2.03.2011

what parenthood looks like

This is a post about a conversation, the experiences of close friends and family, and a direction I have found in my life because of how I felt touched by the experiences of those close to me.

I don’t understand, and I hope I never will. But I want to be a caregiver for these parents, when they need it most.

When parents lose a child, it’s often easier for the rest of us to consider it as something that has been eliminated from life. It’s easier for us to think of it as over, back to a previous state - to see it the same as having lost a job. Because someone no longer has a job, they are no longer an employee. But if parents no longer have a child, are they no longer parents?

Of course if the family already has other children, this is not an issue. Everyone still considers them parents. But if a family loses their first child, it seems a common assumption that they revert to some former state of childless existence – back to themselves before they were parents.

I was talking about loss with a close friend, and she told me that the best thing anyone can do is to let the grieving parents be parents. They love and are proud of their child. They are parents.

I realized after she said that, that we make parents who have lost their children victims, and no longer parents. Something was taken from them, and we fit them neatly into the “victim” category, because they may not fit neatly into our version of the “parent” category. We tell them that they still have time, they can have another baby. What we don’t realize is that these attempts to make parents feel better, to give them hope, fail miserably. We sound like we’re offering them a replacement when there really is none.

We don’t let these parents be parents, because it doesn’t fit our idea of parenthood. Our vision of parenthood may be messy houses, piles of dirty clothes, diapers and bottles and bath time and play groups and story time. It’s easier to consider parents of lost babies victims, so that we don’t have to face the difference in their parenthood experience, and so that we don’t have to face the reality that babies can be lost.

These parents carried and prepared for their babies the same way I did. They had the same hopes and dreams, the same expectations and fears. They set up a changing table, bought clothes and diapers. They are parents, just as much as I am.

Unless we have experienced a loss, we will NEVER understand what it’s like to miss our child. And every day that I struggle with my transition to motherhood, and get frustrated that the Pie won’t sleep or is fussy, and every time I am changing the day’s 3,000th diaper and just don’t want to do another, I think of what some other parents would give to have my life. And I reflect and I feel thankful (and a little guilty for being unappreciative and letting myself get caught up in the minor challenges) to be a parent with my child.

To my fellow parents, please excuse us, be patient with us. We don’t know what to say, we feel guilty for having our children, we want to help but don’t know how. We cry with you and for your loss, we love your babies and we wish they were with us. Your loss is so profound that thinking about it makes us grieve, yet we know it’s nothing compared to your grieving and we don’t know how to talk to you about it. We don’t know how to support you. We just can’t handle seeing the loss that could have been ours.

Being a parent is not the same for everyone. Aside from the endless array of parenting styles and philosophies, there are parents who don’t get to raise their children. Some choose to give their children a better life than they themselves can offer; some lose their children. I have been surprised and saddened, as I’ve become a parent, to realize how many parents don’t have their children with them.

I think about things I could do to help ease some of the day-to-day struggle. I could cook a meal, run an errand, do a chore, play with other children, take the dog for a walk. I can I listen without saying “I understand”. I won’t tell them that there will be more children. I won’t tell them that they should be “over it” by now. I won’t question their grieving process. If they ask for help, I will make it happen, even if it means cancelling a play date, being late to work, paying for a babysitter, eating crackers and yogurt for dinner. Asking was surely more difficult than I could know.

I can let them be parents. I can let them be proud of their baby. I can give them room to grieve and to love, to laugh and be thankful for the time they had with their baby, without being made to feel like a victim.

Parenthood is not the same for all families. For some, it is messy houses and laundry and errands and play groups. For others, it is selflessness, or unexpected loss. I am fortunate to know all kinds of parents, those who have their children, those who have chosen to give their children better lives with other parents, those who have become parents because of the selflessness of other parents, and those who have lost. Parenthood looks different for all of them. I can support each family by allowing parenthood to exist in all of its forms. I can be more conscious of what parenthood looks like, for all parents.

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