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The ache of the oldest child

This morning I took the 3 younger kids to Mass, and it was neither our best nor worst performance to date. Zelie squirmed and screamed and needed to be escorted out a couple times, and Luke too, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.

I remembered being a younger mom with same-aged kids, but struggled to recall some of the details. Did I have to take Joey out this often? Was Evie as loud and screamy as Zelie is at 15 months? Did I sometimes make it to daily Mass when the big kids were smaller?

I’m sure I did, but there is a filmy haze of sleep deprivation and a sort of rosy glow beginning to slip over the past as I cross into my second decade of parenting.

It’s hard to grasp that amount of time – 9 years – while I bounce a different baby on my lap, correcting homework written in cursive and answering questions about life and death and Nerf ammo and digital special effects.

Weren’t you just a baby, home with me all day? Didn’t you just learn how to read? How are you old enough to ride your bike to the park? To ask questions about death?

I don’t know if it’s because I am myself the oldest child, but I’ve always had a deeply melancholic love for Joey, our firstborn. I think about his babyhood and I could weep, because it was already so long ago, but also, wasn’t it just yesterday that we could not, for any amount of bribery, get him to give up his pacifier?

I look at him now, gangling legs that, while not long, are beginning to take on the knobby proportions of a kid, no trace of baby fat remaining anywhere. His mouth is full of more gaps than teeth, and his top bunk is overflowing with Nerf artillery and chapter books.

The kid I nearly came to blows with over “Teach your Child to read in 100 easy steps” has read 3 dozen chapter books since Christmas, tearing through the “Chronicles of Narnia,” the “Indian in the Cupboard” series, and more recently, grudgingly making his way through the ancient pile of “Bobbsey Twins” volumes I dumped on his desk. Not enough action, apparently.

Last night while lying inexplicably awake at nearly midnight, I started to do some mental math and came to a startling conclusion: I’ve already spent as many years with him under our roof as there are ahead of us. Put another way, I’m exactly at the halfway mark between “it’s a boy” and “Joseph Kolbe Uebbing, class of 2028.”

And like a weirdo, I already feel sad about that.

What is it about parenthood that insists on a continual tension between near fatal levels of exhaustion and also sneaking into your children’s rooms at 11 pm to stare at them while they’re sleeping?

Having kids has been a study in grief over original sin.

I’m never more convinced that human beings were created for eternal life then when my heart is breaking over some small piece of discarded baby clothing that fell behind the washing machine.

Why should the passage of time cause any grief? And yet, that the little boy who used to fit this tiny striped t-shirt is out in the front yard, unattended and hammering nails into scraps of wood for his latest invention, it breaks my heart for some reason.

We’re all speeding towards death, in a sense. The moment your first baby is placed in your arms, you’re already preparing for the long goodbye. A decades-long process of first steps and last public displays of (willing) affection; of diapers and braces and essays and baseball games and ten thousand bedtimes, in between, some harder than others.

I don’t know what it is about this kid, but he just makes me feel all the feels. He’s breaking trail for his younger siblings, all of whom I love just as fiercely but whose existences have, thus far, not sent me into midnight fits of existential arithmetic. Maybe when the baby is in high school I’ll be an even bigger wreck!

I don’t mean to imply that I think overly much about death, either, just that the passage of time  – as measured by melting deposits of baby fat giving way to lean, boyish muscle – causes a simultaneous swelling of pride and grief.

And I don’t know why I should feel grief except that death is unnatural, and separation a horror. As such, nothing motivates me to advance in the spiritual life quite like this future-focused grief over the passage of time, the peculiar agony of a mother’s heart. I am investing in a future I will not see, helping shape a character whose life only partially overlaps with my own. How magnificent.

And also, how difficult. It’s the stretching kind of love for sure, pulling at muscles that are tight and reluctant. I know this world is not my home, but my heart is still a little broken over it. And each of the short people who we share our home with have broken it open a little more. Hopefully for the purpose of being reconstructed, and rightly ordered. But man, is it tempting to hold it tightly closed.

17 Comments

  • Nancy S.

    You write so beautifully. This post made me a little misty-eyed as my eldest will be 51 in June. Thanks for the nostalgia.

  • Liz Underhay

    I’m often wondering why my kids growing bigger makes me so profoundly sad. It’s what they are supposed to do! I seem to encounter this almost daily, and there is always a kind of mysteriousness to it. Thanks for the lovely reflection Jenny. It made me cry but also gave me some food for thought. It makes sense that could have to do with the fall and original sin which is why it’s kind of unavoidable. My oldest is 10, and I just relate to this at a very deep level!

  • Marianne

    Love you like a sister, even though we’ve never met. You speak my language. Been there, done that. My youngest is 16. I have grandbabies now and the heartbreaking love cycles again.

  • Kathleen

    Totally get it! I cried the other day when my middle kid mentioned that we are only 4 short years till my oldest is a senior in high school.. what the?!?! And then I looked over at the 17 month old shoving spaghetti in her mouth and I was like.. “Oh, but you’ve got about 16 years..” I’m riding the emotional roller coaster of having bigs and littles, and finally getting the sense that I just want to be present to all of it right now. It can be so exhausting and so very good to straddle all these different ages–naps, band concerts, late track meets, cutting up grapes for one while another makes you a sandwich, tweens proudly showing off cute younger siblings to friends before heading to go bowling, babies screaming in traffic at 5 o clock. Exhausting, but so very, very good.

