Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos. 

Continued from Part Three

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April 27

We found out today at the doctor’s office that we got the very thing every expectant parent hopes so desperately for: a perfectly healthy child.
The autopsy report said so.

No abnormalities of the heart or lungs. No vascular complications. No invisible bacteria or infections. No imperfections of placenta or cord. “Cause of death: Unknown.” I left with as many samples of birth control pills as they would give me.

When I got back to work the mound on my desk seemed like the most ridiculous thing I’d ever seen. The thought of sitting down to do it seemed even more insane. So, I cleared my voicemail, scanned through e-mail, and after a “full workday” of about 28 minutes, I left my office. Luckily, almost everyone was in meetings, so I only had to leave a note. As I was making my escape, I overheard a conversation in which a close colleague of mine was finding out that her expectant daughter-in-law is having a girl. They were giddy and cheering. After five boys in the family, there would finally be pink dresses. I was relieved to be walking out. The last thing anyone needs in the middle of a baby celebration is to have to talk to me.

When I got to my car, the sadness hit me like a wall. So much of this process is not even about the initial loss anymore. Yes, it overwhelms you in the beginning—the actual loss of the baby—but when I cry now, all these weeks and weeks later, it is about other things.

A friend of mine who has had several miscarriages wrote something a few weeks ago that came back to me today. She talked about the loss of her innocence—and even though I knew what she meant, I hadn’t actually felt it until today.

When I sat down in my car in the parking lot I realized that I will never, ever feel the way they do right now. In the midst of being respectful of the miracle that is pregnancy, I will never, ever jump up and down over it. That feels too presumptuous, too risky. I will never be uncautiously, unabashedly expectant. I have lost that.

Today he would have been two months old, and according to the charts, he would’ve been smiling in response to things. He would’ve been playing with his hands. He would’ve been starting to recognize the difference between parents and strangers. He would’ve grasped his ability to have needs met by crying and his personality would’ve begun to unfold.

That’s what the charts say. That’s how I know those things. And I also know, because an autopsy report says so, we had a perfectly healthy little boy.

May 1

Last night we went out. I mean “out” like we used to. Out to dinner with some new friends—people who didn’t know us when I was pregnant. People who don’t consider us the saddest people they know. We had great Thai food on an outdoor patio and drinks that came with disclaimers. Then we went to a bar with a live band that didn’t start until 11:00 P.M. We stood on our chairs and yelled and spilled things. The band was sweaty, drank Texas beer, and smoked a lot between songs. We thought they were awesome. When we left my clothes smelled like an ashtray and it didn’t bother me like it used to.

We laughed a lot.
We danced.
We “woo-hoo-ed” and whistled.
We had stamps on our hands.

We forgot for just a little while.

June 6

Last week I went to Baby Sam’s house. The best friend my son will never know. His mom and dad and I had dinner and caught up, and they got to meet Wheeler. It was something that needed to happen and I was glad to finally do it. I’ve missed them a lot.

Sam is huge already. I can’t believe how much he’s grown in these first five months. Absolutely perfect and precious, making adorable faces and new noises. I didn’t hold him, though. That is for a later time, perhaps.

It is amazing to me that he is already so different. I think that is what made it easier than I expected. He’s not the thing I lost anymore—he’s moved past that. I guess the blessing is that it might get easier and easier to be around him. After all, Wheeler will always be a newborn to me. That was how I met him, that was how I held him, and that was how I said goodbye to him.

It continues to be true that the things I’m sad about now aren’t much about a baby anymore. I’m sad about not being able to have a new dimension to my friendship with Sam’s parents. It was difficult to watch them in a new, evolved relationship. There is something deeper in their interactions. There’s experience in her voice—fragile and weary, but it’s there. And the light in her eyes when either one of them looks at her was breathtaking. I’m sad that she is embarking into this formerly unknown world, learning so much about herself and her capacities. I’m not sad she’s doing it; I’m sad she’s doing it without me. And I know she’s deeply grieved about this, too.

Later that evening Sam’s mom and dad sat and looked through my book of photos. She cried a lot. It’s hard when it becomes real to you—the photos make it real—and no matter how much you’ve cried up until that point, the pictures open up a new place in you. They asked questions. I told a birth story few are brave enough to hear. She talked about his profile and his curly hair and his perfect little hands. It occurred to me later that they did with him just as I had done with their son—conversations we had been waiting almost a year to have with one another. I realized I had often imagined us sitting around a dining room table talking about who got whose eyes and nose and which uncle would be taking credit for what.

So, I just want to acknowledge that we got to do it. We had those very moments we had expected for so long. They weren’t exactly as we had planned them, but how many moments in our lives really turn out as we plan?

I’m grateful because I was able to be there for them at all.
I’m grateful because my friends were willing to go through those moments even though they were much, much harder than we had imagined them to be.
I’m grateful because I’m learning that I’m stronger than I might have ever known if I weren’t having to prove it to myself.

I’m grateful that my love for him is not vulnerable to the things of the physical world. I don’t have to worry for his safety or fear the loss of him. Our bond has been perfectly preserved just as it should be: unconditional, invincible.

June 30

The house sold.

We close on the 9th. In spite of all the advice to the contrary, we are moving.

I’m aware that I will get overwhelmed with the move. Who doesn’t hate to move? I won’t feel like packing, and in 10 days I’ll be so sick of boxes I’ll scream. That’s all predictable and expected.

But there is this other layer underneath that. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to roll out, but I know it’s there. It comes from the part of me that is sad about leaving this house, even though I don’t feel particularly attached to it and I absolutely cannot do the commute one more day.

For the rest of my life this will always be the house that contained my first nursery.

