Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mommy, Interrupted

I first used this tag line co-opted from Susanna Kaysen last summer, after spending the Fourth of July with my nieces and nephews, a weekend during which I did all kinds of mommy-like things, except with children who were not my own.

I am now very visibly pregnant, but without an older child in tow or injected into the regular stream of my conversations, it’s natural for people who don’t know me or my story to assume that this is my first child. Although I am constantly on guard for the question “Is this your first?” I’ve thankfully only been subjected to it a handful of times. I usually just say, “No, my second,” unless someone asks another question, at which point I tell them about Hudson.

What I didn’t expect is how defensive I would feel about people assuming this is my first child. My job is pretty insular, in that it is contained within the career services office and I’m pretty much on my own there. I mostly interact with the six women in my office, the handful of students who stop by to see me in person, a few faculty from time to time about pro bono projects, and the security guards, custodians, and cafeteria staff. The vast majority of these interactions are limited to “Hi, how are you?” and pro bono-specific talk, which is fine with me. As odd and awkward as it feels to spend my days in a place where so few people know about Hudson (and the few who do know no more than the basics), I have to admit that it allows me to feel somewhat normal when I’m there, even though I am anything but.

So I was surprised at my own reaction to a conversation I had with a colleague a few weeks ago. I was tabling in the cafeteria during lunch, getting students signed up for the pro bono program, when a young female professor approached to chat. She and I had spoken before on several occasions, so we were familiar with one another, but this was probably the first time we’d talked since I started really showing (to the point where someone would feel confident mentioning the pregnancy). I had seen her a little earlier with a young boy I assumed was her son, and I asked her about him. She explained that yes, he was her son, and that he was out sick from school. She then said something like, “Something for you to look forward to if you are entering this world,” and gestured to my belly. A totally natural thing one would say to a presumed first-time mom. I nodded and said, “Oh, I know.” She didn’t pick up on that and went on explaining the situation and as I sat there, I thought, “Should I just let her assume that I have no children, that I have no experience with what she’s talking about? As if Hudson didn’t exist?”

At the next break in the conversation, I blurted out, “Yeah, our day care closed with the Prince Georges County schools, so last winter’s snow was just awful.” She looked at me in surprise and said, “Oh, you have an older child?” I replied, “Yes, we have a daughter who passed away last spring at 17 months old.” I started tearing up like I always do whenever I have to say that to someone, but I managed to keep it together. She, of course, was caught totally off guard and began to cry herself, and I immediately found myself apologizing. I didn’t feel bad for telling her, but I always feel bad for the shock it causes people, even though there is no way around it. We talked more and it turned out that she has a little girl not much older than Hudson was when she died. She later sent me a very kind email telling me again how sorry she was for our loss.

Thinking about it afterwards, I realized that even though it all happened in a matter of a few seconds, I had made a very intentional decision to say something that I knew would lead to questions about Hudson. It was as if my brain just could not accept a conversation based on the false assumption that I have never been a mother, that I don’t know the frustrations of being a working mom, that my amazing little girl never existed. It just could not participate in that particular conversation, so it changed the conversation.

I am a mommy. I have two children, but you can’t see either one of them right now, so you assume I don’t know anything about being a mommy. I know all about juggling day care closings and sick days with work. I know all about sleepless nights followed by hectic work days. I know all about breastfeeding and pumping at the office. I know all about changing diapers and swaddling and switching over to solid foods and shopping for big-girl car seats and cheering on first steps and teaching new words and buying the right size baby clothes and where to get the best deals on baby gear. I know how incredible it feels to have your child say, “Mama!” and squeeze your neck and snuggle into your chest as you sing to her before she goes to bed. And unlike most mommies, I know what it is like to watch your child slowly die right in front of your eyes, to hold her while her heart beats for the last time. I know all of those things. What I don’t know is what it is like to celebrate a second birthday, or hear my child speak in full sentences, or help her potty train, or deal with the terrible twos, or bake with her, or accommodate her first toy obsession, or fix her long hair into pigtails, or prepare her for the arrival of her little brother. I don’t know about any of those things, even though I gave birth to a daughter 26 months ago.

I am a mommy, interrupted. But a mommy, just the same.


  1. Oh, Mandy. I wish there were an easier way for you to let people know about Hudson-- I remember your post on mourning attire, and it would make it so much easier, wouldn't it? Life holds all those things for you in the future-- I just wish you could have them with Hudson.

  2. This is beautifully written, as always, Mandy. You are one of the best mommies I know -- I look up to you as a mom now, I did so before Hudson died, and I'm sure I always will.

  3. Mandy, I admire you so much for finding a way to bring Hudson into the conversation. She deserves to be shared and remembered. I imagine it must be so hard to find ways to challenge those assumptions people are so quick to jump to. If we have another child, that's something I dread so much - dealing with assumptions that the baby is our first or getting unsolited advice from people who became parents after we did and should not know more about parenting a live child than we do, but do. I want you to know that even if there are strangers out there who don't realize you are the mother of two, there are lots and lots of people who do know that very well. Even if you come into a situation where you can't work Hudson in to the conversation, she still matters very much and there are so many people whose lives she has touched. I pity the ignorant stranger who walks away without getting a chance to know about your beautiful girl. Much love to you, mommy interupted.

  4. Mandy, I agree with Andrea completely. I learn how to be a better and more present mother through you all the time. Hudson was a lucky girl, and little Jackson is a lucky boy as well. I can't wait for you to put your amazing skills to work again in a child's life.

