This morning, I swam towards the sun along a shimmering pathway of light. With every stroke, I reached for the distant yellow ball, before pausing to lie on my back and take in the blueness of the sky.
The sea was virtually empty of swimmers, a vast expanse of water almost entirely to myself, putting everything into beautiful perspective, as it always does.
It felt so good to move my body and to be aware of my breath. I felt alive, free and immensely grateful for the life I’ve built by such a beautiful beach.
Back home, still shivering but with glowing cheeks, I fed the pup (more about her shortly) and spoke to a friend on the phone.
And in that moment, and only in that moment, I got in touch with my grief.
It’s been four months since Mum died, and in that time I have turned 50 and welcomed new life into our home in the form of Layla Joy, a beautiful cocker spaniel who is now 12 weeks old.
Layla distracted me from my grief for a while. The process of acquiring her was fraught with indecision, self-doubt, fear, control and obsessive thinking.
Yes, dear reader, nothing is simple in my world.
As you’ll know if you’ve read my book, How to Fall in Love, this blog or anything else I’ve written, a dog has been part of my vision for a very long time – a true desire of my heart.
But believing I wanted a dog and actually committing to a dog were two very different things, just as believing I wanted a healthy relationship and actually committing to a partnership were two very different things.
Similar to the process of finding love, my journey to puppy parenthood included a compendium of questions:
Is this the right dog?
What about the other dog?
What if there’s a better dog for me?
Do I want a dog now? What if there’s a better time?
How will a dog impact my life, my independence and my freedom?
Will I feel trapped and tied down?
Will I be able to cope with a dog?
Will I be capable of nurturing and mothering a dog?
Will the love and joy compensate for the responsibility and the hard work?
As is so often the case with me, my fear and anxiety led me into control. I gathered enough information about acquiring puppies to complete a PhD. I feared bad things would happen. I expected the worst case scenario to come to pass.
Take this conversation between my husband and I:
Me: “I can feel a bump. Bill, what’s this lump on Layla’s belly?
My mind: “It’s a growth. She’s sick. It’s all going to go horribly wrong. Disaster. Crisis. Catastrophe.”
Bill: “It’s a teet.”
Me: “Ah OK.”
My mind: “You can relax this time but you’d better remain hyper-vigilant because other things are bound to go wrong. The world isn’t a safe place, you can’t trust anyone or anything and life doesn’t go well for you.”
Yes, dear reader, I’m sad to report that’s how my mind often works. It’s so much better than it was, of course. I’ve been healing my childhood wounds and challenging the thought patterns and coping strategies I developed in my early life in order to survive for almost two decades now.
But old habits die hard.
I remain a work in progress.
It is one day at a time.
So, back to grief …
Puppy parenthood so far has been what we were told it would be: a combination of joy, delight, hard work and frustration.
For me, there have been additional layers.
Of course there have. How could there not be?
Welcoming Layla has prompted me to ask, as I did with my romantic relationship, “what took me so long to get here, to make this commitment?”
And that question is always going to be tinged with sadness and grief, for the losses, for all the years it took me to face my fears and fall in love, with a man and with a dog.
Welcoming Layla has also connected me to my grief around not having children.
My journey to childlessness has been such a long and complex one and you’ll have to scroll back through my blogs to read the full story (I have 10 years worth of musings on this site, from aged 40 to 50 – search childless or motherhood or ambivalence).
But in brief, I now think I fully understand the truth of my resistance to having children and my ambivalence around motherhood:
I had been parenting for most of my life and I didn’t want to parent anymore.
It’s hard to elaborate on that sentence because it touches on the private life of someone so dear to me – my late mum – but suffice it to say that I decided, from a very young age, from the moment I realised that I wasn’t entirely safe in this world, that it was my role to take care of Mum, to heal her pain, make her happy and ultimately, keep her alive.
We do this instinctively. Babies and young children instinctively know that without proper care they will die. So it’s natural we would want to keep our caregivers alive, to make them happy and keep them well, because without them, our lives would be over.
It’s a survival strategy.
The other thing we do is blame ourselves for everything that’s going wrong, because if we were to blame the parent, if it were the parent’s fault, we’d be left without hope. At least if we blame ourselves, we have hope that we can change the siutation, which means we will live, we will survive.
So I took on the role of caring for Mum, believing it was my job to make her happy and keep her alive. I also believed that everything was my fault and if I just tried harder, worked harder, did more, achieved more and controlled everything, Mum would survive and, therefore, so would I.
Things have changed now.
Mum has gone. And I won’t even start to explore the feelings I have around her rapid demise while locked down in a care home during the Covid pandemic.
Yet the old patterns of control, worry and obsessive compulsive thinking remain, although I am chipping away at them every day, asking for them to be removed, surrendering them to something greater than me.
