Bye Little Toddler

Wednesday there will be placed a dormer window on our house, so we are clearing the attic as much as possible. Everything comes from behind the partitions. Things we haven’t seen for a while and forgot about. We both sigh when we realize what it all is: Playpen cloths, a sling, a belly carrier, sheets and blankets that belong to the crib, bicycle seats. And a toddler bed. It’s the bed all of our other kids have slept in and that was in the attic waiting for Amanda to grow up. We sigh again.

I take pictures of everything we come across that we don’t want or need to keep until our children eventually have children of their own and put them in the giveaway corner. Finally crying, how this hurts again. More and more it becomes evident that children will mainly leave this house – we waved goodbye to our oldest a week and a half ago for six months – but never will another baby enter it, although we had hoped for this for years. There only was a little girl who was with us for five days, but had already died when she came.

I need to write it down. This morning I read what someone wrote on Facebook about making room for grief. She asked: ‘How do you do that?’ Someone else responded: ‘I don’t do that, it just happens. Mourning will take the space it needs.’ When I read it this morning I didn’t want to do anything with it, but now I remember it and conclude that both is true.

Today grief invades me by a toddler bed that I’m saying goodbye to because we’re most likely not going to need it anymore. The sadness takes up space, although I can of course choose to push away the tears and take for granted the headache that usually causes. But I now know that giving space to mourning and sadness often works better. I give space to grief by writing about it and then turning it into a piece that I can share with you who read it. That way I give it a place, I give it space.

A long time ago I wrote that first you miss your baby, but later your toddler, preschooler, schoolchild, teenager and so on. The toddler bed will be picked up tomorrow, just like the beautiful shelf I once bought for the baby’s room, one that you will always be proud of, because it was really new and special for that room. The pink girl’s closet has already been picked up this afternoon and so we say goodbye again today and the coming days.

Goodbye, sweet little toddler who wasn’t here. We miss you.

First published in Dutch on January 23, 2021

Balloon

My Dutch publisher texted me a photo. I see an open box with… my books in it! My book finally is published! He will bring them on Saturday afternoon and in the evening I will also celebrate it online with my family and friends and whoever else wants to be there. Then I will start signing and packing more than a hundred copies. I feel proud, busy, happy and every now and then something else pops up, like the balloon on the front of my book. Then something whispers inside me:

Amanda

After going through my book for the umpteenth time, my publisher wrote to me: ‘I am once again impressed by your honesty and also your quality of writing. And I also really feel a connection with Amanda, like I met her a little bit. What an impact she has had. She has left an indelible impression on earth, even though she has never seen this earth with her own eyes. Yet you have given Amanda a ‘life’ here with a precious message of how much love she has given and will give for years to come through the pages of your book. Wonderful…’

Amanda

Someone else wrote: ‘We remember Amanda. She passed here briefly after all.’ And another person told me how special it is how her life has touched so many other lives.

Amanda

Slowly it dawns on me that I need to stop and think about what this whisper means, in the midst of everything else going on in our family and around my book. Not only is it very cool that my book is finally there, it is also very special and delicate and vulnerable and painful. My book is about grief, faith, doubt, despair and, ultimately, hope. But my book mainly is about Amanda, our long-awaited daughter, who died. Celebrating my book also commemorates our daughter’s life and now I’m realizing that I don’t really know how to do that.

Earlier, if I didn’t know “how to do that”, I already discovered that it helps to just name it and so I thought I should write it down. That my (Dutch) book is published now means a smile and a tear. A smile, because the book came out, because the result is beautiful, because this story had to be told. A tear, because this book came because she is no longer there:

Amanda

Sidenote: I have written an English version of the book. We have send it to publishers in the English speaking world an are currently waiting for someone willing to publish it. Whenever we’ve found someone and I have info as to how to order this book, I will definitely share that here on my website. For now, the Dutch book is available via your local bookstore or by sending me an email: ineke.marsman@gmail.com.

First written in Dutch on December 31, 2020

Learning Responsibility

‘I have no idea’. My child says again to the laptop full of teenagers, each with their own background in Teams. My other homeschool child exclaims in the class he is in (with just as many children with similarly colorful backgrounds): “Oh, sir, do you mean….”

