It’s been 20 years since my mom passed away from breast cancer, and yet I still get emotional on Mother’s Day. Every year I tell myself that I should be over it, that the tears of loss should be dried up by now.
This year, I tried letting the mascara run without remorse. I felt both the sadness of my mother’s passing and the joy of my own passage into motherhood. I approached Mother’s Day as a time for remembrance and celebration, a reminder that loss and love can coexist without one having to replace the other.
Having a daughter of my own, with another baby on the way, makes me feel both closer and farther away from my own mom. Closer because I now appreciate her on a much deeper and relatable level, and farther away because I can’t ask her questions about motherhood or about what I was like as a baby.
I make sense of these paradoxes through writing. For so long, my mother has been my muse. And now, so too is Madelyn — my strong, beautiful and vivacious daughter.
Madelyn squealed and squirmed when we tried posing for Mother’s Day pictures, so we opted for candids instead. She’s always finding ways to deepen my appreciation for unplanned and unposed moments of happiness. When you lose a parent as a child, you wonder if you’ll ever experience those moments again. Becoming a parent years later reminds you that it’s possible. The cyclical nature of life is healing.
Mother’s Day morning, shortly after throwing a teary tantrum, Madelyn grabbed my hand and her grandma’s and guided us on a toddler-size tour of my mother-in-law’s garden. Smiling, I thought about how it was my favorite Mother’s Day gift of all.
The Tarpleys have some exciting news: We bought a house AND we’re expecting our second child — a baby boy! I’m 16 weeks along and due on Sept. 12. We’re feeling blessed, and we’re so excited to raise our growing family in our new home! 👨👨👧👦💗
Last week I stopped nursing Madelyn. For 12.5 months, nursing was her nourishment, her sense of comfort. In some ways, it was mine too. It’s hard to let go of the things that draw our children near — but our motherly instincts, our bodies, our children usually steer us in the right direction and help us arrive at a good decision. Sometimes we take the scenic route, or our internal compass fails us along the way, but eventually we get there.
My beloved mom passed away 20 years ago this month. Usually, life with her in it feels like forever ago. But this year feels unexpectedly different. The memories feel fresher, more vivid — probably because I’m reminded of my mom on a daily basis now that I have a daughter of my own.
For years after my mom died, I put her on a pedestal of perfection. I blocked out the bad because it was too painful to remember and it felt disrespectful. A few years ago, one of my writing mentors asked: Did your mom ever do anything wrong?
Over time, I began writing and talking about her more authentically and came to accept her for who she was — a loving mother who, like us all, struggled and made mistakes. Unintentionally, Mom taught me to appreciate both the blemishes and beauty in life and to see perfection for what it is — unattainable.
Today I’m celebrating the mother she was and the grandmother she would have been. I know she would have loved Madelyn.
A year ago today, our sweet Madelyn was born. In the past year, she’s grown from a baby to a strong little girl who has changed our lives for the better.
She likes playing peek-a-boo, clapping, reading, trying to walk on her own, being tickled, hiding behind her high hair, playing with keys and Tupperware, and getting ahold of things she isn’t supposed to have (i.e. our phones). She dislikes daily daycare drop offs, loud noises, and sleeping in.
Even though Madelyn slept soundly last night, I woke up at various times worrying about her first full day of daycare.
Would she cry most of the day? Would she eat well for the teachers? Would she be able to nap in a new crib, surrounding by nine other babies? How do you get 10 babies to all sleep at the same time? Wouldn’t the cacophony of crying and cooing keep them awake?
These are the rabbit-hole questions that keep a mom up at night when she’s faced with one of the first big letting-go’s of motherhood. Too many moms have to experience this moment much earlier, when their babies are just weeks old, due to subpar or nonexistent maternity leave options. I’ve been lucky enough to have a job that lets me work from home, and a nanny who gave Madelyn 1:1 attention and care.
Moving to Austin earlier this month prompted me and Troy to look into different childcare options. We briefly considered looking for another nanny but ultimately decided daycare would be best. Madelyn would learn to be more independent and to socialize with other babies. She’d engage in arts and crafts. Music time. Story time.
When I dropped Madelyn off at daycare this morning, she cried. I cried. As I stood in the lobby sobbing next to another mom who had dropped off her baby for the first time, the school administrators assured me that Madelyn would be ok and that I could call and check on her as many times as I wanted. I called only once, but worked half the day from a Starbucks across the street. I needed to be nearby, to occupy the space between holding on and letting go.
