I have been reading the book The Primal Wound by Nancy Newton Verrier. It’s a book about adoption and the indelible impact that separation from the birth mother has on an adoptee. The book is sobering and candid in its depiction of loss and trauma, and I found one point Verrier makes to be especially widely applicable, not just for those in the adoption world. She speaks of loss and our societal difficulty in addressing and coping with it, especially when juxtaposed with a well recognized gain.
Loss itself is not very well understood in our society. We tend to deny its importance on many levels. We get married and celebrate the joy of the new phase of life without ever considering that there may be a loss involved, must less that we might need to mourn that loss. Or a couple has a baby and sends out the happy announcements, while neither dares think about the loss of a different kind of relationship, what impact a new family member will have on them, and that grieving might be in order. There is no permission in our society to recognize in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs, dance jigs, but never to mourn. (p.69)
This expression of a need to mourn even in the midst of celebration struck a chord with me. How many other parents out there have felt the same thing? The struggle to accept that our children are growing up, just as they are supposed to do, and yet the leaving behind of each benchmark of infancy and childhood carries with it a sort of ache in the remembrance. We all celebrate when our youngster graduates from diapers or goes off to school or ties his own shoe, and yet implicit in that beautiful growth is the loss of a certain kind of relationship, a certain type of dependence, or a certain measure of intimacy between parent and child. What happens over time when we neglect to mourn such losses?
My babies were born by scheduled c-section and immediately after their births, after the very briefest of introductions, they were taken to the NICU for monitoring and care. I stayed in the surgery recovery room and then my own hospital room for about six hours before the nurses wheeled my bed to the NICU so I could spend time with my babies. By the time I arrived at their bedsides, two of them were hooked up to tubes and monitors that prohibited my holding them right away. I have precious memories of holding one of my babies in my arms on that birthday, making first attempts at breastfeeding and savoring the skin to skin contact.
At the time I was profoundly grateful for my whole hospital experience. I loved my doctors and nurses; my babies were healthy and relatively robust given their prematurity; my husband had been by all our sides, moving from patient to patient, throughout that first day and had been able to touch and talk to our babies while I was recovering. I had tremendous freedom in the weeks my babies were hospitalized to come and go as I pleased, which meant I spent nearly all my time at my babies’ sides, in their private NICU rooms, knowing all the while that many NICU policies restrict access to patients and provide only limited to no privacy for families. I knew I had it good.
And yet in the weeks and months to follow, I struggled with feelings of sadness and loss when I thought of all that a birth experience could be, even a c-section. I was saddened that I had not gotten to hold any of my babies immediately after birth, that their first extended experience of being held was in the arms of medical staff and not Mommy or Daddy, and that skin to skin contact and breastfeeding were luxuries in the first weeks, not norms. I had gone into delivery knowing that my experience would not be typical or ideal because mine was not a typical situation. While this knowing was helpful because it kept me from harboring unrealistic expectations, I still found myself mourning the loss of a hoped for reality—one that never came to be.
I am grateful that I felt equipped and supported in moving through this sense of loss, but even so I grappled with troubling feelings of guilt. I sometimes chastised myself for feeling anything different than sustained gratitude for the relative ideal circumstances of a lovely modern hospital and knowledgable and compassionate caregivers. I felt the creeping sense that to acknowledge the loss of a dream somehow negated the beauty of a replacement that was as good as could be expected. How often in our lives do we spend needless energy berating ourselves for the feelings we have rather than accepting and moving through them, recognizing them as instructive and even necessary? What good might come of recognizing that each transition involves not only something new, but a something old that must be left behind, and that leaving behind is not always an easy thing to do?
For the mom who just put her baby on a Kindergarten bus for the first time this fall, the loss may be profound. To acknowledge as much does not undermine the importance of moving on to new things, but rather enriches our experience of the new phase in juxtaposition with the old. Life is full of transitions toward maturity, mastery, and understanding. The negative feelings that sometimes accompany these transitions are just as important to notice in the depth of our human experience as the joyful ones.