Years ago I was in the attic of our former home digging through boxes. I don’t remember what I was looking for, I do remember coming across something I never wanted to find.
It was a plain brown paper bag. I picked it up and put it straight back down. Looking at it with a heavy heart, not wanting to know what’s inside, but remembering anyway. I burst out in sobs. I don’t open it, it’s bad enough knowing what it is without having to actually see it. I dry my tears and leave the attic along with the unwelcome discovery. Later that night I ask Hans to hide it somewhere I would never accidentally find it again. (He hid it well, we never saw it again since.)
I’m sure you’re wondering what I could possibly find in the attic that was so horrible. It was a little lamb. A lamb softer than anything I had ever touched before or since. A stuffed toy that doubled as a music box. Pull the round tail and you’d hear a gentle lullaby.
As I write this I am transported back to a conversation I had with Hans about it. Well, to be fair, it was a little one-sided to constitute a conversation. I flat-out told him:
“We are having a kid one day and that’s that! I have given up my job, the ability to work period, the line stops here. I’m not giving up anymore. This is happening. End of discussion.”
Or something to that effect. I don’t remember the actual words, just that I was yelling in anger as though he had contested it, but he had done nothing to warrant my fierce reaction. Hans thankfully never argued the point. I am grateful he gave me all the space I needed to draw the conclusion that he himself had already come to. My defiance was never directed at him, but rather to the knowing in my heart that it wouldn’t happen.
It dawns on me now that in that outburst I spoke of a kid, singular, when I had always wanted two. Just like that I had bargained away the second child. Letting go of the second imaginary kid was easy. Too easy. I was grasping, but I didn’t see it at the time. Denial is like that. Like the fantasies in my head where we would win the lottery so we could afford a live-in nanny who could take care of everything. The mind gets creative when cornered. Thankfully I didn’t judge myself for my desperation. I gave myself time, which was just what I needed.
My dream to have kids may have been “just” a dream, but to me it was very real. The nursery was to be green. I had names picked out. I busted my ass in college earning my degree, but the only career I ever dreamed of was to be a mom. I wasn’t about to let it go without a fight.
The little paper bag in the attic represented the last vestiges of my hope. In finding it that day I knew I would have to let it go along with the other things I surrendered in the wake of my stroke. Technically I could (probably) still have children, but my health necessitated me choosing not to have them anyway. It was still a choice, but a choice I never wanted to make. The thought was painful and depressing.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. All of them stages of grief.
No one had died and yet I lost something. Something real, precious and alive. I lost the dream. I lost the picture in my head of what my future would look like. I was coming to terms with the realization that I would never become a mother.
When dreams die you go through a grieving process no less real than when a loved one dies.
The experience is different for sure, but it is nonetheless a painful and challenging process that needs to be honored in order to move through it.
Over the years I would peal back layer after layer, inching toward that final stage of grief: acceptance.
There were moments where I would hold the baby of a friend with only a dull ache and think I was doing just fine. At another time I heard the newborn of our neighbors cry and I broke into sobs as the sound went through me like a knife. The baby was in agony, but to me it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard.
Then there were the things I never considered I had to let go of as well. Like the experience of being pregnant and everything that comes with that. Gifting my parents with a grandchild. Realizing we would never be grandparents ourselves.
By the time my sister got pregnant I was in a really good place. I reveled in the chance to go see the ob-gyn with her and hear the heartbeat for the first time. There was nothing but joy in that for me. A taste of something I thought I’d miss out on completely.
I had braced myself for that part though. My sister and I are very close and I mentally tried to prepare myself for the (very understandable) possibility it might trigger some remnant of pain for me. There was a brief moment of jealousy when I realized I wouldn’t be in on the joy when she told the family the good news (another piece I hadn’t considered), but that was it.
Holding my newborn niece for the first time felt like graduation for me. I felt nothing but happiness for my sister and for myself as well. I was looking forward to getting to know this beautiful little girl.
My dream may have died but there in my arms was proof that there will always be new life and new dreams.
Now I get to be favorite aunt. (She can’t say it yet, but it’s my story and my new dream so go with it okay? “Favorite” aunt). She and I have since had some wonderful adventures already, but that’s a story for another time.
What sparked the impulse to write this story is something that happened just last week. I was in my happy zone, painting, when Hans yelled from downstairs: “I’m off!” “Oh right!”, I answered, “good luck!”
He was about to get a vasectomy and I almost forgot. Here we were about to permanently sever any chance of us having a family and all I registered was relief. No more IUD. No more PMS (or less, hopefully). Grateful for Hans’ willingness to do his part in this (his words). I stood in the hallway with a smile on my face. Proud of how far we’d come and how right this felt.
I walked back upstairs and continued painting. Back to creating my very wonderful life, without kids.