As I thought about Madelyn throughout the day, I was reminded of the first time I rode my bike without training wheels. I peddled on my big-girl bike, while my dad held onto the back of the seat. As we approached a small hill at the end of the quiet street I grew up on, I flirted with courage.
“Daddy, I want to ride down the hill. Let go!”
He was worried. Would I lose my balance? What if my brakes gave out? What if I fell off, tumbled down the hill, and broke a bone? Multiple bones?!
It turns out, I was just fine. More than fine, actually. In a wobbly way, I flew down the hill with a big smile on my face and then stopped at the bottom, injury-free.
“I did it, daddy!” I proudly exclaimed. I had found my balance. My dad probably found some semblance of it too that day.
He recalled this experience in a note he wrote me a few years ago around the holidays. It was the first year I wouldn’t be home for Christmas because I had plans to spend it with Troy’s family in Texas.
“Every time I ‘let go’ I think of it as ‘let grow’; it makes it easier for me. Being the sentimentalist that I am, I reminisced about the times that I have let go of you in your life,” dad wrote.
“I remember so well the first time that I let go of your hands when you were learning to walk, knowing that you would fall, but you didn’t. I remember bringing you on your bike to [the neighbor’s] driveway for the first time without training wheels. I gave you a little push, knowing that within 10 feet you would fall, and Mom would come rushing to your aid to wipe away your tears. You never fell. Instead, you made it all the way down the street. It was Mom and I who had tears in our eyes.
“I remember the first time you drove out of the driveway in the Tempo alone for your first time. I was concerned, but I knew that I had to let you go.
“I remember letting go of you on your first day at Providence College, as you walked toward the dining hall, while Gramz and I stood there teary-eyed watching you walk away. When you graduated from Providence College, I wanted so much to keep you close by, but I knew letting go of you so that you could go to Florida was what I needed to do.
“Mallary, every time that I have let you go, I have watched you grow. You may look up to me for inspiration, but I look up to you for my inspiration.”
I resurfaced and reread my dad’s note today not as a daughter but as a mother. I could relate to it on a different level and couldn’t help but be grateful that life’s big letting go’s are often spaced out. I’m finding, though, that the delicate dance of learning when to hold on and when to let grow is constant. And it’s far from graceful.
Sometimes we let go too soon and fall flat on our butts. Or we hold on too tightly for too long until our hands and hearts hurt. Other times we let go at just the right time, even though it feels painfully soon. These actions require us to consider who’s leading our moves and who we’re trying to protect — ourselves or our children. They’re an act of trust — in the process and in our child’s ability to let us know when it’s time to take the next step and when we’ve made the right move.
When I picked Madelyn up today, I peeked through the window to the daycare room and saw her sitting at a mini table eating her afternoon snack. She seemed content but then started crying when she saw me come in. She held out her arms and wrapped them around my neck.
Madelyn slept through the night for four consecutive nights this week!
She woke up a few times and cried for a bit but then went back to sleep. I don’t want to jinx it, but this feels like a victory, considering she has been waking up two to three times a night to nurse since she was just a few months old.
During the move, we bounced from St. Pete to Fort Worth to Austin over a two-week period. Madelyn was so disoriented that she began waking up four to five times a night and was often inconsolable. I was tired and frustrated and wondered why my 11-month-old baby still had the nighttime sleep habits of a newborn. My go-to coping mechanism was to empathize with her — to think about how unsettling it must have been to wake up at night in a different place with different sounds, surrounded by unfamiliarity.
I also turned to my favorite mom-related Facebook group — Precious Little Sleep — which has more than 31,000 members who post dozens of updates a day. The moms in the group seek and offer advice about how to help babies get the sleep they need. They vent and post funny pics of their babies looking wide-eyed into the baby monitor camera, or sleeping on their knees with their little butts up in the air. The posts are a reminder that there’s no silver bullet, and that even though you hear about all of these magical babies who sleep through the night, you’re not the only one who has a seemingly nocturnal child.
Sleep deprivation leads to desperation.
Companies realize this, which is why there are countless products aimed at helping babies sleep better. The variety of choices feels both comforting and utterly overwhelming. Early on, Troy and I blew so much cash on swaddle blankets that other parents swore by. They had words like “miracle” and “magic” in the descriptors — language that inspires a fleeting glimpse of hope. Some of the swaddle blankets looked more or less like baby straightjackets, so much so that when we bought them we were convinced there was no way Madelyn could ever wriggle out of them. But our determined baby girl always found a way out — one toe, one fist, at a time.
