A few days after Coco was born, I sent an e-mail to my dean at the university where I work. It opened with, "David and I are delighted to announce the birth of our youngest daughter, Colette..." and included the basics--date, time, weight, length. I mentioned that Caroline is very enthusiastic about the baby and calls her Coco. I told him to feel free to share our good news with the university community.
Backstory: I was working fulltime through my pregnancies with both Zuzu/the Deuce and Coco/Rerun, but I did not talk much about babies or pregnancies at work. I'm sure a lot of people assumed that Zuzu was my first pregnancy. If they asked me directly, I corrected them. Otherwise, I said nothing. At that time, I still couldn't talk about Eliza without dissolving into tears, which doesn't exactly scream "competent English professor." As a result, a few members of the faculty knew about Eliza (including one professor in the English department who has become a really close friend), but many did not.
And I was FINE with that. It's precisely the difference between coworkers and friends, you know? I didn't need to try to explain the depth of my grief with whom I'd had only casual, passing conversations. Let's just bitch about the lack of good vegetarian options in the cafeteria or the apathy of our students. No need to bare our souls in the faculty lounge or while waiting for the copy machine.
So I sent the basic, cheerful, work-appropriate e-mail announcing Colette's birth to my dean with no mention of the heartbreak that came before her. He sent a very kind congratulatory reply, and mentioned that he was going to forward my e-mail to the administrative assistant who sends out campus-wide announcements so that she could share our news (as I had expected and invited him to do).
The next day, there were several notes of congratulation in my inbox, all in response to a campus-wide e-mail that began: "Dr. Taylor and her husband David Duckworth welcomed their second daughter, Colette Taylor Duckworth..."
I read those words and my heart sank.
It was so, so wrong.
I didn't know what to do. I almost felt panicky.
It was true that I hadn't mentioned Eliza in my e-mail to the dean. But-but-BUT I had deliberately chosen the word youngest because (nerd alert!) grammatically it refers to a comparison of more than two things (otherwise she would simply be the younger daughter).
I know it's a small distinction, and one that nobody pays attention to in modern English, but a distinction nonetheless. One that felt right for a work e-mail. A whisper of acknowledgement for my invisible girl who isn't here to boss or hug or kiss her sisters, but who is still very much my first daughter.
My friend from the English department was coming over that very day to meet Coco, so I asked her what she thought I should do. Were these postpartum hormones making me freak out? Would I look like a crazy person, oversharing my personal life with my colleagues and coworkers if I insisted on this mistake being corrected? Should I just assume that the people who need to know already know and keep my private life private from everyone else?
"It's important to me," I said to her, my voice breaking.
She told me that she didn't think there was a wrong decision here. I could choose to be private about it and f*ck what anyone else thinks, or I could choose to send out a correction and f*ck what anyone else thinks.
(Good advice for a myriad of situations, really.)
In this case, I knew immediately that it mattered too much to me to just let it go. I have had three babies. I have given birth three times. I have fallen head over heels in love with three tiny little people before I even had a chance to meet them. I have been a mom since Mother's Day of 2010 and dammit, I want the fact that I have had three daughters to be acknowledged.
Or at the very least not completely rewritten to the extent that Eliza never even existed. Her life was short enough without being obliterated entirely.
And so I sent an e-mail back to the administrative assistant and asked her to please forward the following to everyone who received the initial announcement:
Thank you so much for all the warm wishes!
One correction: Colette is our third daughter. Our first daughter, Eliza, was stillborn in December 2010, but is very much a loved and missed member of our family. Our second daughter, Caroline, is now an energetic and assertive two-year-old. She and Colette have brought us much joy after the grief of losing Eliza, and I'm so grateful to be able to share the news of a healthy baby and another sweet girl.
Thanks for your kindness and support!
I sent the e-mail quickly, before I could overthink it. With all the back-to-school announcements coming through, I wasn't even sure that people would read it. But it mattered to me that I put the truth out there. And I really liked seeing all three of their names listed. I've had three little girls! That's so crazy!
Almost immediately, I got a reply from the administrative assistant, who apologized profusely for taking the liberty of assuming that Colette was our second daughter, and explained that she did not know about Eliza (not that I expected her to know). She quickly forwarded my correction.
I got a couple more responses from colleagues--one said she was happy for our family's joy, and another specifically mentioned Eliza as an angel sister. Now, I don't love the idea of Eliza as an angel--I just want her here as a little girl--but if somebody else is saying (or typing) her name and acknowledging her existence, then I'll take it.
Overall, I'm sure that some people felt awkward or thought it was a weird thing for me to insist that my stillborn daughter still counts. But I will (hopefully) never know who those people are. I expect that other people were surprised because they simply had no idea (not that they should have).
And even with the small size of our campus, I imagine that the e-mail reached somebody who has lost a child or a niece or a nephew or a grandchild or a friend. And I hope for them it was a reminder that these babies still matter, that their lives still count.
It's easy to say that our society has an unhealthy way of glossing over the unpleasant reality of loss and death and not talking about things that really matter unless they fit juicy 60-second news bites. But it's damn hard actually to talk about the things that matter when the things that matter are sad and you know they make other people uncomfortable.
Still, I'm not ashamed of Eliza. She's not a dark secret that no one is allowed to mention. She's my first baby. The only thing more unbearable than losing her is when other people act like she never even existed.
I'm glad I sent the correction. I'm glad I insisted that Eliza still counts, even when the numbers never add up the way I want them to.