Dear mom: What to do when life is dark and you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel
Every mother has “tunnel” experiences. Maybe you’re in one right now. These are the times when at least one part of your life feels low and dark and uncertain.
They spoke of guilt, comparison, illness, isolation and exhaustion. Other comments included “stifling your own heartache to help your children get through theirs” and feeling “overwhelmed to the point of panic with how much is required.” The “hard stuff” includes entitlement issues, suicide, being pulled in too many directions, the heaviness of the 24/7 responsibility, feeling judged by others, strained marriages, and “having no clue what I am doing, yet being expected to know how to do this.”
I was especially struck by this one: “looking in the fridge and seeing it’s empty ... and knowing that it’s gonna be empty until the next check comes in. ... Some weeks it’s peanut butter sandwiches and pasta with butter.”
We might be up to the minute on Facebook and Instagram posts, but most likely, we never really know what hard things our friends are going through. And because we falsely compare our weaknesses to others’ perfections, we’re convinced that we are totally alone.
It’s essential to know that we’re not alone, but I want to know what other moms do when they’re in the depths of their tunnels. My life is good in so many ways, but I want to know how to get through the really hard parts — with power.
So I’m going to share my best ideas and then invite you to offer your best advice below. Together, we can get through anything.
Here’s a start: Let the tunnel refine you.
In 2003, while we were living in Boston, far away from our families, our son Ethan was born 10 weeks early.
He weighed 3 1/2 pounds and needed to stay in the NICU for six weeks. My husband was just getting ready to start his final exams and fly us across the country for a summer internship. The apartment was one-quarter packed up, our flights were booked and a new tenant was moving in.
The insurance company couldn’t pay the $17,000 to fly Ethan across the country to our new home, so we decided that I would stay in Boston to care for Ethan and pack up the apartment, Eric would go start his new job, and our two little girls, ages 3 and 1, would go live with their grandma for a few weeks.
That was one of the hardest tunnels of my life.
I would pump milk every few hours throughout the night, carry it in a little cooler while I took a city bus to the hospital, hold Ethan all day, and then come home in the evening to pack up our dishes and lamps, talk to my husband and girls on the phone, and try to get a little bit of sleep before it was time to pump again.
I didn’t know if Ethan would be OK. He was tiny. He didn’t know how to nurse or drink from a bottle. He would have spells during the day and the monitors would go crazy.
But I decided that tunnel was going to make me stronger. I sang as I walked to the bus stop, learned the names of the moms and nurses at the hospital, prayed harder than I ever had before, and replaced my self-pity with gratitude that I got to be a mother.
Now when I watch Ethan ride his bike off to school, wearing his cute red helmet and his Super Mario backpack, I think back on those long weeks at the hospital and the love I feel for him and the strength I see in myself overwhelms me.
There’s no rule that says the tunnel has to be dark.
We often hear the phrase, “light at the end of the tunnel,” but that doesn’t mean there can’t be light inside as well.
I remember sitting down in my room one evening in 2007 after tucking the children in bed. My husband’s schedule had been incredibly demanding, and motherhood, to me, felt like a prison. It hurts me to say that now, but that’s how I felt.
I was pregnant with our fourth child, which was very exciting after a painful miscarriage, but I was so tired and so taxed and so hormonal. I felt isolated, overworked and dark. Very, very dark.
I remember pulling out a notebook and writing down all the feelings and questions that came to me. Is this how motherhood had to be? Did it really need to feel so impossible? Was there anything I could do to make it better? Or did I just need to endure it and stop being so whiny? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME?!
And then ideas started to come, and I filled up that notebook with brainstorms, and I started to make plans, and little by little, that tunnel started to feel mighty light. And the scribbles from that little notebook have grown.
Every single time I’m in a tunnel (and there have been a lot of them), I ask, “What can I do to receive light in here?”
And you know what? An answer has always come.
The light has poured out from my friends and family members, seeped through the pages of books, and shone through music, podcasts and uplifting media. It’s appeared in my journals, my phone conversations, and, most of all, from heaven.
If you are navigating a tunnel right now, don’t you believe for one second that you have to go through it in the dark.
It is entirely your choice to light that tunnel up.
Once you’re through your tunnel, your work isn’t done.
I saw this photo the other day, and I had to share it:
This is from a book called “She,” and the quote reads, “She not only saw a light at the end of the tunnel, she became that light for others.”
Isn’t that what keeps us going? The idea that perhaps this deep, wrenching pain of a tunnel we’re in can somehow help someone else in the future?
This is why being a mom is so priceless to me. Motherhood is the epitome of helping someone else through the tunnels of their lives.
I still call my mom when I’m struggling, and even though she won’t remember the conversation, her heart goes out to me, and she says, “April, you sound tearful. What’s the matter?” And then I let down my guard and choke back the sobs as I say, “Oh Mom, it’s just so hard.”
She listens. She takes my side. She tells me she wishes she could take my place.
Then she says, “I’m going to jump in the car right now and come take care of you.” And I know that can’t happen, so I say, “Mom, I just need you to let me tell you all about it, and then you can say, ‘There, there.’”
So she does. And it works.
The most meaningful and purposeful experiences I’ve ever had have happened in my own home, with my own family, in the midst of some of the longest, deepest tunnels.
Even though we don’t know the specifics of each others’ lives, there’s something extraordinary that bonds us as mothers. In one way or another, we’re all tunneling at the same time.
And somewhere inside each of us is the capacity to get through it and to shine. Really shine.
Today I’m speaking to myself as much as I am to you: Let the tunnel refine you, light up the process, and then give back and become that light for others.
Because someday, when others (especially your children) are talking about how they got through their tunnels, they will be talking about you.
QUESTION: What helps you get through your “tunnels”?
CHALLENGE: The next time you find yourself in one of those hard moments, stop to consider what you could do to let the experience refine you, how you could bring more light into the “tunnel” and what you could do in the future to help others in similar circumstances.
This article is courtesy of Power of Moms, an online gathering place for deliberate mothers.
This post is featured in the new book "Motherhood Realized."
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