shrunken sweaters and wet blankets: life as a former mother

The majority of my friends, both online and in real life, are parents. This was fairly intentional. I became a part of a vibrant lesbian blogging community when I was trying to get pregnant with Caemon because the support through that process was so important. In fact, with each stage of becoming a parent and then being a parent, surrounding oneself in one’s tribe is the smart thing to do. New parents need to be able to talk about new parent things to ask new parent questions and complain new parent complaints. These communities of parent friends, both online and in real life, were an essential piece in helping us maintain our sanity through Caemon’s illness and in keeping us afloat after his passing. After all, who could better understand the fear or pain of losing a child than those who know the way that parenting bursts the heart open in a million glorious ways?

I still identify with this tribe, still surround myself in these parent communities, but as more and more days and weeks and months pass when I am not actively mothering a child, the more I begin to fit a bit like a wool sweater that has accidentally been through the dryer: it’s still a sweater, but it no longer functions well as such.

On a fairly regular basis, I find myself reading online posts, anywhere from blogs to Facebook, and I see parents ask for advice about something a child is currently doing. Today it was whether a child who is sick with an ear infection would be irreparably damaged by a full day of iPad use. I wanted to respond, to say something like, “When my son was in the hospital, he would often use his iPad for a full day at a time to escape feeling lousy, but then he would emerge, bright as can be, ready to engage with human activity. Don’t worry. Everything will be fine.” But I stopped myself. I had to ask, Does my son’s experience translate here? Do I have any business responding?

Mostly, since Caemon has died, I haven’t asked myself these questions. I have just responded to posts and questions like these as though I were still a mom, as though my experiences bore equal weight to the mom whose three-year-old watched videos for a full day to get through the stomach flu. But it’s not the same.

In fact, what I am finding is that as my friends’ children grow, my experiences are becoming less and less relevant because their children are growing, and my child, well, he stopped. My experience with being a parent ended at exactly three years and five months into it. I don’t know what it means to parent a four-year-old or even a child of three years and six months. I don’t know what it is to parent multiple children at once. Don’t get me wrong; in general, people are so very generous with me and kindly take the last bits of wisdom I have to share with such graciousness, even if my experiences might be a little off. But I wonder how it makes them feel. I wonder if it grows tiresome to hear my same stories over and over because the sad fact is, I don’t have any new fodder for the parenting fire, at least not fodder people want to have to think about.

I suppose the real question I am asking myself when deciding whether to respond is, Does this parent want to be reminded that children die?

A mom might be complaining about a child being particularly challenging all day, and I might say something like “Hang in there” or “Take a deep breath; it will get better”  without realizing initially that my comment, regardless of its content always, always, always contains the subtext, “Don’t forget: sometimes children die.” It’s awkward for the parent because sometimes a parent just wants to complain about a bad day without being reminded that our precious little monsters sometimes are stolen from our arms. Maybe sometimes a group of parents just wants to share funny stories about their kids, and they don’t necessarily want to hear a funny (but actually heartbreaking) story about a child who died. Most people really don’t need a resident wet blanket, a persistent reality check.

I’m still trying to navigate when I should insert myself and when I should sit back and let the world spin on without my former mom input. Do I respond to that birth announcement when a reply from me might scare the new parents into monthly blood tests for their new baby? Do I attend the baby shower and risk having the conversation move to my child dying? Do I join in the discussion about why your kid won’t eat or how to get a kid to take medicine or how to get a child to sleep when it might lead to the phrase, “When Caemon was in the hospital…”? I don’t know. Sometimes I take the risk and I join in; other times, I recognize a lighthearted moment for what it is and opt to bow out, but I really don’t know what the right choice is.

Alas, there is no Emily Post for parents who are no longer parents. Perhaps this is why for decades, it was the norm for people not to talk of their children who died, for people not to know that they had had a sibling who died because people didn’t dare mention it; they didn’t want to bring up the pain or impose their pain on others. I suppose I don’t know how to live like that. My hunch is that most people wouldn’t want me to.

