On Motherhood, Mayhem and Moving On


by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

“The world will break your heart 10 ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else.” Those lines, from tortured protagonist Pat Solitano in Silver Linings Playbook, sum up his feelings about his recent past.

I don’t know about the world, although he’s probably right about that. For me, the quote resonates a little more if I change the first two words, from “the world” to “having children.” Yes, I’m saying that, out loud, without apology, here in a public forum: “Having children will break your heart 10 ways to Sunday. That’s guaranteed. I can’t begin to explain that. Or the craziness inside myself and everyone else.”

Before we go further here, of course, sometimes the heartbreak is tragic and forever. Parents who have lost a child don’t need me to tell them how they feel or suggest how they even begin to start a different kind of life, one with an empty space that can’t be filled.

But for many of us, it won’t necessarily be tragic when our children break our hearts. It just happens. No woman ever held a precious newborn and spent a single second thinking about the day she’d learn of his arrest, or suicide attempt, or addiction problem. No woman cuddling an infant imagines her child might one day battle depression or another emotional illness—or that that child might self-medicate to ease the pain. No mother ever believes she’s raising a son or a daughter whose words and actions will be the reason she finds herself weeping, tense, and jumpy, or simply overcome with sadness, trying very hard to find the silver lining in the middle of what seems to be a season of storm clouds. We all dream the dream and want our children to be healthy, happy, and fulfilled. And why not? It’s possible, right?

Sure it is, but without getting into every stressful detail, let’s just say I’ve had my heart broken a few times over the years, and not once did I anticipate it happening. Like Pat in the movie, “I can’t begin to explain that.”

Then again, why would my turn at motherhood be unblemished? Thinking that could be true was a sure sign of craziness inside me. It seems ridiculously obvious now, but I can’t explain why I believed so ardently that my children and I would sail through the years with little or no heartbreak, that our life together would be one unending journey toward achievement, success, and adulation. Maybe some families do accomplish that—miraculously, if you ask me—and I wonder how it’s possible. I give them all the credit in the world if they have.

Don’t get me wrong. My sons and I have spent decades feeling love and compassion for each other. I’m beyond proud of them, and they’ve each enjoyed success and fulfillment in so many ways. But I’ve also lived through the effects of some spectacularly bad choices they’ve made and endured the feeling of despair that resulted. Sleepless nights led to days on autopilot when I went about my routine only to realize I’d been clenching my teeth for hours. When I scrutinized my role as their mother in all of it, the words failure, loser, stupid, failure, inattentive, worthless, self-involved, ineffective, failure, pointless, useless, defective, and failure all came to mind. Sound familiar?

I’m not asking for true confessions here, but the fact is I’m not all that unique. There are lots of mothers like me. It’s just that we don’t have a support group that makes us all not feel like misfits or oddities. There is no “Mothers Anonymous,” and if there were, I swear I’d hold the first meeting. “Hi, I’m Renee and I’m a mother.” What a relief!

I will say this. I’ve emerged mostly intact after the hardest of times due to my steadfast belief in two things:

1. My sons are kind, intelligent, thoughtful, and good—and they’ve made some mistakes, just like millions of others. I had to believe they would emerge from their own particular turmoil older, wiser, and (please God) more levelheaded and rational. They have. And I never stopped loving them; maybe that mattered somewhere along the line.

2. The women who supported me are good people, too. They are mothers who understand that sometimes, bad things happen in the lives of good mothers, and it doesn’t mean you are worthless or that you made gigantic mistakes and missed something critical along the way.

To every mother who is wondering exactly where she went so terribly wrong, I offer this for consideration: You didn’t. It’s called life, and sometimes it can be nasty, sad, and debilitating. And I wish you a warm and loving Mother’s Day. You are a force of nature who can get through just about anything.

And to my sons, who have ushered in a few dark clouds but also so many more blue skies than even I imagined 23, 23 and 24 years ago, I offer this wisdom:  “There ain’t no cloud so thick that the sun ain’t shinin’ on t’other side.” Storms are part of life, and I’m grateful we can ride out them out together. Wouldn’t have it any other way, guys.

Renee-JamesRenee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations: A Humorists’ Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to Like her Facebook page, where she celebrates—and broods about—life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, “Really? You’re kidding me, right?” (Or wants to, anyway), and welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.


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11 Responses to On Motherhood, Mayhem and Moving On

  1. Alice Green May 9, 2014 at 10:15 am #

    Renee, You sound to me like a great Mother! If you never worried, or cried, or struggled or had your heart broken, you probably would have been a Mom who just didn’t love her kids enough to care so much it hurt. The fact that you love them through everything says it all. Kids aren’t perfect, neither are parents, but if they all love through the pain, it’s worth it. I’d say your sons are very, very lucky to have you as their Mom!!

  2. Beth Adair May 9, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    Interesting insight. Mi madre (and I am not latin) and I have butted heads most of my life. I see this as nothing more than a personality clash. We disagree on the way we live our lives (she’s a heavy smoker, hates exercise and has never worried about a diet). I’m a nonsmoker, 5 day a week exerciser and retired marathoner. I typically live a relatively clean diet and sparingly resort to “trash eating”. My mom has made life entertaining with her ways and we will never agree on many things. This is our right. This is what makes us unique and what we learn from each other is it’s better to just be who we are and not try to change each other. (Actually, I told her I was never going to change many moons ago, and she laughed and said the same thing).

    Mom’s take care of each other. I work in the public, travel and see it all the time. Mom’s flock together, exchange stories on “when who walked & at what age”, and even as strangers help each other out. I even witnessed motherly comraderie in NYC at a subway stop. Last June 13th I was getting off at midtown and noticed a mother help another mother get a stroller up the stairs. There was a rain storm about to hit and everyone was laughing and glad to help. I never realized how hard (till then) it must be to raise a baby in the city. As a retired babysitter, the thought too crossed my mind that it could’ve been a nanny with the stroller. Either way, the comraderie was there.

