Tomorrow, my youngest of three daughters will turn 20, concluding my almost 15 consecutive years of mothering teenage girls. Being their mom has taken me into a heart space I didn’t know existed. I wouldn’t have chosen another path, which is not to say I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I certainly would have. But the fact of dedicating my existence to theirs – at some cost to my other relationships, including that with myself–that I would do again and again, even knowing it might not be the wisest choice.
Being all-in, all the time, was the only way I knew how to parent, and it was what my soul required. I don’t want to be overly dramatic about this being the end of an era, but this is no quick pivot. It feels more like waking up after a slumber of three decades to the realization that the roads I’ve been navigating since I myself was in my 20s have in fact taken a sharp turn and my well-loved, threadbare Motherhood Map seems not to go this far into new terrain. In fact, I seem to have lost not only my coordinates, but my destination.
I wanted to be the kind of mom who trusted her children to reveal themselves. I understood they weren’t mine to create, but unique little people for me to keep safe until they could do that for themselves. My job, I determined, was to usher them into fully becoming whoever they already were. At the time, I thought it was really quite evolved of me. In retrospect, it was kind of hokey. And in truth, it grew out of my need to never disappoint. I didn’t enforce enough rules, I paved the way too much for them and made some choices I later regretted.
Still, they grew up.
Didn’t we all?
I didn’t learn who I really was until my daughters showed me. Each of them reflected back to me some of my own deepest, most carefully tucked away parts. The parts that can be hard to look at—the vulnerability, the inadequacies, the fear. Ah yes, the fear, masquerading as anxiety and the desire to control. I can feel her rising up, Mama Bear to the rescue. I embraced that identity. She was the protector against all harm. But who, in fact, was she protecting?
I was raised to know I was strong, smart and able to do anything I wanted, and generally speaking that was true. But I didn’t know it was important to embrace my weaknesses and soft spots. I didn’t actually know my own heart. I wonder if I would have stayed hidden, had my beautiful girls not forced me to gaze into the looking glass that was filtered through their lives, showing me a refracted version of myself that I would never have had the fortitude to look at directly.
An audition gone poorly brought a sickening emptiness in my gut. A friendship gone sour, an exam gone badly, a desire not met, a heart broken — I felt all of these moments as though they were mine. The sound of a child’s disappointment bore a hole that felt unbearable to me. In every instance, the child moved forward, but I did not. Mama Bear had to remain tough, lest someone’s pain grow too great. And whose pain was that?
I’m told that from the time I was 3 years old, I refused to cry in front of people, stuffing my fists into my eyes to keep tears from running out. Crying felt weak to me. It was too open and it scared me. When one of my daughters cried, whether it was a slight watering or a full-on rainstorm, I would hold her and want to stop the pain. I secretly hoped she would stop crying. I tried to understand the reason for the tears because if there was a cause, I could fix it for her, or at least I could try. Together, we could plug up the leak of the softness that was escaping.
Except of course we couldn’t, and eventually I realized we shouldn’t. And it took three daughters and 15 years of teenagers to help me figure that out.
My father once remarked on the transformation he observed in my sister and me when we became mothers. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what had changed, but I think he must have been talking about the cracking open that happened when we looked at our babies. There was a single-mindedness about that kind of love, the certainty that forevermore, I would not come first in my own world—and I was more than delighted to cede that place to this tiny, strong, compelling, extraordinary person whose life mattered more to me than my own. It was a relief, of sorts. A purpose. But also a shield that granted me permission to step aside.
And then, they grew up, and though I wanted to put them first, they didn’t actually want to be there. And they were right.
In my youth I felt like my whole life lay before me, if only I could get started. I was impatient, always focused on the next step. Finished high school with eyes on college. Grad school. A spouse. A career. Children seemed far away to me then; in fact, I didn’t even think about them.
