May 02, 2007

Tragedy Compounded

I live 40 minutes from Virgina Tech.
The day of the tragedy, my friend Claudia in New Jersey, called me and asked if I would call hospitals closest to the university campus because her friends were not able to reach their daughter, a student at Virginia Tech.

I was helping my mentee do a college paper at the time. I asked her to use her cell phone and call the Montgomery County hospital, the one hospital the distraught parents could not reach, due to the volume of the calls. We connected with the hospital and asked if this student had been admitted. They told us they could not tell us, it was a privacy issue. Until they had notified next of kin, they could not say who they they treated, only that they had admitted a number of Virginia Tech students. I called Claudia and told her I couldn’t get any information. She said the parents were on their way to Tech.

The next morning my friend Claudia called me and told me that this student had been killed. I responded, "oh, shit!" My heart tumbled and I had no words. I could not imagine what these parents were going through. I have no point of reference, other than friends and family who have passed suddenly. The shock is numbing, I know. But I don’t know what it means to lose a child.

Tonight, I watched Oprah. One of the people she featured on the show was women who had lost all four of her kids to the estranged husband who came into the house while she was on a early morning walk and shot all their sleeping children and himself. She admitted to Oprah she had planned to commit suicide. She could not imagine life without her children. This earlier appearance on the Oprah show had helped her to change her mind and carve out a new path, which led to second marriage and the birth of twins.

It was clear that this woman had a very difficult time imagining a life worth living without her children. Eventually she found a man who fell in love with her and accepted her tragic past and fractured healing. It was not enough to find this person; she also wanted another child. She got two—lovely twins—while the pictures of the children she had lost remain plastered over her refridgerator.

Her husband and the twins were featured on today's episode, proof that there is life after a tragedy as senseless and devasting as this. From my childless-by-choice perspective, I am left with these thoughts:

Was the new family critical to her healing?

Was her identity so tied up with being a mom that she could not see a happy life otherwise?
I am saddened by the fact that this woman could not imagine a path to happiness that did not include biological children. She clearly had much success as a mom. She had raised four wonderful kids. She was a good mom and perhaps she wanted to continue to do something she was happy doing. I get that.

What I don’t get is why some women feel motherhood is the only path to fulfillment. Perhaps they don’t have childfree friends. Someone who can say that it is possible to be happy without children. There are other ways to utilize the skills that served you as a mother. Mentoring, managing, foster care, childcare, volunteer activities focused on children. Or not. Dian Fossey found her fulfillment living and dying in the jungle advocating for her gorilla families.

This woman admitted that, in the aftermath of her childrens’ murder, she could not pass a soccer field without crying, so I can appreciate why she didn’t think of these of these alternatives in the short term. But they exist for her, and others like her, who have lost children and long for the experience of caring for a child.

The childless and childfree who want the experience of children in their lives know this.

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M said...

First, I hope I haven't misread your post, and forgive me for this very overlong comment.

Based on how I understood what you wrote, this is my response: While I agree with you that there are endless paths to fulfillment in this life, motherhood being only one of them, I respectfully disagree on one aspect of your post: I don't think it's quite fair to the woman you mention as well as to some mothers in general.

Losing any loved one can lead a person feeling as if they can't go on after the loss. That's normal. So is wanting children if the ones you had are taken from you.

I would venture to guess that the women you mentioned chose to have kids in the second marriage for the same reasons she had them the first time. And what is wrong with that? It's no different than one who loses a spouse and may remarry--not to compensate for the loss and not because that is the only path to happiness but simply because that is one path that brings them joy. If we want something, why would we stop wanting it just because we lost it the first time?

I think suggesting she needed the kids as a way to heal, or that because she can't imagine fulfillment in life any other way is an assumption without much basis behind it (unless she said more in the show than you've revealed in this post). Why should she stop at marrying a wonderful man, if she also wants a child with that man? I just can't see what's wrong with pursuing all that you want.

Wouldn't you do the same, for instance, if you met a career goal, would you let that stop you from, say, moving on to another goal such as saving for a home? And why not have a child with the man you love? I got the impression from your post that you saw something wrong with the fact that she pursued children in addition to the marriage, saying the man wasn't "enough" for her.