You see, in my heart, I’m still Caemon’s mommy, and my Caemon’s mommy experiences made me a part of a tribe I had so longed to join. It is hard—no, excruciating—to move to “honorary mom” status, to beloved aunt, to interesting adult friend, to fun babysitter and to not be someone’s mommy anymore. Yes, I will always be a mother, but until I’m a mother of a living, breathing, growing child again (and even then), I will always be the mother of a boy who died. This irrevocably changes my position in my community.

I don’t want to lose my tribe, but more and more, I see that I’m moving to the outskirts of the village. Here, you might spy me dancing my once-a-mom dance and speaking my once-a-mom language off on my own because while I don’t want to rain pain on the other moms around me, I also don’t want to forget who I was when the best part of me emerged.

I still might join you with my wild hair and shrunken sweater sometimes. Eventually, I might even sit around the fire with you again, mommy status restored, with fresh stories of parenting a living, breathing, growing child to accompany my old crocodile wisdom. I hope so anyway. I really, really hope so.

23 thoughts on “shrunken sweaters and wet blankets: life as a former mother

  1. Speaking as one of these tribe members, I would be happy to hear your voice. I’m glad that you’re reading. At some level the sadness of losing Caemon is with me all the time anyway, so you keeping quiet doesn’t take it away any more than hearing your voice makes it stronger. I do think I have a greater than average feeling for the presence of death (or fear maybe), but I often can’t look at my children without just being grateful that I have them for this one second and knowing that it may not be forever. But maybe that’s because of Caemon? Not sure. Either way, please speak up. Your experience matters.

  2. I can’t speak for anyone else but I need you to know you will always be part of my tribe. I will always value your stories and advice because, though you were ony 3 years and 5 months into your parenting journey, you are wise beyond your parenting years and your insite and ability to comiserate spans far more than just your 3.5 years of hands on experience. I always appreciate hearing from you and I wondered if your silence in some of these forums was due to your own pain, pain of hearing about our growing children while missing yours (no doubt that is part of it). I never imagined it was because you worry that others may feel burdened or saddened by the reminder of your loss.

    I’ll be honest, I sometimes feel guilty complaining about my “little monsters” knowing that you may be reading, but in the same instant I have that pang of guilt, reminded of you and J and Caemon, I am also reminded to treasure them. At times when its the hardest for me, when I feel overwhelmed and underappreciated, you remind me to put things in perspective, put on my big girl panties and remember how grateful I shoulde be to have my children in my life.

    Recently a friend of mine became a little obsessed with repurposing sweaters she finds at thrift. She takes beautiful sweaters that have shrunk, or that have holes, or that their owners have outgrown, and she turns them into covers for hot water bottles. She gave me one and when I have cramps, or when my children are sick, or when I have body aches or when my feet are cold, I pull out that fuzzy warm wool bottle. I love it. I really, really love it. I have a lot of sweaters, some I like and some I don’t, but I love that bottle. It is comforting and welcomimg and cozy. I hope you don’t mind the comparison to a hot water bottle, I just want to say that sometimes things, relationships, may shift and change but they are no less valued or appreciated, they are one of a kind.

    • I love you, Poppy, and I love the comparison to a repurposed sweater-covered hot water bottle–I don’t mind it a bit.

      Yes, sometimes it absolutely is just too painful to hear about other people’s kids, and because there is no way that I would ask others to stop talking about their beautiful (hard, demanding, amazing) lives with their children, I take a step back. But it’s also what I wrote here. It’s all of it, and it’s all hard, and I wish it weren’t. xo

  3. You will always be a member of my tribe. Friendship extends from happiness to grief, and everything in between. I still hope to one day share that glass of wine together!

    It is important to know that a wool sweater that has been washed and dried goes through the process called felting. In the textile world, this chemical change creates one of the strongest materials in the world. You can no longer be unraveled. You are tightened, strong and changed, but highly valuable and prized. Your experience, as devastating as it was, and is, bonded our community even closer together. You will always be apart of us. Much love.

