When my first child was born 10.5 weeks early, I was exiled to a hospital room at the end of the hallway, as far away as possible from the other moms and crying newborns. That was where they sent those of us who would not have our own new babies to press against our bosoms.
I couldn’t believe it happened to me. My husband and I planned our baby down to the very day of conception. I avoided all of the well-known pregnancy taboos, including coloring my hair and eating at salad bars. Yet there I was with a preemie, and nobody could tell me why. It was just my cosmic roll of the dice.
I realized that a major source of my pain and disappointment stemmed from the fact that I felt like my experience as a first-time mother was stolen from me. Everything I expected was not going to happen. Instead, I would watch everyone else take their babies home while mine stayed in an incubator, hooked up to tubes for 53 days.
Two years later, that preemie would get diagnosed with cerebral palsy. It reopened old wounds I had about the universe conspiring against me. I kept wondering why I couldn’t just have a “normal” experience. I felt like a lightning rod for bad luck.
Although the preemie experience felt like the most devastating thing to ever happen to me, it turned out to be a little warm-up in a life that would not go as planned.
Six years later, I woke up on an ordinary morning, right around the time that my husband and me would start the daily grind of making breakfast and lunches for our family that now included three children, the youngest just barely one year old. My husband took our children to their respective destinations in the mornings. In the afternoons we traded cars and parental duties. We were like a finely-tuned machine managing our household.
But on that morning, there would be no lunch-making. That was the morning I found my husband lying face-down on the living room floor and I had to follow the ambulance to the ER. The morning when a doctor told me there was nothing they could do. I had to talk to a coroner. I had to buy a niche at the cemetery and give a eulogy at his funeral and watch the life I knew fall apart.
The hardest part of life not going as planned is having to let go of the mirage in your head about what you thought your life should look like. It isn’t easy to accept that the things you wanted, or thought you wanted, won’t happen. To have to go back to the drawing board, to being forced to let go, to start again, to become a beginner, to be alone, or to not have what everyone else has. These are all realities that are not easily digested.
A reality we did not choose.
For somebody who always made to-do lists and 1-year plans and 5-year plans and 10-year plans, I felt like I had no control anymore.
I didn’t want to raise children on my own. I didn’t want to have to start dating again when I was older and now a single mother. I didn’t want to go to Costco by myself.
Night times were the worst after the kids went to bed. I would remember what my husband would be doing if he were still there: chopping fruits and vegetables to juice, watching Netflix, practicing magic tricks with his deck of cards, listening to 80s music, or maybe washing the dishes while I nursed the baby to sleep. Now, the space that was once occupied by him was empty, quiet. Always too quiet.
In the throes of grief, you eventually realize that you have two options. You can lose yourself to the anguish and let it debilitate you. Or, you can do something about it. You can keep living, even when life doesn’t go as planned. You can take the detour.
If you can see the possibility in the new route–the Plan B–if you feel like there is any chance that it can happen for you, that alone can be the seed of hope you need to keep going.
I had to let myself feel the pain before the detour could be an option. I had to lean into the excruciating feelings, listen to them, and let the pain help me grow and become a part of my foundation that would ultimately make me stronger.
I could become a better version of myself and still live a happy life, but I had to accept that there will be more unexpectedness and I won’t always have control. I could still choose my reactions and decisions though. I could find new routes and take detours when necessary.
I couldn’t get stuck in my disappointment.
Expectations are never reality. I learned the hard way that even when you have the best laid plans, sometimes the universe has a mind of its own. I needed to have flexible expectations.
On the day that my husband died, I wrote a note on a piece of paper for my kids, and I stuck it on a mirror:
We have two options: 1) lie down and crumble, or 2) get up, do great things and make Daddy proud.
I circled the second option and gathered my babies into my lap, holding them tightly and staring at my words in an attempt to convince myself that I could be strong, for them and for myself.
I’ve stumbled. I’ve felt like everything is hopeless. I’ve hated myself and privately cried and have been angry and wanted to die. But I’ve always gotten back up, and I try to make it a point to keep moving forward, even when it hurts. Maybe that’s what clicked. I had to embrace pain and struggle as an important part of my journey instead of resenting it.