My parents both passed away a year ago, when my boys were six and four years old. They died within two weeks of each other. They were married for 51 years, so it gave me solace that they went together. Losing my dad was especially hard since he was mentally there through the very last minute. I feel like I lost my mum, however, years ago.
My mother had dementia. It reared its ugly head right around the time I gave birth to my oldest son, Jack. Right when I felt I needed a mum the most, I felt my mum slipping away. First, it was little things. I had the hardest time breastfeeding. Truth be told, I hated everything about it. I was in constant pain, I had thrush and mastitis, I hated the damn pump, but I felt such pressure to breastfeed (“It’s the best thing for your baby!” was the war cry from every parent and doctor). I called my mum crying one day. She was a firm believer in the power of breastmilk (she had six kids and nursed us all without a problem), but after hearing how miserable I was, she encouraged me to give it up. I was so grateful for her understanding and compassion. The next day, however, when I spoke with her, she asked how breastfeeding was going. She completely forgot our conversation ever took place. This repeated itself for weeks. Until I finally just changed the subject every time the topic of feeding the baby came up.
Over the years, I wanted to call up my mum and ask her advice. How did she manage to handle crazy kids? What did she do when she felt she was losing herself? Did she ever want to run away from home? But each day she slipped away more and more.
Before I had kids, I never thought to ask if she liked it. Or did she regret having so many? I didn’t have my kids until later in life. I was a travel writer and loved my career. When I had my kids I knew it was the right decision—it was what I wanted. But I had no idea it would be so hard. That I’d sacrifice so much. Of course I love my boys dearly and I’m so glad I had them, but when things are especially difficult or when I enter a dark period, I just want to talk to my mum. Sure, I have great girlfriends, but it’s not the same. I wanted reassurance. That I wasn’t screwing them up, that I was doing a good job (or even a decent job…or perhaps just not a bad job).
One of the hardest things about parenting is that there’s so much judgement — from the media, from other parents, from teachers, doctors, everyone. I have a wonderful group of friends, who are extremely supportive, but I missed having my mum in my corner. Telling me it was going to be okay. To not be so hard on myself.
My mum was my biggest cheerleader growing up and even into adulthood. When most people thought I was nuts to become a travel writer in my early twenties and fly off to Africa on assignments, my mum couldn’t be happier for me. She encouraged me constantly and rejoiced in my accomplishments. She wasn’t that mum that ever chastised me or made me feel bad for the path I took in life. She got that I danced to my own beat and encouraged me to believe in myself and my dreams. When I lacked confidence, she was there to have enough for both of us.
Then I had kids. Nothing can shake your core, your confidence, your “I’m okay meter” like becoming a mum. Suddenly, I doubted everything. I had no idea what I was doing. After an emergency c-section and medical issues post-birth, I fell into a postnatal depression. I couldn’t find my footing. I was terrified to listen to my instincts for fear of messing up. I needed my mum, but unfortunately, through the horrible disease that is dementia, she wasn’t the mum I’ve always known and depended on. Over the years, the reality of my mum became more and more a memory.
As I struggled with motherhood—I often felt I was working in the dark with no map—I had no guidance from my own mum. No pat on the back. No reassuring hug. Instead, she was as confused as I was, but in a different way. She began to forget who I was and would ask who my kids were. When I talked to her on the phone, she would often forget even simple words (and even how to hang up the phone; nothing broke up my heart more than having to hang up on her after 10 minutes of goodbyes).
Struggling with mothering my young kids, while not having my own mum, was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through.
As the years went by, and my kids enjoyed all their ups (first laugh, first step, first kiss) and downs, I longed to connect with my mum. However, by then, the light had gone out in her eyes. She had a hard time focusing and finding any words. I had lost my biggest cheerleader, my moral support, my strongest anchor.
By the time she died, I had been grieving for her for years. Parenting is wonderful, but it can also bring me to my knees. Having to do so without my mum was excruciating. At both of my parents’ funerals I gave the eulogies. Talking about their accomplishments and the love I had for them, almost broke me. But when you have two little kids, you can’t fall apart. At least not for long. So I picked myself up and went back to parenting. I think about my parents constantly. I think about all the things they are missing with my kids. I’m so sad my kids will not grow up with the love of their maternal grandparents. But I teach my kids that we all have strength deep down that we didn’t know we had, but it’s there. You need to believe in that strength, no matter how much you might want to pity yourself and just crawl under the covers. With the one-year anniversary of my parents’ passing, I try to honour their memory, by believing in my own strength. And hoping they’d be proud of me.