I’m sitting on the couch reading and smile. Suddenly I realize: both children begin to understand something. They finally get it: I should pay more attention, or: I need more explanation. Despite the failings of the past days, despite the extraordinary dullness of online lessons and the lack of opportunities to get out and about: learning is taking place here. Not a lot of school material, but something much more important: they learn to take responsibility. They learn that they have some influence when it comes to what they learn, what they do, what they leave behind.

The other day I heard my son saying: ‘Where did I leave my jacket?’ Internally I danced. Until recently this child always grumbled when he lost something and blamed everything and everyone except itself, but now he recognized its own role. He finally realized that he is responsible for where something is himself.

In my nearly eighteen years of motherhood, I have quietly  referred myself countless times to my basic task: help children grow up to become responsible adults who know themselves, their possibilities and limitations and in a certain way know how to participate in and contribute to society. This may sound a bit pompous, especially if you are raising a toddler at the moment. But it really helped. Just imagine what it means when the toddler who now always gets his or her way has grown up and is still pushing through. Then you suddenly find – at least that’s how it worked for me – the courage to deal with their behavior after all.

And now three teenagers in my home are very very bored. As I read somewhere: they do suffer from boring classes, demanding or overconfident teachers (apologies to those who teach my kids: really, I’m very grateful), but not the fun of jokes in between chat or frolic with your neighbors, moving from class to class and all the interaction that comes with that. Fortunately, many teachers recognize this (although useless chats during class are not appreciated, I heard at parents’ evening yesterday). They look for ways to keep the children in touch with each other and even ask parents for ideas.

Now that I was reading and heard my children making comments to the laptops, I suddenly understood something as well. Yes, they read a book during class (and then literally hear nothing), they play games (then they miss something less), constantly click their pens, hum and sometimes shout. But comments such as: ‘I have no idea’ and ‘Oh, sir, is that what you mean!’ prove that they are learning something after all.

Hearing them say: ‘I don’t understand’ instead of: ‘how stupid’ or: ‘he doesn’t explain it well’ indicates that they are learning a crucial skill needed to become balanced adults: they stop giving everything and everyone the blame when something goes wrong and they don’t give up. They take responsibility. I feel proud.

First published in Dutch on February 8, 2021

Receiving Favor

It was the end of October when someone asked me to write a devotional for Advent. I liked the idea and asked what Bible verses she had in mind. It was Luke 1: 30-31: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. (NKJV)

Oh no, I thought. That is definitely not the easiest passage to ponder with an open mind when your youngest child died and no pregnancy followed, though longed for. It took me a quite some time before I had the courage to sit down and prayerfully consider what these verses really where about. In the end I wrote this. It is not Christmas soon, but I think this message is worth sharing still.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. (Luke 1: 30-31 NKJV)

Dear Mary,

Lively girl of about fifteen years old. You could have been my daughter. You were full expectation of what life would bring your way. Your future was clear, your perspectives hopeful. You were preparing your wedding with your carpenter who was building a house for the two of you. Probably you were busy making gear for your new household, preparing yourself to start a good Jewish family.

Then the angel came, turning your life upside down. ‘Do not be afraid, Mary’, he said, knowing what an impact he had on people. ‘No need to be scared.’ He acknowledged how you felt but right after that he came to the point: ‘Listen, God is happy with you, you will become pregnant and deliver a son into the world who you have to name Jesus.’ You knew the meaning of that name: ‘God saves’ and realized this would be a special child.

The words he spoke after that: ‘You have found favor with God’, they keep coming back to me and I look them up in different Bible translations. In the Amplified Bible I read a description of what these words mean: “you have found grace (free, spontaneous, absolute favor and loving-kindness) with God.”

How did that feel, Mary? I can imagine that you would love to have this kind of favor with God, but you must have known what road lay ahead of you. You would become pregnant, without being married, unplanned. That meant abandonment, scorn, gossip and humiliation.

You accepted it. You took this as Gods will for you and went the indistinct, uncertain, perhaps also intense lonely way, totally different from what you thought your life would be an hour ago. You said that God could do whatever He wanted to do in your life.

