Faiqa's Notes: Often I blog about identity on here as it relates to race or religion. Today, in this guest post, we'll learn about liminal identities that exist outside the boundaries to which we're accustomed. Thanks for taking the time to read and thank you, Rachel Reynolds, for the openness and compassion with which you share your experience.
Our identity is the way in which we meet the world. We present ourselves to the public in ways that are obvious and unchangeable (our gender and race) as well as in ways that require slightly more preamble. Sometimes we give outward hints to our identity through our clothing (an executive power suit, mom jeans), our leisure activities (fishing enthusiast, crafty crafter, football fan), our behavior, and our relationships (divorced, married, "just friends").
Sometimes those outward signs of an identity may mask a true reality. How many Lifetime movies are built around the premise of the woman who shows the world she has it "all together" but hides her destructive behavior/addiction/illegal act/mental illness from the outside world until it all comes crashing down? These movies may be fiction but chances are good that someone in your neighborhood is living that life right now.
In the last two years, I have struggled with my identity. While I am reasonably sure I know who I am, I am challenged by how I now present myself to the world.
In January 2010, I faced the death of my only child.
People who knew me before that date would probably tell you that my identity is fairly clear and relatively unchanged. I am, among other things, mom to Charlotte Jennie. When I make new acquaintances, though, the line gets kind of blurry.
A conversational topic seems banal until it strikes a nerve. It's amazing how often the subject of your children (or lack thereof) will come up in casual conversation. In college, the go-to personal questions were, "Where are you from?” or "What's your major?" As adults, our small-talk shifts to "What do you do for a living?" "Are you married" and "Do you have children?"
How do I answer that last question? In the past, the answer was the same no matter who was making the query. Now the answer I give is dependent on multiple factors. How well do I know this person? How much will I interact with them after this conversation? How do I think they may react to my answer? Is this a business situation, a social situation, or just a casual conversation? How vulnerable am I feeling today? Answers to those questions usually determine how I respond.
Question: "Do you have children?"
Pros: It's easy and deflects the conversation immediately away from a difficult subject.
Cons: It's not really true. I'm a mom and always will be.
Question: "Do you have children?"
Answer: "Not right now."
Pros: A more honest answer and relatively deflectable. If someone's not paying attention, they usually don't catch the subtlety of my answer and move on.
Cons: If they are paying attention, follow up questions usually ensue.
This leads us to...
Question: "Do you have children?"
Answer: "I had a daughter and she died two years ago."
Pros: The most honest answer I can give.
Cons: The conversation gets awkward.
A frequent reaction is, "I'm so sorry." This is totally appropriate. Sometimes people will ask follow up questions (“What happened?”). Usually this is ok because I love talking about my daughter and I don't mind sharing our story. Sometimes people are clearly unsure of how to respond and I look for ways to change the subject in an effort to deflect further awkwardness. I have relative degrees of success with this. More interesting reactions include immediate change of subject (as if I never said anything at all) or reactions like, "That's just terrible. That's the worst thing I've ever heard." I'm not sure if someone thinks they are being comforting when they say that, but they're not. I think I know just how terrible it is. I don't need reassurance or confirmation.
Follow up questions are ok and usually lead to conversations around our foundation, treatment of brain tumors or other cancers, or questions about Charlotte herself. I don't usually feel people have crossed the line until they ask the inevitable and most awkward question possible, "Will you ever have more children?"
I don't have an easy answer to this question and it's rather painful to discuss so let's just say this is where I look to end the conversation as quickly as possible.
I wish there was a word for who I am right now. A widow is a woman whose spouse has died. The word is most immediately derived from the Sanskrit word widnewa, meaning "to be empty" or "to be separated". An orphan is a child who has lost both parents, derived from the Greek word orbh, meaning "to change allegiance or status". There is no word for a parent who has lost a child. I think I need a word.
When a lexical gap like this one occurs, sometimes society fills the void with new vocabulary. The English language is composed of many words that have their derivation in Greek, Latin, or Germanic/Slavic languages. Words that have been in our vocabulary for centuries are often synergistic creations formed from the roots of these langauges: arthritis: joint inflammation, kindergarten: child's garden. Frequent use makes it a "real" and recognized word.
Likewise, most modern novel vocabulary seems to be made of word "mashups" Spork, frenemy, ringtone, brunch...these are all words that have filled lexical gaps as the need evolves.
I have thought of a few options. Childless doesn't seem right as that implies that parentage was never established to begin with. We could create words like apedia, literally meaning "child loss" in Latin, or kindertod, which translates as "child death" but these are more descriptions of what happened, not a description of the grieving person's identity. Clearly, I'm not the first grieving parent to address this challenge but my research hasn't yielded any success in this endeavor.
At the very least, it is an interesting statement on our society that this lexical gap even exists. Losing a child is wrong, unnatural, and unfair. I continue to grieve. I continue to heal. I continue to allow my identity to evolve.
Rachel Reynolds is a special educator and freelance writer. She writes for a variety of online publications, including her personal blog,See What You Meme. She is also the co-founder and executive director of CJ's Thumbs Up Foundation (CJSTUF). Rachel lives in Ashland, Virginia with her husband and two incredibly annoying (but completely adorable) cats. In her spare time, she obsesses over Don Draper, dark chocolate, and public radio personalities (not necessarily in that order). Four Seasons for Charlotte is her first book.
If you would like to win an autographed copy of Rachel's new book, Four Seasons for Charlotte: A Parent’s Year With Pediatric Cancer, you can enter the giveaway on her author page on Facebook. The giveaway will be open until June 1st.