Could’ve been worse

January 27, 2009

I made it through my library conference, carefully avoiding the discussion group on “Balancing Baby and Books” that I’d attended with such secretive excitement last year.  The traveling part was awful because of (surprise) the winter weather, but it wasn’t awful in an unexpected way, so I handled it.  What was hard was answering the question, “How’ve you been?”

It’s a hard question to answer both honestly and professionally.  It’s the kind of question professionals and coworkers ask each other when they’re trying to be more than just professional, the kind of question that walks the line between work and personal life.  It’s the kind of question that, when rattled off carelessly, made me want to answer, How’ve I been?  Seriously?  My son died and I can no longer visit the exhibitors selling books for young children or look at my pregnant colleague’s belly without crying.  That’s how I’ve been and how I’m doing.  How are you? I didn’t say this, of course. I said “I’m hanging in there, how about you?” to the people I don’t know very well. It’s the kind of omission that feels dishonest but gets me through the encounter. And it’s almost true. I’m managing to function, obviously. Most of the time.

But it’s impossible for me to answer “How have you been?” without mentioning Teddy when the question is asked by someone who legitimately cares.  And I’ve been on a certain committee for three years now, so people on that committee cared.  Several of them knew I was pregnant.  “How’s the little one?” is another brutally hard question to answer, and not just for me, but for the person who asks.  I cried a little in that committee meeting, and was thrown by how well the people I cried in front of reacted.  They were kind, and sorrowful, and fetched me kleenex and water.  I felt them caring, and it helped.

I feel guilty for springing my grief on them, though.  Talk about your nasty surprises.  Several of them said, “Oh, I didn’t know,” making me feel extra guilty because I’d agonized for weeks over whether to send a discreet note to the committee listserv, or to individuals, or just to the Chair.  I had asked a close friend and local colleague for advice, and was told, essentially, don’t say anything about your loss unless they ask, and the implication was that saying something about Teddy’s death would have been unprofessional.  But I knew, in the back of my brain, that this was wrong, knew somehow that I’d be faced with the choice of unprofessionally notifying my colleagues of my grief or reacting very unprofessionally when asked about my baby.  I knew my fellow committee members pretty well, knew they weren’t going to completely ignore my personal life, especially since I missed my last conference because I was pregnant.  I should have shelved my colleagues advice in my mental well-meaning-but-not-quite-right file, and let people know I was grieving beforehand.

Grief is sometimes especially hard to carry at work.  I’ve yet to fully develop the ability to push it to the back of my mind until after 5:00 pm.  Grief Girl can still appear dramatically at inopportune times, demanding tissues and breaking through my professional facade as if it were made of spun sugar.

I want my black arm band, my brand of grief, some signal to warn those around me that certain questions may not be answered in the ways they expect, that I’m not yet as strong as I used to be.

I’d also like some way to let people know that I’m not just fat, that this is baby weight and grief weight, but I don’t know that, in the history of sumptuary laws or fashion, there’s ever been a formal signal for that one.



  1. Yes. It’s hard to be asked, it’s hard not to be asked. It’s hard to tell, it’s hard not to tell.

    Glad you survived the conference.

  2. Mentionning Teddy will never be unprofessional in my book. I bet all of those women with living children would not be told the same thing. Our babies are still the biggest things going on in our lives, even if they aren’t here where they should be. And you know by my latest post, I have baby/grief weight too. It all sucks!

  3. The whole work/life balance is especially hard when your life turns into something no one wants to admit can happen. I’m just glad and grateful that I was met with such understanding this time.

    The weight is ridiculous. And “it just melts off when you’re breastfeeding” makes me want to scream.

  4. I don’t think it is unprofessional to talk about your baby or loss–or even to cry when you do. I’m glad people responded well, but sorry you had to go through it. It can be particularly hard to see people you only see once or twice a year and to see people when you don’t even know if they know.

  5. Baby/grief weight sucks.

    I would rather people fully understood my reasons for being upset, than not. Far better for them to understand how deep your pain is, how excruciating, so that they can be patient and considerate when you do have those ‘Grief Girl’ attacks. When it happens to me I feel like they think I’m a nutter that cries at the drop of a hat.

    But on the other hand, not everyone gets it. You could have someone explain it to them and they will still ask you stupid/hurtful questions.

  6. I think we (the grand we, as in our culture, as in society) need to get WAY more comfortable with pain and sorrow and loss and death, so that we can handle sharing ours with others, and others can handle being with ours when it comes up. And the only way for any of that to happen is for people (all of us) to share in the way you did with the committee. I’m proud of you, you were right to (even if it just came out without your deciding to let it out) and your colleague, though well-meaning, was probably just uncomfortable herself. I’m glad you made it back home safe and warm.

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