You became pregnant.

It brought you humiliating libel when people began to see it, heart warming grace when Joseph stood next to you, deep wonder when shepherds and wise men came, terrible hardships when you had to flee in the middle of the night and build up a new home in a foreign land, beaming pride when Jesus appeared worthy of his name: God saves! And it brought you deep, intense, heartbroken pain when the son for whom you laid down your life and went through all of this, died. Because that too was Gods will.

Dear Mary, you were so brave and you are such an example and inspiration for me. Thank you for your obedience. Every year I become more and more impressed by it.

Reflection: Receiving Gods favor and grace can mean something totally different than you thought and can bring apart from joy, also much suffering and sorrow. How are these words from Luke an encouragement for you?

Prayer: Dear Father in heaven, thank You that Mary’s story is in the Bible and that she is an example of how I can humbly go Your way, even if sorrow and pain is involved. I want to be willing Lord. Please confirm I am on the right way. If I have gone astray somewhere, will You show that to me and help me to go Your way again? Thank you for looking after me and having my life in Your hands and leading me. In Jesus’ name, amen.

This painting by Johanneke Folkers really touched me when I saw it (Mirjam van der Vegt posted this photo on Facebook).

First published in Dutch on December 20, 2020

Ignore It

He feels left out, he says. He doesn’t know how to respond. Who he could have a chat with or where to sit during the breaks at school. I hear him and feel like a volcano. Protest, sadness, despair, determination and a list of arguments bubble up in me. I decide to not say anything, just sit next to him and be silent for a while. I wonder how I did deal with this when I was young. How did I survive in a world in which I didn’t think I fit in, was different, found little connection and felt a gap between me and the rest of the world.

With all my might I push a cork into the crater, though feeling lava boiling up, and say firmly, ‘We love you. It doesn’t matter that you don’t feel comfortable there. You shouldn’t care about what other people think of you. Ignore it.’ Suddenly I am back in time and see my father and how he tried to help me stand strong against my bullies. ‘Ignore it’, he said. Just like I say now. But I didn’t know how to do something with it, because I didn’t know and still don’t really know how to do that: Ignore it, don’t care about it. How are you supposed to don’t care about it and ignore it?

We both sigh and stare out the window. The trees are still in the same place, allowing the wind to carry their leaves. They don’t care about anything. Stand undisturbed, grow, bear fruit in due season. I put an arm around my son. The least I can do is not ignore him myself. To be angry at the world together, cry about the injustice together, find out together how on earth to act normal, to belong.

I think of the books I’ve read and the stories I’ve heard from real people. I tell him that it often seems that everyone else knows how to socialize and seem to have friends, but that if you listen carefully and look closely, it is not always the case. Every person has his or her own struggle with themselves and with the other. We cannot change other people. Only ourselves, and that only to a certain extent.

Suddenly I remember how I kept myself going then, and actually still do now. Softly I say to both of us, ‘If you find it hard to make friends, to recognize friends, to see where you belong. Then focus on being a good friend yourself.’ It doesn’t help much, but it does give a little courage to keep going on.

First pubished in Dutch on October 30, 2020

Foto door RODNAE Productions op Pexels.com

Learning to Do Things Themselves

Four more days and then they’ll all be home again, I thought last night. Although the holidays always turn out quite easy to do with all the children at home, I always feel stress beforehand, a pressure to make the best of it now, that I can still leave the house without arranging anything, finish thoughts without ‘mom, mom, mom’ in between and make music without sighing as a backing choir.

I think I have to plan what I’m going to do in the coming days. Make all assignments for the Writers Academy, promote my book, because it would be nice if I can cover the costs, and write blogs. It’s time to write and it has to be today, or tomorrow. After that, at least one child will be home and all of them already have Friday off. Maybe there’s a museum I can go to with them, but I’m afraid we’ll take another month of Netflix and/or Disney+ and start cooking and baking as occupational therapy.

