Grief Through The Eyes of a 3 Year Old

Dear Grownups,

I need you to read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" by Tommie dePaola just one more time today, to see if Nana gets to come back this time after she dies in the story. I need to keep asking you if my Grandma is coming back and if I can visit her again. I need to hear the same answer, over and over, like a call and answer refrain. I need time to truly understand and process what "gone forever" really means. I need to play with my dollies and pretend that one dies over and over, comforting myself by allowing her to come back to life with my magical thinking within my pretend world.

I need you to know that I feel your big feelings, even when you think you are hiding them from me. I see the tightness in your jaws, the weariness in your puffy red eyes, the way your shoulders droop. I see your furrowed brows as you answer emails on your phones. I hear snippets of harshly whispered conversations and phone calls. I hear the tension and impatience in your voices, and I see through the false cheerfulness that you're using to cover your own fears, sadness, anger and confusion. I need to ask you why people seem so sad and mad, and I need you to reassure me that it's not my fault.

I find it distressing to hear comments like "She's in a better place", or "She will live forever in our hearts". I'm confused because dying means gone forever, but people say she is living and in another place. Why isn't she living with her family? Why can't I visit her?

I was frightened when I heard someone say, "Dying is like sleeping forever", because that means I don't ever want to let myself or anyone I love fall asleep or else we might die, too.

I'm scared because you told me my Grandma was sick and that is why her body stopped working. My daddy has a cough. He's sick. Now I worry that he is going to die. I don't want my mommy lying down in her bed because it reminds me of my Grandma lying down in bed when I visited her. I have to ask about all the people I know who are older. I have to know if they are sick. I have to ask if they will die, too. I need you to reassure me again that my Grandma's illness was different, that every cough and sniffle will not equal death.

I need you to understand that when I get easily frustrated with tasks I could easily do last week, that I need some patience and compassion instead of your criticism. When I wet my pants instead of going to the toilet, I need you to know that I am not being defiant, but rather, struggling with connecting to my own elimination cues as I struggle to understand the sudden changes in my schedule and the emotional reactions of the big people in my life. I am processing all of the huge feelings that are within and around me. When I ask you to help me put my shoes on or to hold the spoon for me while I eat a few bites of my dinner, it is not because I can't do it myself. I just feel really insecure right now and need someone to help me feel loved, cared for, and nurtured.

I need the safety net of my routines now, more than ever. I need regular meals, snacks, play, rest, and sleep. I need my bath and my bedtime story. I need my snuggles and my songs. I need my blankey and my stuffies, and everything that helps me to feel safe. I need as much "normal" as you can give me in the coming days and weeks.

I need you to understand that I may want your attention and love one moment, then may want to retreat into my own quiet space the next. I need you to understand that I am sensitive to all of the lights, sounds, smells and movement that come along with large gatherings, and that I may be easily overwhelmed. I need to not be tasked with being "on" as the "entertainment" to distract adults from their own feelings, and that I may shut down or melt down if I am the centre of attention for an extended period of time. I need you to protect me from becoming overwhelmed, and to help me when it's all become too much.

It's okay that you cried when you told me that my Grandma died, because it showed me that it is okay to cry when we lose someone we love, and that expressing big feelings is a safe and healthy thing to do. It's okay that you cried when you read me "Nana Upstairs, and Nana Downstairs" the first time, as it taught me that good readers make meaningful connections as they read texts, and that good writing can evoke powerful feelings.

In this time of hurt and healing, please don't forget about me. I need you. I need you to model healthy grieving and self-care coping strategies. I need you to take really good care of yourselves so that you can take really good care of me.

