Things I’ve Learned About Being A Baby Loss Mama – Three Years Later

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It’s October 15th: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

On July 9th, 2011, as you know, our Sebastian was stillborn at 35.5 weeks’ gestation. I have learned things, since then, about mothering an invisible child. Although I don’t presume to speak for other babylost parents here, some will relate.

  • It gets easier. Functioning day-to-day, compartmentalizing to get things done, packing away anguish for later – all that gets easier, gradually. They’re habits formed of necessity.
  • It also gets harder. Since Sebastian died, every day that passes takes me further from him. It’s agonizing, feeling so distant, trying to really remember his face (since our photos didn’t truly capture him). The older my living children grow, the more his infant existence seems out-of-context, and the more difficult it is to mention Sebastian in conversation – even though I yearn to acknowledge him.
  • The pain is the same. Underneath the coping habits, when I unpack it, the sorrow is the same sorrow it was three years ago, the loss the same loss, the love the same love. That’s what people mean when they say you never “get over” losing a child: they’ll always be your child, and they’ll never not be gone. That truth just hurts – and it rears up unexpectedly.
  • The awkwardness still exists. I sadly confess, I am no better at answering that awful question, “How many children do you have?” People meet me with my toddler, and I still talk around it: “I also have a five-year-old at home.” I can’t make myself add “and a baby in my heart,” even though I always think it, and mourn.
  • The club exists.There is an immediate kinship between bereaved parents. I’ve felt it with many who have lost children of any age, whether through miscarriage, disease, accident, or suicide. It’s not a happy club… and yet there is comfort in it.
  • I always know how old he’d be. Right now, he’d be three-and-a-quarter. There’s always a pang when I see the children of my pregnancy buddies – kids “his” age. Thank goodness, they are beautiful and healthy. I wish Sebastian could play with them.
  • Different versions of my family exist in my mind. I relate to your family with two close sons. We envisioned, almost were, that family. I relate, too, to the family with two boys and a little girl: that’s the family we are in my heart.
  • Grieving is different for everyone. I mentioned that Sean and I had a heart-to-heart last Sebastian Day, arising from my loneliness in grief. It was an important talk, one we both needed, revealing that neither of us is alone – we just grieve very differently. We must remember each other’s grief, even if we can’t see it, so we can still support each other.
  • It’s tricky to grieve an unknown sibling. Sometimes, E mentions Sebastian casually, without sadness. But as he grows, he understands his own loss more – the unfairness of having a brother he never met. Sometimes, when he’s feeling fragile, he cries. He adores his sister, but does wish we could’ve kept that brother.
  • Your babies are your babies, no matter how small. Sebastian changed my life dramatically, but I’ll never forget my first loss: an appleseed-sized person whose heartbeat stopped on May 28th, 2008. That tiny life will always matter to me, as part of my family and my remembrance.
  • The same things hurt.When friends, even close ones, accidentally forget or negate Sebastian’s existence, I understand… but it still hurts. I know that, having birthed him, I have the unique inability not to count him as one of my children.
  • The same things heal. When someone mentions him – by name, especially – that acknowledgement is profoundly important to me. Bringing him up doesn’t “remind” me; he’s always in my thoughts anyway. It helps to know that Sean and I aren’t alone in grieving him. I recently discovered that my sister-in-law has a Sebastian tattoo, and really appreciated the reminder: he’s in many hearts besides ours.

If you are able, tonight at 7 pm, please consider lighting a candle in your window for this Remembrance Day Wave Of Light. You never know when that small flame will comfort someone in need.




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Why Teacher Incentive Pay and Standardized Tests Don’t Help Kids


Climb-that-TreeThe Fraser Institute, a Canadian public-policy think tank, has just released a study recommending something called “teacher incentive pay”, based on student achievement. The idea is, teachers would be paid bonuses based on high scores in their students’ standardized test results. This, they say, is key to Canada staying competitive on the world stage.

I always have to laugh – without humour – when the Fraser Institute comes up with something to say about public education. I’m sure they work very hard and do lots of thinking and research to come up with their Studies and Findings and Recommendations; what they lack is a real grasp on the reality of the public school world – dynamics between students, parents, educators, and knowledge.

Here’s what I agree with from the study:

  • We teachers need to help students excel.
  • We need especially to help students with difficulties do the best learning they can.
  • Raising children with solid knowledge and skills is good for Canadian society.
  • Literacy and numeracy are vital skills for all children.
  • It is not ideal that mediocre or bad teachers are paid on the same scale as good or fantastic teachers.

