Advice, Out of Date

I’ve mentioned here before that I was participating in a Creative Writing Workshop/Class this Spring. It has ended, and now three friends (yay Emily!) and I are going to try to make our own writing group, which I am really excited about and hope works out. I was driving home with the instructor on Thursday, and continuing a conversation we were having in class, about how to make the transition from being a technically, stylistically “good writer” to an interesting and published creative writer. I know I write well and I know that my academic work (way in those past days when I actually accomplished a lot of that) is exceptionally well written. I told the teacher, Charlotte, that history is my fall back career – I actually just want to be a novelist but don’t think I can do it. And my own vanity plays a large part in that. I don’t like being under-appreciated and that seems to be inevitable for a writer.

[Interjection – a kid just fell off his bike in from of my house – an enormous tumble head over heels over the handle bar – he’s fine, just banged up a little – but I have to ask, does anyone out there have a physical reaction to seeing something like that? – I get a painful twinge in my ovaries – very weird]

In any case, I started a story for our last class about a little girl who was born into a family after the death of a newborn son. The class before that I’d written something funny, and actually, most of what I write is meant to make people laugh, but this story came from a prompt to write a story based on a favorite song. I suppose I could have continued the funny trend by choosing a Weird Al song – “White and Nerdy” and “You’re Pitiful” come to mind right now, but on that particular day, I thought of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart.” Many of the other writers in the class wrote pieces that were clearly fictionalized snippets of memoir. I can’t do that. But this piece started off building on the lines,

“When you were young / and on your own / How did it feel / to be alone? / I was always thinking / of games that I was playing. / Trying to make / the best of my time.”

And as the little girl and her family developed in my mind, they became the family that they are. Not my family, because their conditions are very different, but a family whose experiences I can relate to and imagine.

The piece went over very well and I’m sorry I won’t share it with you all but I think I’m going to continue developing it. I didn’t turn the class into a therapy session (I left that to another woman), but I was getting some very compassionate looks from some members of the class and afterwards a man who is a psychotherapist and a very kind woman kept looking like they wanted to say something to me.

During the “discussion” period following reading my work, another woman in the class called my character, “a Replacement Child” and told me that I should really read the psychological literature on the topic. Someone in the class asked what that was, and she said, “When a child dies in a family, and the couple has another child, especially after a few years, that child is called in psychology, the Replacement Child. Very often the parents don’t think of the living child as its own person, and the child is more prone to have attachment issues and mental disorders.” She then read the relationship of the parents in my story to the little girl through that lens. The energy is supposed to stay “positive” in class, and I didn’t want to get emotional, so I just said, “Thank you, I’ll look into that.”

But it felt like such a cruel irony, one I didn’t think I wanted to impose on my story girl! Not only do mourning parents lose a child and have to suffer through that, but now psychology says they will not only fail to respect a child born afterwards as an individual but they will give that child a mental illness. And it didn’t feel accurate. I don’t know many parents who’ve lost children, but it just didn’t feel right. Lori’s Baby Girl? Aurelia’s Mac? Kate’s Chloe? Josh and me, in the future? I would not write a story that developed this idea and pathologized families that have lost children, however titillating that might be for readers awash in pop psychology. But I also didn’t want the family to seem unrealistic or overly sentimental or melodramatic. But I thought I better see what I could find out easily about “the Replacement Child” just so I wouldn’t be plagued by the question in my writing and, of course, my own real life.

From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying:
“While the replacement-child construct may have clinical utility, especially in cases where parents may have preexisting dysfunction and/or a significant history of losses, it seems clear that clinical axioms like ‘replacement child’ do not do justice to the complexity of parental interpretations of the child and the family constellation. When parents are asked to describe how they coped with the loss of a child, and when families who have experienced the birth of a child subsequent to a loss describe their experiences, it becomes clear that there are many paths through this grief that do not result in the anticipated pathology. As caregivers for families who have experienced the death of a child, one must seek to understand the meaning of the dead child and subsequent children, and what those children represent to their families. Without listening closely to the stories that parents tell, mental health practitioners are in danger of assuming psychological risk when there may be none.”

Clearly parents’ own mental health influences their children’s psychological wellness, and if parents, in their grief, plunge into interminable depression or otherwise don’t work through their pain, clearly that wouldn’t be good for their living children. But that woman saw something in my writing I didn’t think was there because she was attached to this concept.

It seems like in the 1960s and 1970s, “the Replacement Child” concept was commonly accepted in the psych fields, but now the approach to families who have lost children has become much more nuanced and individual. I wonder if that’s what the psychotherapist in class wanted to say when he kept almost saying something.

8 responses to “Advice, Out of Date

  1. Just as a matter of common sense, it seems hard to believe that psychologists ever took seriously a one-size-fits-all approach to family dynamics after the loss of a child. It seems obvious that the “replacement child” theory will only fit a very small subset of families, and probably an even smaller subset of those who are aware of the potential such an attitude has for creating problems.

