We’d only been home with Charlee a few days, and family was coming to visit. They were bringing pizza too—my favorite meal. It was October 2019 long before social distancing was a concern, and I couldn’t wait for pizza and family to arrive.
As an extrovert, the first days of Charlee’s life were lonely, even with my husband at home. Nursing was the only thing he couldn’t help with, and he could only empathize so much with what my body was going through between healing and feeding a child.
I heard a knock downstairs while nursing Charlee and then laughter in the living room under my feet. My FOMO (fear of missing out) was kicking into high gear.
Then Charlee began “cluster-feeding.” In the early weeks at night, it’s common for babies to get fussy and want to nurse frequently (or in “clusters”). But this brand new momma didn’t know that. After about 45 minutes, Charlee was calm enough for us to go downstairs so I could enjoy pizza and conversation until she was hungry again.
Cluster-feeding interrupted dinner again a week later. (This plan also included pizza so I’m not sure if I should talk to someone at this point about how quickly I get frazzled when the pizza gets cold.) Will and I always had date nights on Fridays. Since we were newlyweds, Friday night dates were a part of our weekly rhythm—a time to check in with one another and refocus on our marriage after a long week.
Will tried to recreate our date night at home. He ordered pizza, and we chose a movie after Charlee went to sleep. But Charlee woke up maybe 15 minutes into the movie.
After we got her back to bed, I tried to finish the movie with Will, but I was too tired to stay awake. A meltdown ensued. I loved being a mom even more than I could’ve anticipated, yet I also longed for old habits and routines and how easy it was to do them before our daughter’s arrival. It’s also not lost on me that other women are grieving their own losses of motherhood through miscarriage or infertility.
Grieving What’s Lost
How did I miss my husband—when we lived together? I didn’t understand. But I missed having dates on Friday nights and focusing on each other. I missed being able to take a shower or read without the interruption of a nap ending too soon. I wanted to easily meet with friends for coffee or host family again. I missed time alone in the early morning with God in prayer and Bible study.
An intensity filled the early days of motherhood, and it brought with it a kind of grief. If that sounds overkill or dramatic, stick with me. I wouldn’t have called it grief at first, but I think it’s an appropriate description for what I was feeling. Here’s why.
People most often talk about grief in the context of someone’s death. Grief is certainly a part of losing someone, but it shows up in other contexts too. Grief is an emotion we experience when we’ve lost something. Sometimes, we might not be able to articulate what we’ve lost, but we feel a void.
We experience grief because the world isn’t as it should be. The grief is an emotional response to a moral judgement. We see a tragedy or injustice and experience grief because, in the words of Saint Augustine, “evil is the privation of the good.”
The pandemic is another example of how the emotion manifests in different ways. People are certainly grieving over the loss of loved ones to Covid-19, but they’re also grieving other losses. 2020 graduates missed their commencement ceremonies and senior prom. Newlyweds were disappointed that their weddings were very different than they’d imagined. When the pandemic started, we were sad because our family didn’t hold our firstborn child for a couple of months when we knew very little about how the virus affected children.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis processed his own grief after the death of his wife, Helen Joy Gresham. (He called her “H.” in the book.) He wrote,
I think I’m beginning to understand why grief feels like suspense. It comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual. Thought after thought, feeling after feeling, action after action, had H. for their object. Now their target is gone. I keep on, through habit, fitting an arrow to the string. Then I remember and have to lay the bow down. So many roads lead thought to H. I set out on one of them. But now there’s an impassible frontierpost across it. So many roads once; now so many culs de sac.C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed (1996), p. 47
Part of Lewis’ grief certainly stemmed from the permanence of Helen’s death. But the reader learns in this passage that he grieved, too, because everything was different. Thoughts, feelings, and actions once given to Helen now had to be redirected to something new.
This is why I say—along with a lot of joy!—I experienced grief in the first weeks of my daughter’s life, and I think this is also one of several contributions to postpartum depression. I didn’t understand how I could love a child so much yet also miss parts of the life I had before becoming a mom.
