There exists, in the annals of psychology, the concept of Replacement Child Syndrome. Put simply, Replacement Child Syndrome comes to pass when, after losing a child, a woman becomes pregnant again in an effort to start over, to erase the loss, to fold the potential of the dead child into a new vessel. Children conceived after the death of a sibling often fill a specific role in their parents’ coping schema, helping to sop up the grief and redirect sadness, sometimes—according to the literature—with mixed-to-negative effects on the children themselves. A cursory Google search shows significant writing on the subject—both academic and anecdotal—by clinicians as well by mothers and grown ‘replacement children.’ On her blog The Forgotten Grief, Elizabeth K. Best, PhD describes “…the observation of hundreds of researchers and counselors who have noted for 50 years the existence of what has been termed the ‘replacement child syndrome’, a phenomenon in which many feelings about the ‘ideal’ child that died are overlaid on the feelings regarding the next child who survives. Many historical examples have been noted of pathological examples in which the ‘new’ child cannot live up to the expectations of what the previous child would have been like.” Intriguingly a number of famously successful creative minds—John Coltrane, Peter Sellers, Vincent Van Gogh and Sigmund Freud among them—were born subsequent to the death of a sibling and are generally thought to have been ‘replacement children’ in the definitional sense.
During the chaotic spring, I received an unexpected email. It was from the girlfriend to whom I had been closest as a teenager, and with whom I’d grown frustratingly distant in recent years. As young women who had only brothers, we fancied ourselves as sisters—sharing everything, fighting with, consoling and protecting one another. When she’d spent the summer after our freshman year in college in Paris, we’d kept journals so we could trade them upon her return, so we’d not miss out on a moment of each other’s day-to-day lives. As adults, we lived in opposite corners of the country and rarely saw one another, especially after our children were born. In the months after Lev’s death, we’d grown even farther apart.
Shortly before Christmas, she’d told me she was 25 weeks pregnant with her second child. She had been in her second trimester when she’d heard the news that Lev had died. She’d been reluctant to tell me about her pregnancy, even as Lev was still living, because she knew he wasn’t doing well and she didn’t want to assault me with her happy news. She’d frankly told me she wasn’t sure I would be okay with hearing about her pregnancy and so she’d kept it to herself. In my estimation, her reticence about her good fortune correlated directly with how well she understood me. If she could be so misguided as to not comprehend that, not only could I handle the happiness of those closest to me—in fact—I thrived on it, that it damn well kept me going, well, maybe she didn’t know me at all. At the time, I couldn’t get past it. I let our relationship founder as I retreated into my winter cocoon of long nights and short days and general blackness of heart.
On a bright-eyed March morning, I opened an email from this woman with cautious optimism, thinking she was set to give birth in the next few weeks, wondering how she was doing, hoping we could perhaps mend fences. Instead of good tidings, though, there was unfathomable sadness, described matter-of-factly over the Internet: Three weeks earlier, after weeks of nesting, getting their house ready, my friend had stopped feeling the baby move inside her. She had gone to her doctor and to the hospital for tests. They could detect no heartbeat. The baby, it was determined, had died. They induced labor at 36 weeks into her pregnancy. My friend gave birth to a stillborn son who she and her husband held and named Henry. Spontaneous fetal death, they called it. Autopsy showed no reason, gave no comfort. Since it happened, my friend had been hiding in quiet, taking long walks. She couldn’t find words to speak about it. She wondered if I had any insight into talking with others about Henry, helping them to feel better. For my friend and her second child, I wept my eyes dry and sobbed my throat raw. When she and I finally spoke, I told her that I was certain there were no words that could help; no words she could speak that would make others feel better, not yet anyway. She should rest in the quiet if it brought her comfort. And I would be there in the quiet with her if she wanted. We were sisters once more, bound by unimaginable loss.
By summer, my friend and her husband were working at getting pregnant again. I admired their resolve, their optimism. In my work at the hospital, I had seen other families do exactly this thing. I had met more than a few babies conceived as their older sibling was dying of a terminal illness, some born within days of the older child’s death. Replacement Child Syndrome didn’t seem to apply here, though perhaps I just didn’t see or understand it yet. There was a peace about these families, a solidness that seemed to spring from new hope in the form of a fresh life. I wished to want this. But I did not. I do not.
