The Bittersweetness of Milestones

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I was recently listening to a podcast on which one of the cohosts confessed to crying on the way home from the hospital with her newborn son because her two-day-old was already ‘getting so big,’ and he would never have this ‘coming home’ experience again. I chuckled at this. . . until I remembered that I had a very similar reaction when bringing my own son home from the hospital for the first time! I’m sure hormones played a part in those tears, but at the time, the milestone was nothing short of momentous. It was my first experience with the mixed reactions of parenthood: while my heart was exploding with love and happiness, I couldn’t help but feel sad that a part of my son’s life had already passed, never to be relived.

They say that in raising kids, the days are long but the years are short, and these words are never more poignant than when we cross a milestone

—whether it’s bringing a child home from the hospital, the loss of a first tooth, a birthday, or the first day of preschool. I’ve been known to sob like a baby every year on the night before my son’s birthday, and though I keep thinking these milestones will get easier, they never do. There is a lot that is hard about being a parent, but one of the hardest things—the thing nobody really prepared me for—is how gut-wrenchingly painful it can be to watch my child grow up.

Being a mom is one of the greatest gifts life has given me. My son is my pride and joy, and watching him develop into a kind, intelligent, life-loving, adventurous four-year-old has felt nothing short of miraculous. Each milestone is a celebration of life lived and lessons learned and growth achieved. It is also an acute reminder that my child is no longer my baby, and that our time together is slipping through my hands like irretrievable grains of sand. These milestones are joyous yet melancholy, a source of both elation and sadness . . . truly bittersweet.

In her book Bittersweet, author Shauna Niequist writes, “Bittersweet is the idea that in all things there is both something broken and something beautiful. . . that rejoicing is no less rich when it contains a sliver of sadness. . . . Bittersweet is the practice of believing that we really do need both the bitter and the sweet. . . . Sweet is nice enough, but bittersweet is beautiful, nuanced, full of depth and complexity. Bittersweet is courageous, gutsy, earthy.”

I’ve long been accustomed to finding the bright spots in the darkest moments, the sugar that makes life’s bitterness a touch more palatable. It has taken me years of practice and maturity to begin to embrace the flip side to bittersweetness: appreciating (rather than resisting) the sadness inherent in some of life’s sweetest moments.

As moms, it’s easy to feel guilty over the sadness we feel during ostensibly joyous milestones. Shouldn’t we be happy that our children are thriving and growing? Isn’t that the goal? Of course it is, and of course we rejoice! Our twinges of sadness and possibly regret do not detract from the joy of the moment. We are thankful for new beginnings AND sad about their accompanying endings. We can be both, and in fact our mixed emotions add richness and meaning to the milestone that has been achieved.

When I find my reactions to a specific milestone are becoming more bitter than sweet, I turn my thoughts to gratitude. After weaning my son, I missed the closeness of breastfeeding, but was thankful for so many wonderfully intimate moments of nursing him. . . . I was sad when I lifted him from the Baby K’Tan for the very last time, but grateful for strong legs and developing motor skills that allowed him to walk on his own. . . . Each night, as I read him a bedtime story, I think of how a day will come when he doesn’t need his mama to put him to sleep, and I savor this time together, treasuring it in my heart to remember and appreciate when that milestone comes to pass.

Milestones big and small are an opportunity to celebrate our children’s achievements and our own role as their moms. And with each milestone, we can be happy it happened, sad that it’s over. . . and hopeful about what’s to come.

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