You say: "What I don’t get is why some women feel motherhood is the only path to fulfillment . . . There are other ways to utilize the skills that served you as a mother. Mentoring, managing, foster care . . ." I think those activities you mentioned are good for people who want kids in their life but not necessarily kids of their own, or for those who have kids but love kids in general enough to want them in other parts of their life as well--but that they are not a substitute for having kids of one's own.

I suspect that those who have kids or want their own kids do so because they don't want to just work with someone else' kids. They want kids of their own. Why should those who want to be mothers be content having something other than that if they are able to have what they want? (Issues like overpopulation can be factors in such decisions, but that's a whole other topic.)

I don't think it's a matter of thinking that motherhood is the only path to fulfillment. I think it's about different people having different desires.

Parenthood and childfree-ness are both equally valid paths (again unless you argue overpopulation as a factor), and only the individual knows what's in the heart and doing anything but following your own heart seems a recipe for disaster.

That a lot of women's hearts tell them to become mothers doesn't seem odd to me, nor does it seem to be a product of simply not being exposed to child-free lifestyles. After all giving birth and having offspring is what all species have done for all of time, it really is not abnormal or unusual as far as I can see.

I hope it doesn't feel as if I am attacking you. I don't mean to at all. I just feel that the childfree wouldn't want mothers questioning why we don't take they path they take, and I think we owe mothers that same courtesy.

Teri said...

M - "After all giving birth and having offspring is what all species have done for all of time, it really is not abnormal or unusual as far as I can see."

If this is true, is the converse also true?

Perhaps this what my family member meant when she said, "Duh, it's what we're here for. If those stupid people don't want to pass on their DNA, so what!"

She was reacting to the article that came out recently in the San Francisco Chronicle, and to the intrusive questions that childfree adults get. She has never been known for her tact.

More to your overall point, and thank you for making it so gently, I agree that desire is something does not change, moreover, it is intensified when there is a loss. I am no expert, but that is my own experience of grief.

Laura - Your proximity to this tragic event alone would cause you pain, let alone the scenario you described, that drove it home to you and your mentee.

Yes, to both the questions you pose about the woman's "healing" and her desire to have what she lost, which she knows in her logical mind can never be. That is the basis of her grief. She will never have those four children again. The man she marred must be an amazing and strong individual to take on a woman with such emotional wounds.

The week of this tragedy was the same week I got cleared to work as a substitute teacher in our local school system. The job seemed easy to me before this incident.

What if the principal/school has not prepared accurate safety information for their subs?

What if something happens while I am in charge of a classroom?

What plans are in place that all the other teachers know about that I don't?

Imagine the fear and the daily trust that parents must place in this system and those teachers. So far, the most help I've received is a map and what to do in a fire drill.

What about a lock down? What about a crazed gun-toting psycho on campus?

The weight of responsibility for 30 kids in a classroom was suddenly so much greater after that tragic event at Virginia Tech.

LauraS said...

Thank you very much for your comments. I'm sorry if it sounded like I was questioning this woman's motives for remarrying and having a second family. That was not my intention. I celebrate the fact that she was able to overcome her thoughts of suicide and find love and start a new family.

Clearly this is what she wants and she should do what brings her joy. I totally agree with you on that.

But I wondered what would have happened if she had not met this man and was not able to have children (she appeared to be in her late forties)? Would she have found an alternate path to joy?

Do women sometimes fail to consider other paths because we cling to the idea of ourselves as mothers and the belief that parenthood is the only valid path to fulfilment, joy, or self-actualization?

Those were the questions that were going through my mind when I was writing this post. I have interviewed a number of women who desperately wanted to have a child but were unable. Some have sought out people who are childless by choice because they want to learn how they can build a life without kids. They don't have a map for that path because, in general, our culture doesn't sanction childfree marriages. Instead we portray childless people as self-absorbed and unfulfilled.

I was also concerned that this Oprah segment implied that her joy came about as a result of the new love in her life and the arrival of twins, external events, rather than her own internal process of healing and well-being. I wanted to know more about how she handled her grief and overcame her thoughts of suicide. Instead I saw a segment that seemed to imply that her new babies were the panacea for her pain.