A few months ago, we celebrated our son’s first birthday. We had a great day and a small birthday party for him. It was a blast, and I loved every minute of seeing him smiling, eating, and smashing cake all over himself—and making everyone laugh. It felt like this amazing moment in time where everything was perfect, and all I could feel was joy, pride, and love.
But, as the last few years have taught me, there is no one emotion that exists on its own. Because while it was amazing to celebrate my son’s first birthday, we had wanted to celebrate a child’s birthday for five years. Infertility, miscarriage, and our daughter’s preterm birth and then death at nine days old have meant this one-year celebration has been more than five years in the making. It also means we can be experiencing joy and pain at the same time.
At the same time, this is one of the biggest lessons I have learned over the last five years. There is no black and white when it comes to the emotions of a parent dealing with infertility or loss.
Being happy happens side by side with grief. Being excited happens side by side with fear.
Just a few months after our daughter Colette was born, one of my closest friends had her first child. She was great with informing me of his birth in a sensitive and caring manner, but it definitely affected me on a deep level—I had so many emotions. I remember my mom telling me, it is not her fault, you must be happy for her. After hearing that, I felt guilty for thinking that way, but I learned that both things can exist together.
I can celebrate my friend’s pregnancy and newborn and at the same time be envious and even angry that everything went easily for her. I can be excited for children who are the same age my daughter would have been and yet be angry at the world that their children lived and mine did not.
I can be thrilled to have a living, healthy, bright, joyful child and at the same time mourn my daughter. I can love watching him learn and grow and develop and yet at the same time wonder how he would be doing if his older sister were here.
I can be excited about a friend’s pregnancy announcement and at the same time worry she will experience loss and tragedy.
I can love my son and love being his mother and at the same time grieve not being a mother to a girl. I can appreciate our surrogate and that I did not have to go through the trauma of being pregnant and at the same time grieve the loss of carrying my son. I can be grateful that our son is healthy, happy, and safe and at the same time mourn that the process of having a baby did not go at all how I planned.
We put so much guilt on ourselves as parents and individuals. I wrote once about the idea that parents who have struggled with loss—whether through infertility, miscarriage, pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or infant death—feel like when they are blessed to parent post-loss, they cannot complain. But, that is not true—parenting is hard, and us simply acknowledging that does not make us bad parents or make us ungrateful.
I can be incredibly grateful that my son is healthy and at the same time be annoyed when he wakes up in the middle of the night or when I cannot seem to calm him down no matter what I do. I can love holding my son and yet at the same time occasionally feel like it’s too much and I need a break.
I can enjoy my life as a mom to a living child and yet mourn some of the simplicity of life before him.
And in this COVID-era world, we really can have these feelings. While so much tragedy is going on around us, I can appreciate some of the good that has come out of lockdown at the same time. It goes both ways too. I can appreciate that COVID has allowed my husband and me to parent more fully than we would have and that it has isolated us and allowed us to really bond as a family unit and at the same time feel trapped and angry that we have been so cut off from the world.
Let’s reexamine our priorities and how we view feelings. So often, it seems like we are a one-track society where only one emotion can exist at a time or where we cannot rationalize that what appear to be contradictory emotions can, in fact, co-exist. And when we give ourselves and others the permission and encouragement that this can happen, it frees us from guilt and anxiety over these feelings.
Now, when I feel these seemingly contradictory feelings at the same time, I give myself grace and remember that my experiences were not all sunshine and rainbows, so how could my emotions always be black and white. Come and join me and other loss and trauma survivors in the gray.