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.