For every stage of motherhood that ends, a new one begins, bringing different but no less abundant joys.
I turned the corner into our bedroom and stopped with a jolt. The rented bassinet that stood along the wall beside the door for the past five months was gone. My son hadn't slept in it for at least two weeks, not even for naps. But the bassinet had stayed there, holding that space, until we packed it up to ship it back earlier that day. Now, the space felt cavernous, the emptiness a gut-punch. It announced that this chapter of my son's young life—our sleeping-in-the-same-room chapter—was over. Actually, it'd been over for a while, I just hadn't noticed. I couldn't stop myself from crying.
This wasn't the first time I encountered this specific sadness after my son's birth. I'm no stranger to emotional turbulence but typically it hits before a change happens, not afterward. Doctors diagnosed my anxiety disorder in early childhood. For more than three decades, I've operated in an alternating state of dread and relief. Whenever something scary, challenging, or just unpleasant lay ahead—be it a thunderstorm, a piano recital, even the end of a vacation—I spent absurd amounts of time projecting worst-case scenarios. I'd agonize to near-paralysis. Then the awaited event or moment of change would arrive. Everything would turn out fine, or simply pass, and the dread would melt into relief.
Knowing these tendencies made it easier to manage my pregnancy. Despite the seemingly endless array of scary, challenging and unpleasant things those months threw my way, I could recognize my anxiety symptoms when they started. I could dip into my hard-earned toolbox of coping mechanisms to handle them. But having such intense emotions appear weeks after the moment of change was a new experience.
It'd happened once before. Weeks before the bassinet breakdown, I sat nursing my son on the morning of his due date (he surprised us by arriving two weeks and a day early). Looking at his patches of fuzzy hair, undulating cheeks and impossibly tiny fingernails, it hit me for the first time that my pregnancy was really over. My husband and I didn't have a chance to enjoy the freedom and stillness of our last night as non-parents. I didn't have a chance to spend an hour snuggling on the couch with my dog, just the two of us before she'd forever have to contend with her brother for my attention. I didn't have a chance to sit alone in my son's nursery, looking around at everything we'd put together for him, enjoying a few minutes of solitude and dreaming. A unique part of my life—the imagining, preparing, nesting, anticipating – it was over, and I couldn't go back. I couldn't stop myself from crying.
I struggled to understand what I was feeling and, more importantly, why.
How could I possibly be sad about my pregnancy being over when it meant I had this healthy baby boy in my lap?
How could I possibly be sad about my son's bassinet being gone when it meant he'd transitioned to his crib and was sleeping through the night?
Why was I only feeling sad now, weeks too late to do anything about it?
As I spoke about these feelings to others, I started realizing what they were: expressions of grief. Delayed, but intense grief.
I've been fortunate that I can count on one hand the number of loved ones who've died in my 36 years. The two most prominent—my dad's parents—died when I was 7 and 11, so I was too young to fully feel or understand the weight of that grief. Given my inexperience, it's reasonable that I didn't recognize what I was going through now. No one had died, but I'd experienced a deep loss.
In some ways, this phenomenon of delayed-onset grief has been a blessing. If my anxiety were the dominant emotional force in my parenting life, I'd be agonizing about my son's every transition or milestone. I'd be too stuck in my own head to be present for any of them. Being perpetually on the brink of a panic attack, I'd be incapable of giving him the real-time nurturing he needs.
In other ways, it's been a millstone. I chide myself for not documenting each memory permanently enough so I can relive it later. I mourn the many previous versions of my son that are gone for good.
The just-out-of-the-NICU version small enough to fit on my forearm.
The feeding-around-the-clock version who provided ample excuses for just-us time.
The are-you-pooping-or-actually-happy-to-see-me version who was just learning to smile.
I'm realizing that, despite surviving many mental health battles, I'm pretty unarmed for this one. I know how to stop my mind from projecting onto the future, but I don't know how to prevent it from yearning for the past.
A friend told me to remind myself that, for every stage of motherhood that ends, a new one begins, bringing different but no less abundant joys. I try to do this when the grief creeps in. Sometimes it works. Sometimes I can't stop myself from crying. But I'm learning to embrace these changing moments.