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.