But not yet. Not today. Today I can write, finish thoughts without interruption, let creativity flow. We have now agreed that the small room in the attic will be mine again in the morning and my Love’s in the afternoon, so I decide to settle in quickly. Then the phone rings. My youngest forgot something necessary for the test. I think children should learn to manage on their own, but this kid is only eleven, still learning and has a lot of trouble handling stress. I decide to adjust and help him by taking it to school.

As I carry my things upstairs, I walk through the chaos of his room to his desk, not finding what he needs there. I WhatsApp him that. A lively discussion follows. After half an hour of searching I decide that I will not come to school, that he can come home and look for himself or that he has to make the test without this document. Then another child texts that he needs to go to the doctor, for which he should have called himself, but has forgotten to do so. Since the whole family benefits if this problem is solved quickly, I join the telephone queue of the GP.

Ever since my eldest started secondary school, I learned that your job as a parent doesn’t necessarily get easier as your children get older. Before, you could determine what you were going to do with whom and where, but now they all want to determine that themselves and it happens more than once that I have to be in several places at the same time. Which I obviously don’t do, but still. It’s not funnny having to say “no” all the time.

I recently read that as parents you often show your love by doing things for your child, but that as they get older, that should change into: teaching your children to do it themselves. The latter takes much more time than the former.

While I’m sitting in the small study an hour later than I wanted to start writing, I find out that the school holidays will start earlier. So I need to finish my thoughts quickly and maybe go for a walk first. On my own. Because now it is still possible and besides that, it helps to switch gears again. This is an opportunity Ineke, don’t break your plans (well, a little bit). It’s an opportunity to teach them to do things themselves again.

First published in Dutch on December 14, 2020

My Goal

‘What is your goal?’ Mirjam van der Vegt asked in a radio-interview. I had tuned in when I read on Facebook that she would be on air. I have come to appreciate this woman more and more and when she mentioned that she was writing a book about rest, I was intrigued. Taking rest is quite a challenge for me. My thoughts are not easily stopped, actually constantly racing. I am distracted at every turn and regularly run down a new ‘bunny trail’, as my Love calls my side roads from the subject. Also my body tends to constantly move.

In retrospect, it only makes sense that I ended up in a burnout twice (as a staying-at-home-mum for crying out loud) and at the beginning of the lockdown, when suddenly five children stayed in our house, I got those symptoms again. Then I made arrangements just in time. But, what is it with peace? What is it with pressure? Why is it so hard to take a break, especially if you have many tasks in a day? Turns out I’m not the only one struggling with this.

So, what is your goal? Mirjam van der Vegt asked. If your goal is to make it to the top, achieve that one success, get that one job done, get that book in the bookstore, that song on YouTube, that blog on the Internet, that product on the shelves, get that kid to do his homework, produce that recipe excellently, undertake that journey without error and name your own goal for today, then taking rest is a lot more difficult than if your goal is: to love.

I think about it for a moment and remember what she wrote in her book, which I’m currently reading: ‘Judge the day by what you sow, not by what you reap.’ A friend wrote a song about this and it pops up regularly ever since.

Van der Vegt encourages me to write down three things I have sown every day. I decide to do that in the morning, when I take my quiet time and start my day by writing: ‘Yesterday…’. Usually I write down some things that I did where I can thank God for or – more often – where I can pray for. Now I write: ‘Yesterday I sowed…’ and can write down some things wherein I gave love to people around me, where I took a step to become a better person, a better musician, a better writer. I also remember things I would rather not have sown. Words that were hurtful, actions that were unloving and selfish. When I think about it for a moment, I realize that I have indeed sown and I give thanks for what is beautiful and ask forgiveness for what was not good.

What is your goal today? Do you have to finish your list, or is it enough to do what your hand finds to do this day with attention and love? I decide I’m not going to focus on my todolist today. My goal is to live and love (and write a blog, and that’s what happened just now).

First published in Dutch October 28, 2020

Letters of Wood

In October, it was baby loss awareness month. I saw several beautiful things on Facebook, while thinking: I don’t feel like this. I often have that when it comes to special days and weeks around problems that I recognize. I try to be open about those things, but I don’t feel directly attracted to days or weeks around such a subject. As if, precisely when it is asked for attention, I do not want to draw attention to it and don’t want to pay attention to it. But perhaps that also happened now, because my missing her is not so much upfront at the moment and I was actually happy about that.

