At a recent family gathering, my sister-in-law and her husband announced that they were beginning the adoption process. They glowed with excited anticipation as they shared their news. To celebrate, we popped the cork on a bottle of champagne and toasted their future.
During the rest of our time together, our conversation often wandered back to their impending parenthood. At one point, Jenny spoke to me about her plans to stay at home with their baby-to-be. “I think I’ll really enjoy that time. Being at home, hanging out with our baby.” Jenny’s face shone with happiness.
I sighed heavily. Like a war veteran breaking in a new recruit, I began to tell her about the ups and downs of motherhood–especially those of being a stay-at-home mom. How it was wonderful, yes–joy highs like I’d never experienced before–but how it was also a blow to the center of my being that I never even saw coming. As I spoke, I watched the smile slip from Jenny’s face, and I could tell that she was trying to construct a high wall around her beautiful image of motherhood. A fortress strong enough to withstand my reality sledgehammer.
Mid-sentence, I stopped talking. I remember people just like me, parents who would see my pregnant belly and say with the same weary resignation, “Oh, just you wait.” And then, they would launch into all the hazards and missteps of parenting before ending with, “But kids are great.” I’d try to beat a rapid retreat before their monologue dimmed my own idealized vision of motherhood.
I realize now that these parents meant no harm. They were only trying to guide me past the inevitable pitfalls of parenthood and help me maneuver the challenging learning curve that accompanies a newborn. Just as I was trying to head off for Jenny some of the painful reexamination of self that inevitably follows becoming a stay-at-home mom. It is human nature to want to offer advice that helps others avoid struggle, but it isn’t possible. In fact, it might do more harm than good.
My friend Jillene explained this to me years ago when I was a young mother. We were swimming at our local hot springs pool. My daughters, encircled in yellow flotation devices, paddled around us like little ducklings. Jillene’s children, grown and successful, were leading their lives hundreds of miles away.
“I have to pass on to you something that another mother once told me when my girls weren’t much older than yours,” Jillene began, her tone careful and serious.
Floating in the clear, sparkling water, I listened as she explained that butterflies needed to struggle when freeing themselves from their cocoons. By beating their wings against their self-made enclosure, their wings grow strong enough for them to fly.
“If you help them,” Jillene told me, her face sad, “they will be weak and eventually die.” She watched my daughters laugh as they splashed in the water. “It’s the same with children. They need to struggle in order to become strong and independent. And if you want them to thrive, there’s nothing you can do but watch.”
The sun suddenly felt too bright, making me light-headed. “That sounds horrible,” I whispered.
“It is,” said Jillene with empathy. “Especially since sometimes you are the cocoon.”
Inevitably, I came to understand that what she said was true, but still, it is painful to watch my children strengthen their wings. Each and every day, I have to stop myself from breaking open their cocoons to help make their struggles less arduous. And I’ll admit that I sometimes grow tired of being the rule keeper who they are beating against and will one day free themselves from.
Martha Beck writes in Expecting Adam, her memoir about the birth of her son who has Down Syndrome, “The hardest lesson I have ever had to learn is that I will never know the meaning of my children’s pain, and that I have neither the capacity nor the right to take it away from them.” I keep this quote on my bulletin board at eye level to remind myself that I can best help my children by letting them meet the challenges of their own learning curve, even though, as Jillene gently warned me, it isn’t easy.
Over the years, I have also realized that unlike butterflies, our human struggle to grow strong doesn’t end once we have moved through childhood and gained enough courage and independence to leave home. We are constantly beating our wings against different phases of our lives. Struggling to build a career, be in a relationship, raise children, face aging. Hard as it is at times, we have to do it ourselves–grow strong through experience and our own mistakes. And those closest to us can only watch from the sidelines and simply surround us with love.
I remembered all of this a few sentences too late as I sat on the grass with Jenny. It was tempting to share Jillene’s butterfly theorem as a means of explanation, but I refrained. Maybe I will another time or maybe Jenny will figure it out on her own. Instead, I offered a humble apology and I simply said, infusing each word with love and support, “You will find your way. You will be a great mom.” Silently I added, “And may you raise beautiful, strong butterflies.”