27 September 2011

Conversations :: "Just wait until ..."

Losing a child makes for some potentially strained and awkward social interactions, especially when you’re meeting people for the first time. I thought I would spend some time this week talking about what some of those conversations have been and how we’ve chosen to handle them. These posts are intended to be descriptive (my explanation of what we have chosen to say or not say in these conversations) rather than prescriptive (this isn’t me saying: “this is how you do it”). I simply want to share what these conversations are, what has worked for me, and hopefully spark some discussion around what has worked for you if you’ve been a part of conversations like these as well.

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Like many expectant mothers, I'm eager to meet my baby. She already is evidencing some rather feisty and distinctive personality traits that I recognize in myself, or that remind me of things my mother told me about her pregnancy with me. She tends to be a night person like her daddy (and I am one who is infinitely better with mornings) and definitely responds to sounds coming from the world outside. I wonder who she is, what she will be like, and how she will exhibit these traits on the other side of the womb. I am so excited to meet her!

In conversations with other mothers, it is not at all uncommon for me to say something along those lines. It is also not uncommon for me to hear, "Just wait until ..." and from here you can fill in the blank with almost any of the typical challenges of mothering an infant: the baby is screaming at 3 am, you're so sleep deprived you can't see straight, you've got spit-up and poop all over you, you haven't showered in four days, and so on.

I call this my "what it feels like to have a baby in the NICU" photo.

Having missed out on all these things the first time around, phrases like these strike a bitter pang with me. Especially among those who know our story, I know that it's not the case that their intention is to point a finger at my inexperience with the dailiness of mothering and raising a child. But it almost always feels that way. I would have infinitely preferred diaper blowouts and spit up and 3 am feedings to open heart surgery, believe me -- but I was not offered the choice between the two. In fact, I hardly got to do anything for Ewan myself except on the night he died.

Depending on the particulars of the conversation, this is really where I have to bite my tongue. Just as I mentioned in the previous post, my goal is to acknowledge the truth without hitting people over the head with it. I could easily point out their inexperience with NICU waiting rooms, talking to surgeons about heart surgery on their infant, or making time-sensitive decisions on behalf of a child that are quite literally life or death. Pointing out these things would fall, in my mind, to the category of "whacking them over the head with it." I trust it isn't their goal to make me feel badly about my inexperience, but rather to demystify the idea that all new mothers are only ever completely besotted with their infants and basking in the glow of new motherhood. Instead, they're acknowledging openly the difficulty and sacrifices required of caring for someone so small and dependent.

Some of these interactions have occurred in online spaces like Facebook and e-mail. If the comment is made in an online medium, I tend to ignore it (no matter how strong the temptation to say something in response). The topic is sensitive and because it is too easy to misconstrue someone's true meaning when the comment lacks the advantages of in-person communication like tone of voice, gestures, and facial expressions, I tend to leave it alone. I might misread the actual intent behind what they are saying, and they might also miss my true meaning in responding to them. If I respond to what I read into their comment instead of what they actually meant, these assumptions could easily lead to a confusion and tension that never should have been there in the first place. Losing or straining relationships because of misunderstandings like these just isn't worth the risk for me.

When these types of conversations occur in person, I handle my response differently. I typically do say something, but I tread carefully here too because (I'm feeling like a broken record here, but it continues to be pertinent) I don't want to whack anyone over the head with it. I won't even say, "Do you know how lucky you are to be able to do that?" Guilt isn't the goal. Mothers already have plenty to deal with without me trying to heap guilt on top of it! What I will say is that the dailiness of motherhood is, in my mind, preferable to the alternative. Because these talks typically occur with someone who is already familiar with our story, they know what I mean, and no further explanation is required.

And here's the thing: I know I'm going to be so far beyond tired that I will forget my first name. And I know it's going to be difficult to give up my schedule, my body, and my the other things I want to do to the needs of a little person. I will find it difficult to smell constantly of breast milk and baby poop, and will (I don't think I'm going out on a limb here) not enjoy wearing spit-up anymore than the next person does. I know I don't know what these things are really like.

But I also know I'm up for the challenge. I'm eager to embrace these things, knowing full well ahead of time that they are going to more difficult than I can possibly anticipate. If there is anything being Ewan's mother has taught me, it's that as much as motherhood is about selflessness and service, it is also a privilege. And frankly, I'm not convinced that I'd feel so strongly about that fact if Ewan had been born healthy and whole. I can say with conviction that he made me a better mother than I possibly could have been without him.

Whether or not you are a mother that has a child in her arms does not alter the fact that the calling of motherhood is a difficult one. And trust me, I'm the last one you will find claiming that full-time infant care is a breeze. When I'm talking to someone where this is a topic of conversation, it is never my goal to dismiss the fact or to make anyone feel guilty for pointing to one of the many aspects of mothering I did not get to experience with my first child. I have a perspective now that no one would envy, and where I can, I will do my part to acknowledge that the dailiness of motherhood -- with all the poop and spit-up and fatigue it entails -- is, in fact, a very good thing.

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Conversation time!

If you're a parent, what did you find it most difficult to give up when your child arrived? Was there anything you expected to be difficult that you found wasn't so bad after all? What aspects of parenthood do you find rewarding? Are there any that took you completely by surprise?

If you're not a parent but know someone who is, how has parenthood changed your friends and your relationship with them? How do you perceive parenthood based on what you've observed?

The conversation is happening on the Team Ewan Facebook Page.