Wednesday, September 14, 2011

To Have and to Hold

Traditional wedding vows spell out what is expected of us in marriage: "To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part."

Parenthood requires no such verbal agreement. Yet these same vows surely apply to having a child. Most of us who sign on acknowledge this, understanding this is one irrevocable deal.

The To Have part generally proves unpleasant, especially for the mother. We endure nine months of anxiety, emerging stretch marks and intrusive medical instruments. The incubation period culminates in a formidable event purported to be part of the cycle of life, but which seems to indicate God has a rather sick sense of humor.

But the To Hold component wipes the slate clean. As soon as we hold that infant in our arms, we've already--in our minds--ushered in the For Better part.

Oh, the For Better! It's the stuff parental dreams are made of. The first smile and first steps, the soccer goals and dance recitals, and that march across the stage for the happy hand-off of a diploma. We cling forever to the moments--and the memories--of the For Better.

Yet, in between, lurk those For Worse times. Lord, we struggle with those. The grocery store tantrums, the turmoil of that first broken heart, the wild arcs of teenage rebellion or withdrawal. Sure, we've been warned, but nothing truly prepares us for them. If we've ever considered backing out of the deal, it's during the For Worse.

And For Richer? Well, that's a misnomer. From the cost of diapers to college tuition, parenthood sucks us dry. Once children enter the picture, it's always, always For Poorer. We can only sigh at our pile of bills and write another damn check.

We welcome In Health with a different sort of sigh--one of relief and gratitude. As we look around and view children who are the victims of fatal genetic diseases, cancer or life-altering accidents, we reconsider the possibilities of what we once believed to be For Worse. Nothing puts our own In Sickness experiences--the middle-of-the-night ER visits and basketball injuries--more in perspective than a child with a brain tumor.

None of us chooses to dwell on the idea of Until Death Do Us Part. We can endure almost anything. Except that.

We strive to keep our unspoken vows to our children as they grow up. And even as they grow--or move--away.

We'd like to be by their side for everything they experience: for the agony and the ecstasy. But from that first slumber party to their first night in a new apartment eight hundred miles away, we realize we must allow them to inch away from our arms. To become self-assured, self-motivated and self-sufficient.

We take a forever-vow to Hold them, yet we can't hold our children in our grasp forever.

All we can do, ultimately, is hold them close in our heart.

And have them promise to call us, frequently. They can keep that one little vow, right?

Any trouble letting go? What's the For Better or the For Worse you've experienced?


  1. You're right. I must have been in your mind with this one.

    Yesterday was better, though. Yesterday I made it a point to breathe.

  2. Thanks for reminding me to hang on to all those "for better" moments.

    Great post Sherry.

  3. MSB: Breathing is good. Make a point to do it every day. Hyperventilating doesn't count.

    Downith: It's so easy to forget in the turmoil of the For Worse times, isn't it?

  4. This is so lovely. I have a dusty womb but I smell what you're cooking here. The sickness part is the worst. I remember all the times I've had to bring parents devastating news about their children and I often thought I was lucky to have to ever go through that. But then there's all the great stuff I won't have. Just to sidebar, have you thought of sending this to some parenting magazines/sites? I think it's really good...

  5. This really is beautiful writing.

    With the age span of our kids, every day seems like a chance for The Better, The Worse, Always the Poorer, thankfully very little of the sickness, lots of health and The Parting. I haven't heard from Chloe in a week and that is actually a good sign. I'm getting used to her needing me in cycles.

  6. Bobbi: As difficult as that job must have been, I'm sure you handled it with tremendous care and compassion. Re that sidebar: I haven't done much freelancing lately. Probably should carve out some time to do so... Thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Lisa: The nice thing about having that wide age span is that while one's going through the For Worse, you're likely to be experiencing some of the For Better with another. But if all three of them are in the throes of For Worse, you renew your subscription in the Vodka of the Month Club.

