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Sweatpants & Parenting | The Grief of Parenthood in the Happiest Place on Earth

By Kelly Wilson

After my last trip to Disneyland, I swore that I would never return. Reasons for this declaration might seem obvious at first. I mean, there are the hours standing in line, only to get knocked around for three minutes when you finally get on a ride. There are the strollers and the screaming children and the angry parents. The $11 for a bottle of water and the crowds and the pressure to have a great time. And before I forget, the sweating and the chafing and my post traumatic stress disorder.

These reasons didn’t play into it – okay, maybe a little of the post traumatic stress disorder – but mostly it was the tears. I stood in the middle of Fantasyland near the carousel, tears streaming down my face, and realized that somehow my motherhood life had changed without me even noticing. In the midst of the daily grind of homework and dinners and report cards and music lessons and video games, I had somehow become a mom of two teen boys.

And this realization was unexpected. Uncomfortable. Painful. A wave of grief surprised me as Mr. Toad went on a wild ride nearby and music blared from every corner.

Motherhood: A Long Series of Transitions

I’ll grant you, this realization seems a bit obvious, but it’s harder than it looks (that’s what she said). I mean, sure, my two boys are now taller than I am and eat for 14 hours a day straight and their feet smell like the cross between cat pee and a fish that’s been laying in the sun for three hours.

But it wasn’t until that morning in Disneyland that I realized just how fast my motherhood had transitioned. I remember this especially when my boys were babies and toddlers. They would act a certain way for a few days, and then suddenly they would be different. With their startling rates of growth, I feel like the teen years are similar.

We have reached the stage with both boys – ages 13 and 16 – in which their peers are far more important than their parents. Academically, I have always known this was coming. Emotionally, it’s proving a little harder to process.

I stood near the carousel and realized that I was alone. I didn’t know where my husband or the two boys were exactly, and I hadn’t received a text in hours.

I had never been alone in Disneyland before.

Not the Happiest Mom on Earth

I don’t think I can emphasize how pointed I felt the absence of my children in that moment. I had never been without my children in the middle of Disneyland. Also, we’ve been to Disneyland like 10 times since our youngest was born.

Not by choice, exactly. My husband is the band director of a high school band, and for the last 22 years, has taken high school band to Disneyland every other March for around four or five days. Many of these trips included our children, starting when they were four and one years of age.

Every other year, the kids would be a little older, a bit more willing to ride the “scary rides” and stay up past midnight and not need naps and eat giant lollipops as big as their heads. We would take photos in front of the sculpture of Walt Disney holding Mickey’s hand in front of the castle in the middle of the park. The four of us were together, a hub in the middle of groups of band teens who would join us and then go off on their own.

Until this last trip, when Oldest didn’t even stay in the same room with us. He stayed with his friends. Which was to be expected. He was a band kid, after all. And he hung out with his groups of friends and I didn’t see him for three days. Youngest also found groups of kids to hang out with, traipsing around the park until it closed.

There was no picture of our family in front of the Walt Disney and Mickey sculpture. Just me, in Fantasyland – which is the worst of all the lands, mind you – crying by the carousel, wondering how everything had changed.

The Good Ol’ Days are Now

My parenting philosophy has always been to work myself out of a job. I just didn’t know it would happen so fast.

It wasn’t like I didn’t know that my kids would be hanging out with their friends, I’m not completely unrealistic. I mean, they were in hotel rooms across the street from a theme park that stays open until eleven at night and had complete freedom of what to eat and when and who to see and what to say. I could not compete with that. In retrospect, it seems silly that I tried. But I did, a little. I tried to make plans for us all to meet up, at least to get a picture. Trust me when I say that the fight wasn’t worth it.

I didn’t expect to feel so abandoned in an unexpected and anticlimactic way. There’s no rite of passage or announcement:“Hear ye, hear ye! Your motherhood journey has changed in a very significant and painful way!” Which would have been nice.

What I found most painful was that I didn’t know didn’t know the last trip we took to Disneyland was the last trip of them being kids and me being that mom. The mom who goes on the little kid rides and buys the giant lollipops and makes sure we get the picture in front of the castle.

Andy Bernard says it best in this clip from The Office:

Parenting is basically a long, complicated series of transitions as children grow up. I get that, I do. It’s hard to come to terms with the grief of it, which hits out of nowhere. Like when you’re in the middle of an amusement park that claims to be The Happiest Place on Earth.

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