I sit here making silly puns for something that doesn't seem so silly to me.
As a loss parent, parenting a living child for the first time after the loss, it's hard/impossible(?) to know which feelings are normal for a parent and which come from my experience with loss.
After a few weeks of very challenging feedings with Brayden, the doctor has agreed that Brayden is suffering from symptoms of reflux. We've had to make a whole bunch of little changes, and along with those changes I've decided to stop pumping breastmilk for him.
For weeks I've worried that there's something in my milk that's not agreeing with him, but I struggle to commit to changing my diet. The idea of that makes me stressed. Of documenting every little thing I eat. I barely have time to prepare food let alone dissect every meal. But at the same time, the idea of my milk hurting him makes me stressed. Seems like a no win. So I thought, he's doing fine on the formula, maybe it's for the best if I unplug the pump. No more breastmilk for Brayden.
Well. This decision has sent me on a tailspin and I think I've traced it back to that moment, over a year ago, when after Ryan had died, my sister tapped me on the shoulder to discreetly let me know I was leaking. It's a moment so burned into my memory I could tell you what shirt I was wearing that day. I can't begin to explain the horror I felt in that moment, realizing that I had no baby to care for, but my body thought I did. Shouldn't it have gotten the message? No. Instead, I had to spend a few days in the great discomfort of engorged breasts and all of the emotional baggage that went with them.
Fast forward to now. Here I am, with milk to give a living child, and I'm choosing not to. So I can change my diet and keep pumping, all while trying to feed Brayden on an every 2 hour schedule. Or continue to eat what I'd like, dropkick the pump out of my life, and just focus on managing this reflux thing. I can tell you which one sounds easier, and which one I've chosen. I just feel like I'm letting my boy down. (Let down... another breast-feeding pun! I'm on a roll...)
But seriously. All I've wanted to do since Brayden was born was to soak him up. Enjoy him. But between all of these feeding issues it's started to feel like the opposite. So, as the title says, I think hanging up the pump really is for the best. Even though it makes me so sad. So sad to think that I would have given anything to breastfeed Ryan.
It's this weird little reminder that I've idealized him in my head. I imagined this incredible bonding over breastfeeding. A beautiful closeness like they describe in all the books. I never imagined both of us crying in the middle of the night. Pain. Stress. Worry that my milk was causing him pain.
I guess what I'm here to write about today is a justification. As if by explaining that the stress of it was getting to be too much would make me feel okay about "quitting." It doesn't. I still feel sad. But I know it's for the best. As a nurse once told me, first and foremost, a baby needs a happy mom.
Most women cheer and celebrate when they decide to give up pumping. It's such a "hassle" to be "chained to the pump." It's a reclaiming of freedom of sorts. I think eventually I'll get to that place of celebration. But for now I think I'm hanging on a bit to the guilt.
I will have to find a way to let that go.
I haven't written a single thing in a couple of weeks now. Nothing here. Nothing private. I had even been selected to submit something for an anthology of pieces about baby loss and grief, but never did "get around" to writing it.
In truth, I've been pretty overwhelmed. And though I haven't written anything, there hasn't been a day that's gone by that I haven't had SOMETHING on my mind worth writing about. But it seems that every time something comes up, I've got my hands full of my crying baby boy. Or I'm rewashing the same load of towels for the 3rd time because I never can seem to get them from the washer to the dryer. I've got a to=do list a mile long and I feel like I'm failing at mostly everything.
I have things I want to do around the house.
Things I want to do to get ready for Christmas.
Things I want to do for Brayden.
Things I want to do for Ryan.
And it seems, and probably rightfully so, that Brayden is the only one who gets my attention and focus. I'm struggling to know what he needs. How to tend to those needs when I do figure it out. And just when I think I've got him figured out, it changes. Just when I think we've settled into a routine that'll let me get to those other things on my list, I'm back to the beginning of trying to figure it all out.
