Thursday, November 10, 2011

On Unfairness

Several of you responded (in comments or in e-mails to me) to one commenter's observation that Ms. B's advice seemed somewhat "unfair" to the New Mom.

I wanted to address that here, because I know the commenter in real life, and I know he respects both my opinion and my grief, and I know that he knows if he'd given me feedback on any writing that I disagreed with, I'd track him down and we'd hash it out, and it might end with me admitting that essay was a B+ at best, or it might end with him admitting he was mistaken in his initial judgment.  He's cool like that.

And so I say this.

Was Ms. B was totally unfair to New Mom?  Well, it's true that New Mom is in a totally shitty and unfair position.  She was thrilled, excited, delighted with the arrival of her new baby, and almost as excited about the fact that her best friend was going to be right there with her.  They were supposed to be walking down this path together, foraging through the adventures of being new parents, and keeping each other company in the madness that is those first few months of babyhood.

In fact, it's completely unfair for New Mom to be in the middle of her postpartum hormones, finally the hang of breastfeeding, and suddenly--WHAM--she gets whopped with the news that her best friend's baby died.  That fucking sucks.  Not only does she have a new baby who needs her attention every waking moment, she now has a best friend who is basically AWOL, disappearing in a spiral of selfish grief.  And, assuming she's not a sociopath, she probably grieves deeply for the baby who died, and feels intense sympathy for her friend.  Now New Mom is stuck in the completely unfair position of being really happy for herself, and really sad for someone else.  At the same time, she's trying to figure out life with a new baby, and cope with the disappearance of her old friend.  That's not easy.  Especially because the friend is saying things like, "Although I am happy for you, I am so overcome with sadness for myself that I can barely breathe.  Therefore, I cannot talk about your baby without it feeling like you are gleefully rubbing salt in the raw, open, festering, bloody wound that is my heart."

Life with a six month old is no doubt all-consuming.  I personally have no experience on this subject, but I did a shitload of reading about it before my baby died, so I think I can reasonably assert that sleep patterns can change unexpectedly as a result of growth spurts, teething can reek havoc on a previously-laid-back baby's personality, and any of this would be exhausting for a parent.  The transition to cereal or baby food from formula or breast milk can make for messy meal times, disgusting diapers, and anxiety about allergies.  Crawling babies suddenly mean a baby-proofing frenzy, because now baby can reach the bucket of filthy dog toys, the computer cord plugged into that outlet, the flip flop you slipped off by the front door.

I believe all this is absolutely true, and it makes perfect sense that a New Mom would be consumed by the subject of her child.

But I say this:  More consuming than a six month old baby is five month grief.

Going back to work, watching television, doing crafty projects, reading novels, writing novels, running marathons, doing volunteer work, these are not really distractions, although we call them that.  These are things we do simply because otherwise the day feels unlivable.

Talking to someone who is five months out from the loss of their child is not easy.  Because the only thing they want to talk about?  Is their child.  They are just as consumed by that baby as any parent is who has a living child.

The difference is that by the time I was five months out from my grief, I was painfully aware that other people don't want to hear me wail, "I want my baby!  I just want my baby!" over and over and over again.  Preferably while keening back and forth, and clutching her hospital blanket to my chest.

That kind of scene tends to make people uncomfortable.  It might even make them sad.  And as a bereaved parent, a parent who misses my child so deeply that I am never NOT thinking about that loss, I have the good sense and good manners to avoid subjects that my friends might find especially disturbing.  I save those things for my blog, for my therapist, for conversations my friends who have also lost children, and (of course) for my husband (lucky man).

I find other things to talk about, NOT because I'm not consumed by my grief, but because I recognize that if I want to maintain some level of social function, I need to find more appropriate subjects to discuss with people who--for whatever reason--don't want to hear about my grief.  I respect and accommodate their needs.

But even while bereaved parents are forcing themselves to act "normal," and find something pleasant to say (or remain silent, so as not to say something awkward), they are expected to smile and nod and make excuses for people who insist on talking about the one conversation topic they find incredibly painful.  That, to me, seems pretty unfair.

As far as I'm concerned (and let's face it, I'm coming up on one year out, so I'm basically an expert on the topic), dead baby unfairness trumps every other kind.

Therefore, no matter how consumed the new mom may be in her six month old baby, she doesn't get a free pass to check out on her friend, and to be completely absorbed in her own world.  (She can, and very well may, choose to do this anyway, but she'll be doing it at the cost of their friendship, which isn't FAIR but is REAL).  It may not be fair that she needs to turn on the Today show or subscribe to a magazine just so she has something else to talk about, when she has a perfectly suitable subject of conversation cooing right their on her lap.  But what's really unfair is that her friend doesn't have her five month old baby here.