    That said, this post made me think of something I’d forgotten — a family that I knew growing up that was the textbook example of treating a subsequent child as a replacement. Katie, the little girl who lived next door to us, had four much-older sisters. The fifth child had been the long-awaited boy, who, sadly, died in an accident at the age of 6. Katie was born about a year after her brother’s death and, from the beginning, was treated as a substitute for her brother. While all her sisters were conventionally feminine, Katie was a tomboy who refused to wear dresses and told everyone that she was really a boy. I think it must be the rare case like Katie’s that led psychologists to develop the whole replacement child theory and to generalize it to all families in similar situations.

  2. Holy pop psychology!

    You are really too nice. I think I would’ve gotten offended on behalf of all the nice people you listed, and myself, in the future. I think I would have called her out and asked how many families who have lost children she knows, how many of them exhibit this pattern, and maybe even what is it in the story that makes her think this particular cliche applies. Yeah, I am a mean grieving lady. I don’t want people making assumptions.
    But I would love to read your story… Or any of your fiction…

    And about that kid? A friend of mine calls this reaction “my uterus dropped into my underwear.” I like that.

  3. I’m reading The Memory Keeper’s Daughter which deals with loss, maybe a little too close to what we’re dealing with at times. I’m grateful, though, to see grief included and so eloquently described, though painful at times. The parents in that book don’t create a replacement child, but always feel the absence of the lost one.

    Some people just should keep their yaps shut, as we have deduced. We had a writer’s group form out of my master’s program. It went well until we all got full-time jobs. Good luck writing! I hope you post something here someday!

  4. Hmmmm,

    You know, while I wish she wouldn’t have interrupted your story like that, I have heard of this phenomenom quite a lot.

    My husband and I have worked very very hard to not do this to Mac. One of the reasons I have been so open with my mourning and my grief work is because I was afraid of this happening during my subsequent pregnancy and then as I was raising Mac. Therapy helped and the recognition from the outside world that my loss was real.

    In my support group, I’ve met people who had serious issues with this in a subsequent pg and raising kids after a previous loss. And almost always they were people who had been in severe denial about their previous losses or infertility. Like cognitive dissonance, if that’s the word? They literally deliver a dead child, go into shock, leave the hospital, and NEVER TALK ABOUT IT AGAIN. Which leads to PPD, and issues like the replacement child. It even happens in adoption, and is the reason adoptive parents are told that they need to mourn the loss of a biological connection before they adopt, if they want to form a good attachment to the adopted child.

    I guess what I’m trying to say Sara, is that this is less likely to happen to you and Josh because you are working on your feelings and on recognizing that your new child is NOT Natan, and that Natan can never be replaced.

    It’s not the fifties anymore. We know better. You’ll know better.

    (I’ve just realized I wrote a freakin’ post…sorry.)

  5. Sara- I thought I even read something once called “The Myth of the Replacement Child” which basically debunked the idea that this phenomenon is a given fact in families who lose a child. Certainly, I’m sure it can happen, but I think it is more the exception than the rule. I think that woman was rather rude in asserting herself in that way. It sounds like to me that SHE is the one who might need to read up a little on the subject.

  6. I’m sorry I missed your story last week. I hope you bring it to our new group after you develop it some more. As for the “replacement child” issue — I’m glad you are applying your analytical mind to this theory rather than just accepting it at face value. Psychological theories can be useful as long as we don’t accept them as a forecast. And, really, one child CAN’T replace another, something that parents should be the first to recognize.

  7. delurking because you’ve sucked me in. 🙂 this is really, really fascinating…as are all the comments. (the ones here…not so much in your writing class).

    i worried a lot about O feeling like a replacement child while i was pregnant with him (especially once we found out he was a boy). instead, though, since his birth, i’ve found that he has felt very clearly like an entirely different entity from his older brother. and a healing one.

    every now and then i wonder if i ought to feel guilty in having found so much healing in the process of having O, probably because of the crap pop psych of the “replacement child” myth rolling around in my brain…but mostly i figure it is what it is. this is his life, and he is loved, and will know that. and will know he had a brother, and that we miss Finn. and that one person can never replace another…but can still fill some of the hole left by fear and grief by filling it up with…well…himself.

    i dunno. i hope we manage to convey some of that.

    and i too think you were a paragon of patience at the writing class…though i think i understand what you mean when you say you just didn’t want to go there, get emotional. some people are so convinced, with neither experience nor empathy to back them up.

  8. Thanks, Bon. I think your view seems to be the consensus. We’re planning to find out our new baby’s gender, because I’ve been thinking all along that will help me to have separate hopes and dreams for this one – even if it’s another boy.

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