First published in The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood
Edited by Kerry Clare and published by Goose Lane, April 2014.
“You have two children?” she asks. We’d only just met. Our mutual friend, the connection between us, sits next to me, and I feel her discomfort immediately. I know in that moment that the woman asking has read my bio online, the bit about “after a two-year hiatus to have her second child . . .” and I feel my friend glancing nervously between us, the woman starting to feel awkward, unsure. The friend decides to answer for me.
“Noooo,” she draws it out. A firm line, a tone to change the subject. I understand she wants to protect me, but I can answer for myself.
“Yes,” I reply. “I have two children.”
A long time ago a midwife described to me that before a woman ever gives birth, her cervix’s opening, the os, whose two-lettered name I find sweetly and appropriately small, appears as a dot. After vaginal birth the os looks like a line, “more slit-like and gaping,” according to Wikipedia, forever changed. I liked this idea of an internal record, that my cervix would hold proof of my child’s passage through me.
That was before I knew about the other physical records my body would bear — a stretch-marked belly, almost quilted by the many criss-crossing lines, a belly button I can turn inside out, smaller post-lactation breasts — and it was before I thought I would want, or need, those reminders, that evidence.
Now I am glad for this map drawn on my stomach, for these signs pointing “you were here, here, and here,” and grateful also, because it’s easier to consult this external confirmation than look to that dot-turned-line to affirm the children I bore, for proof that I am a mother. Their mother.
There are photographs, too, of course, but they can seem like a dream. The woman holding children in the photographs looks much like me, but I feel a dark doubt at the digital image, the glossy print. The photos are either unconvincing or too much a part of the past. In search of a tangible present, I’ll instead lift my shirt and run my fingers across my still-round and sometimes mistaken for still-pregnant belly — stretch marks, inside-out belly button, yes. They were here.
Sometimes I answer differently. At a music festival backstage a woman is describing her children to me, the circus of getting them on the road with her, the adventures of camping on-site with them. She pauses to ask, like most people with children do, “Do you have children?” Her invitation to swap parenting anecdotes.
“No,” I say.
I don’t have children I’ve had to wrangle into long road trips, or whom I need to shortly rustle up dinner for, and I think that’s what she’s asking. But I always feel a little hurt by the lie when I tell it, even when I use the lie to protect myself.
I’m also instantly distracted by it — I start to wonder where the conversation would turn if I answered yes. I feel guilty at the exclusion. I’m not forgetting you, little ones.
I couldn’t guess how many times I’ve been asked if I have children or the similar, related question, “Do you have other children?” Each time I’m asked, I twitch, or wince, and I’ve yet to feel prepared for it. And each time I make a decision on how to answer, trying to gauge what the following questions would be, how the person I’m talking to might respond. I’m often making a quick judgment call on a person I barely know, guessing what their spiritual leaning might be, their openness to sorrow, where they land on the hug-it-out to suck-it-up spectrum. Whether saying “yes” feels like the right or wrong choice depends on how my own beliefs, openness, and axis aligns or collides with theirs.
In a support group for bereaved parents at Canuck Place Children’s Hospice in Vancouver, the problem of how to answer these questions comes up often. The facilitator, who for fifteen years has engaged in conversations with parents of dead or dying children, shares a story, as he often does, from a past member of this club no one wants to be in.
When asked whether she has children, the woman in his story replies, “That seems like it should be a straightforward question, but for me it’s not.” The person asking the question can then leave it at that or ask for clarification. The woman feels like she’s finally found an answer that feels honest, in that it acknowledges that the answer depends on perspective, including her own frequently shifting perspective, and as well challenges the assumption that the answer to that question should be a simple “yes” or “no.”
Though no parent who has lost a child has ever felt that “no” is an honest answer, “yes” can feel unnecessarily complicated.
Another woman shares that she always answers “yes,” regardless of who asks or the context of the question. Should the inevitable questions follow —“How many?” and “How old?” — she answers, “One child, who would be five if she were still living.” She doesn’t waver. Yes.
I’m not always as strong.
But do I have children?
How old are they?
Emmett would be seven and Ford would be four were they both still alive.
“Do you have children?”
I feel a pang of guilt and quickly assure myself that in the interest of self-preservation it’s okay to lie to some people, in some situations. Saying “no” can be an awful feeling — the denying of what’s important to me, the quick revision of how I truly see myself in this world. That edit can protect me, though, from questions I’m not ready to answer, from feedback I don’t want to hear.
It can be exhausting, I find, to say “yes,” to say more.
Saying “yes” can lead to having to console the person who asks, in their sudden discomfort and regret, and I resent this. Why do I feel compelled to make others feel better? I notice my automatic impulse to be polite in an attempt to alleviate their worry around their feeling impolite.
Sometimes I have revelled in the other’s discomfort — yes, feel terrible that you asked, feel terrible that my children have died, I certainly do. Bitter. Angry. Hurt.