It will always be the house in which I experienced the revelations of pregnancy, with the kitchen that witnessed him finding out he would be a father for the very first time.

The living room could tell of evenings on the couch: four hands pressed to a belly, startled with every miraculous squirm held in silence and awe.

This house welcomed me as I came dazedly through the door, bleary-eyed and clutching a tiny wooden urn. I searched its insides for a place of safe-keeping, looking for the corner, the nook that felt most like a heart.

These floors are swampy with the tears I’ve shed. The moisture that incubated this musty hope I sometimes feel as the wood creaks beneath me, eking out the sounds of burdened planks, urging us to move on, reminding us that we have outgrown it.

We didn’t outgrow it in the ways we predicted. We don’t find it too small because of scattered toys and bulky playpens; we’re crowded by what we had dreamed of, by what is no longer here.

We’ve never loved this house. It’s too old, too far away, too plain—we’ve always found complaints. I didn’t expect to feel sad about it.

It’s just a house, I thought. Just a place that contains our furniture and clothing, where we do laundry and have meals occasionally. A place that holds our stuff.

But this place contained us as we were transformed into a family, forced through a tragedy, and now it releases us like damp butterflies or snakes fresh from papery skin: not what we were when we entered.

In spite of our resistance, these walls became our home. I’m grateful for that.

July 10

I am now sitting in the tiniest room in this new house. What a relief.

I’m surrounded by boxes of things—books, towels, stationery, more books, computer parts, dresser drawers—and it’s a bit of a disaster. But it’s all here. We left the old house for the last time last night at about 10:00 P.M., and it was bittersweet in the truest sense: an almost equal mix of hopeful happiness and exhausted sadness.

Before we drove away with our cars packed to their brims with final odds and ends, we walked through it one last time. First, the bedroom. I turned the lights on for one last look, and he made a predictable remark about “lots of good memories in this room” (wink, wink). We both chuckled, admired the suede walls one final time, and then the room was dark.

Then to “Kitty’s Room” (aka: Guest Room, Treadmill Room, Project Room). When the lights came up we both said, “Kitty!!” just like we did several times a day for years anytime she would emerge from that room. I thought of her lounging in the sunspots on the floor and napping on her window perch. It made me smile, and then the room was dark.

When the lights came on in the “office-turned-nursery-turned-office-again,” neither of us said anything. I glanced at the built-in shelves and drawers and saw a flurry of tiny clothes and blankets. I thought about the crib, the furniture we returned, the cries we never learned to decipher, and the bright, smiling paint that lives underneath those somber khaki walls. I think of that turquoise and green as perfectly preserved, completed only weeks before it was covered over. We were still silent as I slowly turned away from the room, aware that I was closing a door on the briefest chapter thus far. He stood silently behind me, tired eyes quickly filling. No words were spoken as he wrapped his arms around me, sadness seeping from one to another, and such relief that these would be the last tears this house would have to absorb.

Then the room was dark.

And we drove away. Into a new chapter.

 

Author’s Note:

I’m humbled and grateful for you, dear readers, who have gone on this journey this month. Your many messages and comments and emails have reminded me how important it is for all of us to share our stories. A few notes for many of you who have asked: these events took place in Seattle in 2004. And yes, our family’s memorial of Wheeler’s life continues to evolve. We spend his birthday each year inflicting kindness on those around us… a treasured day that I have grown to love. You can read about those days here, here, and here. And finally, the journal this story has been excerpted from is available in its entirety. I have shared it with other bereaved mothers many times over the years. I am happy to send it to you – requests can be emailed to jennifer.soos@gmail.com.

Thank you again for allowing me to share him with you all.

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Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Three)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos. 

February 29th

– continued from Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

From the moment you left us, all I wanted was to go home. But there were still complications, and that wouldn’t happen for another 24 hours.

When I did finally leave that hospital, I was not carrying a baby, carseat, or diaper bag. I was carrying a plastic bag full of clothes I’d been wearing many days prior and cradling a small, delicate box covered in handmade paper and tied with yellow ribbon. When the angel-nurse had handed that box to me she said, “This memory box is full of several things: the clothes and blankets your son was wrapped in, photographs we took of him, his handprints and footprints, a tiny snip of his hair, your hospital bracelets, and the stuffed animal that stayed with him while he was here. You can take this home and never, ever open it—that will be just fine. But, if at some point in the future you do want to open it, I promise you will be very glad you have it.”

And with that we headed home.

When we pulled into the driveway, I just sat there. Still uncertain about what was supposed to happen next, other than an immediate shower in my own bathroom, of course.

Your dad said, “Hey…just give me a few minutes, OK?”

“Sure.”

He dashed inside and was out again in no time to help me into the house.

I would realize later that he had cleared the entire house of gifts, packages, baby furniture, clothes, bottles, pacifiers, diapers…all the things scattered about that had accumulated from baby showers, care packages, and shopping trips. He had piled them in the nursery and mercifully closed the door.

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In spite of my exhaustion, there was not much sleep in those first few nights. So strange to go from feeling like we would never be ready and had a million things to do to having absolutely nothing to do at all.

Every morning when I wake up, I re-remember that I am not pregnant anymore, but there is no baby in the house. Then I negotiate with myself for those precious few pre-lucid moments about whether it is a nightmare or if it has actually happened. I’m not sure when I will stop expecting there to be a baby.

I had no idea I could feel so incredibly hollow.

There will be an autopsy. I cannot even think about that.

And then you will go to the funeral home, and we will have to give them some kind of instructions. More things I cannot imagine. Your grandparents will be here by then. Maybe they will know what to do.