At various times we tried the “cry it out” method, but to no avail. When your baby continuously cries for 30 minutes during a cry-it-out session (and simultaneously breaks your heart), it’s honestly just easier to go into her nursery and nurse her.
Breastfeeding is the one thing that has always pacified Madelyn, but it’s not an ideal solution when you want sleep. With newborns, around-the-night nursing is to be expected. But by the time your baby is almost a year old, you can’t help but yearn for a different remedy that won’t require ongoing, interrupted sleep.
As a mom, breastfeeding feels like a superpower. It can also feel all-consuming and lonely knowing that you are responsible for all the night-time feedings and the only person who can give your baby what she wants and needs. Troy is an amazing nurturer and would help at night if he could, but Madelyn won’t take a bottle, which makes sharing nighttime duties difficult.
Troy and I were worried about how Madelyn would do at night when I was out of town last week for a four-day work trip (one of a few I’ve taken since she was born). We assumed she would wake up a lot and be inconsolable. But in fact, the opposite was true. She slept like a champ.
Since Madelyn won’t take a bottle and realized I wasn’t there to nurse her at night, she simply stopped waking up as much. I’m not sure why this particular trip has that effect on her, but I suspect it’s because I’ve been weaning her off breastmilk and onto more solid foods, so she’s not as reliant on me for nourishment. She has also been eating more food lately and goes to bed on a more full stomach.
The trip signaled a turning point, and what I hope will be the start of better sleep for Madelyn (and mom and dad). Babies have a way of constantly switching up their routine. Just when you think you’ve figured them out, they find new ways to surprise you. They are our best teachers, constantly reminding us what it means to be patient, selfless, and grateful for small victories.
For now, I’m grateful for the extra sleep (and for our healthy, loving, and strong-willed baby!) and I’m staying optimistic.
Madelyn is now 9 months old and I can hardly believe it. She’s been learning and growing so much lately and has been bringing me and Troy so much joy.
She likes crawling, standing up while holding onto furniture for support, reading (aka chewing on) books, throwing toys (in the air and out of her playpen), going for runs in the jogging stroller, exploring every nook and cranny of the house, giving high-fives, and blowing kisses and raspberries. Some days she blows dozens of kisses at a time, which makes mom and dad feel very well-loved.
She still gets up twice a night and usually won’t go back to sleep unless I nurse her. I’m hoping she’ll start sleeping more soundly — for her sake and mine — once she begins eating more solids!
Here are a few fun photos of her from the past week…
Troy and I have some exciting news: we’re moving to Austin, Texas!
Ever since Madelyn was born, we’ve wanted to live closer to family. This move makes that possible. Troy, who’s from Texas, has accepted a great new job at a hospital north of Austin. He’ll be starting in early January. I’ll continue working for Images & Voices of Hope — a job that affords me the flexibility of working from anywhere.
We have a lot to figure out between now and mid-December when we move. We’re in the thick of a time-consuming transition, and the weight of it all has admittedly left us feeling overwhelmed. But we’re making progress. In the past week, we’ve found a daycare for Madelyn and a home that we want to buy. Next up is trying to sell our townhouse and figuring out how we’re going to pack and move our stuff and ourselves cross-country.
I love St. Petersburg and will miss it dearly. It’s the city where I launched my career, got married, and started a family. It’s my home. Lately, though, I’ve gotten the same feeling I had my senior year of college — the feeling that it’s time to step outside my comfort zone and establish new roots in a different place. Time to embrace all the beautiful uncertainties that inevitably come with big life changes.
Doing so takes courage.
It helps knowing that Troy and I are making this decision together — with and for our baby. We want to raise Madelyn in the company of family members instead of having to travel 1,000+ miles to see them. We want Madelyn to grow up playing with all the other kiddos on Troy’s side of the family. We want more built-in babysitters so that we can go on date nights and occasional weekend getaways. It goes without saying that we love being with Madelyn, but we need “us time,” too.
The move to Austin doesn’t bring us any closer to my family (I miss you, dad!) but we’re going to make it a point to visit Massachusetts a couple of times a year. Madelyn may be a southerner, but we can’t let her forget her New England roots. We don’t want her to forget her friends in Florida either, so we’re expecting y’all (did I just say that?) to visit once we’re settled in Austin.
The next few months are going to be crazy and fun. Kind of like parenting. We’re hoping for a smooth-ish transition, and we’re excited about writing this next chapter in our family story. It’s my favorite story — one that’s marked by auspicious beginnings and audacious love.