Love,

Your grieving child

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Bedtime Rituals

A lot of parents say that their child’s bedtime is their favourite part of the day. Usually comments like these are said half in jest, but with the core truth reflecting a feeling of relief about finally having some time to oneself or with a partner, about having a break from the daily chores associated with parenting, about being able to use the bathroom without an audience…

My favourite part of the day is Willow’s bedtime routine, but not for these reasons. Sure, I love having time in the evening to connect with my partner, to write, to read, to play with social media, to practise yoga, to plan, and to reflect.  But I also absolutely cherish the uninterrupted hour that I have the privilege of spending with a delicious little toddler every single night. The hour of slowing down and quieting our bodies and our minds, the hour of distancing ourselves from electronic devices, bright lights, loud sounds, and the rushed activities of the day. The sacred hour of enjoying each other and being entirely present with one another as we naturally lower our cortisol and blood pressure levels, and naturally raise our oxytocin and endorphin levels.

The routine has changed over Willow’s lifetime, from just nursing in a glider at first, to including saying goodnight to daddy and kittens, having a shower or a bath, a coconut oil massage, tooth brushing, potty and hand washing, picking out Jammies, turning on a sound machine to mask the motorcycle-enthusiasts and windstorms, bedtime stories while cuddling two monkey loveys before turning out the lights, singing a goodnight song, and mommy tiptoeing out while Willow sings or whispers herself to sleep. 

While turning down an activity request, it occurred to me this evening that, in the roughly 20 months that I have been Willow’s mommy, I have not missed a single night of her bedtime routine. I’ve gone out after bedtime and left her in the care of others, but I have never actually had anyone else “do bedtime” with her. 

I tell myself that I don’t want to disrupt Willow’s routine. We have a good thing going. Why mess with it?  Ultimately, though, my decision to be here every night has just as much to do with me as it does with Willow. 

Before I became pregnant with Willow, I was very active as a volunteer on a variety of committees, sang in a choir, jammed as many workshops and other professional development activities into my schedule as I could, was active in my church, and was quite engaged in the work of my local federation executive, in addition to fully committing to my full time teaching job and extracurricular activities. Whenever anyone asked me to take on another task or leadership role, I eagerly agreed, relishing the feeling of being needed and appreciated.  For the first five years of our marriage, my husband and I rarely ate dinner together.  I filled the aching hole in my heart with busy-ness. Meetings and workshops filled my waking hours and decreased the time I had to focus on the pain of infertility and pregnancy loss. 

Nowadays, my heart is full. It is so full that sometimes it feels like it is going to burst. I want to relish every second with the family that I have been blessed with. I want to slow down time and soak it all in while I can. I want to bask in this love and in this gratitude for the miracle we have been given.  Life can never go back to “the way it was”. I am not the person I once was. 

Now that Willow is beyond the “infant” stage and I have been back at work for awhile, I’ve been asked by several different colleagues and friends about getting back into volunteer activities, committees, music in the community, and professional leadership projects that would involve late afternoon and early evening meetings or rehearsals. I have made the decision to “turn them down rather than let them down”, and I am surprisingly okay with this.  I am choosing to be involved in a few small projects and an online course with flexible timelines, but the tightly-wound super-woman who worked day and night in order to outrun her feelings is gone. I’m not sure that she will ever return, even when Willow is older.

This is what I know for right now: I will be home for dinner with my family. I will be home for bath and bedtime routine. I will be entirely present with my family for this time, since we are apart all day during the week. There is no meeting or event that is so important that it needs to rob me of this precious and fleeting time with the two most important people (and kittens) in my life.  

  

 

My last night with our baby  

Tonight as I tucked you in, I knew that this was going to be the last time I would kiss a sleepy infant good-night. Tomorrow night I will sing “Goodnight Willow” to a toddler.  I shed a tear, not out some imagined grief over “losing my little baby”, but out of sheer wonder, amazement, and gratitude. How did we get so lucky? How did we get this far?

The past twelve months have been filled with incredibly powerful and overwhelming moments of physical, spiritual, and intellectual growth. You have changed the world with your presence, little miracle. You brought hope and light with your ability to not only survive but thrive in difficult conditions, from the very moment you decided to stick. You earned your name before you were even born. You have challenged, taught, and loved us with your whole being. Life on this planet will never be the same. 
Daddy and I started to dream, think and talk about you in 2001. In 2008, we received the blessing of mommy’s family physician and specialists, a Cuban official, and Rev. Dr. (Great Uncle) Julius to try to bring you into this world. On the first day of Spring in 2014, you arrived in the wee hours of the morning, to the sound of your new mother laughing and singing with tears streaming down her face. Years of dreaming, praying and loving you into existence. You were finally here, and for that moment all was right in the world. 
You took away the empty arms and the aching hearts. You replaced them with a whole new set of challenges. Challenges that we were ready, willing, and grateful to face because we had been so well-prepared and had waited so very long to finally meet you. 

