Friday, August 15, 2014

Third.

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. 

23 comments:

  1. I'm glad you sent it too. I think you could have gone either way, but since this way felt right, it was right (if that makes sense). I struggle with this too-- i have two living, growing wonderful boys. But I had my first boy, too. And so in a way it's easy because I can talk about my boys/sons and that encompasses all of them. But in so many other conversations, it just doesn't make sense to bring up Miller or even go into the story. Sigh. Hugs to you.

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  2. I am so happy that you made the correction. I admire the courage it took to do what felt right to you. My heart sinks when people refer to Jonathan as our second baby. I rarely correct people, though. I do, however, always refer to him as our youngest child. And, when I talk about pregnancy or babies, I always say three or third. Sometimes, right after that, people will disregard our first baby and I just want to scream.

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  3. Me too, Brooke. Eliza matters. Applauding you with tears streaming...

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  4. I'm so so glad you did. And you're probably right that this will reach someone who appreciates the reminder that these babies matter. When I was unsure of how to word that message about the fundraiser with the new moms I work out with you said, "I keep thinking of how important it is not to remain silent...." And you went on to give touching and good advice. And you've done just that - you had the courage not to stay silent and it matters. There's so little we can do for our love ones who are no longer here, so it's so special and important we do what we can when we can.

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  5. Good for you for speaking up. My situation is a bit different since I have 1 son and 2 daughters. But I always cringe when someone refers to Frostina as my "oldest" because she's not. I just don't have the nerve most of the time to correct people.

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  6. As soon as I read "youngest" I KNEW what was going to happen here. Good for you for sending the correction. Your email sounds exactly like something Ms. B would say to say...

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  7. I love you.
    I love what you wrote, how you wrote it, and how it was received. I love Eliza just as I love Zuzu and Coco, so of course she mattered and needed to be included.

    <3

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  8. I'm glad you corrected them. Your email response was perfect and appropriate. Eliza will always matter. xoxo

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  9. That was a LOVELY correction, and so very important. I'm happy the admin assistant responded appropriately. I haven't been through the loss of a child, but it takes people aback when I say my mom had 5 babies - no one ever seems to remember my baby sister, Sharon. Damn it, I felt her kick. I saw her tiny casket. I dressed my dolls in the clothes she should've worn. For years - no DECADES - I've loved that I have 2 brothers and 2 sisters, one of each older and one of each younger. I just wish I could've held and loved my little sister the way I did my little brother. She would be 35 this September 12. She has missed out on so much, just as we have missed out on so much of her.

    And this email made me cry. :) I'm so glad you corrected them.

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  10. POST... this blog POST made me cry, not email. Can't think through all the tears and love. :)

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  11. I love your correction. And I'm sure it did touch someone remembering a special child. Your words were perfect.

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  12. I'm THRILLED you sent the correction. It would have eaten me alive to leave it alone. I'm sure there were ppl who thought it was weird, just as I KNOW some ppl think it's weird I still "count" and hold onto Hayes so tightly. But it's not them who birthed a precious, loved and yet dead baby. Not did they go to hell and back afterward. So I say we get to choose. F them if they don't like it. So proud of you!!

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  13. I think you did an excellent job of handling a difficult situation. And congratulations! on the safe arrival of Coco.

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  14. Wonderfully said, all three girls matter.

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  15. I love the email you sent. I'm so happy you chose to go this route. My god, I know this must have been HARD, but I'm so happy you resent and revised.

    She matters. Eliza exists. You have 3. And I love her.

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  16. You absolutely did the right thing, Brooke. One of my coworkers had a stillborn baby before I had Genevieve, and she had been open with her story — to the point of writing about it for the newspaper. I remember after having Genevieve that I immediately knew I would reach out to her, that I had someone in my life who would understand. You never know when your story might become a lifeline for someone else.

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  17. Hi, just wanted to chime in as another person who is so glad you wrote back, and so grateful that you're blogging about it. I'm now pregnant with my second, and already dread the question "is this your first?". No. This isn't. William was born too soon and passed away. We still miss him every day. But I never know who I'm safe to share that with and who I shouldn't, so I don't share it with anyone who didn't know me when I was pregnant last year (and even most of those ppl actually). So isolating. Someday I hope I am as brave as you are, and can share William since he has such a big place in my heart.

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  18. What a gracious email - no wonder you're an English professor. I want to echo the crowd that I'm glad you sent it.

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  19. I'm glad you wrote and glad you feel better and agree with what Sarah above said: maybe someday someone who needs to will remember your email. I cringe every time someone refers to M as my second, but I never know what to do or say. Going back to work in a department I've been part of before but away from for a long time, I'm getting a LOT of the oh, you've had a second child! comments. Lots and lots of inward cringing.

    Three little girls. All three so loved.

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  20. Ouch...I sort of guessed where this was going. Good for you for sending the correction, it certainly matters! I'm sure it was malicious, but people don't understand how dangerous and hurtful these assumptions can be. My mother's first daughter passed away at 5 months old and she still gets upset if anyone tries to say she only has 3 daughters. And I always say I have three sisters. I'm glad you corrected her!

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  21. Go Mama bear. I'm glad you made the correction and you did it so respectfully. This is the last (I think?) time this will happen and you'd probably have many regrets if you didn't.

    So proud of you for stepping up and sharing Eliza's name. Isn't it beautiful to write? :)

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  22. Oh, this post made me cry. I think it is great that you sent the correction... and more importantly that you did what you wanted to do regardless of whether it made anyone feel awkward. What matters is how it made you feel!

    Three daughters - wow. I really do think your e-mail back is just perfect.

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