Back in the 1960s, two prominent researchers (a psychologist and a social worker) wrote about what they called “the replacement child” (Cain & Cain, 1964). In their minds, parents had a set number of children they wished to have, or a set number of children of each gender, and if a child passed away, the parents would have another child simply to replace whichever chid was lost. Fortunately, most of us know this to be nonsense. To be fair, when they were writing back in the 1960s, parents were encouraged by professionals to forget their child, to stifle their grief and simply get on with life. Cain & Cain thought that some parents put unrealistic expectations on their new baby, and used the term replacement baby as a simplistic way of describing the concept. While most of us have moved on from these old ideas, we occasionally still get the unfeeling comments that reflect that kind of thinking:
“At least you can still have more children.”
“So glad to hear you’re pregnant again! Now you can put the tragedy of the past year behind you.”
“I hope you’re not still sad. You know, your feelings can affect the baby.”
A lot of mothers in the baby loss community instead call the children born after their loss their “rainbow babies”. The idea behind this term is that after the tears of grief that come with losing a child, much like a rainstorm, comes a rainbow. This is also sometimes contrasted with “sunshine babies” or babies born before the loss. These babies were born in the sun, before we knew the pain of grief or rain. A much more beautiful term than “replacement child”!
There is another way of describing our children that I rather like: penumbra babies. This term was coined in the professional literature as an alternative to “replacement child” by Marguerite Reid, a British psychotherapist. The word penumbra means “partially shaded area” and while I like and use the term rainbow babies, I think this one might be a better description. These babies are born in the shadow of their older siblings who died. Because I’m fascinated by words and their meanings, I find it interesting that she used the term penumbra, meaning partially shaded, and not umbra, or fully shaded. With a penumbra, some light is still coming through, which I find rather beautiful. Children born in the shadow of loss are definitely not replacement children! Unlike a rainbow, a shadow is not fleeting or illusory, but always present and always changing. When the sun rises and sets, our shadows are long, casting a deeper, darker presence over our lives. When the sun is high overhead, our shadows are barely present. No matter where you go or what you do, your shadow is with you. It changes as you change. It is unique to your shape. A shadow cannot exist without some light, even if that light is small.
When you are pregnant after a loss, the shadow of your past pregnancy will always be there. Some days you will feel its presence deeply, as if the light were dim and the shadow in front of you. Some days, you will hardly notice it. The sun will be bright overhead.
How is your shadow today? Which is your favourite term and why? Do you know of any others?
Photo courtesy John Ted Dagenato. Used under Creative Commons licence.