Parenting in Absentia … the guilt and the reality of parenting living children whilst grieving

I remember the first time I ever paid for an iPhone app.   We were in the hospital not long after hearing the devastating news that Xavier would not be coming home with us.  Isaac was demanding attention I could not give.  I turned to technology as baby-sitter.  I relinquished  previous rules, gave him my phone and in a metaphorical sense, I never really asked for it back.

In those dark days after Xavier died I could not give Isaac the parenting he deserved.  He heard yes too often to requests for things when I had no fight.  He heard no too often to requests for my time and attention when I had none to give.   My wonderful sister in particular stepped in and looked after Isaac when I could not.  There was a period of time when I was completely absent as a parent.  My previous approach to parenting – to be present, to be fun, to be involved, to say “no” but then redirect attention to some brilliant new game or activity – all of it impossible.

Even in it, I knew I was being unfair to Isaac. I felt terrible guilt over it, yet I had no capacity to fix the situation.   He was never phsycially neglected,  but I feel like I missed the months of his life that followed Xavier’s death.   Like everything else, I went through the motions, whilst my mind was elsewhere.

Even as the darkest fog of grief lifted, my parenting had changed.  I was more permissive.   Isaac’s short term happiness, and even compliance, more important to me than the longer term effects.  It has been a hard Pandora’s box to try and close.   With the advent of school, some behaviours have crystallised as being of concern.   I look back to those days of absent parenting and wonder if I am now reaping what was sown.   And then I ask myself whether I am using grief as an excuse?

Most children go through a period of time when their parents’ attention and time for them contracts.  Whether it be a new baby or return to work, there comes a time when the best of parenting routines come unstuck.  And Isaac is certainly not the only five year old to be a little crazy, prone to the occasional tantrum, unhappy with the word “no” and fond of fighting games.

I can spend time with my guilt over my absent parenting.  I can beat myself about it and wish things to be different.   Or I can choose to change our present behaviour into something more positive.

So I have decided to do the following:

  1. Every morning, we will dance to William Pharrell’s “Happy”.  You cannot help but start the day on a positive note with that song in your head.  And it was the first song Elijah clapped to.  So it must be good.
  2. Every morning, we will talk about our intention for the day.  We will spend a moment or two discussing what positive thing we want out of that particular day.
  3. The Star Wars, the Ninjago, the Chima – they will no longer be a part of our week days.
  4. Because I am taking away something important from Isaac, I want to give him something.  We will work on a project each week.  It might be an art or craft project, a building project, or something else.  But we will do something creative together.
  5. We will start each day with some gentle yoga.  Every week Elijah and I attend a yoga class.  I might go into that class wound up and anxious – worried about various aspects of my life.  I come out of that class and I am no longer worried.  My problems have not magically been resolved, but my perspective is more realistic after spending time connecting my body to my mind.  If Isaac and I spend some time with yoga, I think it will help us both.

At then end of the day, children are enormously resilient.  My parenting in absentia will always bother me more than it has Isaac.

For those parenting living children and living in the thick fog of grief – be gentle with yourself.  You can only give what you can give.  Somedays that may not be very much at all.  That’s okay.  You are an amazing parent – you have made the choice to still be here with your living family.

For all parents, we can’t be perfect each day.  We can do our best each day.  Some days are going to be better than others, and even when it all goes wrong, there is always tomorrow to look forward to.

This morning (and every weekday morning)…

This is not a blog post about grief.  This a blog post about what my morning looked like.  And pretty much the morning before it and the morning before it.  So if you have had one of those mornings.  If every weekday morning tends to be one of those mornings.  This is for you – you are not alone.

Wake up with eldest child’s foot in my face.  How is eldest child in the bed?
Squint blearily to make out the time on the alarm clock.  6:35am.  Make conscientious decision not to calculate the amount of sleep actually had after waking twice with the baby.  No good can come of it.  Check monitor and sigh with relief that said baby is still sleeping.  Hope madly that school lunch can be made prior to baby waking up.

Realise that eldest child’s foot is still in my face and that he is playing with the dog at the end of the bed.  Realising that he and dog are actually involved in a lick fest.  Rather than greeting eldest child with a beautiful “good morning” and cuddle, say “You know you aren’t meant to do that – don’t lick the dog back!”

Husband wakes, stretches and heads for a shower.  Think not very charitable thoughts about how nice it must be to have only person to get ready.

Get up.  Dog and eldest child involved in a very loud game up the corridor.  Baby wakes up.  Baby demands cuddles.   Realise that the dishes still are not done from the night before.  Wait until husband out of the shower before running the hot water.  Think this is really very nice of me.

Tidy kitchen and make school lunch with one hand as holding baby on hip.

Ask eldest to dress for school.  He cannot.  He must finish his game of legos.  Try not to raise  voice.  Breathe.

Ask eldest child to eat his breakfast.  He cannot. He must finish his colouring in.  Try not to raise voice. Breathe.

Make coffee in vain hope of finishing it whilst still warm.  Should really just switch to very short espressos.  Try to feed baby yoghurt.  Baby doesn’t really want yoghurt.  Baby wants a proper breast feed.  Feed.  Change baby. Calculate own time to get ready is rapidly dwindling.  Should still have 10 minutes though.

Pour cold coffee down drain.

Eldest child asks where his shoes are.  Tell him wherever he left them last.

Eldest child asks where his homework envelope is.  Tell him where he left them last.

Eldest child needs a feather.  Not entirely sure why but is terribly insistent about it.  Locate feather.

Time to get self ready now at about 5 minutes.  Doable.  Panic rising slightly.

