Thursday, March 20, 2014

Out of the Ashes

Nearly every mother faces an identity crisis when our children grow up. And believe me, it is every bit as profound as that faced by our children when they cross the threshold to maturity. I'm not sure it isn't worse.

My friend, Chris D. made a poignant post in her blog, A Parent Spectrum Disorder, today. She still has adolescents at home but the day is fast approaching when she will have an empty nest. As I wrote my comment to her, I realized it was not just meant for Chris. There was something in it that tickled my ear and I was forced to think about it.

"It is the tragedy of motherhood that we sacrifice ourselves on that altar. We make ourselves literal burnt offerings. They grow up, leave, and we lie in the ashes, forgotten. We have to resurrect ourselves. And when your spouse dies, it is even worse because there is no one to help lend a hand if you need it. Grab your husband and make your life what it was before children. You can. You must. It ends too soon to waste time."

Resurrection. I'm not God. I have no real idea of how to do that. My children left home years ago. They've come back a couple of times since but that was different. I was dealing with adults who didn't want anything but a place to sleep, eat, and no rules. Once on their feet, they were gone again. At first it was hard to deal with adult children but after a few months things balanced out, rules were established in spite of them, and we were fine. It helps if your kids like you a little but that's another post. It is nice to know mine actually like me a lot.

I think even when they come back you fall back into the Mom role. You aren't yourself. You're the person you became when you heard that first cry. You're the healer, comforter, protector, accountant, landlord, chief cook and bottle washer. When they're born your world became this tiny place initially filled with dirty diapers and regular feedings. It expanded to regular bedtime battles and legos in the dark. From there it expanded to managing multiple schedules and shuttle duty, with binding up the bloodless wounds of teenagers. Then, rather sooner than you were prepared for, it was over. The house was empty, the laundry manageable, and you have no idea what to eat or how to cook for two. And when you looked, you didn't recognize yourself in the mirror.

My husband died and we had never really figured it out. How could we go back 30 years and be the fun loving duo who looked for exciting things to keep us interested in one another. We were looking but ill health and death interrupted us and before we truly got a chance to find that place again, he was gone, forever altering my perception and my world. 

Resurrection is no different for me than for any other mother. If anything, it is harder. Not only do we mold our personality around children, before them, if you were fortunate enough to have a spouse, we molded it around a spouse. The "two become one" is no joke. In a good relationship, you do become a single unit. Children further cement this and your identity shifts farther away from who you were single. 

So here we are, sans children. And we look in that mirror and we see lines that weren't there, shoulders that used to be straighter, necks that were once slender, too many chins, bags under eyes that once sparkled in laughter and now... well, sometimes they glitter in anger. We look...and a total stranger stares back.

I thought, once past the worst of the grief, I'd find ways to put the past behind me. I just knew... was positive... if I survived it, I'd be me again. I didn't realize that it would be impossible. Today, when I read my own comment to Chris the truth dawned on me. That girl, the one who laughed so easily, found excitement in everything she did, and was so creative... she was long gone. I am suddenly faced with the realization that I have to recreate myself. I have to become someone else. 

Who am I? What am I supposed to do now? For five years I've tried to figure this out. At first I thought I knew but with half of me missing, nothing fit. I no longer had an identity. The stranger in my mirror is truly someone I do not know. 

I forced myself to find ways to become involved in things I loved. I started crocheting again. I started sewing but neck problems put a crimp in that. I became a local Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and I started a local writing group and I connected with dozens of people online who loved writing. I began to write more. There was a sense that I was moving toward something. I had no idea what.

The last three years I've been too sick to care much who I am. Each day has been pretty much a struggle to get up, put in 8 hours and come home. The sense of forward motion stopped dead. There is still this woman who stares back at me from the mirror. Her eyes still glitter. I realize she's fairly angry that life is throwing painful things at her. She still lies in ashes.

So, although I can't prevent the slings and arrows of life, I must keep trying to find who I am. Stopping now is unacceptable because ... well, in truth, that is who I am. And maybe, one day, I'll wake up and look in that mirror find that, like the Phoenix, I have emerge from the ashes a completely new person.


  1. Is it our age, Dixie? I have not lost my husband and my children are still at home but I completely understand your feelings. I have to ponder this because we are so much similar. So much the same.

    I am stunned.

    1. Well, I thought the same when I read your post. I knew what you were feeling. It struck this cord. And yes, it is our age. That and the fact that we wrapped ourselves in the lives of others and were happy to forget we mattered too.

  2. I feel your pain. Even though my husband didn't die, we divorced after the kids left. There was just too much pain. The pain of my absent children, the pain of lost love, the pain of aging. I know you've heard this before. Getting old is not for sissy's. I long for the days without pain. For the energy to make it past 9:00 pm. I see the end of my life coming at me like a runaway freight train and I have no way of stopping it. With both parents gone, my mortality is staring me in the face. I'm the elder. Crap.

    1. Wanda, I know what you mean. The pain is very real and when coupled with the pain of life in general, it is a bit much to deal with. I do think that we become more attuned to time passing and we all know what is waiting. Focusing on that is so depressing. I've been doing that a lot. And when someone dies in your arms, it tends to draw attention to itself.

      I think the sense of loss, whatever the loss, is traumatic for women especially. As I said to Chris above, we allow ourselves to be wrapped inside other lives. We live through them. I don't know why we do it. I think the story of Eve being created from Adam's rib is very symbolic of our connection to those we love, particularly spouse and children. We are, after all, physically connected to these people. Once separation happens, we probably feel it very strongly. And when you are alone, as you and I are, the lack of connection is magnified. And it is painful.

      But you, Madam, have a book soon to be out. You are now an Author. Not crap at all. Feel good about that.

  3. Dixie -- this post of yours hit me in more ways than any other you've written, I think. I am a child of aging parents.. and more and more I find myself trying to be a part of their lives, because I realize how limited my time left with them must be. I have no children... but I think in some ways, that makes the 'two become one' even stronger... because all we've ever had is each other... and when one goes, there won't be children to fall back on. Each illness, each surgery for my husband leaves me anxious, until he recovers. We joke about fighting over who will 'go first'... but it's not a joke. And as a divorce lawyer, I see my clients experience what it's like to lose a spouse - although not through death... when there are no children, when there are young children, when there are grown children.
    Yes, we all need to figure out this secret to self-resurrection.

  4. Laurie's response hit me - we are the aging parents and my daughter has made changes in her life to accommodate the fact that we cannot do as we've done. For three years I immersed myself in seeing to it that my husband lived through medical crises, clinging to ideas of what I wanted to do when that was over. For now, his health is stable, but he has no interest in activities. I've found one, but have left others on the wayside - so, we're all seeking that same secret - what do we do right now with our lives that will make sense and be profitable to our self-worth? Or does the answer change, daily, as we do?