    • Marie P

      I’m really new to this all – only one year in. Although most of the severe brain fog from the early trenches of sleep debt has lifted and I can formulate my own coherent thoughts again, it is encouraging and helpful to find them already here. This blog has been an awesome accompaniment for year one! Thank you!

  • C

    Two things cross my mind when looking at my 13 year old; I hope she doesn’t make the same mistakes I did, and, I hope she keeps in touch with us more often than I did with my parents when I was out the door at 18. This life is just a little stroll.

  • jeanette

    Our oldest came to us when he was already 4, and his adoption was not even finalized until he was halfway through 2nd grade. He went to college out of state when he was not quite 18. So his entire childhood with us was extremely fast. But I never really thought much about it while it unfolded, because I always looked at the deepening of our family bond. When he left home it really struck me how little time we had him in our life. Hardly seemed like enough time to really be his parents. I always had a bit of lamentation over the “missing years” of his early life. It was just a big question mark, and from what we know, not a happy one at all. So I guess we were just blessed to fill in the rest of the years of his childhood in our home.

  • Remi Lessore

    The eschatological dimension of life which you describe, and facing the reality of death during life is very important. Please allow me to cite an incident to illustrate the truth and confirmation of your sadness (and its beauty) from a less emotional perspective.
    In the UK police have to attend incidents call ‘sudden deaths’ – this is less sinister than it sounds. It simply means that we have to verify whether there is obvious evidence of foul play when someone dies.
    I attended the death of a 75 year old this week.
    The husband had had surgery and been discharged from hospital a few days previously. He had not been well, had taken ill and died. His wife and their neighbour tried to revive him, and waited for the paramedics as they did so. The paramedics arrived and did what they could, but he died in spite of their efforts.

    With a colleague we checked him over and there was no sign of foul play other than his possibly premature discharge from the hospital and subsequent neglect in view of his illness – that will be a matter for the coroner. The wife and her friends were quiet and dignified in the face of death but as we waited for the coroner’s van to remove the body I took note of my surroundings. I quickly worked out that the man had been a free-mason. There was a six-pointed star hanging from the ceiling (but they were not Jewish), there was an embroidery model of a skull and roses (symbol of death and rebirth – in knowledge, rather than in These are all masonic symbols.
    As well as this, I could see that the man had been retired and had little better to do with his time than collect antique postcards for which he had an intricate filing system. And they had only one child, now adult, who was going to come to comfort his mother as soon as he could get a flight home as he was living abroad. This was all very banal. But the friend who had come to comfort said something which bothered me: “How do you prepare for something like this? It was so unexpected. Such a shock.”
    I refrained from saying: “You poor people! He was a 75 year-old smoker who was feeling ill after surgery. How could you not have considered his death – and your own? How on Earth could it be a shock? He has the symbolism of the rising of man and the descent of God in the star and the crusader; of death and new life in the rose and skull; HOW could this be a shock?”
    But I remembered that the facing of reality which the Church gives us, even in trepidation and sadness, is a Gift… because as all you mothers know, death is very sad, as is the knowledge that we will leave our children and that they will bury us and that this is an end less sad that burying them – this knowledge is a Grace born of Faith and that we have no credit in it. From from alienating us, as the materialists would charge, it is a pure gift realism from God in a world run by people who espouse similar symbols to ours, but do not live in true acknowledgement of reality.
    So I treated the family as gently as possible and as we left, the friend thanked us for our tact and understanding.

    The life of the poor man who had died was NOT lived in the eschatological dimension that Jenny describes.
    So, you mothers, yes be sad at the prospect of death. Hold, as did Mary the mother of God, these things in your hearts – without being overwhelmed by them and without losing any of the joy that is the raising of children to face life (and death).
    And thank God for the Church and the promise of Resurrection – apt in this time of Lent

  • Liz

    Oh boy, I can definitely relate. As the mother of an only child– a 12-year old son– I decided last week to tuck into Tony Esolen’s new book ‘Defending Boyhood,’ and he brings up the Gospel narrative of our 12-year old Lord staying behind in the Temple, and his mother finding Him in anxiety. Then He asks His mother, as we all know, if she did not realize He must be about His father’s business. And, of course, it’s perfectly natural that when a boy reaches that age, he tends to pull away more from his mother and domestic life, and venture further out into the great wide world, and to learn how to take his place among men– stronger and more independent, the type of man whom another woman might someday want to marry, even.

    And now that I’ve finally reached this stage as a parent of an adolescent boy, I feel like I truly understand some of the grief of Our Lady. Letting go is hard, especially when he is still, as yet, just a child. Just a few days ago, I got the line, “You wouldn’t understand, Mom, it’s a guy thing.” It’s bittersweet. I’m torn between grief at losing my little boy and pride in his burgeoning independence and manhood.

  • Elizabeth

    So beautifully written. Our oldest of four is only seven and my heart just aches looking at him. The first year of his life felt so impossible and now it doesn’t seem possible that so much time has slipped away.

  • Heidi Butz

    Our oldest is 25 and expecting our first Grandchild. I’m positively GIDDY with excitement for this next phase in the parenting saga. It’s made it much easier to digest that the youngest 2 are in their final years of high school and will be flying the nest soon.

    • yolanda

      Heidi,

      You and me both. I am giddy at this stage of life, too!

      I feel so much less stressed now that I no longer feel the huge burden of responsibility for so many young children. Having adult children (#5 of 6 just turned 18) feels like a huge relief.

      I wonder how much comes down to personality. I really don’t ache for the times when my children were little and am enjoying the current stage so much more.

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