It is a week before my maternity leave is over. I am sitting in a spit-up stained shirt watching reruns and eating leftover cake while my 4-month-old sleeps in his car seat after screaming the last 20 minutes home from the grocery store. I really should take him out and try to transition him to nap in his crib because we are working on sleep training. I really should get some laundry done since the piles never seem to get smaller. I really should take a nap to try to catch up on all the sleep I’m not getting at night. But this is likely the only moment I’ll have today to just sit with myself and be selfish with my time and not be mom-ing for a little bit.

And then the guilt seeps in.

On October 2, 2020, I lost my son, AJ, at 21 weeks. Like so many women, I walked onto labor and delivery pregnant and left without my baby. My husband and I came home to quiet rooms that were purged of all baby reminders by my sister and mom who didn’t want to push me over the edge. I was postpartum in a world without my baby. All the prepping and planning to fit a baby into our tiny condo was scrapped. We went back to the setup before we knew AJ existed only this time, he was real and he was gone and our place felt empty. I told myself if I was ever lucky enough to bring a baby home, I would always be grateful.

wall art with hearts, angel wings and AJ's initials: Parenting After Loss Reality

Author’s Personal Collection/Jackie Furtado

Fast forward 13 months and AJ’s little brother, Jordan, made his arrival. It was instantly apparent to me that I had spent 36 weeks so prepared to never get a chance to meet this baby, I never actually prepared myself to be a mom to a living child. His birth was traumatic and because of that, Jordan was badly bruised. The bruising caused his bilirubin to be elevated and he needed to undergo phototherapy. When the nurse came in to tell me that he would be under the lights for 2-3 hours at a time and we could only see him for 30 minutes in between those time blocks, I think she was expecting resistance. Honestly, it was a relief. It bought me more time to process that AJ was still dead and Jordan was very much alive and I was now a mom to a living and breathing baby who had living and breathing baby demands.

I thought after his birth, the fear and anxiety from pregnancy would go away.

It did not. The first night we brought him home was awful. I grabbed my stethoscope out of my work bag and listened to his heart while he slept–desperately trying to listen for a murmur or indication that something was wrong with him. AJ was so sick. How could I possibly have a healthy baby? In those early days I would see my sleeping baby’s face and be rushed with painful memories of his brother’s face when I held him for the last time. This wasn’t how I envisioned my postpartum life with a living baby. This was so hard.

wall art with hearts, rainbow and TJ's initials: Parenting After Loss Reality

Author’s Personal Collection/Jackie Furtado

I wanted to breastfeed and be able to enjoy the bonding with my son that I didn’t get to with his brother, but the feeling of my breasts filling with milk brought nothing but panic. I’d be flooded with flashbacks from 2020 when I was so engorged and had no baby to feed. It was hard to tell my brain that time had passed. I found myself resenting my baby for being hungry and then being angry at AJ for dying. And then I would ultimately get mad at myself for being mad at my children, my very loved and wanted children, for things that weren’t their fault. And the cycle would happen over and over until I packed my pump away and gave up breastfeeding all together.

The first few weeks were filled with conflicting emotions. I was relieved Jordan was here and I was still sad AJ was not. I had a relationship with AJ and now I had to build a relationship with Jordan and I didn’t know how to do that. Everything that Jordan did (smile, roll over, hiccup) I’d be filled with joy seeing him grow up before my eyes, and then I would be reminded all over again that I would never get to experience that with AJ.

At the same time, motherhood isn’t easy.

I considered myself to be a mom for a year when Jordan was born, and yet, I was completely unprepared for what being a mom actually was like. For waking up every 90 minutes to prep a bottle. For not being able to leave the house without three fully stocked diaper bags. For not innately knowing how to soothe my child when he cried. I thought back to the long nights after AJ died that I sat in silence staring at the ceiling praying for noise. Now I was living in constant noise and I wasn’t completely and totally happy all of the time. And that devastated me. I felt like I had failed at being a mom to AJ because I didn’t keep him alive and now I was failing at being a mom to Jordan because I was struggling.

It was only with the help of my husband, my friends, my family, and professionals that I came to know that didn’t need to be beating myself up for how I was handling my new life. Losing AJ was and is hard. Being a new mom is hard. Learning how to parent after loss is hard. All of it is hard! Some days the hard is going to feel harder and that doesn’t mean I don’t love my sons more than life itself or that my role as their mother isn’t the greatest job I’ve ever had. Once I recognized my trauma was taking over my life, I started working towards healthier ways of coping instead of just shutting down. I realized that in breaking myself to be past the pain of losing AJ so that I could be perfect for Jordan, I wasn’t able to find any joy in any moments anymore. And that is not sustainable.

Jordan in "AJ's little brother" onesie

Author’s Personal Collection/Jackie Furtado

There are still days that feel heavy, days where I don’t feel like a good mom to either of my boys, but I have worked to learn how to hold space for my negative feelings.

I didn’t want AJ’s memory to turn into something too painful to want to remember or honor and I also didn’t want to raise Jordan to feel like I wasn’t present for him because I was lost in my own head. I had to learn to accept (and boy, am I still learning and will always be learning!) that my ability to keep a baby alive and my level of enthusiasm about being woken up every 90 minutes are in no way marks of the kind of mom that I am. I do believe that my boys are mine for a reason and I owe it to them to take care of myself so that I can best take care of them.

So I continue to sit and eat my cake. The laundry will get done eventually. And someday, I’ll sleep through the night again. Jordan will be okay napping next to me while I watch TV. I look down at him and smile. He still looks so much like his brother. I lean over and kiss his forehead for the two of them. In this perfectly imperfect moment of my complicated parenting life, I’m content and that is a good feeling.

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