    Ashley D.

  5. It happens to me sometimes with Matt's dogs, two Rottweilers who now are part of our pack of 6. I can't seem to just let people assume they were always ours----they are WONDERFUL dogs, but they are HIS dogs. He got them, he raised them, he loved them. They are the dogs they are because he trained them, took them endlessly to the dog park, and was generally a terrific dog-parent. It happened to me today...doorbell rang, totally chaos ensued on my side of the door, opened it to find a new yard guy. As I usually do, I stepped out, held the storm door shut and tried to talk over the racket. He was a young guy, a dog lover, and there ensued much conversation about his dogs, ours and Matt's. But here's the thing---I could not for the life of me just go on as if all these dogs had always been ours, even though I knew, I just KNEW that telling this poor guy that "these two were my son's dogs" would lead to the next sentence, "He died this past June and so now they are with us"---and would probably make him uncomfortable to say the least. But try as I might, I had to say something---to acknowledge Matt's presence in our and their lives. I felt so ridiculous that that MATTERED to me...but it did. And so the guy and I both got through it...and I don't think he went away feeling like it was a conversation he wished he hadn't had...

    It is a fact that our whole life has been interrupted by the deaths of our children. You were and will always be Hudson's Mommy, you are Penguin's Mommy, and I completely understand why sometimes you just have to set the record straight. You (and I) HAVE to let people know that things are not as they seem, that there is so much more to this time we are living through than meets the eye. Whatever the catalyst is that leads to that conversation---whether it's my dogs or your pregnancy---it is sometimes simply necessary that people KNOW, and if we're lucky, the people we share with will be empathetic, kind people who are OK with tears...theirs and ours.

  6. Mommy, indeed. Sending big hugs.

  7. Mandy, I saw this story today and thought of you. I'm looking forward to visiting later this spring/summer; I'll be thinking of Hudson while admiring their beauty.


  8. Totally hear you, Mandy. I hate when people ask, "so, how are you adjusting to three kids?" I've even heard it from people who KNEW Veronica! WTF???

  9. Dearest Mandy, one of these days I am going to learn to wait to do my makeup until after I read your words. You are an artist, and share your life so beautifully. I pray that you know how much the fact that you share your heart with us is appreciated. We love you all......and just hate more than we can say that you are having to live this.

  10. Mandy,

    A beautiful honest account of how life is for a grieving Mom!

    It's like we gear up sometimes when we know we will be put in a position of having to explain...and then feel as if WE must provide the comfort to someone who doesn't know 'our' stories! Its exhausting....

    I have had many experiences as you have described and still do..even after 7 years.

    And after Savannah died and we had Dempsey, I felt weird as a mom of 2 children that I didn't know what to expect as Dempsey hit milestones that Savannah never made. It was like I should've known what to expect and was saddened that I didn't.

    And each year as Dempsey grows older I still wonder what Savannah would've done at that same age. And that I SHOULD know.....I don't think will ever stop...the wondering??

    Thinking of you and your precious boy you are carrying...and of course your precious Angel Hudson...you will always be a mom of two!

    with love
    Diana x

  11. Mandy (and everyone who commented): You are all doing an incredible job of sharing and educating when you push through and tell someone the actual story of how (in Judy's case) she and her husband came to have 6 dogs, or in Mandy's case, how she has already dealt with school closings and snow days, and as Stacey so beautifully put it: challenging the assumptions that people automatically jump to. YES to all of you -- PLEASE keep doing this! Lives are complicated.......some lives are more complicated than others, and you are doing a great consciousness-raising by letting others know that you are going through so much more than meets the eye. Please do not ever feel like any of you has to apologize or that you shouldn't tell your story for fear of 'burdening' someone -- please share your story of your beautiful child, please let us stand with you for a moment and listen to you say what you need to say and open our hearts to you. What kind of people are we if we do not join with you and invite you to do what you need to do -- My prayer and hope is that there can be an awareness that everyone's life is not hunky-dory -- that there are hurts.....unfathomable hurts that people live with every single day and others must become gracious and kind and open their arms to those who are hurting. (((hugs))) to all of you. Mariann

  12. There are parts of ourselves that we can't ever undo; being a mommy is one of them, and that's a good thing. Renee P.

  13. Oh, Mandy, yes you DO know. You know so much about parenting...more than any mother should ever have to know...


  14. Life is a fragile and complex story for so many of us... on so many levels it is something we never imagined it would be. I am so amazed by your strength in situations like this, and I find myself shaking my head in agreement with so many of your own thoughts and actions. I too would have had to clarify this conversation, and as much as I know it may hurt others to get a mere glimpse of this world, it is in fact a daily reality for us.
    You talked with love and grace for Hudson... you will always be a mommy to each and every one of your children.. those that hold your hand, and those that hold your heart.

  15. You should feel no hesitation to bring Hudson into conversation...it is good for people to know about her, about you, and about what you are going through. I remember when I had my first son, I was at a lab for some blood testing for him, and having great difficulty with him because my milk had not yet come in. I was struggling so, and one of the nurses told me that she had had a baby daughter who died just a few months before, and went on to comfort me about nursing my son. I don't think there had been anything in our conversation that pressed her to mention her daughter, but I think, like you, she just felt that she couldn't let me think she hadn't nursed a baby herself. And I was glad she told me. She was a total stranger, whom I haven't seen since, but I was glad she told me. Just think how the people who actually know you must feel. It opens a door to you.