I know it’s time to stop writing this. It’s over.

I miss you so much that I can’t even explain it. I think that if I just keep writing maybe I will figure it out. Mostly, I worry about you… Are you OK? Are you scared? How can a baby be without his mother? I hope with every fiber of my being that you are warm and safe and held constantly. I like to picture you with our family who loves you who have also passed: Aunt B and Granny and Pop and Paw Paw. I really hope that something like that is true. (Though, I should warn you, if you listen to Paw Paw for too long, he will get you into trouble. But you do have his nose, so you might not be able to resist. I get it. He was my favorite, too.)

Someday, when we meet again, I hope you will feel proud of us and however it is that we figure out our way through this.

Until then, please be well, sweet angel…

All my love,

Mom

 

March 21

(Three weeks after)

People call to “check on me” a lot. I suppose they expect to find me answering the phone in hysterics and then they will rush over to…do what? I’m not sure what it is people think they would do if I was, in fact, a basket case when they called. Shouldn’t they know better? I mean, if I were in the midst of a crying episode, I probably wouldn’t bother to answer the phone, would I? It’s nice. I know. They mean well. They really care about us. I’m not complaining, it’s just curious to me. The bottom line is that there isn’t anything anyone can do or say to make it better, but Lordy, that doesn’t mean they don’t keep trying anyway. I think I’m supposed to be learning how to accept help and love and care from others more graciously. I’m pretty sure I’m not doing a very good job so far. And I will probably be sad when they aren’t calling to check on me anymore. What a mess.

It’s very quiet right now, which I like. No television, no radio, no video games, nothing. There should be new noises in this house by now—coos and cries and the sounds of spit-up—so I think it must feel even quieter than usual with their absence. Maybe just the radio wouldn’t be so bad.

I saw the nurse this morning. My blood pressure is still really high, but no one knows what else to do about it. I’ll see a neurologist on Tuesday. Woke up with an unbearable headache again today; took meds. Wash, rinse, repeat.

It was so hard to be in that waiting room today—the last place he was alive. Nearly four weeks already. Hard to believe.

Wasted day today. Just want to cry. So, so sick of crying.

Need to pay bills, feed dogs, do laundry, blah, blah, blah. Life keeps going, the world keeps turning, no matter how often you ask it to please slow down just a little. Or stop.

Yes, stop.

I really want to just get off this ride.

 

March 27

(One month down)

The first of many significant milestones, as they say. One month. Four weeks. Twenty-eight days.

Yesterday wasn’t a particularly easy day. Emotionally, I was definitely up and down. My mood changes like whip cracks.

But last night, when the lights went out, like a flood, the last remnants of denial must be leaving. That protective varnish of surrealism has been worn down. Like having the air sucked out of me, I felt dizzy as this new heaviness settled in, and I heard a cool whisper in my ear, “This is it. This is how you are going to feel for a long time, and there isn’t anything you can do about it. Meet your cross and get comfortable.”

I wanted to disappear.

I wanted to scream.

I wanted to pass out.

Instead, I cried and cried and tried really hard not to shake the bed, not to wake him up.

Finally, I had to get up and go into the other room…the box.

I went through his things: pictures, prints, teddy bear, the softest hair I’ve ever felt, the little cap he wore—it smells just like it’s supposed to—a new stab with each whiff. I became very aware that the physical reality of him is slipping away: the agony of milk is finally slowing, and the bleeding has ceased. Part of the aching last night was for something real, something I could hold. Those little clips of hair were like gold, and the smell… I began frantically calculating how to preserve a scent. I meticulously examined the photos so I could figure out exactly where his head and cheeks had touched the quilt. I beat myself up for not holding him longer, for not talking to him more, which led to beating myself up for not paying closer attention near the end, not being more vigilant and demanding with the doctor, for all the things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. There is a mountain of tissue on the floor in there. With a good two-hour cry under my belt, I tried to go to bed again.

The force with which the headache raged this morning was knee-weakening. Thank the good Lord for Relpax.

There is some solace in the really hard days: not as much guilt. The days that are outwardly more carefree and productive, the days that contain even a smile or an enjoyable moment, those nights are plagued by insurmountable guilt. It’s paralyzing. It’s a no-man’s-land: you either give in and cry until you think you will break or you shove it down, try to distract yourself, and wind up exhausted and overwhelmed with guilt, which just makes you cry anyway.

“You will never ‘get over it,’ as people say, and you should not expect to. You will just slowly grow accustomed to this deep sadness now within you, and the more time that passes, the more capable you will be to manage it. God will help you find a place to keep it so it isn’t always in the way, but it will never be far from you.” These were my mother’s teary words about her same experience 35 years ago. Not a very sunny forecast, but probably the most true.

The easiest death is most certainly your own.

 

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Four)

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos.

 

February 29th

continued from “Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part One)

They had taken you back fairly quickly from my chest. My health was still a “grave concern,” and there were issues they needed to tend to. Our sweet angel-nurse gave you a bath right there in the room with us. I watched her as if I were watching a very strange scene from a play with bad lighting and no sound. I remember how incredibly careful she was, so gentle, smiling at you and talking to you the whole time. It was easy to pretend that you were going to wake up and start crying at any moment. I wondered about that, too: crying. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet. Such shock and fear for my own life. Everything was suddenly so surreal. We were more than 24 hours into this ordeal, and I still had no point of reference for appropriate things to say, do, ask, or even feel… It was like I was levitating above myself watching everything from a distance.

Your bath was finished. She wrapped you in a blanket and laid you in the warming bassinet, though I’m pretty sure it wasn’t turned on. She explained to us that she was going to take you for at least a few minutes, but we could ask for you to be brought back in at any time, once they were finished with me and I was “out of the woods.” With a teary smile, she rolled you out of the room.

