It is Mother’s Day morning at 8:06 AM and all I can think about is a father. My children’s father.
It starts the day before Mother’s Day. Every grocery store, every flower shop, every gift or women’s boutique you enter is unusually filled with men, their children in tow searching for something to give mom or make her for brunch. I hear in one aisle, “Mom loves Pop Tarts!” “No, she doesn’t.” I think, nice try. The sight and sound of it warms my heart and at the same time breaks it.
It’s the same feeling I have on the football field watching the dad’s coach their sons or on Boys Scout camp outs where they are all geared up and outfitted like they were heading to Mt. Everest instead of a local park. My husband loved the beach, so there especially, watching them throw the ball to their sons or helping their daughter’s build a sand castle or playing a game of Kadima.
You change the moment you see two pink lines on that urine stick for the first time. In that very instant, you change in a way you can’t even fathom because there was nothing in your previous experience to possibly compare it to. You become keenly aware that your heart just grew so big in that bathroom that it literally feels like it can’t fit inside your body anymore. You are the Grinch when “his heart grew 3 sizes that day” only it’s bigger than that. And in that moment of complete and utter joy, sitting on the toilet tingling from head to toe, you also realize that your capacity for broken heartedness just went through the roof and kept going, past the moon and the stars. This is your new reality and it is as terrifying as it is thrilling. You never have felt so much love and you have never felt so helpless and vulnerable in your life. Welcome to motherhood.
Sophia Loren said, “When you are a mother, you are never really alone in your thoughts. A mother always has to think twice, once for herself and once for her child.” This is what I think about this morning. My children and me without our beloved Scott. Not what praise, accolades or rest I deserve. The breakfast in bed, spa gift certificates, or flowers that should be coming my way. What I am thinking about is my children. Like most mothers, every other thought I have is about them and what I am thinking right now is that it doesn’t have to be Father’s Day for us to acutely feel Scott’s absence, Mother’s Day does the job just as well.
People in grief think a lot about self pity. We fear our actions will be perceived as “dwelling on it.” That if we visibly talk about our loved one or show signs of mourning their death, of still missing them years later on a daily even hourly basis then we have somehow failed to “manage the situation.” Failed to “move on”, failed in our ethical duty to enjoy oneself and not bring others down. Self pity remains both the most common and most universally reviled of our character defects.
Self pity knows it’s hated. It’s the one emotion that lives up to its name so self pity becomes your private, secret feeling. Pity parties don’t send out invitations. They are truly a party of one. I think self pity hits a nerve for people, makes them uncomfortable because they feel there is something they need or should do about it. That they are in fact being asked to make it “all better”, to “kiss the boo boo and make it go away” like when we were children. Self pity is offensive to people because we think it is infantile. It puts us on the defensive. It makes us feel helpless. Makes us feel bad. And well, who wants that?
But mourning your loss, no matter what it is – your loved one, your marriage, your job, your health is NOT asking anyone to fix it. It isn’t lacking accountability for your mental state or the outcome of your life. It isn’t self pity, it is self empathy. It is the healthy recognization that you are hurt, that life can hurt. Self empathy is different, it says maybe you were a victim but that you aren’t going to be one even if you deserve to be one. Self empathy isn’t asking anyone to save you, to kiss it and make it better. You are doing that yourself. You are taking responsibility for the outcome of your life and you aren’t waiting around for somebody to come along and set things right. All self empathy wants is a moment.
Self pity on the other hand is self empathy in quicksand. It is waiting for someone to rescue you and resenting every moment you are stuck there waiting. It wants time and more time. It wants to remain a victim for the rest of its life.
I realize as I write this that I am writing this for me this time not for anyone else. As my Mother’s Day present to myself. That I am taking a “moment.” Givng myself a moment this morning. I am allowing myself to indulge in my grief as I hear my children downstairs preparing some elaborate breakfast that will take me 2 hours to clean up afterward, as I hear them running outside picking lilacs from the garden. I am allowing myself this moment of self empathy, of all that was lost for myself and my children the day Scott died. Because he did not go alone, all those parts of us that belonged to him went with him. Him calling our daughter his “little princess” and our son “monster.” Him calling me “honey.” All the million things we want to talk to him about, want to share with him.
I know one day I will fall in love again. I know one day I will be someone’s “honey” again and that, of course, I can love more than one person as I loved Scott in this lifetime. But marriage with children is something different. Marriage and family is memory, it is time. And that is what will never be the same. The next man I love won’t know the same stories, know the same me, know who I was, who we were before, who we were with Scott. He won’t know how we took turns with the endless walking around with our daughter when she was born and colicky, he won’t know how we always did puzzles with them both before bedtime and how the dinosaur one was our son’s favorite. He won’t know me as as young mother and about the “dance” parties in the family room in wintertime I put on around the witching hour everyday just before Scott arrived home when the kids and I were about to go stir crazy. He just won’t know that me.
I also realize as I write this that it has been three Mother’s Day without him, that last year and the one before and the one before that don’t involve memories of him. That this day is another holiday that won’t involve him. Worse yet is that the memories of the ones that did are getting foggy. I am forgetting what they looked like, what they felt like. Taking a moment. Self empathy.
Our habitual tendency as human beings is close down to pain and suffering. It is hard to feel anothers’ pain, to feel our own because it brings up fear and confusion for ourselves. It touches that tender spot we don’t know what to do with. Don’t know how to set right, know what to say or make better. Our compassion hurts so we try to avoid it, try to set everything up so we don’t have to feel it. Look the other way at a homeless family on the street, avoid bringing up topics that are uncomfortable or painful. Someone’s elses pain, our own pain, touches that vulnerable spot we felt so strongly that moment we saw those 2 pink lines on the pregnancy stick. They remind us that this beautiful life can hurt us and that our love which brings us so much joy can also bring us a world of pain. Two lines, side by side.
So today, this Mother’s Day morning, before I head down to whatever my 2 beautiful children have prepared for me, I will do the Buddhist practice of tonglen. In tonglen practice, when we see or feel suffering – ours or anyones elses, we breathe it in with the notion of completely feeling it, accepting it, and owning it. Then we breathe out – radiating compassion, lovingkindness, freshness; anything that encourages relaxation and openness. To life as it is, with all its pain and joy, side by side. Two lines. It’s a very powerful and effective way to work with the tendency we have as humans to push away pain and cling to pleasure. It isn’t about making it all better, fixing anything for yourself or anyone else. It is about opening up to life even to the places that we fear, to the places that hurt.
This morning I am taking a moment, just a moment to breathe in my sorrow not just for myself and my children but for every child today whose mother isn’t there for them to kiss good morning and wish a “Happy Mother’s Day”, whose father isn’t there to help prepare something special for their mom. But especially today, I do tonglen for all those mother’s who have lost a child. As a mother, I will not only share in their pain but I will breathe it in for them hoping to send out some small amount of relief from their suffering today as I breathe out. I will send out some peace, some love and some understanding.
It isn’t pity, it is called empathy, it is called compassion.