Years had been spent trying to tell my father that he needed help. He and his wife had separated, gotten back together, and separated again. His alcoholism was controlling every facet of his life and he was in complete denial about it. That had been the way for years.
When I finally became pregnant, my husband and I decided to drop the bomb on Dad with humor. He had what we called a “thriving” waistline (due to excessive drinking and poor diet) and so I pointed out his gut and said “give me a few months and I’ll catch up. I’m pregnant!”
For the first time in years, I saw genuine emotion. He was ecstatic. He was crying, laughing, clapping, singing even. But there was something to his reaction that sparked other feelings.
I secretly hoped my pregnancy would be motivation for him to go to rehab—and that was certainly the case—but too little, too late. My father, after a heavy night of drinking nearly eight months after that announcement, called me on a hot August Tuesday morning. He was ready to go to rehab.
“I gotta get ready for that baby.”
When I arrived at his home, I knew something wasn’t right. His eyes were yellow. He was swollen. He couldn’t get up without assistance. I was 35 weeks pregnant, so I was no help. I had to call my husband to help me get him to the hospital.
Twenty-four hours later, I was at the funeral home with my stepmom, grandmother, and siblings, planning his funeral. He had passed during the night of liver and kidney failure due to long-term alcoholism. He died during detox. He died trying to get right for that baby.
I experienced all the stages of anger, but I felt they were magnified by my pregnancy. How dare he leave us? How dare he leave his granddaughter? How dare he drink himself to death?
Sadness was also magnified. I wept for the opportunity of love lost between my father and my daughter. I wept because I knew it would cross my mind when I had her four weeks later. I knew that at every “first” event with her, it would be the first event without Daddy. I wondered if I’d ever be able to celebrate something for my daughter without mourning my father’s death.
After Taylor’s birth, I developed a stomach ulcer, gastritis, my gallbladder function declined, and my hormones were out of control. I had literally worn away the lining of my stomach due to stress. I was so dehydrated, I couldn’t nurse my daughter without feeling faint. When Taylor turned a week old, I was in the hospital, hooked up to an IV stand and being force-fed Carafate every couple of hours to line my stomach so I could finally hold down water.
It was at that moment I realized I had not been dealt a fair hand. I was not going to have a typical “mourning” experience any more than I was going to have a traditional “new mom” experience. I had to find ways to share the burden of that grief as well as the responsibility of caring for my newborn daughter. Because if I didn’t, I was going to have to add postpartum depression to my list of ailments.
So how do you grieve while caring for a baby? How do you find time to process your emotions while also grappling with the sudden realization that you’re now responsible for feeding, cleaning, nurturing, and rearing a brand new little human?
Here’s what I learned:
You are not an island unto yourself.
It is tempting to play supermom when you’re also suffering. I’d say it is even easier to play supermom in hard times—because you throw yourself into being a mother in hopes that for five minutes, you’ll forget the pain you’re going through. In my case, I had developed a stomach ulcer, couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep, and couldn’t drink, plus I was having a bad day grief-wise. But I didn’t stop. I couldn’t! Baby needed to be fed, loved, changed, fed again.
It took my trip to the hospital to realize that I couldn’t do it by myself. It took me realizing the support system I had around me to finally find rest in the fact that I don’t have to be perfect or emotionless. In fact, I NEEDED the help! I felt a new energy when I allowed my mom to come into the picture and just let me and my husband take a nap for a minute.
Since then, I’ve still had to learn how to ask for help. For example, March 27 would have been my father’s birthday. I asked a friend to babysit that morning so I could go to the grave and place flowers. Next thing I know, I’m sobbing, asking if she can stay all afternoon. Of course she said yes, and we were able to let our children play together while she and I just talked. It was that kind of help and support from her that allowed me to cope with such a day.
TALK TALK TALK TALK TALK.
If you’re like me, the idea of opening up to someone about your feelings is scary. Is it, perhaps, that you feel that way because you’re scared to admit what you feel? Either way, talking it out can help you sort your thoughts and feelings. Find someone you can “word vomit” at and not have to worry about judgement. Then, talk about it all. Talk about how you’re missing your daddy. Talk about how the baby had a massive blowout, which led you to tears of frustration because you’re just so, so tired. Talk about the fact that you’re mad at your loved one for leaving you in such a vulnerable state—even if you know they couldn’t help it.
Feel what you feel.
I fell into this cycle of feeling guilty for feeling sad.
Don’t. Do. That.
If you’ve just lost someone, I don’t care if it was six minutes ago or six years ago, what you feel in that moment is OK to feel. Angry because his or her death was avoidable? Justified feeling. Sad because your loved one didn’t get to meet your kids? That’s something to be sad about. Mad because you can’t seem to “get over” it? That’s fine, too. Whatever you’re feeling is fine to feel. It is not a reflection of who you are as a mother. It’s OK if you’re elated that your child said “Mama,” but you weren’t able to call your deceased dad and tell him. It’s OK to feel terrible about that. In my own experience, it’s a terrible feeling. But judging yourself for what you’re feeling only adds to the guilt and stress that you’re already experiencing. And that’s not fair to you or anyone who may be impacted by your behavior that results from that stress.
In short, life happens every day, and unfortunately tragedy is mixed with the happy. But realizing you have those mixed feelings doesn’t make you a bad mom—it makes you a human one.