The Ice Cream Incident
The tub of strawberry ice cream is on the counter. Next to it, rainbow sprinkles, banana slices, and the bottle of chocolate syrup are all lined up.
Using the step stool, my daughter places a stack of bowls on the counter, and I grab spoons as she counts:
“one, two, three …”
When I turn to the bowls, now lining the counter, I realize there is one extra.
“That one’s for my baby brother in Heaven,” she says, matter of factly.
When Grieving Styles & Parenting Styles Mix
White knuckling through a subsequent pregnancy until my writhing baby was born, alive and at my breast wasn’t the end of my grief.
In some ways, giving birth to a “rainbow baby” is just the beginning of a whole new dimension of parenting, healing and living.
We talk a lot at stillbirthday about the different research on bereavement – grief that is:
We also explore “rainbow pregnancy” and giving birth after enduring pregnancy and infant loss.
And because talking about pregnancy and infant loss is a fairly new phenomenon, really only marked by the 1980’s and President Ronald Reagan’s signing of Proclamation 5890, these things have been relatively isolated conversations in the journey of healing.
Related: This Too Is Birth, Not Death
Parenting Your Values
In my marriage, I tend to say what I’m thinking and I think very emotionally. I love big and I want the world to know it. My husband is more of the traditional alpha-male: stoic, solid, stable, and that often means, more silent, or at least, subtle. He likes it when things make sense, when they are organized: when daily living is efficient and orderly.
I was raised an orphan, and I have a deeply ingrained passion about the gift of motherhood. I resonate with deep pride, rich joy and adoring love for each of them.
I like to be creative and my husband is rational. I like to do things that are strange and silly and lovely, and he likes structure and safety and logic.
Neither one of us knew in advance how we’d feel about pregnancy and infant loss, or if any of these things would change because of it.
What I know is, my baby matters, and my feelings for my child are daily present. And so that is how I parent.
How Parental Grief Impacts Parenting: Negatives
When we discovered that the birth of our beloved baby not alive meant the beginning of a lifelong journey of making sense of life without him, I confess that I believe my husband was at a much greater disadvantage than I was. My very expressive maternal love sometimes contradicts the sanity his paternal, protective role provides.
So when he walked in the kitchen to see our little girl counting out enough bowls for everyone in the family, including her sibling who isn’t alive, he had to step outside of his natural comfort zone. He had to resist the temptation to correct our little girl, to inform her that talking about the baby is really hard for him, to put the bowl back and close out the discussion.
After all, all he wanted was a bowl of ice cream, and now we’re talking about our baby who died.
Parenting in bereavement means that there is another person – the child – involved in the grief journey, for better or worse. Someone to point out that there is a child missing in this home. Someone to ask questions, to dream dreams and to feel feelings.
Sometimes, like the ice cream incident, this influence is intrusive.
But sometimes, the influence is wonderful. And sometimes, it happens all at the same time.
How Parental Grief Impacts Parenting: Positives
While the extra ice cream bowl was an unexpected and maybe intrusive encounter for my husband, I also count it as very much a positive. Because my husband reaches past his own limits to accommodate mine, and in this encounter, to accommodate those of his daughter. He stands there in the kitchen, waiting. Watching, as the conversation unfolds.
“What should we do with the ice cream?” I gently lead her to keep going with her kind gesture. She stops. She doesn’t know.
“Maybe, he’d want to have a chance to share with all of us, ” my husband now interjects, and I agree, “Yes,” I conclude, “because you are all, such good sharers.”
We resolve to split the scoop from brother, so we all get a taste of what we believe would be his generosity.
And somehow, the ice cream tasted sweeter that day.
Related: Books About Stillbirth That Saved Me
The Next Generation of Grievers
These children aren’t going to be raised in a culture of silence, minimization and shame. They are being raised in the complexities of obvious differences in parenting styles and grieving styles. They are coming to know more about grief authentically than we are academically. They are negotiating the differences in realms of play, spirituality, imagination, wistfulness, longing and love.
They are best equipped for such a paradigm change when we, their parents, are transparent. It’s my experience that transparency is one of the most important components in grieving and parenting. Without transparency, there can be hypocrisy, confusion, disorder, fear, distrust and a breakdown of communication. Transparency is even more important than consistency – you have permission to not know how to be consistent in grieving and parenting, as long as you are transparent about it.
I didn’t know what it would be like to be the mother of a child not alive.
I didn’t know what kind of mother I’d be of a baby not alive.
I didn’t know if pregnancy and infant loss would be a one-time incident, a “hiccup” on the road of parenting, or if it would impact me for the rest of my life, not as a past-tense event, but as an ever-real child, just a thin veil away.
But I know these things now.
We often ask how parenting a subsequent/rainbow child has impacted our grief, with the belief that surely it softens some of the sting but with the firm preface that one child certainly, unequivocally never replaces another. But I ask you,
How has your grief impacted your parenting?
Sometimes, rainbow rearing is messy stuff. Allowing our children to integrate the life and death story of their sibling into their own existence, into their own narrative, is important. Having boundaries is important, but being transparent and making room for the messes that will occur in that space is healthy and valuable, because it gives everyone in that space room to grow.
Heidi Faith is the founder of stillbirthday and its headquarters The M0M Center. Stillbirthday is the developer of the Birth & Bereavement Doula® certification and free, printable birth plans for mothers experiencing birth in any trimester, because a pregnancy loss is still a birth, and is still a birthday.