Share of Lancaster asked me to be the speaker at their Annual Walk To Remember today. I was a little nervous about speaking at such an emotional event, but I was honored to have a chance to speak to other grieving parents about my experience and the ways in which I continue to parent my daughter by mothering her memory.
For those of you who were unable to attend, here is the speech:
I am here to speak to you today because I am one of you, a parent to a baby who is deeply loved and desperately missed. I wish I wasn't. I wish none of us were. I wish there was no reason to have an event like this, that the bench over there was just a nice place to sit, and that we were all gathered here today simply because it is a nice day and we wanted to play at the park with our children. In this daydream of mine I would be here playing with a pretty little three and a half year old girl. Pushing her on the swing. Watching her chase her little brothers around. I can almost see her there, with pigtails in her hair and summer freckles on her nose.
Madeline was my first child and is my only daughter. She was stillborn on January 5th, 2007, after 41 weeks of happy, healthy pregnancy. When I went past my due date we met with my doctor, who gave us the option of induction. After an exam, though, we decided against it. My bishop score was low, and the chance of complications arising during labor was high. We wanted to do what was best for our baby and my body, so we went home to wait. She died two days later, still nestled inside of my body, while I was asleep in bed. We never found out why.
The next day or two are sort of a blur. A sad, numb, unbelievable blur. I remember holding Madeline, staring down at her pretty little face. She really was so pretty. I sat there staring at her, just marveling at the tiny perfection of her fingers, her nose. She had high cheekbones like me. She had odd little elf ears like me too. She was undeniably mine, and I was so in love with her.
My husband and I spent a few hours with her before saying our goodbyes. There are no words that can express what that moment is like, the moment when you hand your child to the nurse and watch her walk out of the room with your baby knowing that she will not ever be bringing her back. It felt like most of me left with her. I was certain I was going to die. I was almost hoping I would. I just couldn't imagine what life was going to be like without her.
I had kept a journal throughout my When I sat down to write about that day, one of the last lines I wrote was, "and that was it. then she was gone.", and continued after Madeline's death.
At the time it really felt that final. But since then I have come to realize that my relationship with Madeline did not die when she did, and my job as her mother did not end either. No, I do not nurse her, change her diapers, or wipe her runny nose- but I have spent the past three and a half years mothering her memory. It is, as heARTist Kara LC Jones calls it, a different kind of parenting. Continued parenting.
You are doing it right now. By coming here today you are actively parenting your child. You set this day aside for your child, made him or her your priority today. Maybe this is the only time that you do something like this, if so that is completely okay. I have very good friends who love and miss their children desperately, but who are simply not comfortable speaking openly about their loss or doing things publicly for their child. That doesn’t mean that they have forgotten their children, that their pain is not as great or that they are getting over it. Not at all. Every mother has her own style of parenting, and continued parenting is no different. With my living children I practice attachment parenting. I safely co-slept with them as infants, I nursed exclusively, I wore them in a wrap or carrier constantly. So it seems to make sense that I have been so very involved in mothering Madeline's memory. It was the kind of mom that I was wired to be to her, whether she was here in body or in spirit.
After I found out I was pregnant with Madeline, I immediately began rearranging my life for her. I cut back on my hours at work, I adjusted my diet, I started doing yoga more frequently. Our spare bedroom, which had been part storage part art studio, became the baby’s room. It filled up fast. She was the first grandchild on both sides of the family and everyone was so excited for her to arrive. I quit my job the week before my due date to be a stay at home mom. When I came home from the hospital without her, I literally had absolutely no purpose. Not only did I lose my daughter, I lost myself. I had already transformed into a mother, and what good is a mother without a child? I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat on my couch in the dark for days feeling lost and alone. Even once the deep depression had lifted, I still felt so lost and unsure. I didn’t know where I fit in. I couldn’t face my friends with children, especially the ones I had met while pregnant, it hurt too much to see them living the life I had dreamed up for Madeline and me. And I couldn’t just go back to hanging around my childless friends like nothing had ever happened. I was different. I had grown life inside of my body, given birth. I was changed. I was a mother.
So I did the only thing I knew how to do. I allowed myself to just be where I was. I cried freely. I screamed freely too. I spent days eating nothing but cheerios and string cheese. I turned off the ringer on my phone. I smashed clay pots in my driveway. I played African drums. I painted and wrote like a woman possessed. And I was honest with myself. Sometimes I was too honest for others to handle, too raw. At first I didn’t care if I made them uncomfortable, at times I even prided myself on it, but that was just part of my grieving process. Eventually, I found a way to integrate the new me into the world in a way where I didn’t have to hide Madeline, but I also didn’t have to brandish her like a weapon. Instead, I took the ugly, tangled mess of my grief and sculpted it into something beautiful and hopeful and kind. It grew very organically. My artwork, which I had never intended to share and had created only because I didn’t know what else to do with myself, found its way onto the walls of a gallery. The exhibit became a community outreach project when I opened it up to anyone who had created art in response to a primary loss. That opened doors for me to speak at hospitals, first about my experience and my artwork, and then about the needs of bereaved parents. Then came the founding of the Sweet Pea Project, which I created as my gift to Madeline on her 2nd birthday, and the publication of my book, Still: a collection of honest artwork and writings from the heart of a grieving mother. Before long, the photo album with the little green sweet peas on it- the one that I couldn’t stand to look at because it would never hold pictures of first smiles, first teeth, first steps- before long that album was full. There were newspaper clippings, photographs from the art exhibit, photographs from the garden her Daddy works so hard on. Photographs of the candle we lit for the Wave of Light, and from Share’s Walk to Remember. Photographs of her name written on beaches around the world. Photographs of her little brothers having picnics at her tree and construction paper birthday cards that they have made for her. That is how I know that I don’t have to worry about living without her, because she is still very much a part of my family and my life.
Moms tend to become friends with other moms of children around the same age as their own. The majority of my mom friends have two and a half year old boys right now, or little ones who just turned a year. Or children who would have been three, but have been gone for that many years instead. I am at a place now where I am comfortable with who I am, a mother to children both living and dead. If someone sees me with my two little boys and asks if I would like to try for a daughter, I usually reply that maybe I’ll have another child someday, but that I already have a daughter. Sometimes I just leave it as that, other times I explain that she died. But these conversations don’t flood me with anxiety the way they used to. Madeline is my daughter and I am proud of her. Proud and grateful. After all, she is the one who first made me a mother, and that is all I ever wanted to be. I am madly in love with each of my children, but ask anyone, there is always a special place for the first born in a mother’s heart.