This week I gave three bags of baby things away. They were things bought when we were expecting Matilda. I was in full nesting mode at the time and organising everything with lists and plans between naps. I’d ordered most of the stuff on line and it continued to arrive after she had died, little packets of baby clothes and nappies and bibs and blankets arriving like a comet trail while she plunged on out of our lives. Initially, while we planned the baby’s room, everything was stored in our bedroom. I’d made space in a beautiful antique set of drawers and filled the whole thing with all the bits and pieces we’d need. I’d set the Moses basket up to make sure it fit where I wanted it and it was full of toys. There’s a picture somewhere of me, a mirror selfie, taken the day before we went to hospital, in which I am beautifully round and the Moses basket is in the background and the future is within finger tip distance. And they stayed there. For the first few years – five years?- I couldn’t even open the drawers without being consumed by grief.
Since I turned forty, since we crossed the line that would have been us stopping trying to conceive anyway, even if we’d not had the disastrous last IVF attempt which broke us, I have been attempting to put the desire to move forward into a practical plan. It’s been more than eight years since she died, but this is a complex situation. In fact there is a named disorder called complicated grief which often affects people who have been through a traumatising loss, child loss, a shocking loss, and while I’m not going to diagnose myself (what good would it do anyone?) it’s clear that there is certainly an element of that in my grief process. I’ve said before that eight years seems like a long time, but actually for four of those years we were in the middle of a legal investigation into the hospital which was found to have let us down to such an extent that they were partly responsible for her death. For the whole of those eight years, from seven months after Matilda’s death we were going through IVF to try and have our family, because our clock was ticking and we didn’t have time to wait, we were going through two miscarriages, it was all re-traumatising to say the least. Looking back, I must have been made of steelier stuff than I feel I am to have survived it all, alongside the bomb that was my baby’s death.
I digress. The reason that I’m writing all this down is so that people going through this will know they are not alone. If there is someone else who, like me, feels like they are a bit of a freak, that everyone is looking at them like they are needy and attention grabbing – playing on something that happened a long time ago to garner attention – or feeling judged because other people have managed to get over a loss like this…etc etc because that’s what we all do, isn’t it, judge ourselves against what others think of us, if it’s you, and you are struggling like this, if you’re awake at 3am every night thinking about the sheer overwhelming nature of deconstructing your life and giving it away, about deconstructing your child’s life, and worrying about how it looks like you don’t love them, or that they didn’t mean everything to you, or that they might be somewhere thinking they aren’t wanted, I understand. It’s understandable. I want you to know that there isn’t a time limit, that letting go is hard. It’s completely understandable. Please don’t feel like you can’t get past this. To those reading this who are facing a future without children, it doesn’t mean you’ll never be fulfilled or happy, if you’ve lost your baby and everyone is telling you that you’ll be better once you have another baby, I understand, I understand that your baby wasn’t replaceable, that your child is relevant and is still a huge part of your life.
So I had been through all her things and bagged them and sorted them, and it was emotionally exhausting, I had to do it in tiny little bits, breaking down this life that has over laid my actual life for eight years. It often feels like there was a point at her death when my future split like a forked road, but the other fork didn’t go in a separate direction, it stayed on top of the one we were following. I’ve become so familiar with that life that on my back, or on my shoulders. I think of the grief analogy of the rock that I’ve carried round, it’s slow degradation, how it started as a boulder, but now it is a pebble in my pocket, and I realise I am still walking like I am carrying a boulder. And more, though I wanted to carry the boulder, I don’t want to anymore.
The things are really in three parts, four if you include the IVF stuff. The THREE BAGS: changing mat, reusable newborn nappies, nappy liners, disposable nappies, muslins, cot mobile, books, bottles, steriliser, baby monitor, dummies, travel bottles. THE BABY BATH: which includes baby slings, baby carriers, the bath, the little mobile wash unit, the baby bouncer. THE MOSES BASKET: which includes the basket and stand. The basket will be the hardest to deal with, and will be the last to go. It feels symbolic. How much of this process is symbolic, ritualistic? There’s a natural tendency to make sense of things with ritual. It’s something I find endlessly fascinating.
