My oldest daughter Rebecca and I were talking on a walk this week, and she said something to me that I had never really understood before.
We were talking about anxiety, and she laughed and said something like,
Oh, I had all the developmental trust and attachment stuff down because that happened before 18 months, but then the things you’re supposed to learn the next year I’ve always struggled with.
Babies and children go through different developmental stages where they learn about the world and their own autonomy.
When babies are first born, they don’t even realize that the world is separate from them. They think Mommy is part of “me”–though they don’t really have a concept of “me”. As they grow, they begin to differentiate themselves from their parents and from others and learn their place in the world.
In infancy, babies are learning basic “trust vs mistrust”, or whether or not I will get my needs met when I call. Can I rely on others to care about me and care for me? (That’s one reason, by the way, that it’s very important not to spank babies, even though many Christian books advocate it. And it’s wise to consider the research into spanking overall).
In toddlerhood, they turn to autonomy vs. shame and doubt. They want to do things more independently (like choose their food or clothing). They’re learning to do things on their own.
They’re asking, “can I do things for myself?” They’re trying to figure out whether they have control over the world around them.
Just as Rebecca was entering this stage, her brother was born.
Here we were in the nursery at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, before he was transferred to the Hospital for Sick Children for surgery.
We used to visit him in the hospital several times a day and just hold him, even though he wasn’t awake very much. His poor little heart was so underdeveloped it took tremendous energy to pump it, and he was tired all the time.
We were hoping we could avoid surgery until he was bigger, but he kept losing weight, and eventually we had no choice.
That was my son the night before his surgery. He lived for four days post-op before he passed away.
I tried to do outings with Rebecca “like usual” as much as I could while Christopher was in the hospital.
We made sure one of us was always there to do her bedtime routine and her breakfast like usual. We tried to keep things normal, but of course nothing was normal. And emotionally we were a mess.
I remember the day of the funeral she just cried and cried, even though nothing was really wrong for her. She was playing in the church nursery, like usual, with people that she liked. But she could just sense that everyone around her was so sad, and she had no idea why. She didn’t know what was happening.
So right as she’s trying to learn to be independent and asking whether she has control over her environment, all of this happens. Little 18 month old Rebecca is learning whether or not the world is safe for her to exert her independence and learning how to control her emotions, and her baby brother dies. Mommy and Daddy are distraught, and Nana is distraught, and everyone seems weird and sad.
I assumed that this would fade into the background of Rebecca’s memory.
She was only 19 months old when he died, after all.
But a year later, Katie was born. Keith took Rebecca to the hospital to visit us twice before it was time to come home. And on the day we were bringing Katie home, Rebecca was so confused. She asked, “The baby is coming to our house?”
It wasn’t just a normal big sister question–“you mean that thing is going to displace me?” No, she thought the baby was going to stay at the hospital, because she remembered the other baby staying at the hospital and never coming home, even though it had been a year earlier.
Rebecca’s always had more anxiety than most of our family.
(She knows I’m writing this by the way and has no problem talking about it. She may even talk about it on a podcast soon!). But her anxiety is often focused on just feeling paralyzed and feeling unable to make a decision. She laughs that she’s stuck at 18 months.
The other developmental stages she sailed through, and she’s actually quite a well-rounded person. But that one basic question: “Can I control my environment and take initiative?” is one she tends to have trouble with.
Why am I telling you this today? Because sometimes stuff happens and it affects us and it isn’t our fault.
Looking back on those days after Christopher died, I was a mess, but I still fed Rebecca and hugged her and gave her baths. We really did the best we could do, and objectively we did pretty well. But we were still grieving, and she knew that. She just couldn’t understand why. And it coloured how she grew up.
She’s had a few more challenges than the rest of us in emotional regulation. She likely would have had a lot of that anyway–that’s also her personality–but this definitely gave her more challenges.
But it wasn’t her fault.
Sometimes life just happens. Some people are going to have more to deal with than others. Or some people are going to have one particular “thorn in the flesh” that’s just hard. This is a broken world.
And I guess I wanted to tell you all that today. Sometimes our kids have things that affect them, and we wish that they didn’t, but we couldn’t do anything about it.
That’s when we need to give ourselves grace. I couldn’t have not grieved in those days. I was barely hanging on. I did the best I could. Keith did the best he could. We all did the best we could, and we’re still doing that. Sometimes our best means that things still aren’t perfect.
But that’s part of life, and life is messy.
And into that messiness, Jesus chose to come. He lived it. He understands it. And He doesn’t expect us to do anything more than we can do.
(our family last year at Christopher’s grave)
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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