Facebook parenting groups: ‘Amid the milestones, the bump photos and the freshly painted nurseries, there was also the unimaginable, terrible tenderness of stillbirths and angel babies.’ Photograph: iStock

Before I had a child, one sentence used to madden me. “As I parent, I can fully empathise/relate/understand.”



The subtext, of course, was that becoming a parent somehow sent you to a higher plane of emotional literacy, while us child-free types were simply unable to fully grasp the finer details of the human condition. Just because I couldn’t get a guy I liked to text me back, I reasoned, didn’t mean I couldn’t fully comprehend feelings of love, loss, vulnerability or protectiveness.

I’ve been a parent for nearly a year and it’s changed me in so many ways. I hate to admit it, but it feels as though the softer parts of me have expanded and opened up. I’m less annoyed at shrieking kids in restaurants. I tear up watching charity adverts on TV. Psychologists would say that the act of supporting a completely helpless baby will drive the development of our psychological sensitivity to others needs. (On the other hand, McGill University researchers established that stress inhibits empathy for others’ pain, so go figure).

Now, I have a new thing that’s my greatest fear – that of losing my child – and it colours everything in the day. Read a news story about a family tragedy, and it hits you in the gut, in a raw place. It calls directly to your darkest fear. You can never even begin to feel a fraction of that agony and anguish, but for a split second, you try to imagine yourself in that position. And just as quickly, you retreat, as though you’ve been scorched by a fire.

In the world of Facebook’s closed/private parenting groups, I’ve come across more loss, death and grief than I ever could have imagined. Amid the milestones, the bump photos and the freshly painted nurseries, there was also the unimaginable, terrible tenderness of stillbirths and angel babies. Many of these women craved comfort and community within these Facebook groups, and they would post photos of baby footprints, commemorative photos and gentle words to the baby they would only have and know for a short time. I’d never experienced infant loss so directly before. They spoke of the physical emptiness of their arms. Their strength floored me. Their sorrow made my chest heavy.

As we expectant mothers in these groups carried on through our pregnancy journey, other members would announce that they were leaving. Some, however, decided to stay on in these groups. I often wondered what they felt, seeing and hearing us complain or seek advice about sleepless nights, silent reflux, screaming babies and red-raw nappy rash. I think about these parents and their beautiful children every day. I know they’d give anything for two minutes of what we had going on; good or bad.

And then there are the others. Women who celebrated the birth of their happy and healthy child, just like most of us did. Everything was straightforward for a while; the challenges significant, but simply the ones that we were all going through. Watching what happens next, via the intimacy of a Facebook community, is more painful than I ever thought it would be.

A few months ago, one mother posted video of her gorgeous child, breathing a little irregularly. The “Is This Normal?” videos are the bedrock of the Facebook parenting groups, as most first-time parents get to grips with the newness of responsibility. A few days later, the same mother posted the devastating truth; that her little baby had a heart condition, and only one that would be remedied with a heart transplant. I looked back at the initial video she posted of her child: a moment where this mother still believed, or possibly hoped, that things were still okay.

This mother gathered strength and solidarity from being a member of this particular community, and the posts became regular. She documented her child’s journey, and the challenges they faced as a family now basing themselves in a hospital, on a daily basis.

The rest of us watched this little cutie battle through her heart condition, always with a smile on her face. It could have been any one of us going through this massive upending, and we knew it.

Even though this baby was now living in hospital, the family were experiencing the same milestones as the rest of us.

Where the rest of us would grumble or endure these developments, the parents of a seriously sick child rejoice in these milestones. Soon, this little baby, with its tufts of blond hair, hospital stickers and ever-present oxygen mask, seemed as cheerily familiar to me as the babies of my real-life friends.

And then one morning, the horribly sour and dark truth: this baby had run out of time. Out of heartbeats. Everything about the family’s journey was bathed in a different light now that the hope had gone. The tiny Halloween costume meant that it was the first and last holiday that this child would see.

I could barely bring myself to see the smiling face of this baby with a life unfurled in front of them one moment, gone far too soon the next. For a minute I tried to imagine the loss. I would stand with my face towards it, then recoil. I cried and cried over a baby, and a mother and father, I’d never met. I asked B to hold me tighter as I tried to sleep, and still the heaviness in my chest wouldn’t lift. I stood over my sleeping nine-month-old in the dark, who had driven me to my wit’s end only hours previously by refusing to sleep. I listened to her breathing and was horribly, pathetically grateful for it.

I still can’t tell. All I can say is that I see these parents, the ones in these Facebook groups who have lost a child. Their heroism and grace floors me every day.

I feel them seeing our children grow and I wonder how that feels for them. I can empathise, but I can never fully place myself in their shoes. I wonder if it will ever be my turn, and the possibility makes me feel faint with horror. Every time I think of these parents, I vow to raise my own little girl with as much love as I can; to make and store as many memories as possible.

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