I Never Lost A Child, But I Lost My Son’s Childhood

It has taken me seven years, my son’s entire life to-date, to realize that I have been grieving for the childhood I wanted to give him.

As I’ve been shedding layers and discovering guilt, shame, remorse, resentment, among other things, my most recent discovery has been this grief. It finds it’s origins in my unplanned pregnancy; when I realized very late that I was pregnant at all.

Months lost when I could have been bonding with my baby silently, internally, when I could have been taking more intentional, better care of myself and my body—his first home.

I would have sung him lullabies and talked with him, maybe read him excerpts of some of my favorite books, played him some of my favorite songs. Even in the latter months of my pregnancy, I don’t recall whether I got the chance to do this. It was all such a whirlwind, a time of deep fear about the future and how we were going to survive.

After his birth, I still did many of the things I thought I would; we co-slept, I made him homemade gripe water for his tummy aches out of ginger and fennel, I took him to mama and baby yoga classes. Though I did them, I did them with little joy.

It is difficult to feel joy when you’re overwhelmed, scared, and completely unsure about yourself.

Teasing the Grief from the Guilt

It’s funny to me that this feeling of grief was covered up by guilt for so long. It’s a subtle difference, but a real one.

The guilt told me that I was a bad mother for not having given him these things, that I had somehow deprived him. It admonished me and made me never-enough for him.

On the other hand, the grieving is for my own loss, not his. Funnily, I never realized how deeply I longed to experience these things with my son until now. I suppose I never wanted to allow myself to feel it.

It’s only as my heart opens to new love and even to the possibility of future children, to allowing myself the indulgence of that dream, that I realize this grief has been lodged in my heart for seven years. As it comes up in waves, I find myself tearing up at the almost invisible desires of the past that never came to be.

Separating this grief from the old guilt has been a big step for me. By differentiating between the two, it has finally allowed me to separate my constant striving for my son to be “okay”—behavior based on my own insecurity and sense of unworthiness as a mother—from his reality.

His reality is his own. It is not the same as mine. It is not his burden to carry to relieve my guilt, to be “good” so that I can prove to the world that I am, as well.

He may grow up and not care a stitch that I didn’t live up to my own expectations as a mother, that I didn’t succeed at diaper-free potty training or keeping him outside and barefoot for the majority of his life.

In fact, he’s likely thrilled (for the time being, at least) that he instead boasts his own Nintendo Switch and the right to eat potato chips at an increasing frequency, the right to dine in front of the TV way too often on what are usually leftovers or frozen pizza. At least—sometimes—it’s gluten-free (and on the other hand, thank god I’m not as anal as I used to be and sometimes it’s not).

Even as I write this, I realize that I didn’t fail quite as much as I originally thought. Many of these objectives were accomplished at least partially, or if not truly accomplished, at least I tried. Not only did I try. I tried amidst what were constantly difficult circumstances; changes, shifts, pressures, and losses.

Letting Go Of the Past to Live in the Present

There have been many times when I wondered what my son would be like had I been relaxed and carefree as a young mother. I’ve questioned and decided pretty conclusively that his difficulty regulating his nervous system is inextricably linked to my own during the pre and post natal period, and even in periods since.

I’ve also come to realize that barely discernible autistic traits run in my family, and that (via adamant reassurances from his diagnosing doctor) while his early years were bumpy ones, that his autism isn’t my fault.

I’ve also come to realize that when I am able to relax and enjoy my son, I wouldn’t want to change him. Maybe I would take the opportunity to go back in time and sing to my growing belly; surely I would have been more gentle with myself while he grew inside me.

The only outcome I would change is how deeply I connect with him, and that is an outcome that is determined moment-to-moment.

In the interest of that deep moment-to-moment connection, I choose my son as he is, and—even more difficult—I choose myself as his mother; the unsteady twenty-two year old who made it this far, and who she has grown into.

I look forward to a time when he is mature enough to understand, when we can look back and laugh at how his young and unprepared mother tried neurotically and vainly to make everything perfect for him.

We will laugh, because we will have traveled together through the darkness, and he will know, from the evidence of my failed striving for perfection, that he has always been and always will be deeply loved.

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