are you grieving?

Posted by on February 10, 2010


to a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

* * *

Here is a usual suspect for this Poetry Wednesday: the familiar, the comforting, the beautiful, the pure Gerard Manley Hopkins. One day I may post something offbeat and avant garde. The poet might not be dead but alive and inhabiting a neighborhood in Brooklyn or Atlanta, neither pure, nor exactly beautiful. The poem might include profanity for shock value, but then again probably will not, if it can be helped. The poem might be vacuous, very American, or very blunt, or some combination of things like that. Someday I might toy with that idea further, then return to Gerard Manley Hopkins again, and again, and again.

This is a poem I chose this week because it helps me articulate something that is finally rising to the surface– an insight into my experience of being a mother so far. I never seem to have much success when I try to write about my experience of motherhood, and keep asking myself why that might be. I think it must simply be that the action of mothering interferes with the contemplation of motherhood. Contemplation happens in slow currents, like those that drift from continent to continent in the deepest part of the ocean, where whales live. The action of caring for small children is more like the shoals of a rocky river, where small fish dart about and algae cannot grow.

My thoughts cannot find a rock to cling to within the everyday relentlessness of meeting the ever-shifting needs of growing babies, but nevertheless, there is still the place inside me where the whales live and currents proceed imperceptibly, of their own volition. In this slow metabolic process lugubrious insights occasionally emerge. And still, because they are not being generated in the swift-moving part of my mind and life, where the words swirl, they are hard to explain. That is why I picked this poem today. There was this thing I realized– a very simple thing, but eluding my powers of explanation. It began after I returned from the hospital with a new baby. I could sense the instability in my older child when I returned home. The notion that her mother could unexpectedly leave home for several days was weighing on her, and it clearly took a long time of me staying put for her to leave off fearing that this might happen again at some point. She was furious with me, really. But then I was not the same mother to her as before. I needed for her to need me less– much less than she had before. I needed to recover from a surgical birth; I needed to care for a completely dependent newborn. She was two and a half when her baby sister arrived, but before that there had been no terrible twos. The terrible aspect of two only began in earnest after the arrival of her baby sister, including all sorts of wretched behavior and disobedience and potty training defiance. There was a major shift in her sleep needs too: suddenly she didn’t need a daytime nap, and if she got it, she would stay up late into the night, driving her parents absolutely mad.

Truthfully, our family life was crazy for at least six months after the addition of a second baby. We were in upheaval, adjusting, flying by the seat of our pantaloons. I could have written thousands of words about these things, all coming under topics such as behavior problems, nap schedules, potty training, and so forth and so on. But for some reason I could never really wrap my mind around it all or get to the heart of it or attach any words to it that I felt anyone could possibly want to read. It was tedious.

One evening at a vespers service at church, while struggling with my wild child (ah, church, where my relationship with her is always at its absolute worst), a woman sitting behind me said to me: “She [Elsa, my baby] looks happy. She [Esme] does not.” I wanted to snap back sarcastically: “Thank you for your helpful commentary.” And my inner thoughts, now on the defense, rattled on: “Don’t tell me that my child is unhappy– this child that I’ve nurtured so well and given so much of myself too– the best of myself. She is de facto a happy child; it cannot be otherwise.” But I knew that what I was humanly able to give her had suddenly been drastically cut, and there was no way that she would not feel it sorely. I was asking her to be happy with much less. It was the first real demand ever placed upon her tiny life.

Gradually I had to admit that, quite simply, she was sad. She was grieving the change in our relationship. And it was not a sadness that comes and goes in a child a dozen times in one day, like crying over a toy. It was a sadness that permeated her life for many months, displacing her former notions of what it meant to be alive, or maybe just expanding them to include grief. Then, thankfully, our family did begin to settle down and adjust. Adjust: a word that I never knew could include so much toil and strain and endurance. Then one day in late fall or early winter (I cannot remember) we had our coats on and were about to go for a walk. She was singing and cheerful–the way I tend to think of as her natural state. Then she burst through the front door into the stairwell, threw her arms out and announced: “I’m happy!” And she seemed genuinely surprised to find herself feeling that way. It seemed that she was finally getting to the other side of her grief and able to offer her true self to us again– her cheerfulness, her joy.