Here’s what I don’t agree with:

  • That standardized test results are an accurate reflection of student abilities and learning, and
  • That standardized test results have anything to do with teacher excellence.

Let’s first look at what’s wrong with standardized tests.

In Ontario, standardized tests were introduced by the Harris government in 1996. Since then, students are tested in math and literacy in Grade 3 and Grade 6, in math only in Grade 9, and in literacy only in Grade 10. Students must pass the Grade 10 literacy test to graduate from high school.

I get why EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) testing seems desirable. The school system is publicly funded; naturally, parents and other taxpayers want to know that their dollars are going to the best use possible.

It also looks good for the government to be able to point to rising test scores and say “Look! We are doing things right! WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE.”

It’s a nice thought, that student abilities and learning could be monitored in such a neat, encapsulated way.

The issue here, as with all standardized tests, is that they are purported to measure “student achievement” – and they don’t. They measure only how those students performed on that particular test on those particular days.

Standardized tests do not reflect what students really know or can really do.

This is partly because, when you administer a standardized test, the setting is unnatural. The first time I scribed part of an EQAO literacy test for a Grade 3 student with an IEP (Individual Education Plan), and was taken aback to read the rules. I was to write down what the student said, including whatever punctuation he remembered to ask me to put in. For the writing section, I was allowed to read him the questions, but I was not allowed to say anything else. Not even small talk to help him feel at ease. If he forgot something, I couldn’t remind him by re-reading. I could not answer any questions he asked me for clarification. I could not even silently turn a page for him if he was looking at the wrong question.

Sure, for students who do well on EQAO, it demonstrates that they can answer those questions. That’s great for them.

But for students who are naturally nervous about being tested, it’s the perfect situation to send their anxiety skyrocketing – whatever their skill level. For students whose minds go blank when the pressure is highest, it’s a nightmare. The fight-or-flight response kicks in so they literally can’t think.

And for those students who struggle with math, reading, and writing, it’s a good way to invalidate the gifts they DO have.

It doesn’t feel anything like the kind of learning we work hard to foster in classrooms every day.

That’s the weirdest part about EQAO. It comes from the provincial government, the same body that provides teachers with the regulation curriculum documents spelling out the knowledge and skills at the provincial standard for each grade level. But the two enterprises – curriculum and EQAO testing – reflect completely different philosophies about education.

The curriculum documents are regularly reviewed and revised, by educators in the system, based on new knowledge about the ways kids learn best, and new perspectives on evolving subject matter. They have changed hugely over the decades, and classrooms have changed with them. The expectation for learning today is much more inclusive, hands-on, exploratory, and real-life-based than it once was.

Most teachers are happy to use and endorse the curriculum documents. The approaches that are set out – and expected, by the government, to be used – are all about finding the different teaching and learning techniques that will eventually engage every child. And helping students remember what their strengths are.

It’s called differentiated instruction: knowing your students, knowing their learning styles, and getting them the tools they need to show you the best work they’re capable of. It’s recognizing that if little Liam has some extra time and less pressure, he’ll produce much better work. It’s noticing that when Sophie has her math manipulatives in front of her, she can do fractions with no problem.

Standardized testing is the antithesis of differentiated instruction.

It’s like saying to teachers, “Take all that work you did to personalize your approaches to different kids – and chuck it in the toilet.”

It’s like saying to kids, “What you’re actually capable of doesn’t matter. What matters is being good at tests.”

Yes, the stuff being tested is important. That’s why we’re already teaching it every day.

Let’s remind ourselves: tests are artificial situations. In life, testing itself is basically the only time you’re expected to produce large amounts of information or solve problems alone, with no chance to ask questions, check facts, collaborate, or research.

As standardized testing becomes more prevalent in Canada, it’s skewing things. Parents are starting to use EQAO scores to decide where to buy a house. Even better, the aforementioned Fraser Institute, in all its self-important wisdom, issues “report cards” ranking different schools, so parents can handily refer to those. The Institute is cagey about what the rankings are based on, but admits it relies heavily on test scores.

By the Institute’s own admission, rankings cannot include data on things like fine arts, trades training, and citizenship – because there is no data on those.

Because most of the things that make up the vitality of a school are not measurable.

