We have a word for children who have lost their parents, but no equivalent for parents who have faced the agony of losing a child. Tessa Prebble writes about the limbo of being a mother with no child to parent, 18 months after the death of her daughter Eva.
What does it mean to be a mother? Does it have a definition we all agree on? Is there a difference between being a mother and a parent?
When Eva was born and her diagnoses started rolling in, I was desperate. This wasn’t the role I signed up for. A social worker put it to me that I needed to make a choice around whether I wanted to parent her or not. It wasn’t something I thought I had a choice in at the time.
Being Eva’s parent became something separate from being her mother. Parenting became a verb, an action, a state of being, rather than the noun of mother, which I became because Eva was mine. I was faced with a choice of whether to be her parent, whether I would be the one tickling her chin to make her smile, whether I would be the one up all night sucking mucus out of her nose in a desperate attempt to get through another virus, whether I would be the one going to all the appointments and therapies and hospital stays.
I floundered for a while in that space between the title of mother and parent. My grief at my daughter’s diagnosis ripped those two words apart and while I knew I was her mother I didn’t know if I wanted to be her parent. I had signed up for parenthood, regular run-of-the-mill parenthood. Plunket-nurse-rather-than-a-team-of-specialists parenthood. Worrying about latching and milk supply rather than learning-how-to-insert-a-tube-into-your-child’s-stomach-through-their-nose parenthood. I hadn’t thought I was signing up for special needs parenthood. But that was what I got, and it’s euphemistic to say I did not cope well.
When my partner left me six weeks after Eva was born, I realised this choice was mine to make, with just myself and Eva to consider. I decided to choose both parenthood and motherhood. It was a decision I will forever be grateful that I made, and regretful that I didn’t make sooner. It was a decision that empowered me and filled me with strength, even when it saw me rushing to ER rooms with a baby who sometimes was clinging to life by her frail baby fingernails. It was a decision I don’t wish on anyone, or blame anyone for choices they make in either direction.
I had just 10 and a half months with my daughter, five and a half of which where I was both her parent and her mother, as a choice, a compulsion, a need, and what it said on the birth certificate. She died before she even reached her first birthday and the two months that I spent dithering over our future together felt like a lifetime of missing out, rather than the blip on a landscape of our life together that I had hoped they would become.
Now, 18 months since she died, these roles of parenthood and motherhood still hang over me. I was Eva’s mother. I was her parent. I worked hard for that to be true and to turn myself into the parent she needed. I almost gave up that title, and with her death, what am I? Am I a mother? Am I a parent?
People assure me I am still her mother, and I know that to be true. I am Eva’s mother. I will always be Eva’s mother. But in our modern usage of parent as a verb and not a noun, I am no longer a parent, because I have no parenting to do.
These terms are so limiting and defining. When did I become Eva’s mother? Was it when she was conceived? I’d argue no, because I could have chosen to terminate a pregnancy and would not expect to have the spectre of motherhood attached to me, reminding me of choices I made for myself that I had every right to make. But then maybe conception for some should be enough to claim that title. I have witnessed so many close friends go through miscarriages at all stages of their pregnancies and I would consider them all mothers. Mothers who could not meet their babies, but still mothers. Mothers who mourn the loss of what would have been.
But then, are we mothers because we carry our children in our bellies? That cannot be enough. Again, we are forgetting the mothers and parents who do not carry their children, but who are undoubtedly their mothers. They may not have felt the kicks in their stomach, or eaten dry toast to combat morning sickness, but their role as mother is not in question.
Do these terms matter? Does it matter what we are called? Is it just semantics, or should we care that motherhood and parenthood are pulling further and further apart? Should we care that these words define us and limit us both in their use and their inability to fit more than a few definitions?
I can’t speak for the mothers who have had miscarriages. I can’t speak for the mothers who adopt or foster and love their child fiercely, just as those who carry their babies in their stomachs. I can’t speak for the women who wish to be mothers but for one reason or another cannot.
But I can speak for me, a mother who is no longer a parent.
And this is what that place looks like for me:
I know just how to jiggle a baby who is fussing, without having a baby to soothe of my own.
I see Mother’s Day approaching for weeks with a sense of dread in my belly.
I listen to my parent friends talk about their toddlers knowing that my daughter would be a toddler too by now.
I fear the turning of a new year, knowing that each new year takes me further from when she was alive.
I have cried so many nights of mascara off onto my pillows that my pillowcases will never be the same.
I find myself piping up in any conversations about childbirth with other mothers, just to reassure myself I went through it.
I have toys, a pushchair and a deconstructed cot in my closet and cannot bear to part with them.
I get asked when I will have more children, but have no idea if I want any more.
I have stretch marks and wider hips, but no baby to show for it.
I hear myself bringing up Eva’s name as often as I can, just to remind people she was here and was my daughter.
I dream about my daughter and wake up with a smile on my face before it’s quickly replaced with reality.
I drink too much and lie in bed the next day thinking about how I can stay in bed all day if I want, but wishing Eva had woken me up at 5am instead.
I have multiple tattoos in her honour, to make sure her presence in my life can be seen and my skin doesn’t look as it did before she was in my life.
I am considered one of the staff members at school who would stay behind in a natural disaster to look after the students, because I don’t have a child to rush home to.
I am watched by those who care about me when babies are around, the fear that I might spontaneously break always lurking.
I am doing well and if you didn’t know about Eva, you would never know I had ever been a mother or a parent.
There are so many expectations we place on mothers. On parents. We do it to each other. But we also do it to ourselves.
I had such fixed ideas of what parenthood and motherhood would be, that when I was faced with an alternative, I panicked. These narratives were so entrenched in me that when I had a baby with the challenges Eva faced, being blind and deaf, with heart and brain abnormalities, I didn’t know how to fill those roles anymore. That wasn’t the parent I thought I would have to be.
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Thankfully I got to be the parent I needed to be, even if just for a short while. But now I’m in uncharted territory again, because I’m a mother, Eva’s mother, but not a parent. And that role is not defined for me. What do we expect from mothers and parents who lose their children? There’s no manual for that.
While I could temporarily run away from Eva, I can’t run away from this. Instead I, and the other mothers who have lost their children, sit in limbo between the state of motherhood and parenthood, carrying the memory of our babies in our arms, while our arms are empty.
Tessa Prebble is the writer/producer/creator behind The One in a Million Baby. Her podcast began in September 2015 and features interviews with different families living with special and medically fragile kids. It aims to tell the stories of those families so that those who are going through something similar can feel less alone, and those not in their shoes can learn about their lives. Follow the podcast through iTunes, Stitcher Radio or her blog. You can find Tessa on Facebook and Twitter.
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