A valediction forbidding mourning

first day of school

I fell in love with John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” when I was 15. Obviously, I was a super cool teenager. I’d read the poem over and over and at first, the melancholy would wash over me as I imagined myself parting from the imaginary lover I didn’t have (I didn’t have a prom date either) and how leaving this object of my affection would feel a lot like death. But as I continued to read, I’d feel hopeful as I realized that my love would be a higher, more spiritual love that distance could not destroy.

I’ve always been a hopeless romantic and a wee bit melodramatic. But the mood of those teenage years – the acute emotion, the assured sense of wisdom when I knew squat, the social butterfly who really craved quiet alienation from the superficialities of my peers – sometimes seems so far away that I can’t imagine I ever was a teen. There are moments, though, when I find my way back. Poems that I read for pleasure (or pain; do all teens tend toward masochism?), not just because I wanted to ace my AP English exam ticker through my head now and then.

Donne’s poem – or at least the title – came back to me when I suffered the malady of a broken heart in college (there was plenty of mourning then). Sometimes I’d think of Donne even when I had to say good-bye to someone I loved. On Wednesday evening when all the kids were asleep, I prepared bookbags for the first ever day of “real” school at the Wicker household. The soon-to-be valediction weighing heavily on my heart, I started to cry. Just a few tears here and there, but there was definitely more than a drop of mourning.

On Thursday – the very first day of school – I tried to forbid further mourning as my children departed, but it was easier said than done.

All week long I’ve been a wreck, anxious, and feeling like I made the wrong decision. My children have been my constant companions for over eight years now (I’m counting my pregnancy with my first). They have also been the object of so many of my fantasies and fears. Yesterday morning I had visions of my kids shining, but I had darker visions of their hearts breaking, too, or their creativity being crushed or them just being bored. Or some mean kid telling them it was stupid for a girl to like Star Wars or dinosaurs or pirates. Or, what if they loved it all and didn’t miss me a bit? On the eve of the first day and that morning, I wanted nothing more than to hold them close and tell them I’d made an awful mistake and that I’d keep them by my side forever.

I didn’t do this, of course. I did start crying during my early morning run. My friends were such good listeners and did not for one moment poke fun or roll their eyes at my heightened emotions. I did find a bottle of wine at my doorstep when I returned home from a dear friend with a note encouraging me as a mother and giving me permission to be sad. I did suck it up and put on a brave face. And I did even feel a swell of pride for my brave girls and their bright smiles.

Even the child who was most reluctant to start this new chapter appeared eager to see what lies ahead; yet, she hijacked my heart when she was not afraid to look back and give her Mama one last wave and “I love you.”

When I asked my 6-year-old if she wanted me to walk her to her class, she said emphatically, “No! You don’t even need to walk me in.” When I asked my 8-year-old, what she wanted, she said, “I’ll be fine, and I’ll check to make sure Rachel is fine, too.”

big girls

And so I let go. (I had to; my husband gave me a kiss and said it would be okay and took the kids from me, truth be told.) I tried to not feel like a total homeschooling reject. A homeschooling mama’s words helped:

“Changing is not quitting, my friend. Often it takes more vision and courage to change than to continue in the same path.”

The change of watching my big girls walk out of my house (and it felt like out of my heart) provoked fear and uncertainty to swirl around inside of me. (But I always told myself I would never homeschool simply out of fear.) And there was the sadness, too. Oh, the all-over-aching sadness that came with a half-empty house. The two littles and I prepared not-so-healthy after-school snacks (the menu might have included chocolate truffles that melt in your mouth), and I felt like it was too quiet and not chaotic enough to only have two instead of four sous chefs at my side.

But the reunion was sweet. My children returned to me happy.


That helped to forbid the mourning just a bit. Maybe in the midst of the hair-raising push-pull of rearing four children 8 and under, where my days are spent sifting through senseless disagreements and mounds of clothing and plastic toys, we’ve actually done something right. Maybe the emotional sediment of trying to do my best and apologizing when I fall way, way, way short is settling into place and making for a firm foundation. Maybe my kids are really connected to me and realize how much I love them and will be good, kind, confident people even when they’re off on their own. Maybe, when we part, we aren’t suffering a loss or gaining distance but growing and becoming closer despite the physical divide.

