“Mama, I love you.”

I just heard these words for the first time recently. Our three-year-old, who has had speech delays, is finally chatting up a storm, and he said that phrase to me. My heart was bursting, I stood on the edge of wanting to cry and also wanting to shout yes, I wanted to scoop him up and cuddle him, I wanted to say keep talking and also go back to being a baby that fit way more comfortably in my arms.

Toddler playing a game - Parenting After Loss: When Your First is Your Only

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

Those four little words are words I have longed to hear for so long, not just from him, but from any baby when we were struggling with infertility, to Sweet Pea when we were pregnant for the first time before we lost them, to Colette when we were pregnant with her to when we saw her for nine days while she was in NICU before we lost her, to any baby when we again were trying to bring a baby home.

I am positive I will never forget the first time he said those words, just like so many other firsts that he has had, but it’s even more emotional and profound for me because this should not be our first, and it should not be our last. We should have had at least one more child before Elliott, and we should have had at least one more child afterwards.  Instead, we have to live with the reality that our firsts as parents are also our lasts. And that is a hard pill to swallow.

Michelle & Elliott--Parenting After Loss: When Your First is Your Only

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

I have said before that I always dreamed of two kids, perhaps because that seemed manageable, perhaps because I was one of two, but two kids was always my vision for my future family.

When I met my husband, I was at a point in my life where I was beginning to think I would have those two kids on my own.  In fact, on our first date, I disobeyed all the so-called rules of dating and point-blank asked him if he wanted to have kids because I knew 100% what I wanted and if he was not into it, then I was not going to waste my time. Luckily, he was on board, and we dated, moved in together, and eventually married.

We were happy in love, but we wanted to add those two kids to our lives. We tried and tried, but nothing worked, eventually pushing us to infertility treatments that resulted in two pregnancies: one that was a miscarriage times two and the other that was our daughter Colette. We experienced it not happening for us, it happening and being taken away, and then bringing a baby into the world only for her to be taken from us just nine days later. We kept trying, thinking of what life would be like if Sweet Pea had been able to stay, if Colette’s body had not been just too weak to contain her beautiful spirit. And eventually, a little over four years of trying, Elliott arrived, and we got to take him home.

Michelle & Elliott--Parenting After Loss: When Your First is Your Only

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

We have loved every single one of his firsts, but it is also hard to think about the firsts of our other babies and how we will never experience their firsts.

It is amazing being a boy mom and something I love far more than I could have ever imagined, but it is also hard to think about what it would have been like to be a girl mom. It is fun to be the only girl in the house, but it is also lonely and sad too.

When Elliott was about a year old, we started to seriously consider having another child and started the surrogacy process again with G, our gestational carrier that blessed us by carrying and delivery our LL Cool T. But, unfortunately, for reasons beyond our knowing, things did not go as smoothly, and we experienced a lot of loss, grief, anger, sadness along the way. Finally, we got to a point where we realized that continuing to try was not good for our mental health, and it was keeping us from being the best parents we could be to Elliott, Colette, and Sweet Pea.

Once the decision was made to stop trying again, we had to and still have to cope with the idea that we have lost out on so much: the balancing of multiple living children, sibling fights, and all of the multitude of experiences that we will never know except as they are experienced by Elliott.

Michelle & Elliott--Parenting After Loss: When Your First is Your Only

Author’s Personal Collection/Michelle Valiukenas

With Colette, would we have had a girl who loved princesses (despite mom and dad’s objections) and dolls and Barbies? Or would we have had a girl who loved trucks and cars? Or something else entirely? What kind of personality would she have had? What would she have liked to eat? What would have been her first word? When would it have happened? Would she have liked or hated school? Would she have excelled at math and science or at reading and writing? What would have been her favorite color? All these questions and so much more are ones we will never have the answers to and that is painful. Then, with Sweet Pea, it is these same questions, but with the addition of more questions. Would we have had a girl? A boy? Was it twins, as I dreamed while pregnant? If so, was it two girls, two boys, a boy and a girl?

But, all of those questions remain unanswered because we never got to experience our babies that came before nor have a baby after.

We have names, we have memories, we hold them in our hearts, but they will never scream in the night for us, they will never run into our room on a weekend morning to wake us up, they will never sit with us at the dinner table, we will never attend their parent-teacher conferences, we will never cheer for them at their sporting events. We will do them all for Elliott and love them all, but knowing that our firsts are our onlys hurts. Accepting that we will only have these experiences once as parents, even though we had opportunities and babies to allow us multiple chances, chances that the universe took from us, is incredibly painful, and it makes me so sad.

And all of the firsts—the first steps, the first words, the first day at school, the first graduation, the first heartbreak, and so many more—will never exist except in our imaginations. We will have these experiences only once, and while we will cheer louder than any other parent, all of those firsts for us as parents are also our lasts.

What I have learned in the past six-plus years of being a loss parent is that it is not just the loss of our babies, but the losses that come as we continue with life.

Yes, the fact that we lost Sweet Pea and Colette hurts so much, but experiencing firsts with our rainbow triggers even more grief and loss of what could have been, what should have been, and what will never be. Trying to hold that grief and that pain with you as you celebrate and are grateful for the living child is just the tip of what makes parenting after loss so exhausting. I love you Elliott, more than you will ever really know, but I also grieve and feel your siblings too. I am still struggling with what it feels like to have one living child, to live in the present and love it, but also hold the special place for what might have been, what could have been, and what I wish had been.

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