Mother, Writer, Grandmother
Today, I'm sharing a very personal story of my journey from motherhood to where I am today, as published in the anthology Midlife on Fire.
At 31, I came to motherhood after five years of trying to conceive. Convinced that something was terribly awry when my period tenaciously resumed month after month, I began a journey through the usual battery of tests with a fertility specialist. It was soon after the most painful one (a hysterosalpingogram, where dye is injected through the cervix and into the uterus and fallopian tubes to detect any blockages) – that I fell to the ground in a heap when I attempted to get up off the examination table, fainting from the utter shock of pain so intense it felt as if my insides were being blasted open.
When I was brought back to consciousness by the acrid sting of smelling salts, I turned to my husband and mouthed, “Enough.” A few days later, I began to consider adoption. But that thinking ended when my periods did, just one month later, and I had finally achieved what I had once thought impossible.
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Throughout my first pregnancy, I convinced myself it would be easy to split my time between my career in advertising and motherhood. But from the moment I locked eyes with my son and watched in awe as his eyes, the color of rich soil, calmly scanned the dimly lit delivery room, the fierce tug of motherhood overwhelmed me, obliterating any thoughts of an outside career.
Motherhood became my career. Not in a read-all-the-books-and-go-to-all-the-playgrounds way, but more in an organic, natural way. I relaxed into it like a soft mattress, adjusting to the sometimes-uneven and unexpected twists and turns, relishing in its rewards. Then, just 19 months later, my second son arrived, a welcome surprise given my prior struggles with conceiving.
During those early years of parenting, those laden with endless chores, worry, wiping up messes, and drying tears, it felt as if time was standing still, almost as if this was the way it always was and always would be. But I soon learned that stagnation was something you could always count on changing, when a year and a half following my second birth, an unexpected and devastating shock arrived: a diagnosis of breast cancer, its randomness and disbelief sending the ground beneath me swaying and crumbling. I wondered if I would ever stand with certainty again.
I fell that much deeper and clung that much tighter to my mother-role, indefatigable in my quest to leave a mark with my children lest I didn’t survive. At night, long after they drifted off, unable to summon sleep myself, I’d stretch out alongside their small bodies, pressing my nose against their sweet-smelling suppleness, inhaling their life, willing it to course through me and revive what I feared I might lose. During my days with them, I willed myself to feel well and be fully present, resenting the chemotherapy treatments that rendered me nauseous and weak, yet knowing they were necessary to help ensure a future with my children.
It’s a funny thing to watch your own children grow. You see and care for them every day, but never really get the full impact of the evolution until one day, as if they’ve been away for years, they return, and you look, then blink a few times, eyebrows furrowed, your mind getting caught in flashbacks, and think: When did they get so big and adult-like??? But of course, you know, intellectually, that they grow up. Though emotionally, it's harder to wrap your arms around the notion and all its implications.
I like to say that my boys grew up “feet first;” their feet growing so much larger in relation to their bodies. Perhaps I should have realized back then that the seeming impossibility of life’s dizzying trajectory was indeed possible.
When my two sons were in high school and began to duck my kisses and withdraw one painful inch at a time, I began to contemplate life more than ever before; how it was changing and charging forward with much more force and speed than I ever could have imagined.
As one year morphed into the next, and the seeds of my optimism about a future began to firmly take root, existential angst tugged at me, loudly and insistently sending the message that I was ready – and it was time - to loosen my tight grip, exhale more freely, and let my legs hold me up and take me somewhere.
And certainly, although it was tough in those early years to fully recall who I was before becoming a mother, midlife - hardly a crisis, but more like an opportunity – gave me the freedom to explore what I wanted to be after motherhood was downsized. I asked myself, who will you be now? What will you do with the patience, irritation, understanding, confusion, terror and delight that defined so much of those crazy-making, fulfilling, exhausting, and surprising years of raising these two boy-men?
And so, as my children honed their wings and prepared to leave the nest, I too strengthened my own so I, too, could fly off. I dipped my toe into something I’d always loved – writing - taking classes at a local community college, then enrolling in an MFA writing program, determined to fight my fear of trying something so challenging and unknown at 50.
Many friends, also stay-at-home moms, were encouraging, as they, too, returned to the workforce. But there were just as many who expressed their doubts that they could ever take such a bold step. The last time I’d been on a college campus, my skin was firm, my belly was taut and my brain was sharp. Twenty-seven years and two teenagers later, could I really manage the workload, concentration, and commitment? Though I often felt out of place, out of step and out of sorts, I didn’t let that deter me. I inhaled the knowledge as if my life depended on it.
Three years later, on an unusually chilly day in May, I walked across the stage to accept my diploma, scanning the audience for my husband, my mother, and two sons who sat a few feet from the stage, their wide grins and excitement adding to my own.
Without really knowing what I wanted, I sunk deep into writing the way I did motherhood; pouring my best efforts into entering and understanding an unknown world. It evolved quite organically, although, like mothering, there were those maddening times when my confidence was shaken, and I questioned if I was doing anything right.
Just as my two sons turned out pretty well, so did my writing career. Hundreds of published articles and essays bear my name. Each time I sit down to work on a new project, I still feel the thrill of making a page come alive with my words. As I open my computer and my fingers hit the keys, I start composing, getting caught up in the rhythm and dynamics slowly taking shape.
Alas, we keep evolving. Eighteen years into my second career, I’ve added a new role to my resume: that of grandma to two twin boys.
The job description is murky; not as clear-cut as it was as a mother or a writer. This time, I won’t be at the helm. Where I once was present for my children’s “firsts,” I’ll now hear about most of them secondhand, or through photographs I stumble upon on Instagram or Facebook. Where I once had my own strong opinions, I will now have to keep them to myself, unless asked.
But I can state with all confidence that I will care as much and as passionately as when I was raising my own two sons. And I also know for sure that my journey through life has equipped me with the patience and fortitude it takes to sink into the plush and welcoming mattress of grandmotherhood. Where motherhood was about requirements, being a “Gigi” is more about the things I want to do, not have to do.
The twins just turned two. Every visit to their house requires a few things: Hugs, kisses, and lots of play and pretend time. One of my favorites is this: I lay on the floor, knees bent, and invite Oliver to "hop on" while Gigi takes him on a plane ride. And when it's Charlie's turn, and my knees and back feel a bit sore, I pay that no heed. After all, my grandsons both need me, and I am fully theirs.
And finally, there's this: When it’s their dinnertime I can shrug my shoulders when they refuse to eat all their peas and toss them to the dog instead, because I know damn well their feet will continue to grow and carry them forward faster than anyone could ever dream they would.
Midlife on Fire is a nonfiction anthology presented by The GLOW Project (Glorious Ladies of Writing) to showcase how women during midlife are unapologetically kicking ass. If you’d like to order the book and read more stories, click here.
thePause Newsletter with Sheryl Kraft is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts, consider becoming a free subscriber.