Here are the facts as I see them:

The mom with the dead baby can't bring her baby back life.  The New Mom, with the six month old, can--and should--make a conscious decision to find something else to talk about. Ms. B stands by that assessment, and so do I.

Fairness be damned.  My expectation of fairness died with my daughter.


  1. Being current both New Mom and new grieved mom, I think that it's fair to throw fairness out the window.

    I say I am both because I have both a ten-month-old son and his stillborn twin sister to act based on. At 24 weeks, our daughter died in utero due to a cord compression. We were able to stave off labor for six days until they were born two days before CHristmas as 29 and 6 gestation.

    I think the best advice is that even though the friend who lost the child may be not be doing a good job of supporting the friendship, this doesn't meant the new parent can quit. Instead it means the opposite, that they should pick up the slack. It matters more than they'll know.

    Joy and sorrow can completely exist at the same time. This is one of the truths that I recently wrote about when I tried to figure out what I'd learned in the last year from this situation (

  2. I apparently can't type. Being currently both of these mothers is what I meant... That both statuses are occurring simultaneously.

  3. whew, this hits close to home. and it was and is so fragile for me that I'm hesitant to comment, but I love to talk so much I think that I'm overriding the hesitancy...

    I was the lucky mom whose son lived. and it was a very hard year for me, but not as hard as it was for my friend (who will hopefully email me and ask me or Brooke to delete this comment if she wants it down).

    I missed her a lot and I needed her a lot and I had to know that she was doing the best she could and keep making sure that I was doing the best I could, that if we both kept doing that then we might be able to have again some bit of what we once did. (I think we do.)

    I also had to stretch my narrow, tired, myopic brain to realize that she needed and missed me more, even though I couldn't imagine that, and that it was my duty to show up for her how she needed me to if I wanted to maintain this relationship.

    One of the very most helpful things she did for me during that time was let me know in snippets when my contact was okay, that it felt good to hear from me. New Mom has to try not to read anything into her silence. It's not about New Mom.

    It was so tempting at times to think I was angry at her or hurt by her, but reality check!, in fact, I'm angry at life, and I'm hurt by the unfairness of it all. It's just more tempting to pin blame on a person instead of a situation.

    And like you encouraged New Mom to do, I'd support her turning to other friends for talking about her baby and adjustment to motherhood, and also other friends for processing the loss of or changes in this friendship.

    If I could do anything differently, I'd go to his memorial service. I think I may have been too far along to fly. And I think I should have figured it out anyway. I really regret not being there. (Unless me being there pregnant would have been harder for her--it is so important to ask what she wants, and be willing to have the answer change.)

    To the real-life person behind this submission (really? come on, Brooke, already a real submission?!): hang in there. I know this is a hard year for you too. I know you miss her. I know you're scared that your baby will die too. Go see a counselor about those things, and allow yourself to parent with the full and scary knowledge that your child's life is a gift, it's luck, and it can be taken.


  4. EVERYONE has to maintain some level of social function and act "normal". I don't think that is a particular affliction of the babylost. I disagree with your original response and with this. I just see things very differently at three years out.

    Asking our closest friends to wait to talk about their lives until we can handle it is incredibly unfair. Telling your closest friends and family to get a hobby and talk about something other than the most important thing in their life is about as fair as someone telling us to get a hobby and talk about something other than the most important thing in our life.

    I think babylost parents know, perhaps more than anyone, how fucking unfair the universe is. This is just one of those unfair areas for the babylost. If the world were a just place, I believe that our friends would be bottomless wells of patience and selflessness. But the truth is they are human beings. They are not Buddhas. We cannot expect them to still be our friends while expecting them to ignore or minimize their living children. If we want to be part of their lives, it is something we have to accept. They are never going to be just them again. Why not advise the friend to talk to her grieving friend?

    Friendships are compromises, even in grief. I think I would tell the letter writer to approach her friend with compassion, and have an open discussion about it. I was sick of being underestimated in my ability to handle other people's good fortune or other people's needs and expectations of me. It was like everyone was deciding what I could and couldn't hear about and I wasn't involved in the conversation. Maybe her friend isn't having a hard time hearing about the baby, maybe she is just in the narcissistic, self-absorbed stage of grief and forgets to ask. I did that! I could hear about babies without blinking an eye. I just forgot life went on for other people. I forgot to ask.

