Published on October 1st, 2013 | by Lindsay King-MIller1
LINDSAY KING-MILLER On Experiencing Grief While Planning For Children
I’m a 26-year-old queer femme married to the butch of my dreams. We’ve reached that elusive point in life where we both have something that looks, from a distance, like a grown-up life: we have good jobs (though his requires less distance than mine), we have two bedrooms, and we have several family members who live close enough to baby-sit. It’s starting to feel like that time: We want to have a baby.
When I finished grad school, we decided that we would wait two years to see if I became a famous novelist and then either way we’d start trying to get pregnant. It’s been a year and a half and I still don’t have an agent or anything, but we are deep into the planning stage of Operation Baby. There is no turning back. My partner, who will be the one doing the actual birthing, has started taking prenatal vitamins and spending hours on the phone with our health insurance company trying to figure out how much we’ll pay for intra-uterine insemination. We have a budget, a list of potential names, a spreadsheet on the relative merits of a variety of cribs and co-sleepers.
It’s all very exciting, and at least once every couple of days, it reduces me to a pitiful, sobbing, sniffling mess.
I never used to imagine that I would have children. Part of my aversion was physical – I have never believed myself capable of handling the stress of pregnancy, let alone birth – but more of it was emotional. I couldn’t imagine allowing anyone else to have that much influence over whether or not I was happy. I didn’t even think I would get married. When I imagined my future, I pictured constant travel, piles of successful books, some kind of critically beloved musical side project. Marriage and motherhood were not for me.
They were for my best friend, Heather. For as long as I’d known her, Heather had never wavered in the life she planned for herself: she would get married, she would stay married, she would have babies, she would become a teacher. I didn’t doubt that it would happen. She was born for it. Heather was totally, tirelessly warm and nurturing, the kind of person who wouldn’t be mad if you woke her up with a phone call at 2 a.m. because you had a fight with your girlfriend. The kind of person who would in fact drive across town to hang out and hold your hand while you cried, and buy you ice cream and not even mention how early she had to be at work in the morning. She never held grudges, never kept score, never resented the sacrifices she made for the people she loved. She would have made a kick-ass mom.
Heather died last December, of an undiagnosed, wholly unsuspected heart condition. Her heart – as anyone who knew her could attest – was simply too big, and working too hard. She and her husband were planning to start trying to have kids in a year or so. She never finished college, never became a teacher.
I’m still trying to figure out how to live my life without her. Today, writing out my English lesson plans and arguing with my partner about diapering systems, I can’t help the pang of guilt that shudders through me. There were so many dreams Heather worked toward all her life and never got, while I stumbled into them even though they were never part of my plan. It’s not fair, and sometimes the injustice is enough to choke me. She died before she even had a chance. She didn’t even get to finish her tattoos.
Worse than the unfairness, though, worse than the guilt and the rage, is the loneliness. I was never committed to the idea of having children, but I always figured that if I did, it would be side-by-side with Heather. We were planning to be inseparable well into our twilight years, watching slasher movies in adjacent rocking chairs and toasting our youth with Cuervo shots every New Year’s Eve. I occasionally imagined us raising our children together in some setting that was part punk-rock commune, part pillow fort, reading them Stephen King stories at bedtime, rocking them to sleep singing Bikini Kill songs and drawing tattoos on them in non-toxic marker to match our own.
Whatever life threw at me, I figured Heather would be there, making me laugh with her remarkable facility for creative swearing, popping in a mix CD exactly calibrated to improve my mood. Now, when I think about being a parent, I picture sleepless nights with no one on the other end of the telephone. It’s not that I’m unsupported – I have my other friends, my family, the most generous and loving partner I could imagine. But Heather was my other half, and now, accompanying the anxiety of facing a new challenge, there’s the constant disorientation of having to take it on lopsided. She should have been the first person I talked to when we decided to have a baby, the one I came to with all my questions and doubts, certainly the first one I told if and when my partner was actually pregnant (sorry, Mom). Now everything I want to say to her wilts and dies on my tongue, and I sit there on the couch with her number half-dialed in my phone.
Sometimes I wonder if all the grief will make me a bad mother, if I should wait to have children until some as-yet-unimaginable future time when I no longer have to stop in the middle of the day to wipe tears from her eyes because “Heart Shaped Box” or “Dancin’ in the Dark” or some other song she loved comes on the radio. (Heather adored music, and every radio station is a neverending land mine of emotions.) Part of me wonders if I’m being unfair to my hypothetical future child by planning to bring it into existence when I’m still so often consumed by this sadness. Will I have attention to spare? Will my child have to grow up side by side with my grief, fighting with it for my time like a jealous younger sibling?
My grief is nine months old now, and some days I could swear it’s starting to take care of itself, requiring less constant tending, waking me up in the night less often. Some days it feeds itself instead of sucking me dry. Some days – though God knows they’re still few and far between – it’s possible to think about Heather without pain, without anger, without infinite regret. On those days, I think, bring it on. If I can live through this voracious loss-monster that sat on my chest and swallowed the air from my lungs for most of the past year, I can take whatever diapers and colic and teething can throw at me.
But even on my worst days, even on the days when I can do nothing but look at old photo albums and weep, I know that this is what I want. I want a child with my partner’s dazzling smile and adorable freckles. I want to bring something new into this world, not because it will replace what I’ve lost – nothing ever will or could – but because hope and creation and newness are what make the losses survivable. I want to try to be the kind of amazing parent Heather would have been, as one way of keeping her memory alive, of honoring her with small and simple actions every day.
My future child – for some reason I picture her as a daughter – won’t have an Aunt Heather to take her to the zoo or sneak her hard lemonade when she’s old enough or talk to her about sex when she’s too embarrassed to come to me, and though she won’t know the difference, I’ll always mourn that loss, not just in my life but in hers. I remember how thrilled Heather was when I told her, in a dramatic reversal of all my younger pronouncements, that I was going to get married; I can imagine how much more excited she would be upon hearing that my partner is pregnant. She would have loved the shit out of this kid. All our lives are darker in the absence of that kind of love.
But my child will grow up hearing stories about Heather. She’ll see her in my graduation photo and in our wedding photos, smiling the hugest smile, the kind of joy that can’t be faked. She’ll trace my triple moon tattoo, blurred with time and irresponsible sun exposure, inked into my back the night of Heather’s eighteenth birthday while she was inscribed with its identical twin – we called them our permanent friendship bracelets. She’ll learn how to play pinochle from me, the way I learned it from Heather, and she’ll blast her music too loud and annoy me the way we used to annoy our parents. She’ll pick up phrases from me that I picked up from Heather, and every once in a while I’ll hear my best friend’s voice come out of her mouth. (I’ll try to avoid teaching her to say “Goddamn Christing pigfucker” until she’s an appropriate age, like 7.) Her middle name will be Heather, and I hope she’ll understand that it’s the best thing I have to give her.
I don’t really believe there’s an afterlife, that Heather is looking down on me like some foul-mouthed guardian angel, but if she’s up there watching, I think she’s happy that I’m planning to have a baby. I imagine her cheerful and smug that I have finally come around to her way of thinking. I suspect she always knew that I would. If one day I am a good parent, I hope she’ll know, somehow, that it was mostly thanks to her.