My thoughts about parenting have generally existed in a continuum that ranges from, “I definitely don’t want kids” to “Kids seem like this fantasy thing” all the way to “If I have kids, I’ll do this …” But nowhere in those ricocheting and often short-lived conceptions of potential parenting has there ever been a moment where I’ve thought, “Yes, I’ll have kids.” Mostly, I’ve been wading about in the gray for a long time. I now realize a great deal of my ambivalence stems from my most well-known observations of parenting: a lifetime spent watching my own amazing, instinctive, and infinitely nurturing mother raise her two children… and then watching her lose and grieve one.
I have seen motherhood at its finest, and seen it suffer through the worst, and I know the consequences of that experience are part of my own smudgy, undefined thinking about the subject and the choice.
When your sibling dies, you goes through a radical bisecting of reality: you’re a half of a pair, and the other half is no more. The core of your world, your familial unit, is fragmented. The remnants are morphed and scattered. The reality of your parents as humans becomes glaring; you witness their pain through the most horrific, tragic experience we can endure.
Watching your own mother experience the sudden death of her child is an intensely vivid and ongoing lesson about the worst possible experience of parenthood, and it’s an experience that continues indefinitely.
I listened to the horror of two people in their dining room, experiencing the agony of losing their child, and I began the struggle of losing my brother.
I had three days left until seventeen and my brother was two months from twenty when, in the middle of an April night, my brother died in a field two miles from our house. I will always remember the sequence of events that led to me knowing that my brother was dead: the phone ringing, my parents saying that there was an accident and they didn’t know what happened, them leaving to check on things (I do not know why, but the neighbors whose land his truck had flipped onto were the ones to call, and this is what they told them). My parents came home, the front door shut, and I heard my mother collapse with the most soul-wrenching sound that a human can emit. Still unmoving in my bed, I listened to the horror of two people in their dining room, experiencing the agony of losing their child, and I began the struggle of losing my brother.
Over the years, I’ve realized that watching your parents survive this is a secondary trauma to your own experience of the loss. You grieve; you grieve for them as well. I cannot begin to convey the lessons you learn from watching your mother’s sorrow swell, crest, dissipate, and rise again over the years. Witnessing that undoubtedly redefined what parenthood and mothering meant to me. In considering any potential to have my own children, my understanding of the risks and wagers inherent in parenting has changed a great deal. I learned that children weren’t guaranteed. If children died — and in my horribly skewed reality, they did — their presence and much of your life was replaced with an inescapable, oppressing horror.
In short, the worst of parent experiences is much larger and clearer in my life than the good.
Losing my brother either manifested or triggered in me a struggle with anxiety that I hadn’t known before. Not in the sense of worrying or being tense or being preoccupied; intense, trauma-based anxiety strikes like a tsunami, collapses the structures around you, leaves you wild and panicked and grasping for reality, safety, and security. I’ve gained a lot of control over it and have developed ways of calming those thoughts, but they are there. I imagine that, if I had a child, they would resurface tenfold, engulfing me. I would live with not only the fear of grief because of my experience observing my parents, but the struggle with panic-and-anxiety-riddled conviction that my child might die, right now, unless I somehow prevent it.
I wonder at what point, if at all, I would be able to experience my own child detached from my memories of my brother. When I initially considered ever having children, one of my first and only certainties was that its name, regardless of gender, would be after him. Since then, I’ve put that certainty away. If I did have children, when would I stop combating the guilt that stems from having kids, an experience he wanted and never got to have? When would my child stop reminding me of my own childhood with him? Would those thoughts be overshadowed by the present, or always on the periphery? What would be my brother’s (and his death’s) role in how I viewed, raised, and related to my own child?
I would hate for her to know that the loss of her child, or my observation of her, had negatively impacted my feelings about having kids.
There is the additional difficulty of being the only surviving child and having a mother who very much wants grandchildren. I’m not in a position to give them to her right now; simultaneously, I’m not in a place to explain why. I would hate for her to know that the loss of her child, or my observation of her, had negatively impacted my feelings about having kids. My mother is by far one of the strongest, most loving mothers I have ever known. She sewed her children’s baby blankets at fifteen because, five years before she was ever pregnant, she already wanted her own children so badly. She is an intrinsically loving, nurturing soul; no one deserved to see their children grow up and start families more than her.
I know that not all surviving siblings have these feelings; I know that many go on to have fantastic experiences with parenthood. But for me, I feel like it’s an experience that I learned too much about in the wrong way and before I saw the good parts. (I have now seen “the good parts” as my friends have had children.) My own trauma and subsequent struggles with anxiety, as well as my experience with watching my parents’ trauma, remain the frame through which I experience these choices, at least for now.