Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Inspiration, Take Two

How can I think that the only day I was able to spend with this beautiful baby girl was my worst day? If I could repeat only one day of my life, and then return to where I am right now and have everything be the same, I would repeat that day in a heartbeat, just to hold her one more time. To imagine that feels like what it looks like to watch butter melt in a microwave oven, soft and slidy and melty and so warm and lovely. I just want her in my arms again, so how can that be my worst day?

But it was.

In an e-mail exchange, Kate led me to a post of hers where she (eloquently, as always) speaks of a subject that raises itself again and again, here and elsewhere: birth versus outcome. Risk versus ___ (what is the opposite of risk? and the flip side of this question is, how do you define risk, when it comes to birth?) At the close, she poses two questions, which of course now I feel obliged to answer.

What does birth mean to you, now? How do you support birthing friends after what you’ve been through?
Most important: how is it possible to be up to your neck in self-pity and still have compassion for the relative heartbreak of anyone else

The first question is something I alluded to in my last post, this act of gritting my teeth, trying to forget and attempting to lift myself out of my fog to be the innocent, unscathed birth-enthusiast that I once (thought I) was. It's not the only place in my life where I feel myself walking almost blindfolded to my own life, seeing each friend in a box separate from my own experience, trying desperately to understand with all my understanding their own point of reference. It's there that I try to take it from, to see their birth, their baby, their dreams through their eyes, without the clouded vision that my eyes would cast upon it. It surprises me how easy this is for me to do when I am actually with the person, surrounded by the gorgeous energy of pregnancy and their own joyful anticipation. It's when I go home, when I'm alone to face the words floating round my head, my solitary awareness of what I will never feel, that I am sad and lonely and see it all so differently. It's a practiced act, although not altogether false in its meaning or intention. I am supportive of my friends, and I do believe in their bodies and their babies, but the practice comes in extracting myself from their experience.

And this is where the second question comes in, howit is possible to be up to your neck in self-pity and still have compassion for the relative heartbreak of anyone else... This is where I start to feel like a traitor, an imposter, a cruel, wretch of a person hiding in the skin of an empathetic, supportive, listening ear. Truth be told, I just can't think of anything worse than a dead baby. So when somebody is starting in on their own worst day, it can be so hard not to let the caustic, dripping words leak out of the corner my mouth, unintentionally.

A good friend was sharing with me, a month or so back, about a friend whose baby suffered an injury during the birth that required her arm to be amputated after the birth. "Can you imagine?" she said to me, "Your beautiful baby, losing an arm?" I could not imagine. I did try to imagine the awful pain for those parents, pictured my Liam or Aoife, seemingly perfect, off to the operating room to become un-perfect. Truly, truly, in my heart of hearts, I felt an enormous surge of pity for them, imagining the horror of the experience, the aftermath, the pain of having a child with one arm when everyone else's child has two. But still, as I was imagining this, and feeling their pain, I also thought these words, "Can you imagine giving birth and the baby ends up being dead?" Ummm... yeah. This is where I feel like a jerk. Because I do think those people drew a short straw, too. It's just that to me, it doesn't seem short relative to mine. If I could have Charlotte back, minus the left arm, I'd take her.

But I've worked, truly hard, to really understand that each person's worst day is truly their worst day. I believe this, truly. But it's THEIR worst day, not mine. And if their worst day happened to me, after having had MY worst day? It's possible it might roll off my back. Kate's post was in reference to birth trauma, and people mourning the loss of the birth they'd imagined. True, and valid. I can see myself in those shoes, had I been given those shoes to walk in. But here's what it's like for me. I was having lunch with an old friend the other day, and told her of Liam's flip between 8 and 10 cm, and the cesarean that ensued.

"I'm sorry," she said. I looked at her pretty hard. "Don't be," I said. Truly, I meant this, it almost seemed comical to me that she was pitying me for having had a cesarean. But this is true for so many people, that they really do need a condolance, because they've lost an opportunity they felt was theirs to have had. What I had was not a loss, but a gain: I had a breathing, living child. The way he came out literally (and there truly is no exaggeration or denial here) did not faze me. If anything, it was a dream come true. For that year before, I had spent so many hours daydreaming about how they might have saved Charlotte if only they had been there to save her. Now here they were, performing the heroic rescue I had imagined. The birth cry was all I needed. I did not care how I got there.

And then there are my childless friends, still working through love crises of their own, who have related the loss of a lover to the loss of a child. For this, I must really bite into a leather strap, because love does not equal love, and I just can't say anything more on this, except to try to remember that this is what they know.

So I'm working on this. I feel as if I've come 150% in this field, because I don't resent people anymore for grieving things that I myself would not grieve. But I do, without apologies, often feel that my worst day was, well, worse than their worst day.

Sorry. I'll keep working on that one. And thanks again, Kate, for inspiring me.


Rixa said...

I think pain is like a gas--it will expand to fit any container, no matter how big or small, no matter how little gas there really is. I think that's why you can never really compare suffering, only listen compassionately and acknowledge that it's her reality.

Jen said...

Carol, how I appreciate your insight and clarity. This post reminds me of how I felt the first time I found your blog-- it was as if you and Charlotte burst this cloud over me. I was able to feel about Lily's birth somewhat similarly to the way you described your feelings about Liam's: unfazed, unharmed, amazed at that cry, not needing sympathy for a scary birth experience and a cesarean. This was because of Charlotte, your Charlotte, who I still think about so much and wish so badly that she could be here.

I understand that you want to be empathic and understanding and supportive, and this is part of what makes you wonderful, but you know what, it is absolutely worse to lose your baby than to lose your baby's arm. It is absolutely worse to lose your baby than to lose an adult relationship. I know that suffering is subjectively experienced and there are many kinds of loss, but I'm with you, I can't think of anything more devastating than a dead baby. So it's fine that you're able to listen and offer support to others, but I'm so glad you're able to voice your thoughts fully here.

I keep thinking about these two "clubs"-- the innocent birth-enthusiasts vs. the babylost-- and I wonder if there is a third club I should be in? Because I can't look at pregnant women without fear either.

Janya said...

My God, this photo kills me. The way she is tucked into you, so perfect, so incredibly beautiful.

sweetsalty kate said...

I just saw this now... thank you so, so much Carol, for your voice and solidarity. It makes me feel that much more sane, and normal, and this means so much.