Expecting Grief

I wept after each one of my children was born. I don't mean the initial weeping for joy at their beauty or from relief for their health. I wept to mourn after the birth of each one of my three children.

I had read Sheila Kitzinger: "It is recognized that a woman who bears a child who is handicapped or ill, or who has a baby who dies, needs to pass through a period of grieving. It is less well understood that for any woman the time immediately after birth is experienced as a loss which she needs to grieve over, however perfect the baby."

I had read the What to Expect people: "For women who passed the nine months in relative misery . . . the end of the pregnancy is something to celebrate. But if you thoroughly enjoyed pregnancy, its conclusion may be something to mourn. . . . You may feel a sense of loss and emptiness, and miss the uniquely intimate sensation of carrying your baby inside you. You may even regret the disappearance of your bulging belly, to which you'd grown fondly accustomed."

But still, I had not anticipated actual grief.

About three days after Devon, my first, was born, I was watching one of those in-hospital teaching videos with my husband when I began to cry. I cried for no reason. I cried for many reasons. One was that I had lost my childhood; now I was responsible for grooming someone else's childhood memories, and this responsibility weighed heavily on my newly broadened parental shoulders. I grieved for that which I could not re-do, and for that which would never happen. And then I felt guilty because I couldn't enjoy my baby as a new mother should.

That was the year of the '92 Winter Olympics, the year the Republics of the Soviet Union splintered off into individual countries. Those in flux had no national anthems to be played or flag to be flown when one of their athletes won a medal. Viktor Petrenko of the Ukraine won the gold in men's figure skating that year and had to listen to the theme of the Olympics play while he watched the official five-ringed flag of the Olympic Games rise to the ceiling of the ice arena. Tears streamed down my face as I watched him blankly stare at a flag that meant nothing to him. I knew how he must have felt. What should have been the culmination of his career, his finest moment, rang hollow because he could not grasp the emotion he was supposed to feel.

About two days after Zia, my second child, was born, we returned from the hospital and I cried the moment our car pulled into the driveway. I continued to sob for a week. I felt I had destroyed my first child's life by fractioning the love and attention she had been receiving. She now only got half of me instead of the whole she was used to. I also cried because my pregnancy was over. The heavily anticipated homebirth had been moved to a hospital and I had achieved only part of my goal: a healthy baby born vaginally after a Cesarean--but not at home. I grieved my crushed dreams and felt guilty that my grief surpassed my pride in the beautiful healthy child I nursed at my breast. Again, my victory rang hollow.

About one day after my third child, Maxwell, was born, I began to cry intensely and didn't stop for three or four days. The other times I was able to say to myself, "Knock it off. Things are better this way. You'll see," and my tears would abate. And sure enough, things did get better. This time, my grief woke me at night. It was a tangible being whose bony finger tapped my shoulder and whose hoarse voice whipsered in my ear, "He is your last." I felt as a child does at Christmas after all the beautiful packages are opened and the ribbons tossed aside: there is no more to come.

My husband wanted to stop expanding our family after two children. I wanted "just one more." Part of me wanted to replay the birth scenario. Part of me wanted to have an excuse to take better care of my body. And part of me wanted the child who would be Maxwell. When we conceived Max, we acknowledged our financial, emotional, and quality-time limits, and decided three children would be enough for our family. Max would be the last baby to grow in my womb.

As my pregnancy wore on, the excitement of the pending birth was shadowed in my mind by those words I kept repeating to relieved family members: "This is our last baby."  

I grew larger through the summer and into the fall, alternately wishing to be done with it all and wishing to stay in a state of magical suspended animation. If only our family could hold onto these moments of delightful anticipation, I felt, this rosy glow would never end. But our Max slipped into the world in late October, another successful VBAC skillfully "caught" by a nurse-midwife in a hospital we had chosen without reservations. He was pink and perfect and the birth had gone well. I'd been through all the other reasons to mourn before, surely I wouldn't fall into the depths of despair again.

My husband knew better. As we were being discharged from the hospital, all three children in tow, Scott dashed back in to snatch the tiny box of hospital tissues. I looked up at him quizzically. He said simply, "You're going to cry." Odd, I didn't feel sad. Why should I cry? I was going to be fine. I needed no tissues. But we hadn't even hit the freeway before I was dripping from breasts, nose, and eyes, grabbing Kleenex like crazy.

With each child, as my milk came in, so has my grief, my "baby blues," if you will. But never had I known the intensity of grief such as this. Had I not had the responsibility of caring for my children I would have fled the pain by any means possible . . . sleep, alcohol, or worse.

I looked ahead to a year of Max's "firsts," only to look at them as "lasts." Yes, the last time I'd nurse a days-old baby with breasts so full of milk he couldn't take it all, the last time I'd look forward to my baby sitting up, standing, walking, talking . . . the last time I would help create and care for one so tiny. I kept recalling a card we had received when Devon was born. It contained a quote by Dickens which read, "It is not a slight thing when they, who are so fresh from God, love us." Never again would I be adored in that single-minded fashion with which babies bind themselves to their primary source of food, warmth, love.

And never would I grow a new life inside of me. I loved being pregnant. As I write that, I'm selectively forgetting the nausea, heartburn, sleeplessness, and backaches. I loved the first tingle of excitement when my period was late and I knew I might be pregnant. I loved reading the home pregnancy tests and seeing two pink lines. I loved complaining about morning sickness. I loved lying in bed during the fourth month and wondering if that little flutter was truly the baby kicking or just . . . whoops, there it was again, must be the baby! I loved my belly growing rounder and larger, and I loved the instant bond I shared with other mothers, the universal connection of birth stories and pregnancy histories. I loved thinking about the person my baby would be. The child was a being full of promise, and our relationship was yet unsullied by the guilt of wrongly expressed anger or discipline, or the sadness of a cruel world. I loved the way I felt, most of the time: pulsing with life, helping to complete the circle, connected with Mother Earth, yet part of the Heavens. I loved being pregnant.

And now, my womb sits fallow, as it will until menopause. My husband, Scott, and I have decided against surgical sterilization at this time. While we feel three children are plenty for us, we are not yet ready to close this chapter of our lives. One friend who backed out of his vasectomy at the last moment said, "As biological beings, we are born, we procreate, and we die. If I permanently end the second part, I'm that much closer to the last part." While I think he exaggerates the point, I do see what he means. I don't yet feel ready to end this part of my life, yet as a woman in a free country, I can choose to stop bringing children into the world at any point. And I choose now.

Grief has its stages and I must move on. I have learned to console myself by enjoying the present and looking ahead to the growth of my children, rather than feeling sadly hollow. Now is when my six-year-old believes in Santa and has a new tooth, my two-year-old is devilishly delightful, and my baby is . . . a baby. I see them going from infants to toddlers to youngsters, on through those tumultuous teens and into the grand adults I know they'll be. It's not so much that I want another baby. It's that I want the same three babies all over again. I can never recapture their births or my youth. I can only look back fondly at their beginnings and look forward to life with these three wonderful people.  

Anyway, there are always grandchildren.


Heather Matti lives in Buffalo, Minnesota. This is her first contribution to Minnesota Parent.

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