The last few months—well really, years—had been agonizingly hard as we traversed secondary infertility and now we faced the impending loss of our baby. And then, as I tried to both grieve and hold together some semblance of consistency for our daughter, I heard her tiny voice while we cuddled on the couch:
“Mom, did the baby stop growing because of me? When I sat on your belly mom, is that why the baby isn’t alive?”
My then 4-year-old daughter asked me this pivotal question as her concerned face betrayed her fears. I knew this was a parenting moment I may not get back if I missed it.
I stood at the crossroad of this heavy pause and I felt the knot in my stomach and the weight of my sensitive daughter’s pain. I considered a few angles and tried to take a breath so I could connect with her hurt instead of just my own. As a therapist, I suppose I already knew what to “do;” I essentially already knew the right words to say. But the heaviness and loss of the last month sat on my shoulders and my heart. So it didn’t matter that I knew the correct actions. Having to sit with my girl in that precise minute felt like swimming through mud. It did not feel clear. It did not feel simple. It felt heavy and gross. It tore me up knowing I had to have this conversation with her at all.
In my field, I have often worked with kiddos who take events occurring in the world or in their family, and they personalize it to the point that they believe it’s their fault. It’s not selfish when kids see the world this way, it’s actually developmentally correct. We want children to believe the world revolves around them for a time in order to help build an accurate sense of self and others. But it can also make it extremely hard when processing pain.
And now, it was my daughter believing something out of her hands was her fault. In a way, it was like pulling back the curtain on the innocence of this world and introducing her to the difficult realities instead.
I remember wishing I could have just said, “Let’s just think about something happy.” Or, “Why don’t we watch your favorite show.” Or, “No, honey, life isn’t that painful.”
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her those things because they aren’t the full answer and because they’re not completely true.
I knew beginning to help her process her grief, and the fact that it’s not her fault, but it still hurts, mattered. This is a piece of introducing her to life, with both the joy and the pain intertwined. But it doesn’t change that it felt excruciating to talk about it with her.
Parenting is hard. And parenting while grieving is almost impossible.
As I internally battled what I wanted to do, and what I needed to do, I tried to picture the woman I want my daughter to be. My hope is she’ll be the kind who has the courage to feel her feelings and ask for help. I knew this tiny moment would create a scaffold to help our girl build on to become that woman.
It reminds me of this quote:
“The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.” –Peggy O’Mara
And so, instead of slinking away from it, I did my best to meet her in the confusion and fear she held in her little body, and I said this:
“Sweet girl, there is nothing you did wrong. Not one thing. We don’t know why, but this baby just stopped growing and won’t be born. But, none of that is your fault.”
And then I looked her straight in the eye and said:
“If you’re ever worried about this again, I want you to tell me. I don’t want you to carry this alone. I am always, always here to help you.”
And then I held her.
I could feel the relief relaxing her shoulders and we snuggled.
This, I could tell, was what she needed. She needed me with her in the muck instead of pretending, or giving her a pat answer. None of those were helpful, but my presence was.
She went on to ask me this question two or three more times in the weeks to come, and each time, I told her the same thing.
“No, baby, it’s not your fault.
Yes, mommy is sad sometimes, but I feel happy too. But those are mommy’s feelings, and I know how to ask for help if I need to.
Yes, it’s okay to be sad.”
And always, always, “I love you.”