There was a time, though, in the months before Lev died, where I was consumed with the desire to have another baby. At the frenzied end of my life as Lev’s mother, I felt an almost pathological urge to get pregnant, to tamp out the coming gloom, to distract myself from the definite sadness with a chaotic new beginning. The idea of having another child with my three year old slowly dying, my marriage in shambles was in all ways unsound. My logical mind frowned upon it. But my instinct, my very guts wanted to replace a dying child with a chance at a full life: one for one. In the fantasy, this imaginary baby with whom I would become pregnant would be a girl. Oh how I wanted a baby girl. The endless possibilities of pink things with bows and all sorts of nothing-like-before felt like the answer to every question. Hormones and grief stage-whispered into my mind’s ear a Moebius loop of coercion. My body—my empty womb—conspired to outsmart my mind at every turn. I fortified my birth control regimen, buttressing my ladyparts against all possible invaders. It was to be an epic battle, but one I would win.
As poetic as nature can be, allowing us to make a new baby at will when one is lost, no child in the history of the universe has ever solved its parents’ problems by being born. Infants are grueling. They’re impossibly fragile and needy and irrational and keep to no schedule, listen to no reason. And yet, they are enrapturing, borderline-magical in their ability to make one feel useful, to give purpose and meaning: a reason for being. And we imbue our offspring additionally with meaning and promise and potential to make us more than we are. That existential drive is how Lev came into being in the first place. My husband and I were in a tense standoff about the matter of our as yet theoretical second child. He wanted another baby immediately upon meeting the first baby, our perfect and delightful Joss. So enthralled with the wonder of his spawn, he fervently wanted another and within scant weeks of Joss’ birth, he wanted to try again. I was frankly terrified of ruining the first one, let alone ready for another. I wanted to wait, so our children would be—somewhat arbitrarily—three years apart. Mostly I was stalling.
In one of the great paradoxes of humanity, a person is only truly capable of knowing whether they’d be a good parent once they’re thrust irreversibly into the role. When Joss was born, I felt the pressure to excel at parenting, but never the confidence that I was qualified for the job. Anxiety about my parenting chops not withstanding I also felt the pressure to have another baby; pressure not just from my husband and parents, but also from myself. I should follow through with what I’d always wanted, with the plan we’d made. I resisted for a while, put a moratorium on even talking about another baby until I could get my head around the concept. I relented, eventually, because I was weak with lack of sleep and suggestible to my husband’s excitement. And so I got pregnant on the evening of my 32nd birthday. Our children would be two years apart. I supposed if nothing else, this baby would solve the problem of my resisting having more children. As it happened, Lev didn’t solve any problems with his birth; instead his birth unleashed the fire of every anxiety and fear a parent could have. And then drowned the fire in a flood of nightmarish grief. And Joss became an only child. Again.
As I picked through the rubble of my life after Lev’s death looking for scraps to save, I realized with some certainty that I did not want to get married again or have more children. I didn’t view the realization as a deficiency or based in fear. I wasn’t resistant to finding love again. In the event that I found someone with whom I wanted to spend the rest of my life, I favored the idea of living in the moment, not aiming at locking down a future. Marriage I’d done once through. It didn’t work out. Once was enough. It felt something like relief to admit to myself that maybe I had never been wired for forever in the first place. And having more children was simply not something I wanted or needed or felt I could handle. In Joss, I had all I needed in the way of species-propagation. And Lev will be with me for the rest of my days, looking out at me from photos, dancing for me in video clips shot in my old living room to music I loved in 2009. It was enough to have had two children even if only briefly.
My friends, who were for the most part just venturing out into the world of marriage and family as I was exiting, almost universally responded with skepticism to my resolve not to do it all again. They thought it must be some outside influence that led me away from the path I’d always been on. And in a small way, they were right. It was the men I dated who made me examine my thoughts on the subject of marriage and family. The men who saw fit to date the broken hull of me in the months following Lev’s death were understandably curious about my thoughts on starting over. Each seemed varying degrees of disappointed when I said I was not at all interested in marrying them (or anyone) and/or having their babies. One doesn’t think of babies and wedding cakes dancing in the eyes of bachelors of any age. Certainly, the desire to nest and reproduce doesn’t radiate from the average 30-something male. But even the weakly reflected drive of these men to settle down made me realize I wanted the opposite. It occurred to me—and I said it aloud to more than one of them: to the Blond Poet, to Good on Paper—these men didn’t need to date me, a 36 year-old divorcee with a kid and a mountain of grief. They needed to find young, fresh 20-something girls with their whole lives ahead of them. They needed Daisy Buchanan in the Great Gatsby. I was the one Daisy hit with Gatsby’s car.
To be fair, I guess it wasn’t that I wanted the opposite of marriage and children so much as I wanted no part of milestones or future planning or next steps. I wanted to live here and now. Children and marriage had proven hard, mean, terrifying. I had some peace, some control now. My world was small; my son was only. This was it for me. This was enough.