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Getting a Tattoo to Mark My Child’s Milestone Helps Me Cope With Letting Him Go

“Tell me again. What’s that?” my 7-year-old asked pointing at the tattoo on my arm. As I rolled up my sleeve, my son gave me a sly smile. He knew this story.

“It’s my tattoo,” I explained. “When you were in my belly, I saw butterflies flying everywhere. Now I keep one with me to remind me of you.”

My kid loves hearing how my tattoo is all about him and never fails to ask a ton of questions about why the butterfly doesn’t wash off. It is hard explaining to a 7-year-old why its permanency is a necessity, but I have my reasons. Surprisingly, those reasons continue to grow along with my kid. This butterfly unlocked a ritual that supports me in an area of motherhood I need to get a grip on: letting go.

Until recently, tattoos hadn’t been my thing, a lot like motherhood. As a first-time mom, there was a lot about the gig I didn’t know. Luckily, I’d been told secrets from mom friends who whispered eerie tales of swelling, sweating, and sleep deprivation. With all of this coveted info leaked, I knew that becoming a mom would be physically hard, but I also knew each phase would pass.

During my pregnancy stage, I sweat in my sleep and my feet retained so much water they grew to twice the size of my head. Then my kid’s newborn phase: Staying awake through screaming nights of colic and trying to remain functional during the day made me feel like I was walking around in a suit made of giant wet Boppies. I was stuck in a space devoid of time and convinced this would be my life forever. And then suddenly it wasn’t.

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Tonilyn Hornung.

One night, my son’s colicky wails didn’t wake me. The colic had set us free. We were leaving the wacky “fourth trimester” newborn stage for a more “grown-up” baby phase. I might actually get some sleep and stop putting my car keys in the freezer. My friends had been right and I was now free to move to the next stage of my son’s life. But I wasn’t. My kid may not have cried that night, but I did. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much my son’s milestones would ask of me emotionally.

My mom friends hadn’t mentioned feeling so wildly sentimental about all these changes. And the only example I saw of moms going through milestones, were commercials with weepy mothers waving goodbye to their college kids. Where was the one about the sobbing mom waving their baby off for a night of sleep-training? Or the parent weeping at their baby’s first tooth? My heart had expanded along with my belly, and this new heart felt as awkward in the wearing as my breast pump. Was I the only one feeling all this?

As each phase faded away, I missed it. The connection my son and I shared was constantly on the move, and I was having a hard time keeping up. The milestones I celebrated with my little guy, I grieved alone for myself. I recognized that big growing up moments like first days of school and first dates certainly warranted tears, but I felt weirdly embarrassed calling up a friend to tell her how much I missed being pregnant. I didn’t know how to explain to my husband how the loneliness of leaving each childhood phase left my insides full of a hollowness.

Not knowing how to deal with all these big emotions for each little shift, I ignored them. The problem with that was the more I rejected my feelings the bigger they grew. My plan of ignoring all my feels until my son went off to college wasn’t going to happen.

I wish I could say a huge epiphany healed my cracking heart, but it was more of a small flutter. One night while sifting through the emptiness of missing my pregnancy, I was trying to figure out how to keep the feeling close. That’s when I remembered all the butterflies I saw when I was pregnant, and the image of a butterfly tattoo popped into my head. It flew into my head so fast that it was hard to miss the significance. Would having a permanent reminder keep me connected to all these fast-moving phases? I decided to go for it.

Before my son’s first birthday, I had a blue butterfly placed on my arm — the butterfly for him and the blue for me. (Blue is my favorite color.) Once the butterfly landed there, a sense of relief took over. I knew I’d honored my pregnancy in a way that resonated. I figured that would be the end of it … except that wasn’t the end of our story.

When my son was in his toddler stage, he toddled on over and handed me a marker. For the millionth time in the last seven minutes, he wanted me to sketch out his favorite line drawing for him. That same flash of inspiration won out again. As he toddled out of that phase, I honored it with a tiny tattoo of this same drawing. I’ll walk through the rest of my life with it … on my foot.

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Tonilyn Hornung.

Then when my son’s first day of preschool came along, it was a letting go like I’d not experienced. After being the weepy mom waving her kid off at preschool, it was tattoo time again.

“Mom, what’s this one mean?” my 7-year-old asked pointing to the butterfly on my shoulder.

“This butterfly is for you too, but its wings are wide open and ready to fly.”

This tattoo ritual supports me in working through feelings of sadness and loss in my son’s growing up process. I never would have thought it would be my thing, but it’s these tangible reminders that provide a connection to our story. Their presence gives me the confidence to watch my kid develop his own wings that will one day take him soaring away into new phases that are all his own.

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