    Just because we deserve a little leeway and selflessness from your friends doesn't mean we get it. And just because we don't get it doesn't mean our friends are selfish, horrible people. They are just people. With needs. I just would advise this woman and her grieving friend to both be kind to the people they love most. Because that is what decent human beings do. I felt I should give my perspective from three years out--most of my close friends are people I met since Lucia died. And by most, I think I have one left from my before time. It is so sad for me. Three years out, I miss and grieve my friendships deeply, all because I told them to talk about something else, to find something else to talk about. And when they said, I miss your friendship. I said, "You are either with me and an infinite well of patience or you are against me." And I had many babylost mamas cheering me on from the sidelines. But the truth is that is not friend behavior, no matter how fucking horrible life has been to me.

    I think what I am trying to say is that Righteous Indignation is a land with a population of One.

    Sorry to go on for so long, I just feel passionately about this, because I surrounded myself with babylost blogs and babylost people in the early days, and now even, and everyone kept telling me that my friends were wrong because they wanted me to listen to baby talk and stuff about their lives, and I believed them. And now, I think if someone told me it was listen a little or lose all my friends as well as my baby, I think I could have mustered the patience.

  5. Angie, I want to reply to your comment, because what I wanted to get across here is that I think bereaved parents DO find other things to talk about besides our grief, and we work really hard at it in order to maintain friendships and some sense of social normality. With my friends who had babies, I talked about work, I talked about in-laws, I talked about television shows, I (sometimes) tried to talk about their babies, and yes, I also talked about how terribly unfair it was that things were so awkward and that I was such a bad friend, and I apologized for that continually.

    But I DO believe that in the give-and-take of friendship, bereaved parents have to be able to expect a good deal of give from their friends. It's not about living in righteous indignation, it's about surrounding yourselves with people who can respect your grief enough to pursue topics of conversation you can handle.

    That doesn't mean there aren't losses. Friendships will obviously change, and we absolutely can't expect our friends to be patient indefinitely. But five months? I think we can ask for them to put forth the same kind of desperate effort that we are putting forth, to at least meet us half way.

    The person who wrote the letter seemed to be asking about her friend's son, just not as frequently as that friend would like. So I think she is listening a little, being patient, and doing so for the sake of the friendship. And I also agree that the new mom should be addressing her friend's grief by asking how her friend is doing (and then asking follow-up questions), and talking directly about her friend's grief, as well as other "superficial" topics.

    The unfortunate truth is that so many friendships will be negatively affected by a loss, no matter what. But I just don't think it's unreasonable to ask someone's best friend to find other ways to connect with them now that their parenting experiences are so dramatically and tragically separated.

    I completely agree that the bereaved parent has to put forward that effort too, though. We need to meet a friend for coffee or a movie even when we don't want to leave the house. We need to be honest about how bad things are, or about how much better we feel on a given day. We can't just drop out of life entirely and expect everyone to be waiting for us when we come back. But we also need more from our friends than a "See you when you get back." I don't think it's unreasonable to ask our friends to meet us where we are, in the depths of our grief, and abide with us on our struggle to get out.

    I also wonder if my answer (or Ms. B's) would change in another two years. So far, I don't have friends who have disappeared from my life, or who have cut me off because I can't be there for them, and I count myself incredibly fortunate to be telling New Mom what to do by essentially describing what my friends have done for me.

  6. I didn't think you were being unfair at all. Should New Mom have to avoid talking about her baby forever? No, that would be ridiculous. But five months out? Is way too early to expect the bereaved mother to be up for happy baby chit chat. You would know better than me when the bereaved mother would be up for a cute baby anecdote, but I think it would be insensitive of New Mom to turn to her for those types of conversations so early on.

    I was thinking about it the other way around--what if both women were pregnant at the same time with the same due date, and one of the women lost the baby at 30 weeks. Would the still-pregnant friend be the right person to talk to about her loss, even though they were best friends and would, under other circumstances, turn to each other for support in a tragic situation? There are just some times, fairness be damned, that we have to put our own feelings aside and do what is best for someone we love. And if that means joining a Mommy-and-Me class and meeting some new mom friends so you don't have to talk to your best friend about something she finds incredibly painful, then that's what you have to do. Then have a girls' night, go out for cocktails, watch "Bridesmaids". New Mother is more than just a mother, she has other qualities that she shared with her friend before their pregnancies, and those are the things that will sustain the friendship long term.

  7. Yes, you are incredibly fortunate. I think that is rare in this experience. The friends who abided were awesome until about one year, then they began dropping like mayflies. And then I learned that they resented the times during the year that I took grieving and mourning and treading water. I think they had a timeline of patience in their head. When I wasn't better at one year, they moved on.