Every day I find so many reasons to celebrate your life, and our life as a family. I see you and Daddy building block towers and playing with cars on the living room carpet and my heart melts to see the amazing father and person he has become because of you. I watch you shake in anticipation as you reach for a tambourine and feel the goosebumps rising on my own arms. I smile as you stare in wide-eyed wonder at the fish in the aquarium, laughing gleefully with you when Sparkles comes to kiss your fingers through the glass. I marvel at your budding sense of humour as you pretend that a bib is a hat. I admire your determination and ability to figure out baby gates, doors, drawers, and how to get around anything that might be standing in the way of chasing a kitten. I love how you spontaneously break into dance when you hear music or rhythmic clapping, how your face lights up when we sing the toothbrush song at the table, how you turn the pages of a book and stare intently at each page, how you thoughtfully choose and then tap the pair of socks you want to wear. I love that you feel your feelings so intensely and can cry and laugh with equal amounts of passion. I love how you love with abandon, with every fibre of your being, delivering full-body hugs and open-mouthed kisses to the cheek. I love how you constantly pull me out of my thinking brain and into my body, into the present moment with you. I love who you have made me become and how you have made me see the world so clearly. I love being your mommy. 
You may never fully understand how truly loved and wanted you were and are. God willing, we will both live long enough for you to roll your teenaged eyes at me while I remind you of this fact with absolute conviction, and to smile wearily down at me when we are both in the Silver Fox Club and I continue to tell you how truly wanted and loved you were and are. 
You will always be MB in my heart, our little miracle baby who finally found her way into our loving arms.  You will always be cherished for the unique and beautiful human being that you are and will become. You will, without a doubt, continue to be my greatest teacher and the person who challenges me to grow more than I could ever dream possible. 
Thank you for choosing us to be your “Mama and Dada” and for being patient with us as we stumble along and grow into the best people, partners and parents we can be. Thank you for coming at just the right time, even if we didn’t realize it as we waited for you. Thank you for teaching us about strength, determination, faith, hope, patience, forgiveness, healing, and love.
 I cherish you. 
Happy birthday, my sweet baboo.


A “Working Mother”

I am currently a working mother, as I am at home every day taking care of my beautiful daughter and two fur babies. This job does not grant “sick days” but it is full of benefits, including delicious post-nap snuggles and the privilege of learning with and from a gorgeous cherub of a baby (almost toddler). In a few short weeks I will be a mother who also works outside of the home five days per week. I recognize that this will be a huge shift for everyone in the family.

A wise mother and teacher recently mentioned to me that parenting books always focus on how to prepare a child for daycare, but never seem to focus on the separation that mothers go through when they return to the paid workforce.

I will miss many things about not being with Willow every moment of every day. I will miss witnessing and being a part of the incredible growing and learning that happens every day. I will miss seeing some of her “firsts”.  I will miss the quiet contemplation of mid-morning and mid-afternoon nursing sessions when we shut out the world and snuggle in a dark room with a kitten or two curled around us. I will miss having the time to finger-paint without worrying about bedtime creeping up, the spontaneous midday moments of singing, playing the piano, ukulele, guitar, and assortment of percussion instruments. I will miss the spur of the moment walks together through the park, rolling in leaves, and finding things outside to squish in our fingers. I will miss cloud-watching in the early afternoon and listening to the sound of squirrels nattering in the trees. I will miss being the one to kiss boo boos and teach “open hand” gentle cat patting techniques. I will miss making up words to songs to match our activities, reading book after book after book, and coming up with chants to describe what we are experiencing every day. I will miss smelling freshly-sink-bathed baby after a lunchtime spinach explosion. In short, I will miss all of the precious time together that someone else will be enjoying with our daughter.