Back to teacher incentive pay. Doesn’t it make sense to use financial rewards to motivate teachers to do their very best teaching? If kids do well on the tests, doesn’t that show that the teacher taught them well?

Yes – maybe. There’s a decent chance that children who get high test scores had a good teacher. But there’s just as high a chance that a low-scoring class had a good teacher. Perhaps even higher.

When you place so much value on an isolated piece of high-pressure output by students, you are failing to take into account the broader learning and teaching arcs of students and teachers. Teachers know well that student performance varies widely depending on the year, the month, even the day. And though the Fraser Institute would like to gloss over this, things like parental education levels, household income, and family work schedules do factor into test scores.

Let me put it this way: would you want your yearly bonus to be affected by whether someone else’s children had eaten well/slept enough/taken their meds? Should you forfeit pay because you teach kids who have a cold/whose parents were fighting that morning/who experience test anxiety/who are learning disabled/whose attention span is desperately short?

Actually, I’d say it’s the opposite. Ask any teacher: the years they work hardest, the years that most deeply plumb their reserves of creativity and patience, are the ones where they teach the most children with those high needs. It’s exhausting, overwhelming work. Especially in classes of thirty kids.

When you really think about it, in a society that supposedly values innovation, it’s bizarre that we put so much stock in standardized tests. As we know, the U.S. is obsessed with high-stakes testing, and many districts use teacher incentive pay. This has, indeed, raised test scores in certain areas. It has also encouraged teachers to “teach to the test” – i.e. gear classroom instruction to revolve around what they know of previous tests – which you’re not supposed to do. But if your job is to improve test scores, then… teaching to the test IS doing your job, isn’t it?

It’s no wonder that, as the authors of Freakonomics point out, teacher incentive pay has also resulted in many instances of teachers cheating, in many different ways. Obviously, this does NOT improve student learning – but it does improve test scores.

Here in Ontario, the bigger a deal people make about a school’s high ranking or test scores, the more those teachers feel obliged to make sure their test scores stay high. If they want to please the crowds, they naturally feel compelled to teach to the test.

So. Are we teaching according to the students we have, or the test we have to give them? Because they are not the same thing at all.

Time to recap. What’s the really big issue here? What are standardized tests and teacher incentive pay trying to accomplish?

Improved student achievement. (Reminder: test scores and actual student achievement are two completely different things.)

What changes could help us attain real improvement in student achievement?

If you were to ask the teachers who spend each day with the students, we would have no trouble telling you – because improving student achievement is our daily goal. You would hear: smaller class sizes and more professionals on the ground.

If you’re looking to use money to help kids learn, change the ratios of teachers to students. The bigger the group, the less likely it is that one teacher can give every child the help he or she needs.

If you especially want to help the students with the most difficulties, hire more EAs (Educational Assistants), CYCs (Child Youth Counselors), OTs (Occupational Therapists), Special Ed teachers, and ESL teachers, so that those professionals aren’t spread so thinly that they barely see each child they are supposed to help.

I’m absolutely confident that if I could poll teachers in Ontario, they’d say they would much rather have those changes than incentive pay.

And if your goal is to help every child learn… then standardized tests are a big old waste of money.



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Maple Syrup Day

Yesterday we – E, Baby A, Daddy, Grammie, Papa, Uncle Ben and I – trekked to Westfield Heritage Village for a “Sweet Taste of Spring.” We weren’t the only ones – it was packed, and the atmosphere was festive.

We went last year at maple syrup time, too, but the temperature was in the 20s (Celsius) so it felt like summer and was altogether incongruous. This year, the weather was PERFECT: cool and comfortable in sweaters and boots, sunny, totally refreshing. We ate pancakes at a picnic table outside, and had enough time to be leisurely and visit the historical houses as well as the sugar bush elements.

I loved being there. It’s all about good wholesome fun: learning, nature, heritage, fresh air, family… and a little sugar.

IMG_sugar shack at westfield heritage village
Mmmm, samples.

trading post at westfield heritage village
We learned that the Hudson’s Bay Co. did not include women, because they were a distraction. Northwest Trading Co., by contrast, involved women in all their trading missions because they knew how to make themselves eminently useful.

Here’s what E liked best: MUD.

What more could you ask of maple syrup day?
horse and wagon ride at westfield heritage village
Perhaps a horse and wagon ride. E waited so patiently for this, and just about burst with excitement when his turn came. The horses, by the way, are named Rose and Lady.

