ParentsMay 10, 2017

What Mother’s Day feels like when you’re a mother without her baby


Mother’s Day is a time for sleep-ins and massages and home-made cards for a lot of parents. But for one group of parents it’s an especially painful time. Tessa Prebble writes about being a mother on Mother’s Day when your child has died.

When I was pregnant with my daughter a friend lent me their 90s copy of What To Expect When You’re Expecting. I read about breastfeeding and what I should be eating while pregnant. I read up about different methods of sleep training and attachment parenting. I listened to parenting podcasts and thought I had a realistic view of what parenthood would actually be like.

I wasn’t expecting it to be easy. I was expecting to find breastfeeding hard, and that I might not sleep properly for months, or years. But no book could prepare me for Eva. There was no manual for this life.

Eva was born blind and deaf, with heart and brain abnormalities. She was born with the level of disability that makes the average person suck in their breath behind their teeth and shake their head when you tell them about her. Her disabilities, on paper at least, inspired pity. Misplaced? Definitely, but there it is. Her disabilities, her challenges, I didn’t read about them in What To Expect When You’re Expecting. No one wants to think those odds apply to them.

I thought I was prepared for motherhood. I wasn’t.

Tessa Prebble and her daughter Eva

It was a shock when all her diagnoses started rolling in. My brain hadn’t even considered the possibility that my child would be blind and deaf, that she may never crawl or walk, that she probably wouldn’t talk. The reality of Eva was so far off the radar from what I was expecting, that it took a few months for my expectations to gain their equilibrium. I spent my first Mother’s Day with Eva crying because I didn’t feel like a mother. Not the mother she needed or deserved. I didn’t know how to be “this” version of a mother. I didn’t want to be this version of a mother. But I became her.

I got to a point where Eva’s life and my own new version of motherhood were just as they were – not a disappointment, just life in all its permutations. It just took me a while to see that different isn’t bad, different can be beautiful. Our life was beautiful. Filled with early morning cuddles and giggles, baths and forehead swirls. We found our own equilibrium and I hardly looked back over my shoulder at my old expectations.

Eva’s diagnosis and disabilities were a challenge for me, but one I battled and overcame. Eva blew my expectations of motherhood out of the water, and when my head stopped trying to swim with everyone else, I stood on the shore and looked around and realised I liked where I was. I didn’t need to be paddling around the shallow end with the other parents, Eva and I had our own journey to experience, our own expectations to set. We could throw away the guide book, because we were writing our own, individual to us.

Tessa Prebble and her daughter Eva

While my expectations of motherhood could absorb these changes, what I could never be prepared for, or absorb to a point that it fell in with my expectations, was having my child die before her first birthday. No parenting book wants to prepare someone for that. No one wants to think that will be them. I hope for all of you, it won’t be.

Even after learning of her diagnosis and the complications that went with it, she was expected to live. Doctors told me there was no reason she wouldn’t reach adulthood. But they were wrong, and that was what my motherhood looked like. It was one unexpected twist and turn after another, and Eva died of complications of her disabilities at 10 and a half months old. Just when I found myself enjoying the feeling of the sand between my toes not even looking back at the water where other mothers played with their children, I was kicked off the beach altogether. My motherhood journey ended.

Now, more than two years since she died, I have had two Mother’s Days as a mother without her. It’s a very strange thing to be a mother without a child. Intellectually you know you’re a mother. You know that just because she is gone, it doesn’t take the title away from you. I will always be Eva’s mother. But it’s hard to reconcile that belief with the questions I ask myself. While I was Eva’s mother, am I still a parent? Without a child to actively parent, can I really be one? And if I feel so unsure about my own status as a mother, how do other people see me?

When I meet new people I almost wish I was wearing a name badge that announced me as a mother, because to them I’m a childless woman in my 30s. No one assumes, and why would they? And when they do assume, it leads to an awkward conversation where I have to answer the question, “do you have children?” in the kindest way possible to avoid mortifying them with my answer.

So what does it mean to be a mother without a child? It means I squeal when I meet babies and always ask to hold them, all the while comparing their weight to Eva’s. It means I walk down the street past mothers with pushchairs, imagining myself doing the same. It means I have closets full of clothes and a dismantled cot, storage space packed with a baby’s car seat and pushchair. It means my lounge looks like an childless woman’s lounge except for a few key pieces: a sheepskin that still has stains from when a nappy leaked, an abacus from Ikea that sits on top of a bookshelf, a stuffed blue bunny that sits next to the abacus, a constant reminder of some of Eva’s favourite things. It means I have a ever growing collection of tattoos that remind me I am different, and let me show that difference on my skin. It means when I talk to an expectant mother I gush over the whole process, taking the opportunity to remember I belong in this club. It means I bring up Eva as often as I can and try to ignore when it makes people glance sideways at each other. It means I still have diastasis recti, and the weight I earned in pregnancy, but I have no child to explain it. It means I write for a popular parents blog while often feeling like I have nothing to say about parenting, because not only do I not parent on a daily basis now, but my parenting journey has given me no tidbits of advice for your average mum panicking in the paddling pool.

It means that every year Mother’s Day creeps around and I see it coming with a sense of dread. The ads on TV show well manicured and polished women getting breakfast in bed, or receiving a card with misspelled words in scrawly handwriting from their child. I don’t begrudge the nation’s mothers their sleep ins, or their breakfasts in bed, but I do look at the photos of my daughter on the wall and wish I had just had one real Mother’s Day with her. One where I wasn’t mourning the child who was no longer in my arms.

Mother’s Day is painful, but it also reminds me of everything I expected of motherhood, and everything it ended up being. It reminds me that while my journey doesn’t look like yours, I got to be Eva’s mother, and that’s huge. It reminds me that even though I lost her and she was here for far too short a time, I am grateful that I had her in my arms at all. I am grateful that I had the chance to realise just how lucky I was to get to be her mother.

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