The first 4 things I've learned in parenting after loss

The first 4 things I've learned in parenting after loss

Today, baby C is six months old. Six months! I swear it was just August, and I was wading, super-pregnant, in the park-district pool, glad to have an evening distraction while I counted down the days until he was due to arrive. And now he’s here and he’s rolling over and eating puréed carrots in a high chair and discovering the joy of screaming for screaming’s sake, and it’s almost weird to remember what life was before I had to get two people ready to leave the house in the morning. I’m struck by how quickly it has gone and by how much *life* has been crammed into the time.

I’m humbled and grateful, every day. And then on Friday night, I also cried in the parking lot of a YMCA, because Nate would have been two-and-a-half that day and I wished he were in my arms, a soft curly toddler head under my chin.

I wasn’t sure how things would be if I were lucky enough to parent a baby after loss. It’s often a mix of emotions in any given moment, I had heard, and this would be our first time taking care of an infant at home. I tried to anticipate needing to give myself extra patience, whatever shape our experience would take.

Some of my anticipation has fit with our reality—grief at the holidays was especially palpable, for example—but some hasn’t. Here, then, are four early things I have come to appreciate in parenting after loss.

  1. The anxiety hangover is real. In the eight weeks after C was born, we made three trips to the ER. (OK, in some self-defense, these occurred after consultations with his pediatrician or after-hours calls to the nurse.) Each of the visits stemmed from worry about fever. C’s temperature hit 99.7 one time at three weeks old and I feared it would keep rising overnight and hit the alarm-triggering 100.4 point. The doctor, out of an abundance of caution because of baby’s age, advised us to go to the ER. C’s temperature there registered a perfect 98.6.

I knew the anxiety of my pregnancy wouldn’t disappear if we were able to take a healthy baby home. But I don’t think I appreciated how it could idle in the background postpartum and then rev from 0 to 60 as quickly as it had when I was pregnant. I actually thought to myself on the way to the ER that time, “What if one month of happiness is all I get?”

That’s sad to me, and although my anxieties aren’t gone now, I work to add in some context and perspective when worry starts to ramp up. One day in December, C did wind up with a legitimate fever of 101.9—which Tylenol brought down, and he was his happy, active self a day later.

  1. From a marriage perspective, parenting an infant is more stressful than the time immediately after our loss was. After Nate passed, Joe and I were a Team. I told people who asked how we were doing that we were fortunate that both of us were professional communicators—the two of us talked and cried and talked and cried and talked and cried. We remain very much a team, but the experience of our loss and the strength of our union as we navigated the months that followed doesn’t change the stress we encounter now as parents taking care of a baby at home for the first time. In other words: This is hard, yo.

As your routines are upended and you realize that the two of you have different expectations about things like sleep and ordering of priorities, some tension is kind of a predictable result. The tendency for your less-desirable qualities to be heightened when you’re sleep-deprived doesn’t help things. But this time is short in the scheme of things, and the stresses we encounter in these months don’t change our foundation of respect, support and affection, or why we fell in love in the first place—the things that have let us be a team in eight years of marriage and counting.

  1. It’s OK if you’re OK. (It’s also OK if not everyone else gets that.) I’d read that it’s not uncommon for post-loss moms to be initially wary about letting other people hold their rainbow baby or about being apart from their baby. Totally understandable, but that was not my experience. I envied the confidence of family and friends who so assuredly held and comforted C, but I was never reluctant to hand him over. Nor did I feel bad about leaving him with Daddy or with grandparents so I could take a 45-minute walk by myself. And that was OK.

I was OK, too, with going back to work after my maternity leave. Other people felt more sorry for me about returning to the office than I did. Did I want to be with my baby? Of course. Was I ready to go back to work, and were things OK when I did? Yes. I’m fortunate enough to have a job I like, people with whom I like to work and an employer that’s flexible about working from home. Plus, I like doing things I’m good at, and I’m a good editor. My work is a welcome through-line in my life as I try to fake it ’til I make it with infant care and development. And if C turns out to be as adaptable as his dad and more social than either of his parents thanks to the days he spends with at daycare or with grandparents, so much the better. No part of this is easy by any means, but for now it is, and we are, OK.

  1. My life has more joy than I thought could be possible. Just sheer, beautiful, heart-filling joy. It’s beyond anticipation or imagination. I can’t sufficiently describe it, but if I were to give it an image, I’d say it looks like a photograph I have of C, eyes wide, arms in the air, intent smile on his face as he exuberantly slams his feet on his crib mattress. It’s that. And I wish I could explain how much Nate feels a part of our daily life, too. We are a family of four, every day. The other weekend, Joe took C out to breakfast with him while I ran—and I thought, as I left the house, “OK, Nate, we’re going on a run.” I’m grateful for family and friends who get that.

I am so lucky to be a parent of two incredible boys. I had cautious expectations about parenting after loss, as is my tendency with anything else. But six months after C’s birth, I can say this: Nothing could have braced me for this joy.

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