Last night there was a special event called ‘light night’ and I wasn’t there. I was invited to come and sing my song in another town, but because of corona it was postponed to next year. I thought it would be so special to sing my song to other parents who lost their baby and every time I practiced it I thought of my own little girl. It was bittersweet.

So it was baby loss awareness month. A month with special attention to miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths. The loss of the future with your child. Invisible parents. With every post I saw on Facebook and Instagram, I wondered if I shouldn’t write about it as well. I didn’t, because I only write when I really want to say something and also because, just as in previous years, I doubted whether I should pay attention to it or not.

What’s nice about such a month is that people dare to name and express their sadness and that just helps. What’s annoying about such a month is that you are confronted with sadness, when you weren’t thinking about it and were content about that. But today I saw a picture of the name of a deceased child, next to a candle and with a beautiful text. I suddenly remembered a message from the funeral director who arranged Amanda’s funeral. When we carried Amanda into the church service, she had made a beautiful podium, with the letters of Amanda’s name in white wooden letters on it and also two large and five small stars of white wood: the family of seven that we invisibly still are.

In that message, the funeral director told that there is an old father who makes these letters by hand. For each baby for whom the company of that funeral director arranges the farewell ceremony, he makes the letters of his or her name. I was so moved to hear that and so grateful for the work of this man. Her name in those wooden letters tells me that she was there, that she is loved and has a name. I promised to share a photo in that post, but forgot. When I saw the picture of the name of that other deceased child, I suddenly wanted to take a picture of the name of my deceased child. And share it, for baby loss awareness week.

This is how the letters are placed in our bedroom right now.

First published in Dutch on October 16, 2020 when it was baby loss awareness month

Photo’s/Father’s Day

Nearly twelve hundred photos I received after I completing the order. I wanted to update the photo albums I make for my living children. This week, for the third time, I pasted in the photo of when they heard they were having a brother or sister. The joy and enthusiasm splash off next to plates with rusk with mice (This is a tradition in the Netherlands. When a baby is born, all visitors who come to welcome the baby, will receive a rusk with ‘mice’: a sprinkle with aniseed, coloured pink for a girl, or blue for a boy). My Love and I had put one on each plate for lunch to announce that we’re having a baby. Knowing know how wrong this would all turn out, I write down how the child for whom this album is reacted and wonder why I am doing this again.

I feel anger rising up inside of me. This was so not what we were going for. Look how enthusiastic they are. They get other rooms to make space. They are preparing to welcome this baby. How we look forward to meeting this baby. But three years have passed now, I already know what will happen: a difficult holiday in Germany where the diagnosis of Sister not growing well hangs over us like the sword of Damocles and shortly afterwards the devastating news that our daughter died quietly in my supposedly safe belly.

2017 is just a bad year. I prefer to skip that year in the albums. We took fewer photos, but in those photos I feel and see how grief covers all that’s going on like a heavy veil. It almost feels fake to write happy stories, because I feel nauseated with anger, pain and sadness. Still, we tried to make the most of it and to give them a carefree childhood, while in the meantime we also know what I am saying in the name of this blog: we are totally broken and try to be real. But no matter what we try, the children sense something is wrong anyway.

As I paste in the pictures I realize again that this was not what we had in mind for our children. This was not what we hoped for when we opened up to another child. Instead of learning them to deal with a baby and a stubborn toddler, we had to teach them to grieve and live with missing someone. This is part of our family life, of their childhood and I hear a song of Boudewijn de Groot in my head about the bland talk (‘zouteloze praatjes’) and I intend to write a loving but honest story, no matter how hard it is for me to do that. This is part of it. She belongs to us.

A friend told me last week that she grew up with her children getting older and finding their way more and more. Although I agree and also really enjoy how my children are growing up, there is also a big gap within me. It’s great that my youngest living is going to seventh grade and I certainly don’t want to stop that. But I find it quite difficult that primary school seems to have ended for good. Fortunately, she noticed that the process is not natural at all and asked how old Amanda would have been. She acknowledged the loss and sorrow that she left, her empty space, and also mentioned what her death had provoked, as I had just told her my book would be published. I started blogging because of Amanda and became a writer. Instead of bringing a child to primary school this Spring, my new book came out.

