being a mom

Parenting After Child Loss Is a Difficult Road to Navigate

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On most days, I work from home, which means I am always about a 10-minute walk from my son’s preschool. It’s convenient. It’s comfortable. But the other day, my husband’s car was giving him trouble, so I gave him a ride to his office—roughly a 50-minute drive from home. I decided to spend the day working at a cafe near his office so as not to have to waste more time off my own workday. When we left to go pick up our son from school, it was 4:15 p.m. That meant we wouldn’t be at the preschool until 5:15 p.m. or later, thanks to traffic. My husband didn’t seem to think it was a big deal; but suddenly, panic hit me like a ton of bricks. I realized just how far away from my son I was. What if we didn’t get there before the school shut down? What if he worried where we were? What if he felt sad or scared? What if somehow the teachers had to take him off site somewhere because they couldn’t stick around? What if something worse happened?

What if I never saw my son again?

That last part. That’s the jump from concerned parent to one who’s parenting after child loss. See, I lost my daughter, Margaret Hope, about five years ago. Like most moms-to-be, I was excited to meet this new little mini version of myself. I envisioned tea parties and teaching her how to paint her nails, but also dreamed raising a strong little feminist who would want to smash the patriarchy by my side. I was so, so excited. And then something happened, and I went into preterm labor and she was so, so small. She only lived a few hours, and then she shattered my heart into a million pieces.

I didn’t think I’d ever be a mom again.

But things don’t always turn out the way you plan. And suddenly, I was pregnant again—with my son, this time. It was exciting, but also nerve-wracking. I clearly had PTSD from the trauma of my preterm labor and loss of my first child. I was still struggling with depression, anxiety. Even worse, my son had a hard time coming into the world and spent two months in the NICU.

All of this means I don’t parent entirely the way that I’d imagined I would, the way that I’d like to.

I am nervous. I am scared. I frequently over-react. I very often freeze. Parenting after child loss means living with the knowledge that your child can be snatched away from you at a moment’s notice. Parenting after loss means understanding full well what it feels like to see your baby die, and to then picture your living child as nothing more than a pile of ashes because you’ve already done that before.

I always made fun of helicopter parents. Nervous parents. Overprotective parents. My own mother was fairly overprotective for her own reasons. I had sworn I would do my best not to smother my own child with my anxieties. And I do my best not to. But to be frank, it is a lot of hard work.

My gut instinct from the moment my son was born has been to follow my child around at every waking moment. To make sure nothing even remotely dangerous is near him. To keep him by my side all the time. But I know that’s not the best thing for him, or for me.

Being a parent after loss means constantly relearning what is normal, what is acceptable. I know that some people side-eye me on the playground because I follow him around. I know some people think that I need to “let go.” But they don’t know what I’ve been through. They don’t know what it’s like. They don’t see the dangers that I see.

My son is three and a half, and these days, those moments of panic aren’t nearly as prevalent as they once were. When he was an infant, I held my breath whenever it seemed he may have stopped breathing. There was a number of times he choked on food, and I nearly fainted when he was finally OK. I would feel wracked with worry and guilt whenever he got sick. Maybe I should have bundled him up more when we went out. Maybe I shouldn’t have let him hang out at that indoor playground full of other children’s germs. Fear. Guilt. Worry. This is what it is so often like for those of us who have said goodbye to other babies. Because the last thing we want is to feel that fierce devastation again.

Losing a child kills part of you. No one fully survives that experience.

There are ways to get by, though. Ways to overcome at least some of this. I’ve gone to therapy on and off. I do yoga, because it calms me in a way few other things can. Sometimes I meditate. Because I know that it isn’t my son’s fault that we lost his older sister. It isn’t anyone’s fault. So with every passing day, I do my best to let go just a little bit more. It took a while for me to find a preschool I was comfortable with, and it was hard to put him under someone else’s care on a daily basis. But it’s been good for all of us. I do my best not to jump to the worst possible scenario in my head every time he runs a fever or gets croup. And while I still watch him like a hawk at the park, every time we go, I let him roam just a little further away.

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(Image: iStock / Ruslanshug)