  7. Okay, Sherry, you're killing me here, dear. I just came back from meeting up with the tow guy who picked up our old car for the NPR donation program and I stood there in the parking lot BAWLING as he pulled the car up on the flatbed. He proceeded to tell me I'd be shocked at how many people cry but I think he was just being nice. Then I come inside and think I'm cried out and I read this amazing post--and all these wonderful comments.

    I agree with bobbi: I think you need to submit this. It's just beautiful.

  8. I'm like Bobbi in the dusty womb zone.... though I became mom to my stepchildren (abandoned long since by their mother) at ages 9 and 15. My friends kept saying, "Have your baby!!!" but I just didn't have it in me to put our family through that. I'd been a stepchild in a family where they had "together children" and I didn't want that kind of stress and rift --- these kids had been through bad enough. Over time, they became MIne. 15 years later, they are REALLY mine. The good, the bad, the ugly, the lovely, the Till Death Do Us Part.

    When they were teens, I really wished for the "To Have and To Hold" era because I saw how moms need those sweet memories to get through the toughest times.

    Joan Didion has a book coming out next month, BLUE NIGHTS, about the loss of her daughter to illness, not so long after losing her husband. In the Vanity Fair photo, she looks so frail an alone. I wanted to hug her. I can't imagine.

    Beautiful post, Sherry.

  9. Erika: I felt much the same way when I donated my old minivan, which was on its last leg, to a local charity. Lots of memories there, including the first decade of my sons' lives. Two years later, I spied it still on the road. And that made me smile.

    Teri: How children come into your life is just a technicality. Sounds to me like you're a mother--and a hell of a good one. And yes, I read an interview with Joan Didion about her new book. Gonna have to work up the nerve to read that one...

  10. I'm with the others, Sherry---send this out.

    This is what I have to say about letting go: I'm five hours away from my kids right now. No lunches to make, no squabbles to moderate, no fights over homework, no driving the Mommy-Taxi.

    And I just read them both a bedtime story over a phone with roaming charges because I couldn't bear to miss bedtime.

    Yeah. Letting go is gonna be a breeze. . .

  11. Brilliant, Sherry, I would never have thought of this but it's so true.

    My children have always, always been For Better. I often feel that the tenuous nature of that; the spectral possibility of losing them, of having them be hurt, lurks behind every hug and kiss. A friend of mine lost her son at 18, when I was maybe 20, and I still remember all the times before he died, when she said, I don't know what I would do. . . .

  12. Sarah: I always found a little break now and then gave me more appreciation for the Better and more tolerance for the Worse. The "Mom Taxi"--believe it or not, I miss that. Some of the best conversations I ever had with my kids were when they were captive in the car with me.

    Averil: There but for the grace of God...

  13. I have loved this post and avoided this post simultaneously. It hurts to read it but, a true masochist, I've read it four or five times.

    It hits home this week, and I can't help but wonder if the letting go couldn't wait until at least 4? Maybe 5? And then I think of a friend who lost his son at 3, a boy who would have been a year older than my son, and how we can't be friends any longer because it kills him to see my boys. Then I realize how selfish my thoughts really are, and how I need to appreciate more and just stop. Just stop.

    Beautiful post.

  14. Beautiful post, Sherry. I don't have kids but this made me think of my own mom and all the sacrifices, hard work, and love she put into being a mother. Not long after her death I found some papers she had written for recent psychology courses. One of them detailed the various part of her identity -- mother, woman, (ex) wife, student, etc. and how she reconciled these various parts of herself. It was shocking to think of her as anything other than "just" my mother, I admit, but also eye-opening.

  15. Lyra: These don't sound like selfish thoughts at all. They sound like the natural thoughts of most mothers. I didn't mean the post to be painful--my intention was more along the lines of thought-provoking. But so glad you came back to comment...

    Laura: That must have been really fascinating to read. Sounds like a moving premise for an essay or short story. (Next collection?)

  16. You've read my adventures in being a deployed military parent and the mother of a sick child. It sounds strange, but I'm in this place of peace where I enjoy the time we have and don't think beyond that.

  17. Deb: Ah, peace... we all want a piece of that. I'm so happy to hear you've managed to find it--and appreciate it.