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.