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I think your father then made some impossible phone calls.

I probably have not thanked him enough for the superhuman things he has been doing in this process—and all with such grace and protectiveness for me.

You are so lucky to have him as a dad. I can’t believe you are going to miss out on it.

We talked about having you brought back in: an idea both terrifying and completely natural.

You are our first; remember, we have no idea what we are doing.

But I did feel, deep in a place in my soul that I didn’t even know I had, that I needed to hold you for as long as I could. I feared the regret of it more than I was scared of how hard it would be. Your father nodded and told me about his phone call to your grandmother, who was many states away, while he was on his way to the hospital. He told her, “I guess something is wrong. They can’t find the heartbeat. I’m headed to the hospital now. I’ll let you know more when I do.” There was quiet for just a moment and then she simply said, “No matter what, you make sure she holds that baby. Promise me.” And so, your father concurred, as unbearable as it was to imagine, yes, of course, we needed to.

Minutes later, they brought you in.

You smelled exactly as a baby should.

They had dressed you in a yellow onesie that was covered in little stars. You were wrapped in a white blanket, topped with a white hat and bundled under a tiny, yellow, flannel quilt.

Your little lips were dark, almost like bruises, which I imagine has something to do with the way you died: lack of oxygen and other things I don’t know about yet. Your nose was perfectly adorable—an exact replica of your great-grandfather’s. How he would have loved that. Under the hat we found dark brown, wavy hair and teeny tiny ears. Your fingers, all so perfect, sadly lay limp with a little purple under your nails. But I could see you—your precious face as if you had never been without oxygen—and even in my despair, I could see peace there.

Your father held you. The very first baby he had held in as long as he could remember—he wanted it to be that way—for you, his firstborn, to be so special.

I won’t speak for him.

I’ll just say I was so relieved he did it, and that watching him endure it is one of the hardest and bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.

I felt such an urge to talk to you while you were in my arms—to tell you a million things you certainly needed to know—but, it was so clear you were not actually there in that little body. You had moved on. And, it turned out, no words felt significant enough anyway. I don’t know how long we had you there with us—maybe 45 minutes, maybe many hours—but it was mostly silent. I do remember the sun starting to descend and the room gradually getting warmer while you were there, fingers of light falling in through the blinds, brightening up your quilt as the rays of sunset slowly made their way across all of us. However long that gorgeous, brutal, finite universe of just the three of us existed on your birthday, I will never forget it and I will never stop being grateful that I got to have it.

And then the nurse was there.

And we told her she could take you.

And that is when I recall my tears finally began.

Because to say “hello” and “goodbye” to you, my precious son, in nearly the same breath, was just too much.

But that is exactly what we did.

 

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Three)

Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part One)

This series originally appeared on ACMB in October 2017. By Jennifer Soos.

In the months and years that followed the death of my oldest child, I found such incredible solace and comfort in hearing the stories of others. Just knowing that other people had survived what I was living through brought me hope and helped me feel a little less crazy. I have been continually grateful for the bravery and willingness of those parents who shared their worst nightmares in support of my own grief and healing.

In that same spirit, and in honor of Pregnancy & Infant Loss Awareness Month, I am sharing mine.

DeliveryRoom

February 11

Good morning to you, little one.

Now, with just a few weeks to go until we meet, your father has decided with impressive finality that you are a girl. In fact, he is so determined that he is correct, he will no longer discuss boy names. So, if you do turn out to be a boy, let’s all hope I’m in some reasonable state of mind to come up with something. (And yes, my mother is still irritated that we refuse to find out. She hates this whole surprise thing.)

Here’s some news: after 36 weeks of constant, relentless nausea, I actually felt hungry yesterday. I almost didn’t know what it was! So, thanks for finally letting up on that—I swear, if I ever see plain white rice again I just might faint straight away. It should only take me a few months to forgive you for all these months of misery.

Something else you should probably know about me is what a procrastinator I can be. True story. So imagine my delight (and surprise) over the reality that your nursery is nearly complete! And with several weeks still to go, it’s got to be some kind of record. Bassinet should arrive in a few days. We need to put the changing table/dresser together, but the prints are up on fresh, bright walls, and it is comforting to know you won’t have to sleep in a laundry basket when you come home. Kidding. We wouldn’t have done that. Probably not.

Let’s see. Brand new pediatrician? Check.

Nursery mostly assembled and decorated? Check.

Registry finally done? Check. (This, at least, makes my mother happy.)

Best friends’ baby arrived? Check. And, YAY!

The last big milestone of our pregnancy was the arrival of Samuel Robert—and he’s here! We were so excited to finally meet him—he who will surely be your very bestest friend or your very first boyfriend, either one will be just fine with us. So, hurry up and join the party, please?!

With the start of the weekly doctor appointments, the time should fly right by.

Can’t wait to meet you. Be well. Grow strong.

All my love,
Mom

 

February 29

My sweet child,

It is with a heavy heart that these months and months of writing the story of your long-awaited arrival will now come to an end.

I continued my weekly appointments, just as planned. Everything was as expected, although my blood pressure continued to make the nurses’ eyebrows raise, they claimed not enough to be concerned. I was always there late in the day and still working full-time.

This past Thursday I was there for my last weekly appointment.

My maternity leave was to begin the next day, our due date nearly upon us.

I was reading a Better Homes and Garden magazine, which was resting on my belly, and you kicked at least a half dozen times. Strong enough to ruffle the pages and make me take a deep breath. Exam room, step on the scale, pee in the cup…the usual. As the doctor was talking to me about my last day of work, he got out the Doppler to listen to your now-so-familiar heartbeat.