“endure not yet

A breach, but an expansion,”

{I remember several years ago reading a weepy blog post from a parent who was sending her daughter off to school for the first time and thinking it was a little overly dramatic. And here I am quoting John Donne poetry after waking up at 4:19 a.m. to cry my eyes out.}

It doesn’t help that my almost 2-year-old is nursing less and less or that one friend recently remarked that he was a little boy now and not a baby, and another friend saw my 8-year-old and couldn’t believe how much she’d changed and was looking more like a young woman than a little girl. There’s a lot of weaning going on around here.

When I held my first tiny treasure close to nine years ago now, I was afraid of the unknown then as well. It was new beginnings that were sometimes daunting – that first labor experience wondering if I could do it (I did! Four times!), learning how to nurse, watching my new walker toddle off and not worry she’d trip and crack her head open, figuring out how to nestle her into an Ergo.

Now all that seems easy. It’s not finding the right latch while nursing that I worry about; it’s that latch breaking and never happening again that makes me wince.

Years ago I wrote about how hard it was when my second abruptly stopped nursing. I thought she’d weaned for good since she didn’t nurse for around two weeks, but it did turn out to be a nursing strike (and also around the time I unexpectedly got pregnant with my third). It felt like the worse kind of rejection to have a little one choose to not nurse rather than the other way around or rather than have a slow, mutual, and gradual weaning process. I always have a hard time weaning – not just from the breast but just from my kids needing me less. There’s joy in knowing your child is becoming her own person, but there’s that fear and sadness again threatening to overshadow everything. This week I had to forget all of that. I had to hold my head high and trust and know that being a mother is just one long process of weaning. Motherhood reveals the inextricable double helix of love and heartache like nothing else.

I wrote this when I was faced with my second “weaning mommy,” and it seems to apply to the changes my family is going through right now as well:

First, newborns are weaned from their mother’s womb. Then, arms open wide, they’re sailing down a hill on their bikes and we’re screaming, “Keep your hands on those handlebars!” Before we know it the very children we thought would never sleep through the night or get out of diapers are heading off to college with an assured (and perhaps inflated) sense of wisdom.

To be a parent is to teach my children to be less dependent on me and more dependent on themselves. This is just one of the ciphers of parenting: to figure out when you need to hold on and when it’s time to let go. I’m only just discovering that the holding on is much, much easier to do.

My two oldest weren’t going off to college this week, but it did feel monumental sending them to a small, safe school just down the road, and the letting go was scary and yes, sad for me, and I could not forbid all mourning. How quickly the time has come to say good-bye to two older children while there’s no longer a baby wedged on my hip, flapping fat fingers at the departing sisters while babbling, “Bye-bye.” There was a 4-year-old with neatly coiffed hair and a toddler hugging my leg, but I felt like my kids were the fastest moving timepieces that were ever created on that first morning of school. Tick, tock, Tick, tock.

So, yes, there were some more tears. (A friend asked me on Facebook if I cried. My response? “Affirmative.”)

But there was hope, too. There was the belief that I’ve raised two happy, confident kids who set goals for this year that included being kind, giving their best, and staying true to themselves. I can’t control everything. They might get teased. They might learn the natural consequences of forgetting something at home. They might be bored sometimes. They might feel left out or find themselves missing home and me. Here’s the thing, though. I wasn’t in control when I was homeschooling either. I’ll never be able to control everything. I can’t guarantee a happy, carefree life for my kids. What I can do is teach that there’s redemption in suffering. I can keep on loving. I can try to always give my best just like my kids are trying to do in that new building today, and I can trust that my kids and I – with God as our guide – have a fixed kind of love that transcends the proximity and frequency of cuddles, that “endures not a breach but an expansion,” and remains constant even in the wake of big, big change.