BUT… I am also really happy and excited to be returning to the other job that I love.

I’ve had some well-meaning mothers in my various circles ask me about my upcoming return to work (many of whom are mothers who did not return to paid employment after becoming mothers, or only did so briefly before deciding to leave their paid jobs to raise their children). The conversations usually start with a sympathetic tilt of the head, a frown, and the phrase… “So… I guess you’re going back to work soon…” Some of the comments and questions have been of a supportive nature, and some of them have been meant to show me the error of my selfish, career-loving ways..

-“But aren’t you dreading going back to work?” No. Not at all. In fact, I am excited to be returning to a fabulous job in which I feel valued, competent, and appreciated on a regular basis. I am thrilled to meet my new crew of munchkins and to find new and exciting ways to teach and learn from them. I am happy to work with caring teachers, settlement workers, specialists and parents who all want the best for our newcomer families and students. Am I sad about my time at home ending with my daughter? Of course I am. But am I sad enough to quit a job that is a huge source of my identity and feelings of self-worth? Not on your life.

-“Oh my goodness… how can you just leave your baby with a stranger like that?”  Riiiiight. Because carefully choosing a loving childcare provider with over 22 years of experience is pretty much the same as dumping our child off with the guy asking for spare change at the bus station.

-“Don’t you enjoy spending time with her?” Obviously I am going back to work to get away from my beautiful daughter. A mother couldn’t possibly enjoy spending time with her child AND still want or need to work, could she? Please refrain from implying that I am any less loving of a mother because I am choosing to return to a job outside of the home.

-“I’m so sorry that you have to go back to work. Are things that tough financially? Can’t you find some way of staying home?” Yes, we’ve had some unexpected financial shortfalls in the past year or so. Owning an older home in need of serious maintenance, a trimester of bedrest and having a baby will do that to you. But having major appliances die and unexpected structural repairs on the house are not the reason I am returning to paid employment. I am not being dragged back to my paid career against my will in order to pay off our line of credit.

Here is what many may not realize about Willow’s mommy:

I LOVE MY JOB. I mean REALLY love my job. I decided that I wanted to be both a teacher and a mother before I entered kindergarten. I am a proud third generation teacher who delights in seeing the light come on as a child makes each new discovery. I am obsessed with language development and watching children learn to not only navigate this new language, but also a new land with new clothing, food, customs, and often a whole new way of experiencing things and interacting with others.. I love helping newcomer families to find resources in our community, and it is such a privilege to see so many families, many of which did not come to Canada by choice but as a means of survival, not only survive but thrive in their new homes. The same part of my heart that makes me love being a mommy also makes me love being in a helping profession such as teaching.

In all honesty, if I was returning to my old factory job, I may not feel as strongly as I do about returning to work. I am one of the lucky few in this world who worked hard enough to finally get paid to do something that I am incredibly passionate about. I recognize that many of the women who are incredulous about my positive attitude toward returning to work may have left paid positions that did not fuel their souls or make them feel fulfilled and happy at the end of the day. I completely understand that leaving a child in someone else’s care to toil at a job I despised would feel different than returning to a career that is such a huge part of who I am.

I am so happy that women of my generation living in Canada have the choice to stay at home for up to a year after the birth of a child, with the guarantee that their jobs will be waiting for them upon their return. I am thrilled that we have the choice to either return to paid employment or to continue staying at home taking care of a child or children, and I respect the individual decision that each mother will make about her own situation.