We're over a month in to our time together and most days I feel no more settled in than I did the day we brought him home.
The only time I feel sure of anything are those moments when he's content. When we're cuddling on the couch. When he's got a cranky belly and the only thing that makes him calm down is being held close to me.
But the rest of the time? When he's crying. When he won't be put down. When he cries to eat and then doesn't finish the bottle. When he's making sucky faces after he's just eaten entirely too much but then won't even take his soother... I'm at a loss. And if I do get him to finally calm down, to nap a little bit, I'm too spent to do anything else. To get those towels out of the washing machine. To vacuum up the tumbleweeds of dog hair so I can maybe start putting up a few Christmas decorations. To go to the damn cemetery to visit with my other child. To get outside and finish off the winterizing of that same child's garden. Even though the snow has already come.
I don't mean to complain.
I just feel like I'm having a hard time doing right by all those things and people I want to do right by. And even when I'm only focusing on doing right by my baby -- the one who is here on earth with me -- I don't even feel like I AM doing right by him.
I've had a million other things I've wanted to write about here. But for now, for today, I think I just needed to vent. To get this all out there.
I needed to say that sometimes, even when you're finally gifted everything you wished for and hoped for, it's not easy. And it's even harder to admit that you might not even be very good at it. The fantasy is not the reality. It is not easy to parent a baby here and a baby apart from yourself. And I think it's all made a little extra heavy with the holidays in full swing. I'm back to wanting the world to take a pause so I can catch up. I need time to stand still for a second so I can get myself back on track.
But I suppose that makes sense. Just a glimpse at my scattered brain. My divided brain. A part of it here. A part of it there.
PAL. 3 weeks ago, it meant “Pregnancy After Loss.” If you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last 10 months, you’d also know that the journey of a pregnancy after a loss is no easy road. It was laden with stress, anxiety, fear, detachment… It also had hope, love, joy… It was ride to be certain. And although pregnancy is still this beautiful thing to me – seriously, I love being pregnant – I was pretty grateful when it ended, this time, happily, with a whimpering, breathing, living baby in my arms.
I spent my PAL living day by day. We didn’t really physically do much to prepare for his trip home. We didn’t even install the car seat until hours before we were discharged from the hospital. And if we did so little to physically prepare for what might come next, I know that I, at least, did not do enough to emotionally prepare for the next step. I did little thinking about what having a baby at home might look like. What it would feel like. How it would be. Perhaps for only fleeting moments did I consider what it would be like to really parent a living child. And though I was protecting my heart in the moment, I did not do myself any favours in the lack of preparation.
You see, now, PAL has a new meaning. PAL refers to “Parenting After Loss.” And that’s a whole new journey. Though I’ve never parented without loss in my past, I can bet it’s different from what the other 75% of women who have never experienced a loss might know.
Before we were blessed with the knowledge of Brayden growing inside me, I would pray silent prayers. This was the only “talking to God” I’ve done since Ryan died. Apart from the unspoken “Thank you” I sent to Him when Brayden was placed, pink and squirming, in my arms. When Ryan died I cut off most of my ties with God for lack of understanding and lack of faith in Him. Except for the prayers begging him for a healthy, living baby. I get that that is totally selfish and not at all what real faith is – asking for things when I want them. But that’s what I did. I asked and asked. And I made promises to Him. And to Ryan. That if I could just have a baby here, I’d be the best parent. No one would ever parent like me. I’d be patient. My baby would know nothing but love. I would not take a single moment for granted. I would love the sound of his cries. I would cherish waking up in the middle of the night, because I’d have a living baby who needed me. Relied on me. If I could only have a baby, living, in my arms.
Those moments. Those prayers. That’s where my Parenting After Loss journey started off on the wrong foot.
