When I was pregnant with our first child, Jacob, more than 15 years ago, I came upon this quote by author and mother Elizabeth Stone: “Making the decision to have a child - it's momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
Overly-dramatic, I thought at the time. Surely, Ms. Stone is exaggerating. While I didn’t doubt that having a child would change my life, a heart walking around outside of my body was a ridiculous idea. My child would have his identity, I would have mine, and while I would certainly care and be concerned about what happened to him, there was no way I would feel like my own heart was walking around.
Then I had Jacob. And within a day of his birth, I understood that Elizabeth Stone was not being overly-dramatic or sentimental. She was simply stating a fact. The investment of motherhood is so intense and intimate that the line between where a child ends and where the mother begins becomes blurred.
Each subsequent child after Jacob added a new heart walking around outside of my body. And as the children are becoming older and more complex emotionally, one of the things I am discovering is that if I am to be an effective mother to four children, I need to be able to find and claim that spot where each of my children end and I begin, as blurry as it may be.
When I had babies and preschoolers, most of their emotional life was within my control and I managed it. It was relatively easy to see what the problem was and get to the bottom of it—he’s screaming because he doesn’t want to clean up his toys; he gets a time-out for screaming, then still has to clean up the toys — problem solved.
In a family of six, it is rare that everyone has a sensational day at the same time. With four hearts walking around outside of my body, the risk is that I will absorb the pain of the most broken heart each day. Three kids have a good day; one is sad because of something outside of my control —and that’s the pain I absorb. That’s the child I’m thinking about in bed that night. The risk is that I will never have a sensational day.
The danger of motherhood is the paradox of control. There is so much is within our control in terms of how we can shape our children’s behavior, their morals, the decisions they make in school, the way they learn to relate to others. In many ways, we are the major determining force in our children’s lives. Yet at the same time, our children will have experiences that will have nothing to do with us, and these experiences will shape them and form them as well.
When I look at successful mothers who are a stage or two beyond me—mothers with teens or college-aged kids—what I see is balance between a heart-outside-my body love of their child and a deep respect for that child as an individual apart from them.
These mothers have learned to acknowledge their child’s struggles and problems without being consumed by them. They offer support while at the same time recognizing that it’s not up to them to be the problem solver each time. They have come to a place where they realize that even the heart outside the body needs to find its own path and make its own way. They have learned that it’s possible to have a sensational day even when one of their children has a mediocre one.
These mothers inspire me and shine a light for me. As I watch them, I’m learning to find that blurry spot where each of my children ends and I begin. As I watch these mothers, I’m learning how to live with the strange sensation of four hearts walking around outside my body.