I know that returning to paid employment is not for everyone once they have a child, and I am thankful that so many women today have the CHOICE to do what their hearts call them to do. I will not apologize for going back to a career that fuels my soul and pays for a mortgage (not to mention the benefits that pay for a lot of expensive medication and medical testing supplies). I will not apologize for willingly and lovingly choosing to share my time with newcomer families, students and teachers. Teaching is an identity, and many of us who love teaching find that we consider ourselves teachers forever. Most retired teachers that I know still think of themselves as teachers, and many are doing things that seem suspiciously teaching-related in their retirement. You can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher…

I will be a mom who will be modeling having both a career and a family, and hopefully one who can model setting appropriate boundaries and achieving a good work-life balance. I will be a mom who is lucky enough to be returning to a paid employment situation that I love and that makes my heart sing, even on the tough days (often especially on the tough days). Yes, it will be strange to be with other peoples’ children instead of with my own child.

Yes, I will likely shed more tears than Willow on that first day (although I know from my three years of working in daycare facilities that it is best to save those tears for the car if I want her to settle into her day and routine at daycare as easily as possible). But those tears will eventually stop, and I will sit with and breathe through the ache in my heart, and then I will get through my day and remember how much I love my other job. I will put one foot in front of the other like the incredibly resilient, strong and capable human being I am, and I will be okay.

“‘Cause every little thing gonna be alright.” -B. Marley

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Competitive Mamas

“So… is she crawling yet?”

“So… is she sleeping through the night yet?”

“So… is she signing yet?”

“So… is she talking yet?”

When other mamas ask me these kinds of questions, my standard response has now become: “Willow will do it when she is ready, just like all babies.” I have complete faith that our daughter will do anything and everything in her own good time, just as she waited for the perfect time to enter our lives.  She will eventually do what all babies do, regardless of how early little Owen said “mama” or how soon little Angelique made the sign for “potty”.

As a child I had some delays in meeting infant and toddler developmental milestones, but I still ended up being placed in gifted education programs and growing up to become a productive member of society (albeit one who requires a GPS in order to get to the grocery store).

The “mama questions” are, more often than not, followed by either advice about how to encourage or force my daughter to master the desired skill, or by a list of the exact timeline of “accomplishments” of the offspring of the person asking the question.  I’m starting to realize that questions such as these are rarely a genuine expression of interest about Willow.  Instead, they are a socially accepted tool to allow one to offer unsolicited advice or to brag.  A way for another mama to justify the parenting choices she made, or to attempt to plump up her sagging self-esteem by presenting her child’s development as a reflection of herself.

Comparing our kids in this way is neither helpful, healthy, nor supportive.  The Nipissing and other developmental screening tools and regular check-ups by trained physicians are helpful in identifying children who may need appropriate assessments and follow-up from specialists, and as a teacher I am a big fan of early identification and intervention from the appropriate professionals.  I am not a fan of depending on a child’s rate of development for a parent’s own sense of self-worth, especially when it becomes a game of competing with other parents in a game of “whose child is the most advanced”.

Is this why I am not desperately trying to befriend other mamas (in the way that I was assured I would need to for the preservation of my “sanity”) and prefer to hang out with my original set of friends, most of whom either have older children or none at all?  It seems that mamas in many of my different circles (with a high degree of variance in socioeconomic, cultural and religious backgrounds) all end up having the same kinds of conversations.

Maybe it is okay to just honour myself by giving myself permission to be a wee bit of an introvert.

Again, it is hitting home that I will never truly be part of the Mommy Club. And I’m discovering that I’m okay with that.

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“Not meant to be a mother.”

“This is God’s way of saying that you are not meant to be a mother.”

A coworker said this to me, in a matter-of-fact tone, after inquiring why I wasn’t pregnant a year after getting married (I had stupidly not made it a secret that we wanted a family). To her, it was a simple statement based off of the latest book on spirituality that she had been perusing. She probably never thought of that conversation again. I eventually moved onto another job, wisely told NOBODY that we were trying for a baby, but obsessed over that comment every day for five years after it was uttered.

It’s what no fertility-challenged, loss-grieving woman wants to hear and what many of us, deep down, believe might be true. It is the stuff that depression, anxiety, and self-doubt are made of. It’s a powerful self-defeating delusion that can stop us from seeking treatment options or from moving on to adoption.