    When I shared that comment, I was only sharing my experience of grief and friendships. I had friends that were there for fifteen-twenty years that disappeared. I certainly lived in a land of Righteous Indignation. Everyone agreed with me--my friends sucked when they began leaving. And I was justified in my anger. "My baby died." I acted like that trumped everything, and now, I just don't think it does. Suffering is not hierarchical. Suffering is suffering is suffering.

    I'm certainly not saying that friends shouldn't meet us where we are. In fact, they absolutely should. So should we. I'm also not saying that five months is a long time, but six months for that woman with a newborn is a long time. She has passed many milestones in her baby's life that she hasn't been able to share with her friend. She is feeling farther away from her friend, because her life has also changed so much. I'm not saying she should share them, litter her inbox with pictures, and insensitive prattle about babies, but I think she should at least have a conversation with her friend and express how much she wants to include her in her life. It is a situation that is unfair all around, but I think it is incredibly condescending and insensitive to tell a mother of a newborn to get a hobby so she has something to talk about.

    As someone with living children and a dead one, I can say that talking about television or my in-laws or my work is not talking about me. My children are my heart and soul, and if I don't talk about them with you, it limits the intimacy I feel. That includes Lucy as well as my living children.

    I just felt I had to give another perspective, because it really isn't us against them--the babylost against the non-babylost. We are all people missing the ones we love.

  8. I'm 2 years and a few months out and totally disagree with still life angie. Having been on the grieving mom side and the new mom side, I absolutely don't think its unfair to expect new mom to keep the new baby talk to a minimum for grieving mom's sanity and find other things to talk about.

    One of my closest friends had a baby the month that our baby was due. It took a LONG LONG time for me to start asking how her daughter was doing, not because I didn't care, but her daughter will always be an in the face reminder of what our daughter should be doing now. It's still hard for me to talk about her daughter but now that I have a living child of my own, I at least have something I can relate to parenting-wise (besides burial plans and morbid crap like that) finally. I still very firmly believe that the good friends will stick around and understand and patiently wait for the time that you can be a better friend again, (which will come) and the ones that can't...aren't worth keeping anyway. (I did lose one friend, but only because she made the choice to drop off the face of the planet when we lost our daughter. Not anything having to do with talking about babies. I'm better without friends like that, anyway, IMO.)

  9. again, *i* think you hit the nail on the head.

    "Fairness be damned. My expectation of fairness died with my daughter."

    that says it all for me. i do understand what angie is saying. i mean, i sit next to a person at work whose wife just had a baby, and people come up to him and talk to him about his newborn son right next to me. and it would be "unfair" for me to ask him to hold all of his conversations about his child and his family elsewhere. i can't really put my grief and my sadness on him.

    with that said, those who are supposed to be close friends, people who truly deeply care about you, should be more than willing to refrain from discussing certain things when they know how deeply it pains you. and it has nothing to do with fairness, but everything to do with just loving someone and not wanting to cause them more hurt.

    if i had a close friend who had just lost her mother, i wouldn't go on and on about how much fun i had shopping with my mom or talking to my mom, would i? no, i would find some other common ground to discuss. i don't know why it's so hard to do the same when it's a child involved. yes, we love to gush about our children to anyone that will listen. but it's a little self-absorbed to not see that there is 1 person who at the present time can not DEAL with the topic of babies.

    if you truly love a person, you will wait for them to come around. if their friendship is worth it, you will be there no matter what. but the reality is that some frienships are not strong enough to withstand a tragedy and hardship. and honestly, that's what this friendship sounds like. i would never question cutting someone in need out of my life just because i couldn't have the conversations with them that *i* wanted to. again, just my humble opinion.

  10. Holy bejesus on the novel comments here... I was thinking a million things but mostly to the tune of (YEAH, so suck it!), so I'll just reiterate my favorite line:

    "More consuming than a six month old baby is five month old grief."

    and my second fave:

    "Fairness be damned. My expectation of fairness died with my daughter."

    You're a writing/bereaved/DBM rockstar. I'd like you to advocate for me like everyday. Thanks.

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  12. I think all Brooke is asking for is some sensitivity, which is something we could all have used in those early months. But Angie, I get it, having lost most of my friends I can look back, 3+ years later and see that I needed and expected too much. At the time, I just thought they were a bunch of assholes (and some plainly were but that's another story) but I also realize the role I played. It's all so fucking complicated, isn't it?

  13. Brooke, I love you. I wrote a much longer reply, but deleted it, because, really, this is all I want to say. Well, and, also: I'm sad others have treated you unfairly in what I see as your perfectly normal grieving process.

