A Hard Question and the Real Answer – Parenting after loss

-There shouldn't be asterisks in families-

I want to write something about our first son. Not Egg, the son I’ve been writing about here frequently. Our first son, who I haven’t been writing about at all. It’s time he got the introduction he deserves.

On September 6th, 2013 our first son, Aemon, was born. He had gestated for a little over 31 weeks when, inexplicably, his heart stopped and he passed away. His loss came suddenly, without any warning at all, and was every bit as devastating as you can imagine.  After a nightmarishly long and difficult labour his mother birthed him beautifully, and we had a few hours to spend with his quiet body before we said goodbye.

I’m not looking to write about the grief that follows the loss of an infant; if you’re looking to cry, I hear Adele just released a new record. I’m also not interested right now in going into the many taboos and misconceptions that surround infant loss, harmful as they may be. What I want to focus on right now is much more specific: a question that I’m asked often but have been struggling with for months.

“Is it your first?”

The question comes up all the time, in fact just about every time I mention having a baby at home. It comes in different forms, all meaning the same thing. We get it in restaurants, on the subway, I often get it at work. It’s usually just small talk, always asked with good intentions, but every single time it sets off a riot of conflict and confusion in my head. Time stops. While I do feel a pang of pain at thinking of his death, it’s not my grief that briefly paralyzes me – I’m good at dealing with that by now. It’s just that I’ve never really known the best way to reply.

The question comes up all the time…and sets off a riot of conflict and confusion in my head.

The obvious and correct answer to the question is “No, Egg is not our first.” Egg has an older brother, Aemon, who is no longer with us. Just because we never got to swaddle Aemon before bedtime or change his diaper does not diminish the fact that we were parents long before Egg came into our lives. We squeezed a whole lifetime of parental love into the 7 months we had with him in utero. He is a vital, dearly departed member of our family. This is the answer I know I should be giving.

Still, I have often balked.

Infant death is one of the biggest taboos our culture has, certainly the biggest that has ever been a factor in my life. Whenever I tell someone I had a baby that died it fucks them up, throws them off balance. It’s happened many times before: we can be having a perfectly pleasant conversation when the question gets dropped and I reply that “actually I did have another baby but sadly he passed away.” All the air gets sucked out of the room and background noise dims. The other person freezes, not knowing how to gracefully reply to this kind of statement, and then this pressure rushes over me to immediately reassure the other person that I’m not critically damaged and am still capable of carrying on a casual conversation. Later on, that will be the one thing they will most clearly remember about me; if they mention me to a co-worker, friend or loved one they will say that they talked to this lovely dad whose first baby died. “There is an easy way out,” a voice tells me. “Just go along and say he’s the first.”

What would you do?

I’ve tried different things. I’ve given the correct answer and the easier answer many times with mixed results. I’ve tried weaseling around the subject with slick, vague wording but it’s pretty difficult to smoothly dodge a yes-or-no question. Most frequently I’ve tried splitting people into categories, giving the real answer to people I want to have a real relationship with and the easy answer to all the randoms. I talk to a lot of strangers. In my work I deal with all kinds of people for a few weeks at a time and then never again; it’s a situation that promotes lots of small talk but almost no meaningful connection. Talking about Aemon isn’t the same as talking about the weather or a sports team in that I’m certain it leaves a lasting impression, and at work I want the impression I leave to be professional, not personal.  The splitting approach simplifies things, the trouble is that it also creates two distinct classes of people in my life, and that makes me uneasy.

There’s no easy solution. The question has been coming up ever since we first started telling people we were expecting Egg, and this conflict has been in my head that whole time. I needed it to stop. Then, a couple of weeks ago, the clarity that I needed came to me from the most random of places: a random stranger’s Facebook photo.

I swear I’m not that big of a Facebook creeper, but I don’t know how the hell I ended up on this person’s page. It was a friend of a friend, maybe the name sounded familiar or something. Anyway, I saw that he had posted a photo of (I presumed) himself with a teenage boy and girl, with the caption “Birthday dinner with my daughter and my adopted son.” I thought: WTF? How did that boy feel being captioned as the adopted son. In a single phrase I saw that this dude had put a big fat asterisk on his relationship with the boy: he was his son, with some further qualification needed.

Whenever I glossed over Aemon’s existence I was putting an asterisk on his place in our family. 

There shouldn’t be asterisks in families. And I realized that that’s what I had been doing whenever I entertained the idea of glossing over Aemon’s existence: putting an asterisk on his place in our family. The fact that he isn’t around for his feelings to be hurt makes it more important that he be included, not less. Now, if Egg should ever decide that it makes his life easier to skip over his absent brother’s existence, I won’t hold it against him. I know how painful and awkward it is pushing up against that taboo, which is why I would also never, ever hold it against other parents who have lost babies and are trying to live life after loss as best as they can. But I want to live the example that I want Egg to see: there are no asterisks in our family.

Once I decided this,  the voices in my head went quiet. I have resolved to always give the real answer and damn the consequences; it’s war on the taboo. When the question comes up now I visualize myself carrying a heavy bazooka and launching rocket-propelled grenades of awkwardness, then summoning my courage while the smoke clears. Sometimes it will really suck but I didn’t choose this war, it chose me. There are no asterisks in our family. Surrender is not an option.

4 responses

  1. Yep yep yep yep yep. It’s like you’re in my head Mike! It was the exact same thing for me – once I made the decision to always be truthful it took away all the uncertainty and awkwardness of the question. I’m so glad Egg and A have each other and all of our support network friends growing up! Thank you for putting this out there! You should consider submitting some of your posts to still standing magazine; they are beautifully written!

    • Aw thanks Laura! I’m not surprised that you felt the same way.
      And thanks for the idea about Still Standing mag…I had thought about submitting something to them a long time ago but should give it another look.

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