    • I love that I can count on my beautiful tribe to take my metaphors the extra mile. I hadn’t thought of felting. Thank you, my friend, and I love you. (And we will indeed have that glass of wine one of these days!)

  4. I very much still appreciate your input, even when it brings with it a sad reminder of a sweet life cut too short. You are wise, you are smart, you are important. You know what it is like to be up in the middle of the night to soothe bad dreams and to change diapers and to worry the worst will happen- and, you know what it is like to actually HAVE the worst happen. You are valuable, and your perspective is valuable. Keep dancing right beside the fire in the middle of the tribe.

  5. I think about your parenting journey every day, and many days, my three talk about Caemon. You and your family are part of our lives.

    Today it rained. It hasn’t rained down here in forever. Suddenly, Luc noticed and said he was scared. We were driving, and he remembered that Granddad was driving in the rain when he lost control, hit a tree, and died. Louisa was sitting there in the front seat, and I know that his chirping in brought forth the knowledge that parents die. I took her hand and thought about how he’s part of our family. Like Caemon, I never got to meet Victor, yet he’s still a part of our family.

    And there was a rainbow, which the children had never seen before and Louisa hasn’t seen in years. Through the pain, beauty.

  6. Poppy and others have perfectly expressed what I wish I has words to say.

    You are one of us. You are loved and we will move the party to the outskirts of the fire if that is what it takes to keep dancing with you.

  7. You both are incredible women and were the most incredible mothers. When Caemon passed I was so sad for so many reasons. One of them being that I was sad (and even perhaps mad) that two people that were meant to be parents, that thrived in that role were only given three years and 5 months of it. Caemon should have been able to flourish in your love and encouragement and you both should have been given the chance to teach and learn from your remarkable son. Nothing would make me happier right now then to hear that you are going to be mothers again. That child would be the luckiest child to have such wonderful mothers. Miss you both and Caemon so very much.

  8. My first thought on reading this is that you are not a former mother. This experience is as much about mothering as any – for as long as there have been mothers, many have faced losses. My next was, yes, I can relate to being “that mother” in parenting groups. Sometimes I feel like the bad fairy at the party, though I know I actually have amazing supportive friends.
    I am in a place of learning ways to mother my daughter in my heart, now that she has left her cancer ravaged body behind. I know I will never stop doing this. I don’t believe you will either.

  9. Unlike many of your lovely commenters, I do not know you well. Yet your words are PERFECT. I understand. Every. Day. I have the same thoughts, the same feelings, though of course you express them more thoughtfully than I ever dreamed of. The threat of subtext, the once-a-mom language – it’s there in so many of my interactions. The only thing I’d add is that I’m also a victim of slivers of bitterness. When two friends were recently discussing their pregnancy woes, I eagerly joined their conversation. But, then: who wants to hear pregnancy stories from the woman whose baby died? Except as a what-not-to-do testimonial? Even if her baby’s death had nothing to do with the pregnancy at all? Sigh. They got quiet; I “moved to the outskirts of the village.” It hurts. Hugs to you.

  10. I read this last night and was at a loss for words, even though so many emotions were evoked. I still am somewhat at a loss, but just wanted you to know that if I could choose someone to help give me advice, sit with and talk about all the trials and tribulations, and joys and heartbreak that go along with parenting, I would choose you (and Jodi). I have read and encountered many many mommy bloggers since my initial TTC days (over 10 years ago) and very few are as raw and real as yours has been, and still is. I love that! Your honesty means so much to me amidst the “typical” blog world too often filled with portrayals of perfection and panaceas of greatness and sometimes it just feels like a contest of who is the better mommy (or daddy), with the smarter kids, fancier clothes, better pinterest worthy skills and fancier photos. Those blogs are fine, and I am not trying to judge them, but yours always felt so real-from since before your boy was even conceived, until now during the depths of your grief. I thank you for that-you show your true self and I adore that person. I do not have a blog, and am sort of quiet in most of the blogs I follow, but please know that you have positively impacted me as a fellow mommy more than most-I often find myself during various parenting moments conjuring up images of how you would handle something-and it has helped me to be a better parent. So always know that this mommy will eagerly squeeze into a shrunken sweater that is well loved, or even envelop herself into a wet blanket (great for cooling off in the heat of a difficult moment) anytime! You (and J) will always be a very cherished and valued member of our tribe!