  14. I stumbled across your blog recently and I am so glad. I am 5 1/2 months out from my baby's birth and death and I couldn't agree more with your answers. I am looking forward to reading more. Life isn't fair and that royally sucks (for lack of a more articulate way of expression without many expletives).

  15. I agree this sucks and is unfair to the new mom, but the mom with the dead baby has it so much worse. I would trade new mom for her problems any day.

  16. Wow- so many long comments! I just wanted to say that I love the last part of your post:

    "Here are the facts as I see them:

    The mom with the dead baby can't bring her baby back life. The New Mom, with the six month old, can--and should--make a conscious decision to find something else to talk about. Ms. B stands by that assessment, and so do I.

    Fairness be damned. My expectation of fairness died with my daughter."

    Totally agree- 100% Thank you for writing this.

  17. I agree, there needs to be some give & take, and we can't expect our friends to tiptoe around for us forever. But I'm with you, Brooke. Those last two lines say it all for me. There's unfair, & then there's UNFAIR. While I know we would trade places with New Mom anyday, do any of us think she would really want to trade places with us?

  18. Brooke,

    Whew! Lots of great thought provoking writing here, and great discussions to follow.

    I suppose what I'm mostly feeling after reading your alter-ego posts and this one, is that I'm grateful that you are expressing some opinions. I think these conversations are important to have - I hope the community can push us all forward, whether our opinions differ on matters here and there. Good on you for exposing your opinions bravely and sincerely. :)

    I really hear what you are saying and have felt many of these feelings several times over the past eight months since Margot died. I have had similar thoughts to yours: "More consuming than a six month old baby is five month grief."

    But, I honestly don't want to run these comparisons and I don't think they are helpful. I find solace and hope and wisdom in Angie's words. I want to fight for my friendships, which means giving them the same grace and understanding that I want from them. I want them to give me time, I want them to be sensitive, I want them to talk about my dead baby. But I also want to do my best to give them what they need. Even if I can't celebrate every milestone, or talk non-stop about their baby, I can open the lines of communications and tell "new mom" how I'm feeling about it all. What's worse than losing a baby? Losing a baby AND losing all of your friends. Sure, some are not worth the time or fight or effort, but the ones that are worth the fight, I want to give it everything I have to keep these friendships going.

    I guess this hits home because our BEST FRIENDS had their first baby 9 days before Margot died. My business partner is the husband, who I work with every week, and the "new mom" is my wife's best friend. And they live 10 houses down from ours. It has taken a lot of patience and a lot of emails and a lot of not seeing each other, but fighting for this, and trying to see the best in each other, and lots of communication and understanding, is what has turned something that could have gone south into something that has been a great source of joy.

    Anyway, lots of love to all of you.


  19. What wonderful responses you have gotten, Brooke! A good discussion that I think we are better for having. What hits me is that the mother who's child is living does not understand what it is like to be the mother who's child has died. And....there is no way she can. Unless you are here, there is no way to understand pain that never ends. I don't think any of us did, until we lived it. Or as we live it.

    We don't know ourselves what we need. Other then our child in our arms. Acceptance, I think, is the best we can receive and give. Understanding is beyond what most of us are capable of. These two friends are in such different places in their lives. Maybe the best they can do is simply to give each other some space, lovingly. To say, "I can't reach you right now, but my love is here."

    Friendships wax and wane. They end, too, as we change. A woman who's child died 5 months ago is not able to do much. But she still loves. And a friend who cares enough to ask around for advice about how to treat her and what to expect may be able to tap into that love. Even if their friendship changes as they go on their separate ways, they may still carry that love with them.

    They may never understand each other's lives again. They are certainly not in much of a position to support each other. But, tell the friend to send love, and she'll always be able to like what she sees when she looks in the mirror.

    Jill A.

  20. Haven't read the above comments, but just throwing in my two cents. Within one day I became a bereaved parent AND a new mom when one of my twins was stillborn. Without a doubt, HANDS FREAKING DOWN, being a bereaved parent is by far way more consuming than raising a living baby. Way.
    Also, I don't feel the need to constantly talk about my living child to ANYONE, especially not to babylossparents. Our children do NOT define us. If I allowed my children to define me, then I would have died along with my son.
    I am disgusted by the expectations laid upon us by those who don't understand how incredibly exhausting it is to grieve a child you will never come to know - all the should have beens and would have beens and what ifs.
    The "inconveniences" of a living baby don't hold a candle to ANY of that. I realize it isn't a "contest"...But come on, people seriously do not stop and think about how sh*tty this is and how much effort it takes to even get out of bed.

    I fully support your response to new mom.