The Rope Burns of Motherhood and Self-Care

“It is hell isn’t it,” the man seated next to me asked as we started our decent to LAX where I would soon get to hug my college freshman on his birthday. I looked at him quizzically and he pointed to the book I was holding in my hands—the advance copy of  The Self-Care Solution that I was meticulously reviewing one last time before any and all changes are due to my publisher this week.

“You must be a mom, right,” he asks. I nod, hesitantly, not sure where he is going with this. “Do you have any teenage daughters,” he persists. I tell him that I have one daughter in college and one who is eleven, and two boys in between. “I am about to get married and acquire a stepdaughter,” he blurts out in an almost desperate-sounding tone. “But the teenage girl thing—the eye rolling, back talk, disrespect—it is too much. I honestly don’t know if I can do it.”

I paused, took a deep breath, and easily conjured up some of the tough memories of my older kids' teen years—the agony, fear, tears, frustration, and the anger—mine and theirs. But instead of joining Vinny (yes, Vinny) on the "teenagers are hell train," I recalled the most powerful piece I had recently read on parenting teens

“She’s doing what she is supposed to do,” I heard myself respond to him. Vinny stared at me. “And your job is to try to understand and support her even when she is her most impossible/unlikable self.”

“I need this fight and I need to see that no matter how bad or big my feelings are—they won’t destroy you or me. I need you to love me even at my worst, even when it looks like I don’t love you. I need you to love yourself and me for the both of us right now. I know it sucks to be disliked and labeled the bad guy. I feel the same way on the inside, but I need you to tolerate it and get other grownups to help you. Because I can’t right now. If you want to get all of your grown up friends together and have a ‘surviving-your-teenager-support-group-rage-fest’ that’s fine with me. Or talk about me behind my back--I don’t care. Just don’t give up on me. Don’t give up on this fight. I need it.”    -Gretchen Schmelzer

Our conversation continued for a few more minutes and I tried to emphasize the importance and value of self-care for him, his fiancé, and their relationship during this bumpy transition with their daughter. I could see some relief and appreciation in his eyes and he asked if he could take a picture of my book so he could order a copy for his fiancée. I told him he might want to read it to.

I closed my eyes as the plane touched down and I thought of how truly difficult self-care can be when life throws out its inevitable curve balls. I reflected on the past two wonderful days that were laced with sadness, as I visited one of my best friends (#selfcare), her daughter, and her fiancé, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.  I thought of another good friend, whose nephew, age 11, my daughter’s age, is battling a cancerous, inoperable brain tumor. I thought of the fragility of life, and of the joys and perils of motherhood. I thought of my two older children and how they are gracefully and clumsily finding their way outside of the nest, and how even from thousands of miles away, many of their run-ins with pain, confusion, or fear are sometimes projected as daggers sent in my direction.

“This is the fight that will teach me that my shadow is not bigger than my light. This is the fight that will teach me that bad feelings don’t mean the end of a relationship. This is the fight that will teach me how to listen to myself, even when it might disappoint others.”   -Gretchen Schmelzer

I thought about what my younger two children have yet to experience before they will be ready to fly the coop, some of which I can predict, but much of which I have yet to experience as an older version of the mother who parented and released their older siblings. I said a little prayer, asking for the strength I know it takes to help get them ready and to let them go. 


Time spent with my college son was too quick, as a baseball game out of state took him away during the majority of parents weekend. But I savored the chance have dinner with him on his birthday, and take in as much as I could of his new college life. I felt both pride and a selfish sadness as I noticed the subtle changes occurring in him. 

It wasn’t until we pulled out of his college town that I allowed myself to notice the ever-so-familiar gnawing discomfort in my chest, and the lump in my throat. It was the rope that Schmelzer refers to—the f-ing rope—the blessed/cursed rope that parents are tested with time and time again as we try to determine when to tighten and loosen our grip, which direction we need to gently pull it, and how to find the strength to lovingly hang on when our hands are raw, our backs are aching, and our minds are frayed. 

The hot tears welled in my eyes and began to spill down my face. I felt the rope tearing skin off my palms as it necessarily slid through my clenched hands.

“Mom, don’t cry. You are so strong. And you still have us to take care of,” I heard my younger son’s compassionate voice from the back seat of the car. My husband lifted one hand from the steering wheel and reached over to take mine, easing the pain and the rawness he knew I felt. "He is happy, honey. He is doing really well," he whispered to me.  Then he turned to my two kids sitting in the back seat who were willing me to pull it together. "You guys are so lucky to have a mom who loves you so much."

G-d bless that guy.


Embracing the courage and vulnerability it takes to love your child so much that it hurts.

Embracing the joy and the pain encapsulated in "the rope"—both the holding on and the letting go.

“And this particular fight will end. Like any storm, it will blow over. And I will forget and you will forget. And then it will come back. And I will need you to hang on to the rope again. I will need this over and over for years.”   -Gretchen Schmelzer