The true Esme was going to be more available to us again, instead of bitter, withholding and stubborn. We were so relieved; the torturous time of upheaval was coming to an end. And it goes without saying that behavior is an ongoing issue, but sometimes you can just sense that what is motivating misbehavior is simply the developmental fact of being three, rather than some deep unhappiness that you are powerless over. And that is much easier to deal with.

I have heard that loss and grieving is a part of the maturation process. It begins when we are small and is difficult but necessary, and continues until we die. And there is only so much you can do as a mother to protect your children from losses and grief, and even if you could, it would not be desirable to do so. It would stunt their growth. Today, with Lent approaching, I am wondering what things I might be grieving for right now, including selfish notions of ways that I wish I were more fulfilled, things I wish that others were giving me or had given me in the past. Maybe Lent is a good time for grieving and traveling to the other side of grief. On the other side, the world is in springtime, the world is well-adjusted, and the world–the small part in which I live– will be relieved to find my true self more available.

  1. Amy Brown
    February 10, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this poem and your thoughts on motherhood. Life is so bittersweet, and there is so much grief. Big and little things. My oldest is 17 ( I cannot believe that!) my youngest Ella, is 4 and I have 3 in between. Watching them grow is a grief and a joy. Blessings to you.

  2. amber
    February 10, 2010

    Oh, Julia, why do you not live next door? When I read your blog I miss you so!

    This was such a beautiful post. And it makes me think clearly about what it will be like if we have another. I loved also the whale metaphor. So apt.

    And Hopkins. There is never enough Hopkins.

  3. Molly Sabourin
    February 10, 2010

    Julia, I do not even want to touch or dissect this post with a lengthy comment. It is just so perfect and beautiful and articulate and stirring, as is. Thanks again and again for allowing us to peek inside of your heart. A blessed Lent to you!

  4. Beth
    February 10, 2010

    Your post left me with an ache in my heart and with a rush of memories of riding with my three-year-old son in our little blue car listening to Johnny Cash. It all seemed so perfect and happy. And there was the phone call alerting us that there would not be just one more sibling entering our family but yes, twins. I grieved for my son, though he really handled it well. Still I cannot tell you how much joy it brings my heart to see all three of the boys play and laugh together, to hold hands at prayers. And now we prepare for baby number four, I begin to feel that tightening in my chest for my two younger boys. Thank you for your words and honesty.

  5. Kris Livovich
    February 10, 2010

    I believe motherhood is full of grieving, if we are honest with ourselves. But it must eventually end. Just as your little Esme was caught unaware by her happiness, so will we be caught. For which I am so very grateful.

    And Gerard Manley Hopkins? You could post him every week.

  6. paige maddex
    February 11, 2010

    Julia – it's inspiring how "in tune" you are with your daughter and her needs. Molly shared a prayer with me recently that has caused me to rethink my relationship with Isabelle. It's been pretty humbling. Thank you for sharing this post – a good example of "listening" to your child.

  7. anna j
    February 12, 2010

    You, my dear, introduced my to Hopkins, so I actually think of you every time I think of him . . . and, incidentally, every time I see my email signature 🙂 Thanks for sharing your profoundly beautiful mind and spirit!

  8. Jenny
    February 25, 2010


    You are a brilliant writer. This post moved me to the core. I love the way in which you respect the mystery of Esme's life, apart from her relationship to you, her own relationship to life the the transitions that happen as she ages. The post is so brave and helpful. Also–I loved the part about the shallow river with fish jumping to the surface, but also the deeper waters where the whales dwell. Wonderful metaphor. I feel that too, in my own life.

    Is Fr. Tom reading your blog? If not, I think I am going to have to send him an email reminder. I think he would love these reflections.

  9. Jennifer
    March 5, 2010

    This is a beautiful post. I have a very dear friend with a beautiful little girl, Margaret, who is about to experience the birth of a new little sibling. I think of this poem often when we discuss the inevitable "adjustment period".

    It's a joy to read your writing. Thank you for sharing!