The Bittersweet Changes of Parenthood

I’m not a naturally maternal person.  Growing up in a small family, I wasn’t exposed to babies and toddlers on a regular basis – and I was fine with that.  To me, babies squirmed and smelled and really were quite boring.  In my petulant way of thinking as a teenager, I resolved to never have children.

Today I am a mother – by calling.  As a young adult, I took my vows at our Nuptial Mass seriously.  Children, though foreign to my life experience, were a welcomed gift in my heart.  Still, the reticence of raising children into adolescents and then young adults terrified me, as I later learned happens to nearly every parent.

And the babies came, one after another.  But the maternal instincts did not kick in for me.  I didn’t know what to do when my daughters cried.  Was it time to change a diaper?  Feed her?  Cuddle?  Was she in pain?  Tired?  It seemed like this was a constant guessing game, and I was frustrated more often than not.

Then the time arrived when my girls first learned to feed themselves without assistance.  Then use the potty.  Then dress themselves.  Then go off to school.

My cousin lamented shortly after school began that, “My daughter doesn’t need me anymore, because she can tie her shoes by herself!”  Quizzically, I pondered that concept – Is it true that our children one day come to a place where they don’t need us anymore?

No matter our age, we always need our parents.  Those needs evolve, however, from physical help or teaching us our ABCs to moral and emotional support in our latter years.  But we never stop needing that relationship.  It merely changes.

And changes evoke both loss and hope.  They always do.  This is the place where grief resides – that messy, limbo-type space between what has been and what is yet to be.  Every milestone, every growth spurt, and every achievement leads us, as parents, to both sorrow and joy.

That’s because change itself isn’t stagnant.  It seems that God purposefully allowed us to experience this messiness of parenthood, so that we would learn to let go.  That elusive concept of surrender isn’t easy for most of us (least of all me), but it is that necessary loosening of the bonds that allows our children to flourish.

We must remember that our children are God’s children first.

That means that, yes, we will cry over mixed emotions as our children enter preschool (or elementary, high school, and college).  We will watch them leave one phase of life and enter another – unknown – phase with incredible and unbridled fear and hope.  The cusp of greatness is in that seed of grief, that place where joy and sorrow comingle.

As our children fade into the distance when we drop them off at school, our memories of their lives and every transition begins to surface.  We shed tears of joy in watching them blossom into morally capable, mature young adults.  We marvel at their wisdom and God-given talents.  But we weep at the loss of what we have come to know as familiar and comfortable.  We regret the times we yelled or lost our patience, and perhaps most of all, the fact that we didn’t appreciate the value of each passing phase of their development.

I still struggle to find my maternal way these days, and my children are still young.  Everything about parenthood is challenging to me – the endless, sleepless nights, high medical costs, the price of education (and every decision therein), the tantrums and pettiness.  It all drives me mad to no end.  Yet there’s that glimmer I see on the horizon of hope that sets my focus anew when I feel suffocated by my primary vocation.

That glimmer is the space where change exists.  You see, all of life is bittersweet, isn’t it?  The tragedies and triumphs alike resound with an emptying and a filling of sorts.  When we lose something, God presents an opportunity to be filled with virtue, to essentially grow in our interior lives.  That’s why parenting is this delicate dance between regrets and rejoicing.  It’s because we never feel as if we’ve quite gotten it figured out.

And the truth is we haven’t.  That’s the beauty of our vocation as mothers and fathers.  We must live in the midst of mystery, not knowing if we’re hitting the mark as our children are exposed to the vitriol of the world.  This requires astounding humility and a remarkable ability to dwell within the present moment.

I am convinced that, when we do this and do it well – live in the present moment – we discover that ability to see things as they really are and embrace the chaos and mess of raising little souls.  It’s because we don’t allow the simple moments to pass us by, so there are no real regrets.  We learn to view the world through the lens of our children, and we are schooled by their spirituality.

So don’t be discouraged, as I often am, when you find the transitions in your child’s life to be bittersweet.  Rejoice in that sorrow and express gratitude for the joys God has given you.  In all things, in all ways, grow in expectant faith and remain steadfast in your resolve to carry the cross of parenthood in whatever way God permits.

Remember that grief presents opportunity.  You may no longer be tying shoes or bandaging scraped knees, but you will always be mending broken hearts and praying for your child’s protection.  Mom and dad, you are and always will be needed, wanted, and loved in some capacity.


JEANNIE EWING is a Catholic spirituality writer and national inspirational speaker. Among her eight books, From Grief to Grace: The Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, is her most popular. She is a frequent guest on podcasts, radio shows, and has appeared on EWTN, CatholicTV, and ShalomWorld. Her deepest desire is to accompany those who suffer and are lonely. Visit her website at for more information.

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