He never found it.

After about 30 seconds, I noticed he was suddenly very serious. It had never taken so long to find the precious little swish-swish-swish, and he was very, very quiet. He asked me when I last felt the baby move. I told him about the magazine in the waiting room. He was still searching. “Roll to your side.” Nothing. “Roll to your back.” Still nothing. I was worried because he looked so serious, but it didn’t occur to me that something might actually be terribly wrong. We’re at the end… We’ve made it, right? Surely everything will be OK.

He said, “I’ll be right back.”

He came back in with his nurse and an ultrasound machine. I could tell that she already knew something was awful. She reached for my hand. I felt the panic surge through me. I couldn’t see the screen, but I knew it was silent and still by the looks on their faces.

He said, “You need to get to labor and delivery right this minute.”

The nurse asked if she could drive me there since I was alone.

I felt a little swirly getting dressed. What exactly was going to happen now?

The nurse said I should probably call someone.

Right. And say what, exactly?

Your dad was at home. I said, “I don’t know much. They can’t find the heartbeat. I’m going to the hospital right now. You should come.”

There was almost instantly a radiologist and two techs standing next to my hospital bed with the giant machine: searching and searching and taking pictures. I could see the screen this time. So eerily quiet. I could see you there, perfect and still. Quite a difference from the first time we saw you—so much wiggling they could hardly get the measurements they needed. That reality seems like a lifetime ago. The radiologist touched my leg and said, “I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you. We’ve confirmed your doctor’s fear—there is no movement and no heartbeat.”

There is no reasonable response when someone says that, turns out.

You just lie still and stare at everyone, trying to figure out what else anyone could possibly say.

And then, “Do you want to know now whether it was a boy or a girl? I see in your chart that you do not yet know.”

No.

No. I do not want to know that yet.

I looked at the clock and wondered when your dad would finally escape the traffic he must be sitting in.

Within the hour, began the process of induction and labor. I’ll spare you all the gory details, complications, and horror stories of night nurses and just say this:

After 17 hours of labor you slid silently into this world, and you were perfect. I was instantly smitten, as a mother often is.

The delivery nurse, whom I’m pretty sure was actually an angel, said as she caught you, “Oh my goodness, what dark and curly hair! Do you know yet what you have?”

We said, “No.”

“It’s a boy. A beautiful, beautiful boy.”

In that moment, with those few words, the surrealism of everything fell away. No longer simply a baby, but a boy. Did we ever finally decide on our boy name? Your father seemed so conflicted in this impossible space—wanting to look, not wanting to look—torn between how we had dreamed this moment would be and the sobering reality of what this moment had turned out to be.

With tears in her eyes, the nurse placed you on a blanket on my chest while the doctor continued with the other tasks of delivery.

I had no idea what to do.

There is no way to be prepared for such a moment.

Your father was crying.

I was just staring at you—the shock of an actual, full-sized baby boy—and waiting for you to take a breath, willing you to just breathe in, which it seemed you might do at any moment. I will never forget the peculiar silence of that room as long as I live.

The doctor could find no abnormalities, no cord issues, nothing obvious that would offer an explanation. He put in a couple of stitches—which I could totally feel, by the way—and then he looked at me very solemnly and said, “And now, I’m afraid, the easy part is over.”

Those words were probably the truest he had spoken. The following months would reveal just how painfully true indeed.

(Our Firstborn: A Journal (Part Two)

Family Rituals, Simplified

This post originally appeared on ACMB in September 2017. By Jennifer Soos. 

 

Can we talk about family rituals for a minute?

And I don’t mean the big, overwhelming, expensive, Pinterest-crazy traditions that make us feel like we aren’t doing enough and that the childhood memories we’re creating will be no more than a desert of homework, Brussels sprouts, and endless TV cartoons. (Seriously, what even is a “Teen Titan”? Jesus, save me.)

No, I’m talking about the simple, small, routine things that if we were just a little more intentional about—voila!—they would become meaningful parts of the fabric of a childhood that feels safe and memorable.

(By the way, there are a lot of places to read about the WHY of family traditions, like here and here and here. But for now, I’m much more interested in just talking about the HOW.)

Sometimes I think we make this idea of traditions harder than it needs to be. I know that I’m guilty of thinking, I could probably do that once, but I’ll never be able to sustain that year after year. Or, Nice idea, but a new season of The Voice is about to start and I’ll never have that kind of time. However, the truth is that most memorable traditions are quite simple and require only our attention to help them blossom. So, here are four simple ways to create more rituals in your own family that will do just as good of a job instilling a sense of belonging into your little ones as any of the fancy ones:

1. Give a name to a routine that you already have.

Don’t underestimate the power of simply naming something. Giving a regular habit a title makes it feel official and more significant. When I was little and would spend the night at my grandmother’s house, we would sing the same song every morning. It was how she started the day with me. When my boys were little, she and I sang it with them, too. My grandmother passed away in 2011, and whenever I drive the boys to school, we sing that song, which is now called “MeMaw’s Morning Song,” as our start to the day. I don’t know the name of the real song, but that is our name for it, and that has made it feel even more important.

“Snuggle Club” is the official name for when all family members (and usually the dog, too) are piled onto our bed/couch for some intentional togetherness. This is usually the stuff moms’ dreams are made of…right up until one of the boys lets one rip and we are all forced to disperse immediately. Even with one child firmly in the tween years, there are raucous cheers of “Snuggle Club!!” on a Saturday morning if the boys find us still in bed and can wrangle the dog up there to join (though now that I think about it, it is starting to sound more and more like a war cry than a sentimental moment). Regardless, having a name for it gives us all a way to reference a time of connection we have come to count on.