As well as all this, there is still the problem of the bag of sharps bins and IVF literature, all the other bits of the TTC journey. All the bedding and maternity clothes are dealt with: I have sorted and I am keeping for the sewing project I’m planning.
The three bags were moved to the spare room. I had thoughts about selling the stuff to raise money to fund a resource I am hoping to set up. But I started to question how much of that was just an excuse because it is so painful to let them go, the fear of the pain is quite a force. I found that when I thought about letting them go I would often have panic attacks, and my hands would shake and the rising, emotion? Grief? Anxiety – who knows, it’s an unbearable feeling – would make me want to claw everything back, pull it all back to me and cry. I wanted to say “I’m sorry’ to my daughter, as if letting go of her things was letting go of her, as if I had let her down, failed her. Every time I went in the spare room to do the ironing, or to work on my sewing machine the bags were there on the bed. It meant that I was thinking about them, and it meant that I was placing my feelings around them in order. I started to imagine what it would be like to just give them away. Crucially, I started to visualise placing the bags down and walking away. I visualised getting into the car and driving away and I found that I was feeling freed by it. Sad, but freed. Then I knew that this was do-able. That this was the right time, finally. Who would I give them to? I still wanted good to come from them, I decided on St Catherine’s Hospice, because my brother in law had received such beautiful, careful care from them when he was dying of cancer. I chose a village ten minutes drive away- it needed to be close enough that I wouldn’t change my mind when driving over – it also needed to be somewhere where I didn’t know anyone who lived there, because the thought of some friend saying ‘look at the bargain I picked up from the charity shop’ and it being something of Matilda’s would upset me too much. Similarly, I didn’t want to be driving past the shop display with her things in. On the day, I made the giving away part of my list of errands. I knew if I made it too significant, if I thought about the enormity of it, it would drown me and I wouldn’t be able to do it, so I just picked all three up, put them in the boot of the car, took some parcels to the post office, then went to the charity shop, parked, walked across the road with them, opened the door (at this point I have to say everything became like a dream -unfocused and tunnelled and dissociated and strange, like watching someone else) and I walked to the counter with my bright-smile-armour on and said “I’ve brought you some things” put the bags down, turned round and didn’t say anything else and walked back to the car.
I drove away and didn’t stop to think, though in hindsight it might not have been good to drive as it still felt dream like and strange and like watching a TV show of someone dealing with their dead baby’s things, their un-family’s things. I went to Morrisons and sat in the car park and gulped down the wall of sad that was coming. And honestly, honestly, it was OK. I went and did my shopping and though I thought about the strangeness of the things being somewhere else, (I’d had to stop this line of thought as I was taking the bags to the car because I’d started thinking – this is the first time these things have had outside air on them since we were bringing them into the house and I was round as a water melon and struggling with a baby kicking and the future was a sharp, bright place with different fears – this sort of thing would stop me getting anywhere, but is OK when I don’t have anything to do and can just dissolve) I don’t feel upset by it like I thought I would. I didn’t have a proper melt-down panic attack, though I couldn’t think properly for a while and the whole day was a bit like that-putting things in the wrong place and staring blankly at the computer when I should have been writing. I don’t feel like I ‘survived’ something. I feel like it was an ordinary thing. It was an ordinary thing and an extraordinary thing at the same time.
So they are out there now. And I actually feel happy that someone who might be wondering how they’ll afford their baby’s things is picking the things up and buying them, that that money is helping someone else at a painful time in their own lives. The things are deconstructed, no longer my complete set, they have lost the power of being a part of my life and they are gone and I am a step further towards the spare room being my office.
If you have reached this point, thank you for reading such a long and over thought piece about something which probably doesn’t resonate or connect with you, but will almost certainly be a part of someone you know’s experience – a work colleague, a cousin, a street neighbour – because us mothers who cannot mother, us mums with our wisps of what was and what might have become, we exist, we’re not alone, we’re just not seen so readily.