What does it mean to call yourself a mother? How do you define it?
Once you call yourself a mother, what happens to that label, that part of your identity if your child dies? Are you still a mother? How do you keep that part of your identity when to all intents and purposes you have left motherhood behind? How do you keep your child as a part of your life when new people meet you and don’t know about them? How do you keep that child as part of your life when you move and pack up her things?
A Fugee friend recently shared an article with our group about how to interact with parents who have lost a child. It talks about the emotional and mental space a parent finds themselves in after the death of a child and how you can support them.
Another mother from the Fugee group who lost her son, just days before his 2nd birthday, commented that something she found difficult was when she was pregnant with her second child people would ask, “is this your first?”
Such an innocuous question. One I was asked many times when Eva was in the NICU by well meaning nurses, doctors, social workers and paramedics. It’s one I’ve thought about since Eva died. If I were ever to have another child, that experience would be so bittersweet. Because a new baby doesn’t erase Eva. Eva will always be my first child. But to a stranger, to a new friend who never knew her, that question is so loaded. They don’t know Eva ever existed. They ask, innocently, about the status of a new baby without realising that if I answer that question I will drop a bomb on the conversation. I will turn a moment of casual conversation into something very different.
This Fugee Mama, who lost her son, said she has come to anticipate that question in certain situations and has gotten quite good at answering, accepting the condolences, and moving on with the conversation. She said she sees it as an opportunity to honour her son by acknowledging him to someone who never got the chance to meet him.
I feel Eva’s absence everyday. The idea that someone could see me and not know that I had a daughter feels alien. One small way I comfort myself is by wearing two necklaces around my neck to represent Eva. Both have the letter E on them. I see myself in the mirror and look at those letters and it makes Eva feel like a physical presence in my daily life. As well as being a vivid memory and a part of my heart, she has a place around my neck. She has weight and leaves a physical imprint on my skin.
In two weeks I will be shifting house I will be leaving the house Eva and I lived in together. It was already planned. Eva was supposed to be taking this next step with me. This was supposed to be an exciting journey for us. Moving out together, just the two of us. But instead, I am doing it by myself, and with this move I feel like I am leaving our life behind. I feel like I am reluctantly shedding my mother identity. I’m excited about the apartment. About having my own space and giving Jay and Ess back theirs. But that excitement is tinged, surrounded, engulfed, by the feeling that it means I am losing Eva once more. Losing the concreteness of her life. Losing the essence of what we had, day to day.
I have packed up her room. Her cot is dismantled. Her clothes are in bags. They are packed, but they are not going away. They are coming with me. I want what’s left of her life close to me. I’m not ready to put them away.
People have asked me whether it’s wise to live by myself now that Eva’s gone. They assume I’ll be lonely. they worry. they think that company will make me feel better. Maybe they think I should go back to living in a flat with other 30 somethings. But what they don’t realise is I can’t go back to living like that. I can’t ignore the last 18 months of my life and pretend I’m not a mother. Pretend I can start a fresh.
I don’t want to do that. It feels dishonest and wrong. It feels like I’m trying to forget. Most of all, I don’t want to try and be the person I was before. I don’t want to feel like the “other” in a flat of people who can’t imagine what this feels like. Who aren’t parents and can’t relate. They shouldn’t have to relate or understand and I don’t want to try and make them understand.
Living by myself means acknowledging Eva. It means I don’t have to put her things away. I don’t have to put her away. It means I get to say, I am still a mother. I am not who I was before she was born. I am who I am now. I am who she turned me into. Someone who I hope is better.
I’m sure there will be nights when being by myself is not what I want. But I also feel like I need those nights to mourn my daughter without worrying about waking up a flatmate. I want to be able to let my grief take up space when I need it to.
This move was supposed to be me and Eva together. I don’t want to pretend that that wasn’t the case.
So I’ll be hanging my pictures of Eva on the walls. I’ll be laying her toys out in what would have been her room. I’ll be watering her kowhai tree and lighting her candle. And I’ll be hanging onto the thought that just because she isn’t here doesn’t mean I am not a mother. Her mother.