My son was born weighing one pound and was seven inches long. He spent six hours outside of me. He will never get any bigger. What’s left of his physical being is sitting in my closet. I just can’t bring myself to put his ashes into the urn I spent days looking for and customizing on Etsy. It feels too final.
I’m a bereaved mom.
I’m also a toddler mom.
Most days, it feels like trying to sprint while wearing cement shoes.
I met my daughter in 2014 after a very long induction. I was admitted to the the hospital on a Friday morning, and by the time she was born I no longer knew what day it was. It didn’t matter. She was here and we had a lifetime of moments to share together. Her birth was loud; I was screaming, thanks to an unintended med-free delivery, and she came out screaming. My girl has been living in full color with the volume on high ever since. She’s a talker, great sleeper (hallelujah!), loves sunglasses, and today she wants to be a teacher/pony/bus driver when she grows up. She’s an extroverted firstborn who is highly opinionated and drinks ranch dressing out of the little containers at Chick-fil-A.
I met my son in 2017 after a long induction. He was born still and lifeless. Quiet. It was just after 10 a.m., on a Saturday. The sun had finally broken through the clouds after raining for three days. I dreaded the ticking of the clock, because it meant our time together on earth was ending. I counted every moment knowing we were running out of time. The silence of his birth was both peaceful and deafening. It was the absence of life and a painful reminder of how much we will never know. I’ll never know the sound of his voice, his favorite things, or what his favorite Chick-fil-A condiment would have been. I’ll never see the color of his eyes or know what he wants to be when he grows up.
Because he won’t.
Mothering a two-year-old requires all of me, all the time. Running, playing, cleaning, talking, thinking. ”Mama, let’s do the puzzle!” she calls from the living room, wanting to examine, discuss, and place each puzzle piece together. When my girl is awake, she is moving constantly and is a lover of shared experiences. Always wanting me to look, watch, listen and play with her. She’s deeply alive.
Mothering a baby I’ll never know requires all of me, too, just in a different way. Grief has changed me. It changed our family. Grieving him is how I can dignify his life and how I can still mother him, but it’s so hard. The physical work it takes to live and grieve at once is exhausting. My bones hurt on bad days. I can feel them aching as I walk upstairs to put my daughter to bed in the room we had planned they’d share.
The mental fatigue of grief leaves me drained and forgetful. I feel hungover waking up after a difficult day. I bought under eye cream for those mornings. Watching the mother-son dance at a wedding left me gasping for air in the bathroom. I hadn’t thought about that moment I’d never get until I sat at a table watching, trying my best not to scream. I cancel social engagements on days that answering “so, how are you doing?” feels like it may crack me wide open. My capacity at work has been stunted. I have to ask coworkers to email me any action items or things I committed to do; otherwise I won’t remember our conversation. The ebb and flow of good and bad days make each week unpredictable. It is hard to plan and difficult to know what I am actually capable of accomplishing. Most days, I feel as though I’m trying to anticipate each possible grief bomb as I wade through a minefield. Baby shower invitations, questions about our family, death in (literally every) Disney movie, people not knowing what to say when they see me. I told my therapist that I feel like the elephant in every room. My circumstances aren’t the elephant—I am. My toddler cries and gets angry; she asks when God will give us another baby and if it will get to live at our house.
I don’t know. I tell her, “I hope we get to have a baby at our house someday! You’re such a good big sister.” But I don’t know.
I don’t know when I’ll be ready to do it again. It’s terrifying. I’ve survived one significant loss but now my naiveté is gone. Can I survive another? Endure the wait and parent within the dynamics of adoption? Or manage the anxiety of a normal pregnancy? The answer is no. Or, not right now. Pregnancy was once the most difficult, yet wonderful experience of my life. It has shifted to the place that holds my deepest pain. My journey of motherhood is one of contrast. A dichotomy. One child bursting with life and the other was only known in his death.
My daughter is smart and strong; clever and funny. She has taken to using a faux English accent and calling me “my lady” after overhearing an episode of Downton Abbey.
“This is the best day of my life ever!” she shouts from the Disneyland carousel. Friends watch my Instagram stories for a workday pick-me-up. People don’t ask to see pictures of my son. I struggle to look at them too. His disease marred his body; it made it difficult to see just him and not the disease that killed him.
Has grief done the same to me? I worry about my friends growing weary of loving me, which is a hard and complicated job right now. I feel awkward and uncomfortable whenever I’m not at home. My cocoon. My husband is grieving, too, but we are mourning and feeling different things. I cry for how this has affected my daughter and how she understands the missing piece in her little world. But also? I am proud of the work I’m doing with the help of my therapist, finally stopping to learn myself for the first time in a decade. My body is becoming strong thanks to the yoga membership I’ve got on auto-pay. My bones ache but they are learning to carry me—all of me. My resolve to live—to drink deeply and run lightly and play and laugh on our living room rug—to truly live, it has deepened.
I am realizing that my grief, and a willingness to embrace it, is allowing me to be more human and less a robot. In the process of working towards healing from the loss of my son, I’m finding healing for the wounds I once ignored. The walls I had once built around my heart have crumbled, making it easier to give and receive the love I desperately need. The parts of my heart that were once stone are becoming flesh again.
My son’s life is bearing fruit in my own, and I am grateful, but it’s not a good trade off. The scale will never balance out in my favor. Him being physically here is what I want and it’s exactly what I won’t get. Personal growth in exchange for my child will always be a loss.
But that’s all I’ve got. And I have his sister. His sister who needs the mama who goes to “loga” and sees a doctor for her hurting heart.
I am a bereaved mother.
I am a toddler mother.
I live in both places at once, but I am all in.
Guest post written by Shannon Baker. Shannon lives in Orange County, California, with her husband and daughter. They miss their boy, Matthias Peace every day. She works as the children’s ministry director at her local church where a dixie cup of Goldfish can cure almost anything. She looks forward to one day having hobbies beyond relishing every second of nap time. You can find her on Instagram.