I’ll reply bluntly, indelicately, “Yes, but they’re dead,” and then watch them fumble.
“No, I don’t,” can come out heavy, dismissive, frustrated, and similar to the above, to the same effect.
I haven’t, in seven years, found a suitable reply to the question. I admit, considering the human variables, it is probably impossible to find a consistent staple response.
At a table with a group of people, cell phones are out and people are proudly showing photos of their children. I wear a locket around my neck with a photo of each of my boys and I open it, beaming, too, over my own beautiful children, but hesitant also, vulnerable to feeling alienated, or alienating.
This is Emmett. This is Ford.
I want to leave it at that. I want to be connected by this understanding of what it is to love and celebrate your children. In both photos my kids are intubated (the placement of a plastic tube into the trachea to maintain an open airway — most colloquially known as a “breathing machine”) and clearly hospitalized, and that gives many people pause. Most people see the paraphernalia first and the babies second.
I see Emmett, and I see Ford.
To then reveal that both of my children have died puts a damper on the mood, though I wish it didn’t. Often it distances me from the common ground. But I love my children. I’m proud of them, as much as I would be if they were alive, and I want to share that.
Looking back at their photos I don’t see the tubes that kept my babies alive while they lived. I see Emmett, my dark-haired first baby, his big (almost-11-pounds-at-birth) body in my arms. I see his long-awaited arrival. I see my changed heart. I see Ford’s fluffy, strawberry-blonde hair and his wide, laughing smile. I see that he was happy. I see that he was in pain. I see how we were all waiting and hoping. I see his strength in his pure, unknowing babyness.
“Was it genetic?” people will ask. It is, for many, hard to believe that in this western world, a family could lose two children without something being “wrong”. I find I get defensive over this question, feel I’m being accused of fault. I’ve practiced saying, “They died at different times, for different reasons,” and sometimes I emphasize the randomness of these events by saying, “Different unrelated reasons,” but it’s unnecessary, I suppose, to clarify.
It’s not my fault, I’m thinking as they puzzle over what could have caused such similar tragedies, piling sandbags against my own puzzling.
Indeed it is the unlikeliness of losing two children that for so long fuelled my belief that Ford would live, despite his congenital heart disease. From those around me, that belief was affirmed from the time I was pregnant, that “nothing like the last time could happen again,” meaning death. (And I darkly assure those people now, in imagined conversations, that they were right. My second child’s death wasn’t like the last time.)
Looking back to the group introducing their offspring via cell-phone picture albums, I can feel that these people see me differently now. They don’t want to be like me, and I can tell who is so afraid of losing their own child that they can’t even engage with me further on the subject. I get it. Others don’t think I could be like them, don’t think that I could relate to parents of living children. I sense some people are hesitant to continue the conversation now. I imagine others are possibly resentful of that hesitation. Some might consider my sharing morbid. Others are moved by sadness at the thought of ever losing their own. I try to look for only those empathetic few and resist my defensiveness to the discomfort I might have caused in the others. My mind gets noisy with my defenses and sad at my feeling of not belonging.
I want to tell them: but I am like you, a parent too. My relationship with either of my children did not end with their deaths. My daily thoughts are full of them — with joy and gratitude for them, on some days, and with grief and longing on others. Children who are no longer here still take up time and space in a parent’s life.
I am not unlike you, I think as I close the locket and hold it close to my chest.
Little ones, I don’t come here to your grave enough. I do often look for places to rent nearby though, thinking if I could walk or ride my bike here, my visits would be more frequent. However, if that proved wrong, I think it would only be my guilt that would increase.
I’m trying to write an essay about you, about us. On what it is to mother and to be a mother when your children are not with you. It’s been hard. The feelings are complicated and my thoughts, as I try to articulate them, are contradictory.
I’ve realized my defenses are high, that bitterness and isolation run through them. I’ve realized that I am quick to stab a flag into the ground and assert my title of Mother — to dare anyone to try to take it from me. It’s a fierce impulse and my breath quickens, ready to fight off the naysayers.
The most nagging naysayer, it turns out, predictably perhaps, is my own voice of doubt. My tightening grip on the title of Mother, and the volume I proclaim it with, fights most diligently against the questioning in my own self, my own attempts at reconciling what I would imagine a Mother to be with what I am.
Sure, there are details of parenting I haven’t known — details that most would consider common—and yes, my babies, both of you and I had experiences that were rare. One in one hundred. One in 8,000. There became so many statistics over the years that they have lost meaning. We were those ones; it’s moot to consider how many were not, most of the time.
So I rattle off, “Sure, there are differences,” and get back to affirming, “but I’m still a Mom, like the rest of them.” But the thing is, these differences are drastic, and vast.
I want to be like the rest of them, desperately.
More desperately I want you back.
