Opposing forces

“Can I please bite you just one more time?”

My son may not be the most gentle of creatures, but at least he’s polite.

He used to be something of a toddler bully. He’d scan the playground, then make a beeline for a smaller kid only to push them. I once came to nursery to see him being placed in timeout. “I nibbled on a baby a little bit”, he told me, eyes wide with innocence.

Then one day, around his fourth birthday, he changed. He became protective of smaller children, and exceptionally gentle towards babies.

My textbooks had it right: kids all around the world develop a caring impulse towards babies around this age. Babies are cute. They exert a pull on us. When an infant is placed in our arms, its helplessness, warmth, and innocence make us melt. We have an urge to protect it, to help it thrive in safety and comfort. Even a four-year- old with a penchant for biting gets this.

Death, on the other hand, repels us. The idea of dying is frightening, the idea of our loved ones dying moreso. Dead bodies are disturbing, with their palpable absence of someone in there. The lack of muscle tone, the blood that encrusts in places, the odd smells, the unexpected secretions – all of it triggers disgust. We’d rather avert our eyes, rather not think about it. Rather know the person only as they were before, while they were still a person.

So which of those do you do feel if your baby dies while being born?  The pull of fierce protectiveness towards the infant, or the revulsion at the dead body that is being held out for you to take in your arms?

Having unexpectedly had to deal with this situation, and having to rely on the medical system and other bereaved parents for guidance, I found that two answers are typically given. One revolves around the revulsion by death, the other around the love through attachment.

In the past (and nowadays in many non-Western countries), people were simply not shown their stillborn children. It was considered in their best interests to avoid the additional disturbance of dealing with the physical aspects of death, while anyway having to live with the psychological effects of the baby’s absence.

Many parents felt that they were robbed of something important by not having a say in what happens to their child after death. The guidelines have changed, and parents are nowadays encouraged to have contact with, and care for, their stillborn children for a few days.

The assumption is that the protective urges will override the repellent ones; that the distress is inevitable because it is brought on by the loss, but that positive emotions and memories can and should be mixed into the experience. And that these will arise by allowing the parents contact, because we all carry this impulse for attachment, this soft spot for helpless babies. This will allow us to bond, and once we have bonded, we have a clearer idea of who it is that we have to say goodbye to.

In my experience, it is true that bonding happens immediately, and that it is intense and beautiful. This is all I had to know of my daughter, and I can’t imagine how hard it would be to look back on the episode without having had these tender, loving moments with her. With her… body.

And therein lies the catch. It was her, but it was not her, she was my child but she wasn’t, she was an it as much as my Nadia. It was an empty shell that could be filled only with my imagination because this was all of her that I knew. And yet I loved her as fiercely as I love my son. I needed this time with her. I needed to know as much of my daughter as there was to know.

Then came the harsh reality of the outside world, which understands the death part but not the attachment part. My insistence that we spent some time with her is met with polite little nods and thin smiles that don’t quite manage to mask the incredulity. Outsiders don’t have the experience of building such a relationship with a non-person, so it is death that they primarily see when I recount the days after Nadia’s birth.

Other parents in our situation seem to unanimously describe their stillborn children as ‘lovely’, ‘perfect’, ‘gorgeous’.  But I did not see only beauty in Nadia. I felt that perfect, unconditional love, but I saw the decay, felt the smells, was disturbed by the changes. The harsh reality of the inside world is that the attachment part is discussed while the disturbing death part is swept under the carpet. The part that kept flashing into my mind for days.

I am coming to believe that the attachment to the child and the detachment from the experience are both important factors of recovery. Plunging in, embracing the pain, living the grief – they are crucial.

But also, staying afloat, taking part in life, pushing the experience aside from time to time. To know that it was really just her body that I interacted with, to accept that I gave birth to two children but I only have one – and that this does not make the experience any less important to who I am, or what she continues to mean to me.

As it stands, either my attachment or my revulsion are denied, and I need to find the balance to integrate them both into this new life that is now my own. I wish I didn’t need to make the space for that acceptance on my own, faced with a lack of understanding from both sides. I don’t need to deny my children’s faults in order to love them – my son the biter, and my daughter, whose fault is that she is no longer alive.

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