3.15.2015

motherhood + criticism

Moms are susceptible to a lot of criticism. Every day (hell, every hour), you're subjected to more articles, more blog posts, more unsolicited advice from family and friends about the way in which you parent. I'm not sure there is one itty-bitty, teeny-tiny bit of parenting that doesn't leave you up for someone else's "IMHO" retort. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

For every ounce of frustration or annoyance I've felt in having to defend my choices in parenting Ethan, it dulls in comparison to the criticism I've felt as a loss mom. Each day, I am blown away by the way mothers who have lost their babies are studied under a microscope while other people -- you know, the kind who have never lost a child -- offer their input.

When I first lost Wylie, my grief counselor told me that people would try to twist my loss and make it about them. Their lives would go on, of course, but they would also take my loss and figure out how to best fit it into their lives so that it could go on. Whether that meant never bringing Wylie up or pretending that she never existed so that they wouldn't feel sad, they would do whatever they could to ensure that their focus was the impact of Wylie's short life on their own. I didn't want this to be true but the sad truth is, it was very true. It has mostly been those I love the most, those closest to me, who have turned the tables and put their own needs above my grief. That, in itself, is a hurdle to get yourself over when you have virtually no support from those who you wish would support you. Along these same lines, people want you to grieve in a way that makes them most comfortable. If you bring up your dead child, if you dare remember your child, you will be hushed, shushed and told that you're "stuck." That you're grieving wrong. That you're doing everything wrong. The thought process seems to be "this makes me uncomfortable. Dead babies make me sad. I don't want to be sad, and you're wrong for making me sad." That's really just the tip of the iceberg.

On a regular basis, I see other women who have been forced to say goodbye to their children brought to tears by the callous words of others. I hear it myself, the horror that I would dare bring up something that upsets so many and why can't I think of other people? This isn't the way those who have lost children want to remember their children. They don't want to think of their babies as scary or creepy or uncomfortable or depressing. They just want to think of their beautiful babies because those thoughts are the only thing that will carry them through all of the missed milestones.

My daughter was sick. She had three severe and extremely rare congenital heart defects. There is no peace you can make within your heart once you've heard specialists you'd prefer to never have to see tell you that your child isn't going to live. The only peace I had is seeing her peaceful, tiny sleeping face and knowing she wasn't a continually tortured victim of her broken body, that she wasn't in pain. This is the part, unfortunately, those who haven't experienced the terror of giving birth to a sleeping baby seem to have the biggest problem with.

I get it. Babies aren't supposed to die. They're not supposedly be terminally ill. They're not supposed to come home in urns. Parents aren't supposed to decorate nurseries that no baby will ever sleep in. Babies are supposed to be born healthy. They're supposed to come out crying. I get it. But what I also get is that for decades, women have suffered silently. They've succumbed to a society who wished to file the death of an infant under things we don't talk about. I've only been a loss mom for ten short months so I'm hardly an expert. However, I understand the severity of breaking the taboo. I understand how important it is to let things be sad, to let them be uncomfortable, to let yourself start to heal at least a little bit as it's impossible to every truly revert back to the you that existed before loss. The silence is dangerous. The criticism is unfair. The pats on the back from people who are convinced they have your best interest at heart when, really, they are tearing you apart -- it has to stop.

The mother who bakes a birthday cake to celebrate the birthday of a child who has died is not grieving wrong. Neither is the mother who reads a bedtime story to the tiny urn that holds her child. Neither is the one that sees a stuffed animal or statue at the store and brings it home because it reminds them of their child. The mother who brings her child's name up in conversation, she's just fine, too. Lay off. If you're feeling good about yourself because you and some other people sat around to talk about how sad so and so is and how it's "enough already" and you need to show them how to "get over it," you shouldn't. You're not being a good friend. You're not being a good person. In fact, it is you who is doing it all wrong.

I understand that it isn't easy being friends with someone who has lost a child. It's hard. Sometimes you are forced to hear about things that hurt your heart, because death is sad. Sometimes you don't know what to even say and so you stumble over words. Sometimes you feel shortchanged that your friend cannot celebrate certain parts of life with you in the manner they would have before their child passed. Sometimes you just don't want to admit that things have drastically changed. Sometimes you just want things to be normal. Sometimes you get upset that someone you care about has been forced to feel this level of pain and terror. Sometimes you don't know what to do or how to act and so you feel useless, or frustrated, or upset, or clueless. It's important to remember that it isn't a test and, even if it was, you would pass with flying colors simply by trying to be there. By not adding guilt or shame. By not listing on your fingers all of the reasons you think this happened or the red flags you saw or the silver lining that exists in the mind of someone who doesn't have to live without so much. (I was told to look on the bright side, at least I no longer had to be pregnant in the dead of the Florida summer. A nice person doesn't say this.)

I like to joke that one of the job requirements for being a mother is an ability to take criticism well, because there is a huge slab of it being thrown at you daily. I was a mother for nearly three years before I lost my daughter and I've been able to feel the perspective shift. I've also been able to feel the criticism being thrown at me from both directions. In light of that criticism, I want to stand on my pedestal and say that I'm an awesome mom. I kick proverbial ass at parenting Ethan and I pat myself on the back for the stellar job I did during the transition from one kid to two kids and back to one (living) kid. I exhaust myself putting every ounce of energy into him and if he's any indication of the job I'm doing, I'm nailing it. I'm also a pretty sweet mom to Wylie. It takes courage and it takes guts and it takes bravery to parent my dead child so openly and loudly. Wylie is breaking many taboos and her legacy, all that her life truly means, will continue to grow with time. For every person who chooses to stand just so out of the shadow of my grief, that's fine. For every person who believes I cannot be all that Ethan needs in a mother for as long as I let my daughter reside in my heart as well, that's fine. But keep your criticisms to yourself because they're silly and I don't need them. Like most criticisms and unsolicited advice, they don't count.

And to all my mamas with kids in your arms who cry all night or who are tearing up your home or the ones with kids in your heart that live only in your memories or the ones with some combination of the two, you are doing it all right. And you're completely nailing it.

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