Snuggle Club

2. Add a new element to a routine that already exists.

Chances are pretty good that you sit around the dinner table every once in awhile, or that you have some kind of daily routine. No reinventing the wheel here—just adding a twist to an activity you already do is an easy way to ensure consistency for a new ritual.

We try to have a family dinner as often as possible (sometimes that looks like clearing the table of junk mail and homework remnants just in time for the take-out containers to arrive), and when the schedule gets too crazy for even that to happen, we switch the priority to family breakfast (because toast and eggs take two minutes to prepare). At any rate, while sitting around the table we have several games that help with conversation and solidify the idea that this time is more about family than food. One of those is Two Truths and a Fib: each person tells three things about their day—two true things and one fib—and everyone gets to guess which one is the fib. This gets funnier and harder the older the kids get, by the way. There are a ton of variations for this: Rose and Thorns, Highs and Lows, Table Topics (conversation prompts), and even just out-of-the-box questions about the day like, “What was something that made you laugh today?” or “The lottery is up to $400 million. What would we do if we won?” (A potential side benefit of this activity is that sometimes even picky eaters get distracted by the conversation fun and forget to complain for the forty-seventh time about how they simply cannot eat broccoli.)

The other easy candidate for adding a new ritual is at the end of the day. Each night at bedtime I tell the boys three things I love about them and they tell me three things they love about me. It takes three minutes, and while these are often silly and light-hearted, they have also contained moments that find me wiping my eyes before we say prayers. My oldest considers it an incomplete day if “Three Things” doesn’t happen and has been known to email them to me if I’m not home for bedtime.

3. Add a permanent element to annual celebrations.

Things happen every year without us planning them—birthdays, holidays, taxes, another Harry Potter book or movie—so attaching an item or an activity to these recurring events can build an easy tradition lickety-split.

I had some fairly campy birthday banners made for each of the boys when they were little. They hang on the mantle on each birthday without fail. Their party might be at the house or not, the themes and invitees have changed so much over the years, the cakes/cupcakes/cookies vary as often as my kids change their clothes, but those banners are always there (and much easier to manifest than a fancy homemade red velvet cake, so I let that one go a few years ago!). The silly banners are featured in many birthday photos over the years, so I imagine how we’ll laugh about them when I’m still stubbornly hanging them in their twenties. And, let’s be honest, their forties, too.

We live in South Texas, which boasts the very best Tex-Mex on the planet. (I have no time to debate this fact of life, so don’t bother.) This means that Christmas is exciting because of Santa and tamales. It has been our family’s tradition for as long as I can remember to have a big Tex-Mex spread on Christmas Eve. That’s right—no turkey or ham or cranberries when we are putting cookies on the hearth, but plenty of chili and guacamole and queso for days. This meal is a permanent part of the holiday, and no matter where we spend it, which family members are present, who is traveling, or any other variables of the season, there will be tamales. Praise the heavens.

4. Use negatives to create positives.

Because rituals work based mostly on predictability and how that creates a feeling of safety for our kids, this means even not-fun rituals can still create a stable, positive environment. I’m looking at you, chore charts! Yay! A ritual that also gets my trash taken out!

When assessing your daily life, be sure not to overlook the less desirable parts of your routines as opportunities to capture a sense of family ritual. I hate, hate, hate to do laundry, but the next best thing to never doing it all was deciding to only do it one day per week. “That’s it, Mt. Laundry—you get one day of my week and no more.” And on top of that, to make it even more palatable, I roped my husband into the gig and we use the Folding-of-Mt.-Laundry time to catch up on whatever show we are currently watching together. (You know, the Netflix series commitment you make when you start a show together and therefore cannot watch one hot second of it without the other person present or it is akin to the worst kind of infidelity? Yeah, that.) Anyway, if the latest episode of Game of Thrones is showing, then the kids have to go to their rooms for bed earlier than usual so we can start “folding laundry” (read: ogling Jon Snow and geeking out over dragons). The kids roll their eyes and moan about getting kicked out of the TV room on Laundry Night—and I smile and gently remind them that if they complain enough we’ll happily put on Frozen and make them fold their own dang clothes, and off to their rooms they go! But, honestly, it is usually with very little grumbling and difficulty, partly because it is expected; it’s Laundry Night, and they trust its regularity so much that they don’t bother challenging the routine. Same goes for chore days and daily reading time and any other necessary thing that your spawn might complain about. See, you aren’t ruining their lives; you are creating rituals and security that will ensure a sense of belonging to your family. You’re welcome.

For other ideas and inspiration about family traditions, there’s a great list here. And I trust our readers will share their favorite family traditions in the comments. Thanks in advance!

To the Moms of Super Fussy Babies

This post originally appeared on ACMB in August 2017. By Jennifer Soos.

My youngest is about to turn eight, and today I started poking around for his birthday book in preparation to write my annual letter to him. (Read: in hopes that I wouldn’t completely forget to write my annual letter to him.) When I found the leather-bound treasure, feeling a little nostalgic, I turned back to the beginning to read my very first letter to him and my own words made me catch my breath.

They read:

“I’m not going to lie and say that this first year was easy. It was not. It was one of the greatest challenges of my life so far. But, I think we’ve made it. I hope.”

 

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Mercy.

“Greatest challenges of my life so far”?

That seemed like a bold statement, especially since I had been through some pretty traumatic things prior to that. But, looking down at the picture of his little face, I instantly remembered it—like deep-down-in-my-bones-and-the-pit-of-my-stomach remembered it. I felt my shoulders tense just at the thought of it. The absolute torment of it.