And what of the other patterns of thinking? What of the idea that I have done enough parenting to last me a lifetime, or that I am incapable of parenting?
Well, I have challenged those beliefs by bringing Layla Joy into my life, which is showing me that while parenting comes with its frustrations (piles of poo on the kitchen floor and tooth marks on my hands), I can parent, I want to parent and I am a good parent and that the moments of magic make up for the hard times, which is what I’ve been hearing mothers say for decades.
Of course puppy parenthood is very different to human parenthood. I know that, as much as I can know it having never experienced the latter. Yet mothers tell me there are many things in common: the disturbed sleep, the feeling that you’ve scarred the little creature for life whenever you do something imperfectly, the worry and anxiety that she might be sick or unwell or about to choke on some wood, plastic or other random item she has in her mouth.
And these similarities add to my grief, because I see that motherhood would have been hard, really hard, and that at times I would have felt lonely and isolated and ready to throw the child out of the window, but that I could have done it, I could have pulled through, and it would have taught me so much and healed me so much.
Importantly, too, I would have had someone to dance around the kitchen with (Layla looks at me oddly when I invite her to dance).
So back to this morning and my conversation with my dear friend – a friend who is willing to dive deep beneath the surface, to share her own feelings and to hear mine. In that conversation, I connected with my grief around losing Mum, which has resurfaced powerfully now that Layla has settled in and the volume on my anxiety and worry and indecision has been turned down.
I also connected with my grief around how I treat myself, how I decide in my mind that four months is long enough time to get over one’s mother and last remaining parent, and that I should (I know, I know, that word has no place on this blog) be over it by now; that I should be working harder and growing my business and communicating more with my lovely followers and clients and following a perfect schedule for Layla’s day and mine.
Because the truth about grief, about all grief, I believe, is that it has its own path. The first weeks may be hard, then it may get easier and then, a few months down the line, just when you’re thinking you’re emerging from a dark place, it hits you again, this time like a steam train, flattening and flooring you.
And the truth about my grief, and I imagine, many other people’s grief too, perhaps yours, dear reader, is that it’s complex, multi-layered and multi-faceted.
There’s the grief of the child inside me, the sadness over what she went through and what she missed out on.
There’s the grief of the woman for all the years she spent in the wilderness, without love, without relationship, without a pet.
There’s the grief of the woman who’s worked so hard, often spending too much time and energy on the wrong things, because this distracts her from her pain.
There’s the grief of the daughter who’s lost a mother.
There’s the grief of the daughter who’s lost a mother for whom she felt responsible, whom she wanted to fix and make happy, and who therefore has lost part of her identity and a key role in her life, exposing a void.
There’s the grief of the woman who lost her dad, at 35, which seems so young now.
There’s the grief of the 50-year-old woman who hasn’t had kids and who’s just discovered, by nurturing a pup, that she would have managed it and even been a wonderful mum.
There’s the grief of the woman who’s just read that the model Naomi Campbell, at 50, has had a child via surrogate, and who will forever wonder about the motherhood alternatives many women choose to go down, which she decided against.
There’s the grief of the human being who now has no parents and no children, an odd feeling, like being suspended in air.
There’s the grief of the puppy parent who, by setting boundaries with others to protect Layla and by helping her to have good boundaries, sees that her parents sadly weren’t able to do this for her.
There’s the grief, there’s the grief and there’s the grief …
So, you see, it’s complicated.
In the light of which, please don’t tell me, Katherine (yes, I’m writing this to myself), that after four months, it’s time to wrap up your grief, to stop indulging in it.
Please don’t tell me, Katherine, that it’s time to move on.
Please don’t crack the whip at me, Katherine, and tell me to work harder and do more.
Please don’t make me feel guilty for not being on top form, or for needing more rest or downtime than before.
And please don’t turn everything, including puppy parenthood, into a massive chore and take away my joy.
Finally, along with the grief, there’s gratitude.
For this blog, which allows me to share my pain as honestly and openly as I feel able to on the internet.
For you, my dear readers, who write me the most beautiful comments or emails, telling me you can relate to my words and that my truth has helped you in some way.
For my husband, who tells me often that he loves me because of everything rather than in spite of everything (everything in this case being the rollercoaster emotional journey I take pretty much on a daily basis right now, often bringing him along for the ride, even though he’d rather relax on the sofa and watch a good documentary).
And gratitude for Layla Joy (my Mum’s name was Joyce – I chose to keep the joyful part), for teaching me about boundaries, about the relationship between my inner parent and inner child, for letting me tickle and kiss her tummy and for sitting on my lap as I cry.
Thank you so much for reading. If you’d like to read more of my writing, you can find my book, How to Fall in Love, here.
You can also download the first chapter of my book for free on my website, www.katherinebaldwin.com, where you’ll also find links to my How to Fall in Love online courses and coaching.