Discussion of the burkini ban in France is all over my social media feeds. There are posts making the obvious freedom of expression point. There are ones addressed specifically to various Jewish audiences—the social justice calls, the solidarity of conspicuous attire calls, the “first they came for…” calls. There is a moving op-ed by a teenage Muslim woman, recounting her experiences with burkinis as she gradually decided to grow more observant in her dress. And there is an article calling attention to the voice of women who are critiquing the very notion of full coverage as a foundational requirement of Muslim faith.
I take them all in, digest them, stew on them. Eventually, I notice that among the multitude of important points that are made, one is missing. And it is that missing point, I realize, that makes me feel the closest camaraderie with the woman in the now iconic photograph on the beach. Because, see, all the other points land in my mind, while the missing one lands in my soul.
I’ve heard women who like the modest dress prescribed by their religions say that they find it comfortable and comforting to not have to worry about how their bodies are perceived. And so my soul absorbs the heavy irony of standing out in the very way that is supposed to make one inconspicuous.
I feel it in my babylost bones. I am reminded of a thousand papercuts of the very mundane conversations, each a series of decisions—do I tell them, remind them, try to avoid the topic, walk away, talk around it? Sometimes I choose the latter, and I respond about my living children, never explicitly saying that these are the only children I’ve had. Sometimes I suddenly have something extremely urgent to attend to on the other side of the room, maybe a phonecall—those a super-handy. Sometimes I stay silent, perhaps with a smile on my face, to indicate that I am listening and I am engaged in this conversation.
I see these strategies as mimicry, camouflage—I am not like the others, but I can blend in. See me blending? This summer I realized that I also bust these out for occasions of mandatory levity, like large parties and Fourth of July events. What babylost parent hasn’t been pricked right in the heart at one of these events by a sight of something that is no longer ours, can no longer be ours? By a question that assumes our whole story is visible and fully chosen?
Somehow it seems harder to burst people’s bubbles on such occasions. Or maybe there’s nothing to burst—maybe what has my insides churning and my throat closing is a family clear across the park, minding their own business. So I smile, and I imitate normalcy. I imitate. I smile, I smile, I smile. Because if I don’t, I look out of place. And looking out of place is the last thing I need right now. But oh, is it ever exhausting!
I don’t always avoid talking about A. I don’t even avoid it most of the time. My least favorite question in the world, “how many kids do you have?” usually gets an honest answer. I out myself as a babylost parent all the time. Because even nearly ten years on it still, most of the time, feels worse to leave him out than to deal with people’s reactions when I acknowledge him. It’s not the question that is hurtful, really, it’s that the people asking are rarely ready for the kind of truth I have to offer. And sometimes I don’t have it in me to deal with the reactions. Or deal with my reaction to their reactions. Sometimes I don’t want to change the direction of the conversation. Sometimes I am just too tired.
Recently, a friend—not a close-close friend, mind you, but not an acquaintance—noted on social media that he was on his way to the movies with his “even-numbered children.” Some people do that on social media—number their children as a handy way to avoid using the kids’ names in posts. I am mostly used to that now. I still wince sometimes, but it’s not a hot poker thing for me anymore. And then, in the second and last line in the post my friend wondered how many parents can say what he’d just said in his first line. That hurt. But I didn’t comment about how I wish I could say that or about how I, unfortunately, can’t. I didn’t remind him. I remained camouflaged.
I love A. I miss him. This is how it is. This is how it will always be. And that’s ok. That’s fine. I just wish it would be a little easier to be his mother in the world, that it would require less camouflage.
I saw a short video yesterday. People on a beach in Tel Aviv being asked about the burkini thing. Most of them didn’t understand what the issue even is. And because you can see swimmers behind the people being interviewed—some in bikinis, some in tankinis, some in burkinis, not to mention swim trunks of all imaginable cuts and lengths—you get to understand their confusion. I wished that our world would become a bit more like that beach—that it would be ok to be as we are, that it would phase no one to see each other the way we are each comfortable being seen.
How do you decide when to talk about your dead child(ren)? Has that changed over time? Do you camouflage?