My sweet children, life is sometimes hard and always, always changing, even when it’s not so obvious like it’s been this week. But one thing won’t ever change and it is this: I love you, you love me, God loves all of us, and this was so before you were born into this world, and it will always be so whether you’re here with me or far away from my reach.

funny faces on first day of school


Enter the Conversation...

9 Responses to “A valediction forbidding mourning”
  1. Jaimie says:

    You’re a good mama, and this is beautiful. And boy do you have beautiful daughters, besides!

    There’s nothing wrong with mourning what is past in the face of change. I’m not a mama, but I think all mamas do it. My mom had to deal with my brother starting regular high school (after homeschooling since kindergarten) and me starting college in the same year…that was rough.

    Hug those little girls tight when they come home from school! They know you love them. :)

  2. Nella says:

    “Maybe the emotional sediment of trying to do my best and apologizing when I fall way, way, way short is settling into place and making for a firm foundation. Maybe my kids are really connected to me and realize how much I love them and will be good, kind, confident people even when they’re off on their own. Maybe we weren’t suffering a loss or gaining distance but growing and becoming closer despite the physical divide.”

    Thank you for this, I will remind myself of this when two of my homeschoolers start their “away school” adventure this year. Hugs to you from another Mom facing change!

  3. Tracy C. says:

    “Now all that seems easy. It’s not finding the right latch while nursing that I worry about; it’s that latch breaking and never happening again that makes me wince.”

    This. This is in my heart and on my mind constantly. For me it’s not just about schooling/homeschooling, but just them growing up period. *sigh* It’s about me still growing up as much as them I think.

  4. Melanie B says:

    “… being a mother is just one long process of weaning. Motherhood reveals the inextricable double helix of love and heartache like nothing else.”

    Yes. No matter what choice we make, we can’t avoid the heartache, can we? This is just beautiful.

    And your descriptions of your teenage self…. I think she and my teen self would have got along swimmingly. Two peas in a pod.

  5. Terri says:

    They’re going to have the most wonderful time. Even veterans of homeschooling know that the best experiences for children are when they’re parents are involved–and that doesn’t necessarily mean at home. Of course, that presupposes that the parents are sane! :0) Really, mommy taking care of herself is fundamental to a healthy family. Lots of fabulous adults went through institutional schooling.

    When we sent ours off to school for the first time, our oldest was going into 8th grade. I told a friend that I felt I had all the same worries as a mom sending off her kindergartener. By the way, we sent /all/ the school aged kids to school that year. It lasted 2.5 years before all but the high schoolers were back at home again. One of the kids went for first grade, home again at Christmas of second grade, back in for third grade, and home again at Christmas of third grade. He’ll start Catholic high school next year. It’s a fluid arrangement. Wise parents flow with the needs of their families and don’t let other people’s opinions inappropriately influence the decisions they make for their children.

    Proceed with prayer and be not afraid! They’re beautiful!

  6. Erica Saint says:

    Home schooling or away schooling – we are not in control. Amen!
    Your girls look super cute.
    Praying for you and your girls as you all start this new journey.

  7. Julie says:

    Wow, I love this post and read it with tears in my eyes. My kids have been my constant companions for almost EIGHTEEN years, and in eight days one is going to public school fifth grade, one is going to public school tenth grade, and the homeschooled senior will be taking two classes at the community college and working much of the time. At the same time I am mentoring my long distance cousin whose first baby is two weeks old, she texts thing like “he wants to nurse for 30 minutes every two hours”, and my “cherish that time” replies don’t always sit well with her. I know how hard that newborn time in, but from where I sit, watching them drive away feels infinitely harder.

  8. Kris Chatfield says:

    Hope the first week went well and that the start of a fresh week today was a bit easier! Jordan is done homeschooling also, as he started Pius on Friday. It’s SO much quieter with just Joel and Jamie at home – I can relate.

  9. Pat Gohn says:

    “Motherhood reveals the inextricable double helix of love and heartache like nothing else.”

    You ARE a poet. That’s so true, Kate! Said the Mom who just dropped her baby off at the airport for a semester abroad… and his confident self never looked back. Though I was watching till he was out of sight.

    We get schooled right along with their schooling, no matter what form it takes.

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