The mental load in motherhood is a topic that has rightfully gained traction over the last few years. The term seeks to define all the emotional and mental labor that goes into caring for a family and household. But when you are parenting after loss, your mental load exponentially grows: Not only are you trying to take care of all the parenting needs for your living baby – you are making sure your baby who died is still remembered and honored, all while tending to your grief.
This balancing act of straddling death and life, joy and grief, hope and despair, the changeable and the unchangeable, your love for your living baby and your longing for your baby who died, is exhausting.
The parenting tug-of-war: the struggle to make space for both babies
As a parent after loss, you may find that it is difficult to hold in tension competing wants and needs for yourself, your living children, and your children gone-too-soon. If this were a tug-of-war, here are some of the key players on each side:
Guilt vs. joy
The guilt in parenting after loss knows no bounds. You feel guilty for searching for the face of your baby who died while gazing at the face of your living baby. You feel guilty when parenting is hard and the last thing you feel is joy and gratitude. You feel guilty for your heavy grief because you worry you aren’t giving your family the best of you.
On the other hand, joy still tries to gain the upper hand. When you hold your living child and momentarily feel all is right with the world . . . when you are profoundly grateful for the chance to parent again . . . when you think how desperately you love your living child . . . guilt is still right there pulling on your heartstring. “What do you mean you are happy,” it demands. “You can’t be happy. Your baby is dead.” “You only have this child because your other child died,” it accuses. “I know you’re proud of your baby meeting this milestone . . . but don’t forget, your other child never had the chance.”
What to know:
This kind of guilt is false guilt. It demands more from you than you can give, or even ought to give. But letting go of guilt does not mean you’ll only ever feel joy from this moment forward. You get to feel all the emotions that come with parenting and with grieving.
Fear vs. trust
When the worst has already happened, fear of the future can feel overwhelming. After all, how can you trust in the workings of a world that has already taken your precious child? And yet, parenting after loss demands such trust. Daily, sometimes hourly, you choose to trust that your child will be okay. You fear a loss, yet you get pregnant anyway. You are terrified of leaving your child, but you enroll your child in daycare because you need to work. You trust that the car seat will hold, the school will be safe, the grandparent will be diligent, the doctor will catch any serious illness, trust that your child will wake up the next morning. It’s not that it’s easy to trust, and it certainly doesn’t come naturally. Living in a constant state of fear is costly, and that cost is trust.
What to know:
Hypervigilance has its limits. While the illusion that you have the power to keep your child safe is tempting, it is just that: an illusion. One that requires just as much trust as embracing parenting in an imperfect world. While fear and trust seem like they are at odds with each other, the truth is, you can live holding both in tension: Feeling the fear and trusting anyway. And that trust includes trusting yourself. While you can’t guarantee your child will always be safe, you can trust that you are the right parent for your child and will make choices to give them the best chance they will have at a good life.
Limited time vs. an expanding future
A source of angst for bereaved parents is not being able to make any more memories with their baby who died. Contrast this with the seemingly unending future of memories with your living child, and the discord can be distressing.
What to know:
While you can no longer make memories with your child who died, you can still include them in your memories yet to come. This practice, called continuing bonds, reinforces the truth that you are still a parent to your baby who died, and you get to parent in whatever way feels right to you. Maybe this means hanging a stocking at Christmas for all of your children. Or wearing a necklace with their monogram on it every day. Or including your baby’s special bear in all family photos and taking it on family vacations. Only you can know what feels right when it comes to creating these kinds of new memories. And while it’s not the same as having your child with you – and you have every right to grieve that fact – know that your baby’s memory will have a forever place in your family. No matter who joins your family later.
Remembering your baby who died vs. attending to your living child
At times, you may feel the pull between which child to give your attention. Perhaps your tears finally have a chance to flow when suddenly, your living child needs you and that moment to grieve disappears. When your child reaches exciting milestones, instead of feeling instant pride, tears might prick at your eyes as you think of the milestones you missed with your other baby. Or maybe you are so busy with weekend soccer games and week-day schoolwork that your attendance to the local bereavement group has lapsed – and you wonder if you are letting down the memory of your baby.
What to know:
Any time you have more than one child, your attention will be divided. This goes for parenting living children, as well as parenting children who have died. Deciding where to put your attention is often a moment-by-moment decision based on the needs of a child. This does not mean you love that child more. Remember this is a balancing act, which means things are going to get off-balance sometimes. That’s okay. Ground yourself in the truth that your love for both children knows no bounds. However, your time, attention, and energy do have bounds. Trust yourself as you delegate your attention as a parent.
If you struggle to allow room for your grief to co-exist with your parenting of your new baby, talking with a licensed mental health professional can help you create the space you need to grieve. Also, it’s important to recognize that your perspective of your grief will change. You are now grieving the loss of your baby through the perspective of being your living baby’s parent. You will likely have to revisit your grief through this new lens, and that is perfectly okay.
Love vs. love
This is perhaps the most confusing dichotomy in parenting after loss. After all, how can love for one child feel like it is competing with your love for another child? Isn’t love just love?
What to know:
Your relationship with each child will be unique, and the way you feel and express that love will be unique as well. This would be true even if all your children were living.
When it starts to feel like your love for one child is trying to compete for your love for the other, remind yourself of this truth: You can love as many people as you want to love. The love you share with your new baby does not fill the hole in your heart for your baby who died. Instead, your heart grows big enough to hold them all in it. Trust that your love is an unending fountain, and no matter how much you give one child, there is more than enough to go around.
And remember that there will never be a moment in which you will need to choose between your love for one child over your love for the other.
Making space for both your babies
Loving and grieving one baby while loving and parenting another is the ultimate balancing act as a parent. This is as hard as it gets. And yet, know deep down that you are capable of this. Perhaps it won’t always be graceful, and it certainly won’t be perfect, but you will find a way to hold space for both your babies in your heart and your life. Because your love is big enough for it all.