The past 3 weeks have been what I expect the first 3 weeks to be like for all “new” parents. (Enter another problem – I hate referring to myself as a “new” parent. I’ve been a parent for a year now. I’ve actually done “the hardest thing a parent can do,” bury my child, and yet I’m still considered a “new” parent. Go figure). But these 3 weeks have been full of worry – Is he eating enough? Why am I not producing more milk? Why does he breathe like that? Is that what his bellybutton is supposed to look like? They’ve been full of love – Admiring little noises and smiles. Hours-long cuddles and snuggles. Intense eye contact during feedings. Actually tearing up just looking at him.
But I want to be really honest. Really truly honest because I don’t want other Rainbow Mamas to feel as lonely as I have felt the past couple of weeks.
Parenting After Loss is quite possibly harder than the pregnancy. Because now there’s still the worry and the fear. After all, since losing my baby during pregnancy I’ve met plenty of mamas who’ve lost their babies well after they were born. But there’s the exhaustion, too. And with that exhaustion comes the impatience that I swore to God (literally) I wouldn’t have. I’ve spent nights crying over Brayden in the rocker because he just wouldn’t latch. Afternoons begging him to just stop crying so I could put him down and eat lunch. I’ve found myself having to take a breath and count to ten so I could get my frustrations under control.
That’s not who I promised I’d be.
And that’s when the guilt set in.
That’s when I started to feel inadequate. And like I didn’t deserve this baby, this blessing. Because I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. I wasn’t being the Supermom I promised to be. Instead I was a mess.
I was crying for a baby who has been gone over a year.
I was feeling angry at a baby in my arms who is so completely helpless.
I was failing at this “parenting” thing.
And then I started to remember that I wasn’t great at “parenting” Ryan in the days and weeks after he was born. I was a robot. I could barely get out of bed in the morning, let alone do any of the things I do now to be an amazing mother to him. And I am. I’m pretty damn awesome at mothering my Ryan.
And so I know, that in time, I’ll be just as awesome at mothering Brayden here. It’s a different kind of parenting, but I will figure it out.
In the past 3 weeks, I’ve had many people reach out and offer me all kinds of advice on being a parent. But the best was from an old teacher’s college friend who told me that it’s okay to not enjoy every moment. Especially after what we’ve been through. That just because we lost Ryan doesn’t mean I have to love every second of this parenting adventure. It doesn’t make me a bad person, and it doesn’t make me ungrateful. Being a parent is hard work and sometimes some moments, just aren’t that enjoyable, and that’s okay. I repeat this advice to myself in the hardest moments. I remind myself that for every happy, blissful moment another mama shares online, there are just as many challenging moments that she's keeping to herself. A tearful feeding or screaming baby do not make for great social media fodder. This advice and these reminders take some pressure off myself. I spent 2 weeks under this unbearable self-inflicted pressure to be perfect, that I couldn’t even enjoy any moments, let alone some.
Now, looking at this past week, I finally spoke up to some friends, family, some other Rainbow moms, my husband… I explained the challenges I was having. And suddenly I could breathe again.
I can’t promise that I won’t be frustrated or angry or sad anymore. In fact, I’m here today to guarantee that I’m going to feel all of those things again plenty of times in the next lifetime of parenting Brayden. And to accept that as okay.
It doesn’t make me a bad mom.
It doesn’t mean I should feel guilty.
It doesn’t mean that I’m ungrateful for this blessing.
It doesn’t mean anything except that I am parent. A parent of a living child, after the death of another child.
I’m a so-called “Supermom” just by being a mom at all. Any woman who accepts the love for a child into her heart, whether that child is here on earth or existing apart from us, is a pretty spectacular woman. Because it takes courage and strength to take on that kind of intense, all-consuming love.
Parenting after loss isn’t easy, not like I thought it would be. I thought since I had been through the worst, that anything else would be a walk in the park. It’s hard. And confusing. But it’s another adventure we’ve taken on. And I’m going to figure it out. And it’s going to be okay. And I really am grateful for the opportunity to be on this challenging, complicated, confusing, wonderful journey.