Although in the course of time I calmed my soul, as the bible says so beautifully and although I see the beauty that came from, or despite of, all the misery, now that anger is slumbering again and I need to find a way to deal with that. It is just so bad having to write down that a baby is coming, knowing that baby died and then on the next page paste pictures of the beach where the children wrote “Amanda” in the sand because she is laid out at home in waiting of the funeral.

Today is Father’s Day again. I wrote to my Love: ‘I am so proud of you. You are a very good father to… (names of our living children) and of Amanda and a fatherly man to the boyfriend of our eldest and to the girl who comes here so often, and to so many others.’ Again I felt the anger bubbling up. You are her father, but you cannot be a father to her.

‘I’m going to visit the grave’ he said a few hours later. And as I sit in the garden reading, suddenly I realize he might feel the same as I do and that it is time for me to write. He is her father forever. She is my daughter forever. Soon the oldest children will come and we will have a barbecue. I think I will first be broken but real with the Father of all fathers, because sometimes you have to think about what is missing first, in order to enjoy what you have.

First published in Dutch on June 21, 2020

Really Never Alone

“How are you?” the reporter asked me. Wiping the tears from my eyes, I said, “Yeah, I’m good!” and share how hard it was and how I found my way. They interviewed me for a Dutch Television program called ‘I miss you’ I couldn’t see it when it aired because I was serving as a worship leader in my church at that time. But when the service was over, I cycled to the cemetery, sat on a bench near Amanda’s grave, and watched the broadcast.

A year ago I was asked for this interview, but it was postponed a few times. Now, a day before my birthday, the time had come. One of the things I feared beforehand was that it would be so cold as we had to stand near the grave for hours, but the weather was beautiful and sunny, and despite all the distance due to corona, we had a beautiful, intimate conversation. It was so good for me to get the chance to tell in detail what had happened and how I learned to live with my loss through trial and error. After this conversation, it was out of my hands. I had been talking in front of the camera for two hours and told all kinds of things about my way through the land of grief. Now the program maker would make six to seven minutes of television out of it. I so hoped that he would be able to extract the essence of what I shared and that he would do justice to my story, to Amanda, to our situation, to God.

There on that bench by my daughter’s grave I quietly watched the program. I was moved and I cried. What a great job they had done. I saw myself as I am and even though I had said so much more, what had been broadcasted contained the core of what I wanted to say, also concerning my faith. I heard myself saying with conviction that God never leaves us alone and indeed I am more convinced of that now than ever before. Even though I had also known that before, for instance, in my childhood when I was hospitalized and totally alone, I had often noticed that God was there. Even if you don’t see it. Even if circumstances don’t change.

But someone said after seeing the program: “I didn’t experience it that way at all in a very difficult time in my life. I didn’t notice that God was near at all.” When I heard that, I realized that a (long) part of my journey wasn’t mentioned in the interview. While giving birth to Amanda I noticed God’s nearness. In my niece’s card, I had a very strong feeling that God was answering an important question I had: Who cares about Amanda now? But after that, it was dark for months. I was full of sorrow, sometimes full of despair: What do I still believe? What is left of what I used to think and considered to be true?

At that time, God did not feel close at all and I often wondered if I still believed. At that time I was searching for a book that honestly told how on earth you hold on to your faith when you really only feel sadness and despair. I couldn’t find it. So later on I started writing a book about this myself. It is only afterwards, a year or two later, that I could look back and see: Yes, He did not leave me alone. There were people who pointed me in the right direction, there were little things wherein I later saw that I was not alone.

So you hear me say in an interview, three years after my daughter’s death, that He really never leaves us alone. But that is not how I always experienced it, especially not in the first year after she died. It is what I can say now, looking back: He really never leaves us alone. He really never leaves you alone, even though you may not feel it at all right now.

First published in Dutch on October 1, 2020