Is Grief a Sign of “Idolatry?”
I’ve talked with several moms over the last 18 months and know I’m not the only one who felt this tension in the weeks after coming home from the hospital. And here’s what some of us do when we start feeling grief over our losses.
We jump to labeling it “idolatry.”
I did this for a long time, even before becoming a mom. No one has articulated this issue for me better than Sharon Hodde Miller. She tweeted this a couple of years ago before Holy Week, and I haven’t forgotten it:
There is this interesting thing Christians do in the face of loss. Whether it’s the loss of a job, a relationship, or a person, some of us wonder if God took it away because it had become an idol. As the logic goes, we loved the thing too much, which is why God removed it. If you wrestle with that mindset, I want to encourage you that Holy Week is a challenge to that way of thinking. As we remember Jesus grieving the betrayal of his friends and the loss of his life, we know his loss and pain was not the result of idolatry.Sharon Hodde Miller on Twitter
Last week I introduced this blog series and explained why we shouldn’t rush to label an emotion “good” or “bad” without examining the thoughts and beliefs behind an emotion or the ways we act it out. We can grieve for righteous and unrighteous reasons, and Jesus never sinned in His grief.
Someone tweeted around Thanksgiving last year about how our longing to be with people during the pandemic might be a sign that we idolize large gatherings in the West, and it received pushback for good reason. The tweet was a good example of this kind of thinking: we love a thing too much so it must be an idol.
At times, I believed I was a bad mom because I loved and missed parts of my life before motherhood. I concluded it must be a sign of idolatry or selfishness. But then I realized God desired that I spend time with my husband too. He probably didn’t think it was selfish that I wanted to bathe or sleep. God also wanted me to spend time with Him in Scripture and prayer just as much as I did. He is good to give me friends and family, along with a desire to be with them.
I grieved certain losses precisely because they are good desires.
This doesn’t mean our grief is never a sign of idolatry or selfishness. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with another friend in her kitchen after she’d just had a baby. In college, we both studied for hours and pulled all-nighters. She told me, “I just don’t know why waking up with a baby is so frustrating and hard when I did this all the time in college.”
I told her I’d had the same thought. I said, “Well, I realized the sleep deprivation in college was ultimately for my benefit (my degree). But right now my sleep deprivation is for hers. To be honest, I’m not ready to go there and talk about what that might reveal about me.”
We both laughed because we knew it was true. Sleep deprivation was a much easier pill to swallow when it benefitted me. God was now calling me to sleep deprivation for someone else, and I was more willing some nights than others. There are certainly times when sadness over being interrupted is exposing our bent toward selfishness and idolatry.
But are you beginning to see why we can’t simply put unpleasant emotions in a “bad” category? Again, we can grieve for righteous and unrighteous reasons. My grief over some of my losses was like a siren alerting me to adjustments I’d have to make as we became a family of three.
18 months later we’re learning how to prioritize our marriage in new ways while parenting a small child that requires a lot of our time and energy. We’re trying to savor date “moments” and still plan the occasional date night. (After a yearlong pandemic, Friday nights at home have become normal, and I look forward to it every week.) I’m finding new windows of time in my day to pray or read Scripture or a good book. I also make time for friends as best I can; a baby just might be in tow.
Grief is a powerful emotion. I look back on the grief of early motherhood and thank God for what He taught me through it, even in my darkness. He used my grief to show me I was missing important parts of life and would have to make adjustments to tend to those parts again.
We’ve been experiencing worldwide grief. Covid-19 took things from all of us. Whether you’re grieving the losses from a pandemic, a death, or something else, I hope you’ll spend time with God in your grief and ask Him to help you discern what you’re missing and why you’re missing it.
Next week I’ll be back to talk about anxiousness.
This is Part 2 of a blog series on emotions. Click the links below to read the rest of the series:
Part 1: Big Feelings: A New Series on Emotions
Part 2: Big Feelings: Grief
Part 3: Big Feelings: Anxiousness