  11. I have never, ever thought of you as a wet blanket. I value your input and accept your whole story. The hospital, cancer and your child’s death are a part of that. I love you, T, and I love having you as a part of my extended tribe.

  12. Your writing slays me, every single time. There are just no words I can write right now to do this post justice. But, please know that I find inspiration from this place, your words, and YES, your parenting experience. Whether it is on pause right now, as I truly believe you will be back there sooner than later, there is a wealth of wisdom in you that we, your tribe, are lucky you share with us…however way you see fit.

  13. I relate so well to your images here… the shrunken wool sweater, the outskirts of the village. My son died soon after he was born, and I feel that all the insight and knowledge I have about pregnancy and childbirth is now taboo because of that experience… because whenever I say anything about it, I know I’m also saying “I had a baby too, remember, and he died, remember?” It’s so hard to know what to say. Keeping quiet hurts. Quieting others hurts. Not quite belonging hurts. Trying not to let it hurt, often ends up hurting more than anything else.

  14. Reblogged this on Wrapped Up In Parentheses and commented:
    This post describes my own feelings very well. I feel like a “shrunken sweater” in most aspects of my life right now: as a mother, as a person who got married, as a person who is single, as a resident.

    This is difficult to cope with. I have to get a little philosophical in order to get through the day. I have to remember that even though my external identities and roles are under constant challenge, my actual self is just as safe and solid as it ever was.

    In yoga, a person’s essence isn’t their body, or their mind, or any of the things that they do with their body and mind. Those are just external trappings. The real essence or identity is the non-material, eternal spark of life. That essence can’t be modified or injured. Even though it’s often forgotten and ignored, it never leaves or changes.

    Or as James Marsden put it on Modern Family…
    Cameron: You’re living in our daughter’s princess castle?
    Barry: No, don’t be ridiculous.
    [Points at heart] I’m living in here.
    [Points at castle] I’m sleeping in there.

  15. Thank you for sharing this post with us. I know that I think of you and of Caemon every day and certainly you are one of the first people in the audience I consider when I compose something online. During our years of ttc, I so hated and resented the idea that motherhood was this club that I couldn’t get into. I felt like a mother already, even though my children were not conceived or born. And I think of you as a mother now too–you will always be a mother and there is no thought in my mind to divide mothers who have lost their children to mothers of living children. So much love to you.

  16. Oh my. yes. I had this very experience the other day. A patient of mine was hemming and hawing over whether to take a medication during her pregnancy. I often struggle over how much personal life I share with my patients- I wasnt to be personable and connect, but also remain objective. I really thought she’d benefit from the med and I had been on something similar when I was pregnant. I decided to tell her so- saying “I only tell you because I wouldnt recommend something I wouldnt do myself.” She really appreciated it. But then she surprised me with asking “did you breastfeed?” I then had to answer- my baby died shortly after birth, but not because of anything with the med, but had she lived, I would have breastfed. I had to bring her death into the conversation. It made me feel silly and almost shameful for bringing her up. Had she lived, it would have been fine, but because she died, it a good conversation turned terribly awkward.

    there are so many times I want to share with my patients how good exercise is in pregnancy (people are so nervous about how it will affect the baby). I was living proof, doing all sorts of cardio and weight lifting while strapped to a fetal monitor. I was proof that babies dont mind one bit. But I cant share that either… leads to questions with sad answers.

    I wish there were some way to be able to incorporate our powerful experiences into our conversations with other. Your writing is so powerful here. thank you.

  17. I stumbled on to your blog and have fallen in love with Caemon. His love for life and his moms is so evident in your retelling of his story. I know how difficult it must be to find peace after such a tragedy. The journey you continue to tell is a testament to the kind of moms you are.

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