My youngest son cried/fussed/whined/screamed anywhere from 8 to 12 hours each day, every single day—like it was his job—with very rare exceptions, for the first 10 months of his life. Yes, 10 months. Thank heavens he was so worn out at the end of the day from his full-body protesting that he mostly slept at night. I’m honestly not sure what we would have done if he hadn’t at least been sleeping some. (And yes, we saw a million doctors, specialists, nurses, naturopaths, shamans, and witch doctors over the course of that first year, and we did all the tests, read all the books and blogs, I stopped eating all.the.things and tried all the potions…but that’s not what this post is about.)

Most pictures of him are him sleeping because that’s about the only time he wasn’t crying.

I have many people in my world right now with little babies. Tiny, heads-still-smelling-yummy, bundles of warm snuggles…and some of those swaddles of preciousness cry an awful lot. And those parents spend much of their time and energy trying to figure out why and make it stop. Today, when I read my own words from those few years ago, I suddenly felt very connected—anxiously, frantically connected—to those friends with tiny, crying babies right now.

I remember pouring over that tear-streaked little face, begging for some signal, some glimmer, some miracle that would tell me what I should do. I remember the utter helplessness. I remember the guilt of thinking, I’m the mom. I’m supposed to know. I’m supposed to be able to fix this. When the truth was that, most days, I was just barely holding on myself.

So to those of you treading water right now with the little ones, this is for you.

I remember.

I see you.

I see that enormous deep sigh as you brace yourself to get up and, once again, try to soothe that crying.

I see you stretch your back and arms and neck, searching for some relief from all the holding/bouncing/walking/rocking/swaying.

I see the tears of frustration, fear, exhaustion, loneliness, and end-of-rope-ness that come so easily and readily at the first sounds of fussing.

I see you grasping at those moments of sacredness—when your baby is peaceful and resting—feeling torn between relief and total awe of that tiny creature; torn between your desire to just sit and soak it all up and your need to go do one million other things.

I see you dig down deep to just make it one more minute, one more hour, one more day, one more week…and I see you find a strength and resolve you didn’t even know you had.

I see you look longingly at your pillow and wonder if you’ll ever spend enough time there to be rested again.

I see you surrender to the endless piles of laundry, astonished that such a small thing can make so much of a mess.

I see you online—reading, researching, studying, learning—trying to figure out the thing that hasn’t been tried yet.

I see your guilt-ridden look as you tell your other children that you can’t, that you don’t have enough arms, enough energy, enough anything to meet all their needs.

I see you in the kitchen tirelessly working to keep everyone fed and healthy, all the while wondering if food is the solution or the problem. I see how overwhelming that is.

I see your relief when someone shows up to hold, listen, hug, help shoulder the burden for awhile, like a burst of crisp air for your weariness.

My dad on his shift with my crying baby. Thank goodness for the shift-takers.

I see you walking, strollering, swinging, swaddling, singing, bouncy-chairing, baby carrying, driving—oh, the driving—while you pray for rest and quiet for your little one. And for yourself.

I see the eruption just under the surface.

I see the exhaustion at the edges of your eyes.

I see the desperation of the day-in, day-out grind.

But let me tell you what else I can see because I’m not right there in the middle of it anymore; the luxury of some distance means I can also see some other things I want you to know about.

I can see the end of it.

And there is one. Somehow, somewhere, there will be relief.

Nothing is forever, especially not this.

I can see that your confidence will grow from this place of struggle.

I can see how you are learning to trust yourself, your instincts, your child.

I can see that child—a baby no more—happy and loved and oblivious to this season of sacrifice.

I can see the development of a vital tribe forged with those who love you and love that baby, those who show up and stand beside you, and that tribe will be around a lot longer than the fussing. And you’ll be grateful for it.

I can see how you are being pushed to grow—more patience, less control, more vulnerability, less fear—and this more-grounded version of yourself will mother your children even better than you do now. I promise I can see that.

So while it’s true that I’m still up to my ears in mothering, it is also true that many of the early seasons of motherhood have come to a close. The youngest face that stares up at me now is nearly eight. It is tear-streaked much less often. There haven’t been diapers or pacifiers in my house for years. I don’t walk the sidewalks with him at 2:00 A.M. anymore desperately singing a woeful Patsy Cline song and wondering what my neighbors must think. And the horrible tennis elbow I had for months from carrying him constantly finally did go away. (But not the laundry. Turns out, that actually never ends.)

I have even had many nights of good sleep in a row.

And you will, too.

It is all right that it’s hard. It really is.

You and your little bundle of screams are going to be OK.

He/she won’t even remember it, thankfully.

And what you’ll remember will be part of your story about how motherhood challenged you and changed you, for the better.

So take a big, deep breath.

Rally your tribe.

Ask for help; accept it when it’s offered.

Sing louder than that baby cries.

 

I can see you and you’ve got this.

I Will Not Be a Heli-Mom…

Today, my fifth grader played a part in the school-wide, every-morning announcements. Via video, he was piped into every classroom and presented as a visual example of “What NOT To Do.” Or rather “What Not To Wear.” (And no, Stacy and Clinton were not in the building.) That’s right… in front of the whole school, they showed what he was wearing and then said, “Kids, DON’T do this.” Awesome.

The high was in the low 40s today…and we’re in Texas, so people think that’s cold. And my nearly 11-year-old went to school today in this:

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This was taken immediately after school (he’s on the floor)… he’s in a t-shirt made of that tech material that everything seems to be made of now and basketball shorts. Paper thin, athletic shorts. It is exactly what he wears in August, so help me. He had a sweatshirt hoodie in his back pack, but I doubt he ever pulled it out or put it on.

