Navigating developmental transitions, experiences of episodic grief

Author note: This essay is from 7 years ago, sitting unread by anyone since July 2012. 

Last week my tango instructor pulled me aside to dance. He had noticed something. We began with familiar steps and then he added more challenging moves. After a few minutes, he stopped and said quietly, “What I notice is that you are very smooth until something is unfamiliar. When there is a transition you wrestle for control because you don’t trust anyone, you become like a mother taking care of everything.” That was an interesting statement about mothers, transition, and control.  I got tears in my eyes, as he had so clearly hit on a core issue I was struggling with off the dance floor – navigating a new stage of adolescence with my almost 15-year old daughter. And like in the tango, I have not been managing these new steps in a particularly graceful or trusting manner.

In going through this latest transition I’ve felt particularly vulnerable and lost as a single parent, and despite having an excellent relationship with my ex-husband, it hasn’t been enough. We need lots of support to manage the unknown and overwhelming. I’ve wanted an objective eye-witness, a sounding board, nurturing touch, and a conflict mediator around the clock.  Yet, each parent-child relationship is unique and ultimately only ours to work through. It’s difficult to parent with our best selves when we are in a heightened emotional state, perhaps even impossible. To this end, I am again reminded of advice from dance instruction, this time salsa. “When you lose the beat, stop moving and take a moment to re-gain the beat”. Great advice in most situations, and not always so easy to do!

An aspect of developmental transitions that I’ve come to understand more and more, and which doesn’t seem to be commonly explored, is grief. I remember a moment when my daughter was about three. Wearing her blue and white checkered Dorothy dress, she turned and smiled at me with such incredible joy, I thought my heart would burst with the fullness of that split second. Later, after tucking her into bed, I began to weep. My husband asked what was wrong.  I sobbed, “Childhood is a terminal illness, the little girl that smiled at me tonight will not exist tomorrow.”  Being a glass half-full kind of guy, he held me and said “Each day is the birth of something new.”

In accepting the new “what is” we are also simultaneously letting go of the “what was” and often without much warning – the new stage arrives before we have time to honor the stage that has passed. Life moves quickly, often without time for reflection on our experiences. I’ve heard many parents comment that just as they got a grasp on a stage of development it was over, or that they have the experience of always being one step behind what is actually occurring.  At some point in the past few months, my daughter has made a huge developmental leap but there was no clearly delineated marker to warn me. I didn’t get to say good-bye to that particular incarnation.  There has been much confusion as I attempt to navigate this new person and our shifting needs in relationship to self and other. My needs and hers are not necessarily compatible at this point.

Managing to meet everyone’s needs in a family is an on-going challenge in the best of circumstances. It becomes even more difficult when there is a major shift; it takes time to sort through the competing needs, intense emotions, and develop a new set of expectations. At various times in the family life cycle one family member’s needs may take precedence over the needs of the other members. Ideally imbalances are time-limited and negotiated openly. Without open negotiation around competing needs resentment and despair may emerge. Have conversations (or some form of communication) that evaluate the overall functioning of the family system, identify any changes that might enhance the quality of life and give each other support in the difficult times for which there might not be any solution. Trying to be patient & present with what is.

My experience of working with families for almost 20 years, has illustrated that rarely is there only one primary emotion present in response to changes.  The emotions associated with transitions are complex, encompassing spectrums of confusion, relief, excitement, fear, anticipation, regret, grief. Each stage of family life presents a new set of challenges, adjustments and wonders. I’m reminded of the first line of A Tale of Two Cities, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”.  As we go through a transition this might be our experience of the moment. In retrospect, maybe my mother was closer to the truth when she stated, “every stage has been the best stage”.
For Eva, Every stage really has been the best…well, maybe not that summer of 2012. Or the fall when you left for college and the grief of missing of you almost surpassed my joy in the existence of you.