maternal joy and gratitude with moments of personal joy and gratitude.
Of course life goes on in the face of tragedy. However, when I'm feeling like the demands of motherhood are threatening my own personal development and interfering with my goals, I think about Mari. What would she do? How would she feel? Wisdom-wise I may never measure up to her, but I feel compelled to try.
This piece was originally published as "Balancing Act" on My Ideal World.
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