And then once I had them, those mystical, magical little creatures, I forgot to be impatient because I was too busy noticing their lives to notice my own. I existed in the trenches of working and loving and caretaking, making bonds, creating community, building friendships. I was living a life that unfolded so rapidly that all I could do was hang in and hang on. It was chaotic and ordinary and extraordinary, usually beautiful and occasionally awful and now I can’t remember most of it. It happened so fast. And now, I am older.
Here I am. In the midst of a shift.
The feelings. They are coursing through me. They make no sense, they contradict, yet they ring of truth. Often, they surprise me. Blessedly, they feel like mine. Incredibly, I am grateful for them, even when they hurt.
I feel the urgency to move, to act, to do something big. I’m still young enough, by some standards, to do something important, to be important, but who knows what that means when we live in a world fraught with national disasters and global disruption and climate change and bizarre disease and societal breakdown? Where is my place? Can I make a difference?
Yet I also feel the need to be still. To be patient. To wait and to breathe and to see what comes up next. If only I can open my ears enough to hear the whisper of guidance that serves as my new map, there will be a new road to travel.
As long as I don’t wait too long. Because the urgency — well, it’s stronger than the stillness. Occasionally I think I know where it is pushing me, but mostly, I don’t. If I try to figure it out, I risk making it up and missing the truth. I have to sit with these strange bedfellows of patience and urgency and recognize what they reveal.
No matter what I choose, pain will happen and so will joy. Walking beside my daughters has taught me that. They have known when to be still and when to take action, and they have been courageous in choosing. For years, I told them that bravery is not about being fearless. It’s about being fearful but stepping forward anyway, into the complexity. I spoke the words, but they did the work, learning when to turn in and when to step out. It was a blessing to witness.
My young women have been so generous to me. They have shared their pain, their joy, their fears and their boldness so I can come to understand the truth of how we are as humans. They had the grace to let me in so I could learn to love myself the way I love each of them. We exist within ourselves and with each other. We exist within the world. By sharing their souls with me, they have shown me how to continue along the journey of becoming whole. Courageous girls. Warriors. I follow in their footsteps.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written (November 2020) before one of Stefanie’s children came out as nonbinary and is published with their permission.
Stefanie Levine Cohen is a writer and community leader who focuses on building connections through the sharing of story. Her fiction and essays explore the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual, and address life transitions and the human condition. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines and digital publications including The MacGuffin, The Montreal Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Storyscape, Grown & Flown and JewishSacredAging.com. These pieces and others can be found at www.stefanielevinecohen.com. Stefanie is currently working on a book about motherhood, identity, art and the meaning of truth.
Stefanie’s community engagement includes leadership roles at a variety of spiritually based, educational, and service-driven organizations. She is a co-founder and board member of the non-profit Meditation4Leadership, which seeks to enhance both performance and wellness among business, nonprofit and community leaders. She is a former trustee on the board of Moorestown Friends School and a current board member of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey. She also serves as a Leadership Council member for Impact100 South Jersey, a women’s philanthropic giving collective, and is a Past President of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ. For many years, she volunteered as a friendly visitor and end-of-life vigil team member for patients at Samaritan Hospice and Health Care. This experience significantly impacted her writing and teaching.
Always a student first, Stefanie has been a member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group, the longest-running fiction writers group in the country, for over 15 years. She has studied with teachers such as Sylvia Boorstein, Deepak Chopra, and John Perkins, and has attended numerous writing and spirituality retreats and conferences. These experiences fueled the development of her signature memoir writing workshop, “Telling Your Story, Writing From the Heart,” which she has facilitated for new and returning students.
Stefanie holds BA and MA degrees in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from New York University School of Law. Before turning her attention to writing, teaching and volunteering, Stefanie enjoyed a successful career in marketing and strategic planning for law firms, establishing the first Philadelphia branch of the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Professionals and serving as a Chief Marketing Officer for a large Philadelphia-based law firm. Stefanie resides in Moorestown, NJ with her husband Steven. They are the parents of three adult children.