Because of the temperatures today, there was a weather advisory in place at the school (cue laughter from all my northern friends/readers) and he wasn’t allowed to go to recess because he was wearing shorts. Not allowed outside at all, actually.

Now, before you go and assume I’m upset about any of this – the public display of his inadequate clothing and the restriction from recess – or that I’m writing this post to rant about the school – I’m not. I’m not upset. I love his school, so that’s not what this is about.

I’m writing this post because today I was reminded about how hard it is sometimes to NOT be a helicopter parent. I have vowed again and again to not be Heli-Mom. And, when you work really hard at NOT being the helicopter mom, it means sometimes YOUR kid will be set forth for all to see as the example of what NOT to do.

Here’s what actually happened in our house this morning:

He came downstairs for breakfast in those clothes.

I said, “The high today is only going to be in the low 40s…and it’s pretty windy.”

He said, “OK.”

I said, “I got an email from your teacher about the weather advisory…if it’s too cold and you are without a jacket, you might not get to go to recess.”

He said, “OK.”

He looked at me. I could tell he was weighing whether this was going to turn into a “thing” or not. I was also trying to decide that.

He said, “Mom, I’m never cold. I hate wearing pants. I’ll be fine. I have a hoodie in my backpack. It’s not like our classrooms are outside.”

I looked at him while I was talking to myself in my head. “Let him make his own choices. This is how they learn to take responsibility for themselves and how to make better decisions.” “Are you kidding? Your husband just put on a coat and a hat to walk the dog for 5 minutes and they were both nearly blown into the pool by the gusts of wind…and you are about to let your child go off to school in the same amount of material as some of your nightgowns??” “Yes. It is his choice. He knows the potential consequences. And no one will suffer them except for him.” “No. Order him to march upstairs and change his clothes right now – be the mother.” “No. Choose your battles. You can’t actually control him anyway… don’t pretend that you can.”

What I said out loud was, “OK. I’m not sure that you aren’t going to regret it, but I’m not going to fight with you over pants. Just know that if you wind up sick because of this, you can count on me to be less than sympathetic.” He smirked and said, “I’ll be fine.”

I felt the brisk air gush into the garage as they opened the door to leave. I thought to myself, “Mercy, that kid is gonna be cold today. He is out of his mind and just as stubborn as I am.”

Fast forward eight hours and he’s getting off the bus, dumping his backpack, taking his shoes off and heading for the kitchen to devour everything he finds…and he’s saying, “Hey mom, I was on the morning announcements today to show kids what not to wear to school. It was pretty funny. And, you were right, I didn’t get to go to recess.”

Wait. What?

My personal struggle to let him walk out of the house half-dressed this morning was broadcast as “textbook failure” into every single classroom for over 800 people to see? I had considered briefly this morning what his teacher would think when he showed up like that – especially after her email specifically addressing the issue. I wondered, will she think that I don’t read her emails? Will she think that I just don’t care? Well, hopefully all the other reasonable stuff will outweigh this, I thought.

I hadn’t considered full-on publicity.

Now I was trying to quiet all the voices in my head that were panicking about what this will mean…about what all the teachers must think…what the other moms must think…what they are now saying: “Poor kid, his mother must not lay eyes on him before he leaves the house in the morning.” “Poor kid, maybe he doesn’t have any good winter clothes.” “Poor kid, what kind of negligent mom would let him come to school dressed in what might as well be his underwear?!”

And I did quiet them. Those voices were put to rest. Partly because my personality is such that I am usually unconcerned with what others think, so it doesn’t feel natural to worry about it. But also because I know that fretting about the favorite past time of the mommy war participants – shaming and judging other moms – is not helpful to my mission to avoid the Heli-Mom status. It was a significant reminder of one of the biggest reasons that letting our kids fail is so hard – the fear of judgment and condemnation from other parents. That pressure to parent in a certain way, to parent how other people might be doing it just to avoid the criticism can really get in the way of doing what might ultimately be best for our kids.

What is at stake is much more important than being judged by other parents who usually don’t know any more about what they are doing than the rest of us. What is at stake is raising kids who will readily take responsibility for their own actions…kids who make decisions based on the natural consequences, the real consequences – not based on just staying out of trouble with mom or dad. Because someday very soon, I’m not going to be around when every potentially big decision is being made and the fear of my punishment won’t even exist for all the stuff I’m not going to find out about. I definitely don’t want his decision-making skills to be limited to “what mom will say or do if…”

Sure… today it was just pants. Not a big deal in the large scheme of things. He was allowed to make a questionable choice over something that was small – the risk of consequence was negligible. That’s the point – that’s how I hope he learns – small failures and corrections when the stakes are low. Because in a few short years it won’t be pants. We’ll blink and he’ll be standing in a parking lot somewhere expected to get into a car with friends and the driver will have had too much to drink. In that moment, I don’t want him in the habit of making choices that are motivated solely by trying to stay out of trouble with me. I don’t want his responses to have been learned and practiced only in an environment where I have controlled every single thing, because that’s not real life. I want him to make the right choice because he understands very deeply and clearly that whatever the consequences will be, they will be his, and I will have little or nothing to do with them, nor can I protect him. I want him to know how to make decisions because he’s practiced it and failed and corrected and, along the way, he’s learned that not only do I trust him, but also how to trust himself.

So, yes, I’ll take today’s non-heli-mom “failure” a thousand times if it will get me to that end. (But tomorrow, the kid is wearing some damned pants.)  😉