The stark black and white text read Relationship to patient with a line to complete. As I wrote the word MOTHER in capital letters, an all-consuming, gut-wrenching, heat filled wave flooded my entire being. The realisation stung that this enormous moment had occurred and would define me from now on. Silent tears streamed down my face and threatened to stamp out the text.
The social worker gave me a stoic, strong smile that filled me with sudden and unexpected anger. Like she knew how I felt as I looked through blurry tears at the smiling happy faces of children framed on her desk. I wasn’t a mother anymore and that was a hard, true fact.
I had been a mother for eight months and ten days until a precious little heart, as the paediatric cardiologists likened to the size of a walnut, stopped beating and her final breath was inhaled, snatching a very part of my being. The small, persistent, puttering rhythm proclaiming life I had first heard on a scan from within me, then through my hand as she soundly slept had gone.
I was never a gooey “Oh can I nurse your baby – isn’t he just so adorable” kind of person. There is danger in information and knowledge – reading your weight in pregnancy and birth books, mother discussion lists, Google. A very real pregnancy concern was whether my ‘motherly instinct’ sincerely would kick in at the precise when-required time slot.
Voicing my concerns to other mothers failed to placate me and a very real fear remained within my 36-year-old soul. My growing bump seemed to feed my fear.
She was born early and tiny. An oh-so-perfect pink, placid, bald bundle. She smiled and giggled, loved the baby sling, movement, her Jumperoo and swing. Her shiny, shiny eyes examined everything in detail, her face forming expressions to warm your heart or raise private “I know that look” giggles.
The motherly instinct washed over me and I finally knew what other mothers were explaining, like I had just joined an exclusive club. I cannot begin to explain it either, but it came and I was grateful. The passion to protect at all costs. We were now the ones with the smug aren’t-we-clever personal thoughts of never a more beautiful, clever, advanced baby had been born. Motherly love.
The reflex of protection had little impact within the enclosed, breathless, private interview room of the major hospital’s Paediatric Intensive Care Unit. Specialist doctors and social workers threatening to invade my personal space, sweat prickling my skin, nausea rising from the pit of my stomach, the sound of blood rushing in my ears as their matter of fact, practised poker face mouths spoke words I heard, snippets of medical terminology I understood, digested, screaming repeatedly in my head.
They were trying every available avenue. They had sad, compassionate looks directed toward us as we sat nervously on the couch. Specialists should just stop talking after delivering the ultimate bomb to parents, especially brand new first-time parents with all the blissful anticipation of a growing child. Any further words cannot survive the filter of all consuming panic leeching into your mind.
Knowing her time will be limited, that I will live past her bloody unfairly allotted lifespan feels like an advertisement on TV. A clock ticking down the days, hours, minutes and seconds. The feeling threatens to strangle your sanity, leave you on the floor a gutted, empty mess. Selfless resolutions to make all her days as truly happy and wondrous as possible thankfully tide over the thoughts of the saddest outcome. Hope is truly a beautiful desire. Blatant disbelief and humming a tune in your mind is too.
I didn’t want to miss a moment, I didn’t want to close my eyes. As a parent you promise to stay until the end, the very end.
Then the funeral is over. I feel like I am on auto pilot, completing everyday tasks in a haze. The truly painful task of sending sympathy thank you notes is complete and ‘surprise’ lost tiny socks found wedged between the seats of the car no longer knocks the very breath from your chest is when bleak reality seems to loom in like a dark, dark cloud. Friends, relatives, strangers are nervous to speak to you and when they do, in their fear of accidently saying the wrong thing often do exactly that. I am hypersensitive to any comment, any conversation, relating everything to myself in the scramble of my mind.
Other people move on, become pregnant, other eight-month-old babies grow and develop.
I stand still.
The holding on to memories simultaneously soothes my shattered heart and smashes it a little more.
I become overly protective of her room, her possessions. I back up every single photo of her so many times, print extra copies, send a hard drive to my brother far away. I cannot throw the water from her sippy cup she was beginning to use, nor the pureed frozen food in the freezer.
I smell her baby laundry liquid on clothes, feel afraid I forget her smell, her touch, her weight in my arms, the downy fluff of her baby head brushing against my lips.
I visit her grave so often, I don't want to ‘get away’ for a while as the guilt of leaving her, enjoying myself pulls me back, keeps me at home.
I know the healing has already started. I know there is a long road ahead. I know this, I just wonder when the healing will ever end.
They say it will get better, that the worst is over. A niggling fear creeps in, that unknown ball of grief you still must face tap, tap, taps away at your strength.
I wonder if it can be silenced by the weight of a mother’s love.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem