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Judith Hannan Headshot

At Commencement, Focus Is on the Graduate -- But What Happens to Parents?

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GRADUATION
Laurie Rubin via Getty Images

What is the most intensely lived moment you have had as a mother? It could be the moment of birth, the day you dropped your child off at sleep-away camp, an illness or disability was found, a curfew was flaunted, the nest emptied. After the intensity, whether it lasts for moments, a day, a month, or a year, there is a pause, a time when space and time open up, and you are left with the question of what to do next.

I managed to live the first 45 years of my life without asking that question. My approach to planning and decision-making up until this point was what I call the jellyfish strategy -- let the currents and wind determine where I would drift. I drifted through college, into marriage, toward jobs, finally bumping up against motherhood where I lodged myself full time with only occasional ruminations on what else I might do to enrich my life. When Frannie, my older daughter, was 9, and my twins, Max and Nadia, were 6, these ruminations became a little more frequent as the hours from nine to three were mine to do with as I pleased.

"You should write," friends and former colleagues told me, I guess in response to the scintillating grant proposals and direct mail appeals I crafted in my former job as a fundraiser. "Ok," said the jellyfish. I certainly never wanted to prepare another appeal for money again, and I didn't want a full-time job. A passion for books and words made me wonder what kind of stories I could make.

I wrote about mothering and being mothered. I transcribed my children's dramas and then sat back and examined them so that I could see these little people as separate from me and witness their connection to each other. Then I put myself in the story the way I was and then the way I wanted to be. I resurrected my mother, who had died when I was 30. I wrote the narrative I had always told myself about the two of us, the negative stuff and what I thought she denied me. I wrote it again adding a little more understanding of her and of what she did give me. I wrote of the two of us and of her alone, again and again, so that at some point I could begin to see how the arc of our story might have evolved had she lived longer.

Still, I didn't have to write or, I should say, without an inner means of self-propulsion I could avoid the work of crafting. Six hours of free time can be frittered away so easily. At 10 a.m. when I asked what I should do next with my day, cleaning the bathtub seemed no less worthy an option than writing and it required much less pushing past barriers of emotion and memory.

Then I heard four dreaded words: "Your daughter has cancer." At 8 years old, Nadia was diagnosed with a Ewing's sarcoma. I didn't have to ask what I should do now. What could give my life any more purpose than to help save Nadia? These were the most focused and purposeful days I had ever lived. A rebirthing of my daughter. Except when I was done, I didn't have a baby but a schoolgirl who returned to her life, while I stood in the park with my dogs looking toward Nadia's school as if I could reach her telepathically.

Time and space opened up before me and inhaled me. It held no gravity, no child to define me. In it, I could barely sense where my body ended and the external world began. I was still churning, like one of those cartoon characters who runs off a cliff and is suspended in mid-air with legs still wheeling, waiting for the plunge. To avoid the fall, I'd have to make a plan. I could never jellyfish my way out of this.

After mothering with such intensity, I had to ask, "What do I do now?" Like Harold with his purple crayon in the children's book, I knew I would have to write myself into a new place. I realized it was not because I wanted to do something; I wanted to be something. I wanted to be a writer. The result was Motherhood Exaggerated, the story of how I evolved as a mother while caring for Nadia during her treatment and into her survival. I wrote and rewrote, crafted and honed. I found an agent, then a publisher. I made a book. But the minute it was out, all I saw were its flaws. What did I do? Who did I think I was? This ambition and this self-exposure are not me at all.

That's the point of moving into the open spaces, to transform. I used to think my avoidance of making decisions about the direction of my life was laziness. Why struggle down the mysterious roadway when you can take the convenient, easy way? Get married instead of seeing what would happen if I pursued my original ambition to be a flutist. Stay in New York City where my husband worked rather than insist that we move to a house by the sea to raise our kids. I wasn't lazy, I was chicken. An open space is the haunted house at the edge of town.

When it was time to take Frannie to college, as soon as I turned away from the goodbye, I clutched my stomach in grief. When I entered that borderless and bottomless field of time and space, though, I didn't panic. I knew my equilibrium would come eventually because I had already decided what I wanted to be. I didn't recover myself right away; in fact, it would take Max and Nadia's departure four years later before I knew I my nest was not empty as long as I chose to live fully in it. I have the words on paper that show my progression. I never stopped writing; I never stopped being.

Write your story

Write about a moment when time and space opened up for you -- summer vacations, after graduation, when you lost a job, had to convalesce. How did you respond? Did you make a plan, drift, change in any way? Now think about your decision to have a family and the times during motherhood when you asked, or avoided asking, "What do I do now?" Show these moments.