Here’s the thing. If God/the Universe only granted fertility to those who were going to be “good” parents, then I strongly disagree with His/its view on parenting. As a teacher, I’ve worked with many children who have been neglected, abused and abandoned by a biological parent, often one who had multiple other children with no apparent history of infertility or loss.

I believe that Willow chose the right time to come into our lives and to remain long enough to be born. I believe that we were blessed and chosen to be Willow’s mommy and daddy, and although I would not wish the pain of infertility and loss on anyone else, I know that it was an important part of our journey that helped to strengthen our marriage and our determination to be the best parents we could be.

I love being a mommy. I thrive in this role that I craved for so many years, and I don’t take a moment of it for granted. Our little girl is strong, healthy, smart, loved and lovable.

I think we are doing pretty well for people that God/the Universe was supposedly trying to force out of the gene pool.

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Mommy Club Outcast

The dreaded question that all women struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss have to learn to cope with is: “Do you have kids?”

It’s an innocent question that can elicit a range of emotions, depending on where we are on our journey.

I was out for dinner with my family. I ran into a mother and her young child in the bathroom. She asked the aforementioned dreaded question. This time I was able to say “Yes… My little girl is sitting with her daddy.”

It was a small victory, the realization that this was the first time I had been asked this question since the birth of my daughter… I was finally able to answer without hesitating, stammering, blushing, or wanting to crawl underneath the nearest floor board. I had made it. At long last, I was now officially part of the exclusive “Mommy Club”.

The woman sighed an exasperated and exaggerated sigh. “Oh… too late. I was going to tell you DON’T DO IT! Run away now while you can!”

And there you have it.

I will NEVER truly be part of the Mommy Club.

As long as being part of the “club” includes resenting my child and commiserating with other mothers (even in jest) about hating being a parent and how much I miss my childless days… I can never be a member.

In my mommy circles I spend a lot of time listening to what others have to say… but I seem to have nothing to add that makes sense in the context of the conversations. We are experiencing the same kinds of universal parenting events: diaper changes, feeding, sleepless nights, vomit stained shirts… but my perception of the events is so vastly different. I just don’t “fit in”.

When I was pregnant I tried to join some online pregnancy forums. It turns out that many of these communities are simply venting boards for women to complain about morning sickness and other pregnancy discomforts. They are not seeking solutions or sharing suggestions or ideas, just wanting someone out there in internet land to say “Oh, you poor thing”. I didn’t belong in the normal virtual preggo club. Nor did I belong in the real life preggo club in the OB/GYN waiting room, which was mostly comprised of women lamenting their rapidly thickening waists, swollen ankles, nausea and heartburn.

Communities specifically geared toward high risk pregnancies and pregnancy after loss were more my style. These women knew anxiety and pain. These women celebrated with me when my nausea and vomiting continued at full tilt and required medication in order for me to gain enough weight to support a growing baby, reassuring me every day until she was born that I was still pregnant and that the pregnancy hormones were still raging strong. These women joined with me in celebrating the expanding belly that pointed to a developing fetus, the intense heartburn that reflected positive hormonal changes, the pelvic and back pain which indicated that my body was shifting to accommodate its precious cargo, the need for extra doses of insulin to keep up with the baby’s impact on my endocrine system, the need for extra iron to help with the anemia which was proof of the growing demands of my growing baby… They cheered me on as each week of bed rest bought another week for my baby’s organs to mature and for her weight to increase. Every typical pregnancy symptom, every bit of discomfort, was met with a round of applause because it meant that I was STILL pregnant, that this pregnancy was progressing, that this baby had a fighting chance at survival.

The impact of infertility and loss does not just disappear the moment you see two lines on a urine test or the moment you hold your baby in your arms. I wonder if I will always feel like an outsider looking in at the “club”.

This journey has given me the gift of being able to truly enjoy and celebrate what others may have considered a very difficult and uncomfortable pregnancy and birth. My experiences have ensured that I will appreciate every single vomit and urine-soaked moment on this wild ride of parenthood. Perhaps I get all of that in exchange for not really belonging in the Mommy Club. And maybe that’s a pretty good deal.

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