    As a retired babysitter I’ll also add that some mothers I met were simply better business women than they were at feeding a baby and dealing with the nap schedule. No need to feel guilty for this. I knew one woman that was a summa cumme laude graduate, SVP of her company and sometimes felt guilty leaving her kids with me and the nanny. Now, nearly 20 years later she’s still a professional, her son is working on his masters and working and the other son is in college. Their dad switched professions from being an attorney to teaching college level. They all do well. They all have a good time. The whole experience for me was fun. I am grateful I still hear from the kid I used to have to discipline at times and am glad I was there when they were youngsters.

    I’m sure there’s blogs to get through tough times, or support online groups to remain anonymous if you want to call your son or daughter a jackass and not have to submit your name. Bear in mind, your kids have a streak of you in them, and remember too you were a touch hard to raise on some level. Take away laughs:) We all know how to do that, even under the worst of situations.

  3. Heather Uczynski May 9, 2014 at 10:28 am #

    Great writing as usual, Renee. Thanks for being so scorchingly honest about motherhood.

    As a non- mother, it is sometimes feels intimidating when mothers are canonized this time of year. I hope your day is a happy one.


  4. Michelle Shaffer May 9, 2014 at 10:32 am #

    I have a son struggling with bipolar disorder. It is/has been a constant struggle. Thank you for this article.

  5. Donna in Delaware May 9, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    Like Heather, as a non-mother, I have witnessed all these things from relatives, friends and their children. For parent’s, as you have said Renee, it’s called “life,” for children, it’s called ‘growing up.’ Part of the reason I opted out of having children are for these reasons, plus, I didn’t like the way the world was headed to bring ‘my children into it! Don’t get me wrong, I love children, everybody else’s. I love my niece and nephew to death, although my nephew has caused more than a few heartaches, sleepless nights, and hand wringing to his parents. I love my cousins too. They too have caused suffering to their parents, and they are still causing such problems, sometimes non age appropriate!

    I realized long ago that this is a part of parenthood, and if parents think that things aren’t going to happen to their kids, if they think that their kids can do no wrong, it’s someone else’s child fault, if they keep excusing the wrongs that their children do, they are living in a dream world, and definitely headed for heartbreak and sleepless nights.

    Remember, “It’ll be fine,” and if not, you’ll somehow figure it out. Tough times never last, but tough women do. Happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers out there who have stood the test, and you’re still standing!

  6. Mary May 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Here is to a mother who taught me from the beginning how it should be and can be. The Saint Patty’s day gathering that started with little children step dancing and ended in tears of joy when we shared that we were expecting…after 10 years. Who was in the delivery room with balloons and a tool kit (his dad fixes everything and lives at home depot) hours after he was born when not one person from my family was there, ever. Right after 9/11 when hope was in short supply. I was only home from the hospital an hour when your sons marched in with boxes of baby clothes and the endless supply of onesies that only a seasoned mother knows you need. Your advice I heeded; trust your instincts. Simple advice absolutely not! You doubt yourself at every turn. This week was a particularly good one for this mom of a 6th grader. He brought home a report card with straight As. The parent-teacher conference yesterday was a dream – he is a joy to have in class, respectful, kind, helpful without having to ask and a friend to all. You might think I’d be patting myself on the back, but you would be wrong. Proud, of course. But I got right down on my knees and thanked the universe. So many pitfalls out there and you are darn lucky if they miss you. A child in his school the same age as my son took his life this year and another in the same school district did too. Two 12 year-olds did not make it through those tough times this year. Mothers, Grandmothers and all those who provide unconditional love can and do sometimes, many times make the difference. That is to celebrate on Mother’s Day and Renee here’s to you.

  7. Donna in Delaware May 9, 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    MARY, there were two teens in my house of worship who also took their lives. No one knows why this happened, although they should have seen something. It is not always easy to spot something going on with your child(ren). Maybe a little closer attention is sometimes the key. You don’t want them to feel like you are the police, when in a sense, you are, you have to be these days. As Mary says, it takes a lot of support to get children to become sane, responsible adults, heck, just well adjusted children! Most of us have been extremely fortunate that we and our child(ren) made it through, hopefully, one stage at a time!

  8. Renee May 10, 2014 at 11:12 am #

    I thank each of you for your kind and thought-provoking feedback on this post which was – to put it mildly – a little risky for me. But I think there is power in honesty and too often, we seem to be caught up in our fac(ad)ebook lives, where everything appears to be on track, on time, and on nothing but a winning streak.

    Your comments truly touched me, in so many different ways. Thank you for taking the time to post them.

    The times I have opened up to friends and family about the challenges of motherhood and the difficult passages, I’ve always been rewarded with love, support and stories that started something like this….” Didn’t I ever tell you about the time…..?” Thank you God. We all need more of that.

    I also feel rewarded by the visitors to this forum; so full of people who are open to sharing their experiences and reactions to my words. Thank you all.

    And on whatever clouds may fill your skies from time to time, I hope you find nothing but silver linings.

  9. Yen May 11, 2014 at 12:47 am #

    Such beautiful writing! I’m deeply touched. Thanks Renee

  10. Cindy Ratzlaff May 12, 2014 at 7:40 am #

    Amen! Thank you for the risks you take every time you write Renee. This hit home, made my day and sent me to Google hoping I’d find a local chapter of MA. So to every woman who can say “Hello, my name is…” I salute you. That, by the way, probably includes my own mom 🙂

  11. Sue May 14, 2014 at 10:36 am #

    Those ‘boys’ are lucky to have you for a mom 😉

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