Learning to Parent Without You
The entire family crowded into the living room of that rental house down the shore. It was you and dad, the six of us kids and our spouses, and several of the older grandkids. We sat on old couches that smelled of ocean, feeling the grit of sand between our toes after a long day on the beach. We gathered as a family to discuss the next few months. What did the doctors say at your last appointment? How much pain will you be in? Are all the finances in order? How much help will Dad need taking care of you in the coming months? When will hospice care start?
You could barely muster the energy for that trip, but barring a miracle, we knew it’d be the last time we were all together. The doctors said you probably wouldn’t be around at Christmas. You looked weary and thin, wearing wrinkles in your skin that aged you beyond your years. But there remained an inner peace beyond understanding that showed through despite the cancer ravaging your body. You sat on that old, brown sofa next to Dad, answering our questions and concerns with a voice occasionally quivering and eyes drooping from exhaustion.
That summer, while talking about the harsh realities of your cancer, it hit me in a deeper way than ever before that you would not know me as a mom. You wouldn’t be there to see my kids grow up or hear them run into your house, arms outstretched as they gave their Nana a hug. I wouldn’t be able to call you when I couldn’t get the baby to sleep or the kids were sick. You wouldn’t be there for their graduations or to teach them how to make Swedish Tea Ring.
My voice shook and hot tears ran down my face as I shared my fear with you and the rest of the family. We wept, my heart aching so deep inside me in anticipation of how much more I’d miss you when I had kids and couldn’t share motherhood with you. During that last year, I so badly wanted to get pregnant simply so that you could be there for it, but I knew at that time, my primary focus was taking care of you. I wanted you to help me learn how to be a mom. Instead, I was living the crude reality of changing you, feeding you, brushing your teeth, making you comfortable. It was a joy and a privilege, a season of my life that in an odd way, I’m thankful for. But it wasn’t what I envisioned.
I remember when I found out I was pregnant. I took at least three pregnancy tests that morning, just to make sure. Colson was pouring coffee into his travel mug and grabbing his keys to leave for work. I came downstairs, excitement evident in every bone of my body, and he looked at me quizzically. I tried to keep it a secret – just until the end of the day at least. I knew there was no way he’d be able to focus at the office if the day started off with this news. But he saw right through me, and there in the kitchen, me still in my pajamas, we smiled, laughed, and cried happy tears because of the new life that was inside of me.
When I was eight weeks along, we had our first doctor’s appointment. I wish you could have seen Colson’s face when the doctor told us the news. Twins! Unknown to him at the time, I had been praying for two. He had that “deer in the headlights” look, and I was nervous and scared, but my excitement outweighed all of that. We called everyone in the family on the way home from that appointment, still trying to wrap our minds around the reality of two babies.
Oh, how my heart ached to call you.
As my pregnancy progressed, there was so much I wanted to talk to you about because, well, you did this whole mom thing six times over. What baby gear did I really need? Was breastfeeding hard? Did you have any suggestions on how to sleep better at night during pregnancy? Did you go into labor naturally? Did your water break, or did they break it at the hospital? Any suggestions on how to deal with this annoying pregnancy heartburn? Yours was the advice I desperately wanted.
When people found out I was pregnant with twins, they’d often say something to the effect of, “Wow! Congrats! Is your mom going to stay with you for a while when they’re born?” I know they meant well, because having your mom come help after childbirth is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But it wasn’t my reality. I’d try to dodge the question by saying, “My dad and sisters will come out, and we’ve got family in the area, too, so I’ll have lots of help.”
As much as I tried to avoid the question, I was regularly reminded that you weren’t going to be staying with us. You wouldn’t be stocking our freezer with homemade spaghetti sauce and pineapple chicken. You wouldn’t be there to run errands or rock a crying baby. I wouldn’t be able to ask you about Isabel’s reflux, or whether or not you sleep trained, or the question that’s been on repeat in my mind throughout my entire journey of motherhood: How the heck did you do this six times?
On my first Mother’s Day, my sisters gave me a video of an interview they did with you and Dad. It was about all things pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Your health was in rapid decline when the video was recorded, but you did your best to answer so many of my questions. I wasn’t even pregnant when they interviewed you, but I was given the gift of hearing your answers years later when I was knee deep in spit-up and diapers. At times, it felt like you were there in the room, talking directly to me, as if I was actually sharing my first Mother’s Day with you. It was one of the best gifts I’ve ever been given. But eventually, the video ended and you were gone.
Oh, how I wish I could just pick up the phone and call you.
The kids are two now, running around and being every bit as cute and challenging as two-year-olds can be. Elijah is a snuggler who could spend all day playing in the dirt. Isabel is strong. She knows what she wants and she’s as stubborn as a mule. My husband says she gets it from me – and I know I get that from you.
I want to ask you questions about discipline, the developmental differences between my siblings and me when we were kids, what it was like to have more than two. I want you to cry with me when motherhood is overwhelming. I want you to see the dimples on Isabel’s cheeks when she smiles and hear the giggles from Elijah when he’s tickled. I want you to be here in a couple months when we our third baby comes into the world.
As the years go by, waves of grief make room for waves of healing, and I remember I have much to be thankful for. I’m thankful for all you taught me about motherhood, even before I became a mom myself. I’m thankful you taught me how to cook and showed me the value of as a family at the table. I’m thankful I got to watch you be “Nana” to the other grandkids.
But Mom? I miss you deeply. I wish I didn’t have to learn how to parent without you. I wish you were here to watch me be a mother.
A previous version of this essay was originally published by Parent.co.