How do I mother you now? I come to your grave. I cry for you daily. I try to stay in the centre of being in love with you for as long as possible, that centre where I feel only gratitude and joy at your coming into my life, before my thoughts tip into being reminded of your absence and of what I’m missing, before I feel anger and helplessness.
If I follow my anger it always leads me to longing. I miss you. Is that what my mothering is, this missing?
I think about you, Ford, more than I think about you, Emmett, and I feel terrible about it. I consider how parents balance their relationships with their different children, when they have more than one, and I wonder if it feels like this.
Emmett, I feel you and I lost all our potential — you never even opened your eyes. Losing ever knowing what colour they might be is only the beginning of what we both had to discover about each other, and did not get to.
Ford, I lost your blue eyes. I lost our locking gazes and knowing exactly what that’s like. There is a year’s worth of specifics that I can point to, and know what I’m missing.
But Emmett, you were my first and because I know you almost entirely only in utero, the memories of your kicking echo more strongly within me than your brother’s.
While he was living, I would tell Ford about his older brother. I imagined how we would celebrate your birthday every year, and how he would look at photos of you. I imagined him pointing and saying your name, not able to enunciate the t’s in his early years. I imagined him drawing a family tree in school and the branch he would extend for you. I imagined he wouldn’t struggle to say, “Yes, I have a brother,” when asked if he had siblings. He would grow up knowing you, like this. A name, a few photographs, stories.
We would trace the lines on my belly, and he would know you both grew there.
I trace your names on your gravestone, brothers, interred together behind one cement block.
I don’t come here often enough, but I think of you always.
I felt it most significantly after Ford was born — in Emmett’s one day of life, in the chaos of the events that surrounded it, the feeling didn’t have time to be articulated, this radar in my belly, this feeling that I’m a lighthouse that searches and beckons.
I could find Ford in the dark. He slept, for most of his life, in a building blocks from my home, under the watch of the ICU, but no matter his whereabouts I could, I know I could, walk miles, eyes closed, to find him, guided by this invisible tether between us. As long as he was living, I felt the blip on the radar, the assurance of his whereabouts, his safety on the sea.
I feel my son’s physical absence in this world like a phantom limb, yet truly knowing he is not here has not deterred my momma-radar from searching. I easily tune into that search for a response, and I deeply feel the ache of no reply. It is, at times, the most crippling pain of my loss — the acute physical awareness that he is gone. “He’s not here,” I try to reason with that animal instinct that searches constantly for him, for them, but there is no changing this innate behaviour.
At their grave this searching slows its pace as I feel the nearness of their physical remains. My hand to the gravestone, I reach for this additional reminder of their place in my life. Like when I run my fingers over a stretch-marked belly, I now lean close to their ashes that sit behind the stone and breathe out towards them. “It’s not enough, I know,” I tell the mother in me, “but it’s as close as we can get.”
It came up that I had lost a child — this was before I had lost a second — and the eyes of the woman I was talking to lit up. “I have a prince of skies,” she said. She had lost a boy, her baby, late in pregnancy. It was a premature labour with complications. She described us as special and I was taken aback. Special had never occurred to me. “We know something very few people know.”
I do feel witness to exceptional events.
I never could have imagined the love I felt when my first son was born — how my heart grew, how a part of my being was illuminated that I never knew was hiding within me. Similarly, there was no way to predict the change his death in my arms would make, the privilege of holding him through his beginnings in this world to his end.
There is of course a shift in perspective when we experience loss, and for me the loss of a child has deepened my compassion for others, expanded understanding, inspired a letting go of little things and a deeper feeling for what matters.
People matter. Children matter. The importance of life’s other obstacles and triumphs shifts. Nothing could make my children’s deaths seem worth it, but I can also feel gratitude for some of the changes. It’s a duality that’s hard to accept.
I might argue that ignorance is bliss, and I would have been content to complain my days away on more trivial challenges. I didn’t want this insight.
But I can agree, we are a special few and sometimes the separateness I feel from parents of living children is rooted calmly in this knowing.
“You sure get a sense of time passing when you see how your friend’s kids have changed,” he says, marvelling that our mutual friend’s daughter is already five years old. Others present agree, nodding and groaning at their advancing years.
I have to leave the room with tears ready to fall and a knot in my throat. My kids don’t change. Time has stopped, and I cannot use their lives as a reference to track my own. This time two years ago, this time three years ago, I count backwards, thinking of what I was doing then as a way to differentiate what I am doing now.
Sometimes I feel my mothering is finite, or plays on a loop. I can replay both of my children’s lives to their conclusions in my mind, rewind, and play them again. There is no wondering what they will become.
The memories kick in my womb as ghosts, my stretch-marked belly carrying the shadowy recollections safely within me and the line drawn by Ford’s Caesarean birth emphasizing their shapes above it.
These are my children, echoes and scars.