Get in shower.  Baby crying.  Have to leave baby crying.  Fret about immense psychological damage this might doing him.  Pause and think about immense psychological damage this might be doing me.  Get changed.   Hold baby. Brush hair and put in contacts with one hand.

We seem to be relatively on time.

Put dog outside.  Have to employ military style tactics to trick dog into thinking this a good idea.

Cannot find keys.  Where are the keys?  Why don’t I leave the keys in the same place?  WHERE ARE MY KEYS?

Mummy, they are probably where you last left them.

Make it to school in ample time, looking like a nice, normal family.  Just like everyone else.

Becoming the New

I’ll tell you a little shared parenting secret. Children don’t get easier with age. You just get better at parenting. It starts to sink into your skin and becomes an integral part of who you are. Children change your values, your viewpoint and your priorities. As a first time mother, I was faced with a lifestyle shock, an identity crisis, a love more intense than I had ever imagined and a fatigue I would never have guessed existed. All this whilst figuring out how to mother a tiny dependant being with no eloquent way to express his needs. It is a lot. Sometimes I think we forget just how much. But eventually I was reshaped and settled into motherhood. I no longer needed to analyse it or agonise over it. It simply became me – a much quieter and more assured part of myself.

The grief I felt after losing Xavier was the inverse of the joy I felt when I first held him. Where there was once hope, there was despair. Where there was joy, there was only pain. And where a baby once was, a huge, yawning, aching gap. But settling into grief and having it become a part of who I am is, in many ways, like the gradual acceptance of motherhood itself into my psyche. At first, there is violence and confusion. A world rocked and emotions displaced. People would tell me that the death of my child would change me – that it was inevitable. And I would nod and inside I would scream “No – I don’t want it to change me, I don’t want to lose who I am.”

“I will not let this loss define me,” became a mantra, an anthem, a steely promise. But children change you. Experience changes you. Xavier’s life changed me and Xavier ‘s death changed me. In retrospect, I was clinging to the idea “I won’t let this loss defeat me”. The darkest days of grief drag you down and under. Leave you gasping for air. And you fight. You literally fight for your life. The length of that dark time varies from person to person who has experienced the death of a child. But the weight of it, the almost unbearable weight, seems a consistent experience. Gradually it eases, the grief becomes gentler and the memories less intense. The double edged sword of distance, granting a measure of peace whilst at the same time blurring the memories of a much loved little face.

But the fact of his absence remains. That fact is no gentler. I have grown to deal with it in a gentler way, but the bald facts remain as horrific as they did at the start. That will never change. When he left he set my life on a different course. Everything changed in that moment. And forever I will be bereaved mother. He is not forgotten. He changed everything.

Not long after Xavier died, a dear family member gave me a silver X. I had his handprint stamped on a silver heart and I found a sunshine pendant. Those three charms hung from my neck and I vowed I’d never wear another necklace. But as time went on, I felt the need to wear it constantly lessen. Xavier had become so much a part of me that the physical talisman seemed to lose the grave importance it once held. Xavier moved into a safer place within my soul. A quiet and assured place that would never give him up. I still wear the necklace sometimes – now not so much to feel connected, but rather than to wear something of him with pride.

I believe he is safe within my story and my story safe within his. He has thread himself through the fabric of my narrative and the narrative of others. He will be remembered. He will live on. For my words belong to him and when I write, it feels like his words whispered in my ear.

Mothering Tutorial – Using Mac’s Pages to create a custom shape filled with text

One of the primary ways I still mother Xavier is through creating things.  Whether I write, sew or scrapbook, I feel solace when I set aside quiet time and make beautiful things in his memory.   It is a way to connect and reflect and most of all, continue to make room in my life for him.

I wanted to share how I made this text butterfly so that others might be able to create something similar for their loved ones gone too soon.


I used Pages on a Mac, and my instructions will be specific to that program, with an assumption that the reader is relatively well acquainted with the program.   This blog post explains how you can do something similar in Word –

So here, goes:

  1. Firstly, find an image that has a clear outline that speaks to you – perhaps wings, a heart, a flower, etc.
  2. Save that image.
  3. Create a new pages document and insert the saved image.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.04.17 PM
  4. Choose the free draw tool from the shapes menu.  Trace around the edges of the image.  To soften the lines use Format > Shape > Smooth Paths.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.04.32 PMScreen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.07.13 PM
  5. Select the image and delete it. You should be left with the shape you have traced
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.07.46 PM
  6. Find the lyrics, verse or prose you want to form the text part of the image.   Copy them to the clipboard and then paste into a new pages document.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.10.06 PM
  7. Find all the paragraph markers and replace with a space using the find tool. Copy the resulting text.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.10.25 PM
  8. Back in the document you originally  created, double click on the shape and paste the copied text. You might need to paste it a few times to fill the space.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.10.55 PM
  9. Click on the outline of the shape and choose no fill as the line colour.
  10. Click on the inspector and go to text.  Justify the margins.  You can also alter the character ligature and line spacing here.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.12.36 PM
  11. You may like to change the font.  If you don’t  like the options available, download a font you like. There are some great font resources on the web, I like fontspace the best.   You may like to pick out words and phrases that mean a lot to you and change the colour, font, bold or size.  To quickly change the size in pages, select the word/s and press control and +.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.16.27 PM
  12. To add the name and dates, create a text box.   Change the properties to floating.   Place this onto the shape and type your names , dates or other messages.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.16.47 PM
  13. Edit the font size, colour etc. to your liking.
    Screen Shot 2014-03-05 at 9.19.31 PM
  14. Save the document.  You may like to export to a PDF for easy printing.