Baby A was a very good girl too. She learned about straws.

making syrup the very old-fashioned way
Imagine the only way you could boil down the syrup was by putting hot rocks from the fire into the sap, over and over again. The natives really earned their sugar.

union jack at westfield heritage village
Times were pretty different in the 1800s.
E and Uncle Ben at the train!




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The Artistic Development of a Three-Year-Old – Not Very Wordless Wednesday

E’s fine motor skills have come a long way in the past six months, much to the relief of everyone. You see, he inherited his dad’s perfectionism, along with his dad’s tendency to get very frustrated with things that don’t come easily.

For a while, he didn’t want to do any colouring at all, because he didn’t think he was good at it – he wanted us to do it. This kinda broke my heart, as an erstwhile serial colouring-contest winner (yeah… I’m still proud of this, so what? They were masterpieces!) and I wanted him to find the same kind of joy in putting pencil crayons to paper.

Fortunately, between the colouring apps for iPad (which are very forgiving, as well as educational, because you can start over with no repercussions) and the book his madly artistic cousin Q sent him for his birthday (validating artistic license) he suddenly went from scribbling and being discontented about it, to making deliberate drawings of actual things.

Here is an early one.

three-year-old's drawing of a boy
“A boy.”

I watched him very carefully draw this one. (It has a trunk, and that’s what matters.)

three-year-old's drawing of an elephant
“An elephant.”

One day he asked me to draw a flower for him, and then he decided to try his hand at one. We were flabbergasted at its delicate proportions.

three-year-old's drawing of a rose
“A rose.”

This last one is pretty darn recognizable, I’d say. E did this one at Grammie and Papa’s, and we were told that the order he drew this was as follows: legs, eyes, head, ears, arms, mouth, shirt.

 three-year-old's drawing of a person
Portrait of the artist, or his baby sister.

I guess the all-encompassing green circle is the shirt. (I think I would have liked to see it with just the legs and eyes.)

Kids are fascinating, n’est-ce pas?

(Leave it to me to write over 300 words on a post I meant to be “wordless”. Haha.)




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Talking about anatomy with a preschooler

Sean and I have always used the scientific words for certain body parts when talking with E. There are reasons for this.

For one thing, we both know that personally, we would feel like tools if we used words like winkie and hoo-ha or whatever. (This is why I never got the immensely popular “Once Upon A Potty” book for E – lots of parents love this book and find it incredibly helpful, and I’m glad for you if you did… but I got to the part where it said Joshua had “a Pee-Pee for making Wee-Wee” and I was like, HELL NO. No one can make me read that aloud.)

For another, I’ve been privy to a few discussions in the staffroom among teachers working on “touching units” (i.e. learning about bodies, good touch/bad touch, sexuality) who have discovered that many of the younger kids don’t actually recognize the official words for things – they don’t know that what they have is called a penis or vagina.

It’s not that I judge parents who use cuter terms than, say, scrotum – since there’s nothing cute about that word at all. I understand the urge to use words that are more fun, but I guess I’d rather that we, the parents, be the ones to introduce the anatomical terms, rather than the Grade 1 teacher. Plus, there are countless terms if you’re going to use slang – how do you pick?

Also, it makes for some funny conversations – awkward, but funny. These words just sound comical, coming from a three-year-old mouth. It’s even funnier when you combine it with a three-year-old’s perception of how anatomy works.

When he learned that he had a penis, he assumed everyone had one – and why wouldn’t he? We all have eyes and knees and bellybuttons, so it only makes sense. He asked me, “Mummy, where’s your penis?” I explained that girls and women have vaginas instead. He was a bit mystified as to how a person can pee without a penis (since it does seem like a logical instrument to use). I’ve told him that when his baby sister is born, he’ll see the difference.

We’ve also had some conversations about nudity, and how it’s great if he wants to be naked at home, but when we’re at the park, we wear clothes. We did discreetly help him into and out of his swimsuit at splash pads and wading parks this summer, of course, but that was it. Once, when he started to resist getting his underwear back on, we asked him, “Remember why it’s important to wear underwear at the park?” He came up with an answer that made sense, even if it missed the point about public nudity (or keeping your voice down): “To protect my scrotum!!

Of course, my pregnancy has brought up lots of interesting thoughts and questions. He knows the baby is in my belly – he has felt her move, especially with hiccups. He sweetly brings his “caterpillar phone” (a little Baby Einstein device that plays snippets of classical music with flashing lights) and puts the speaker against my abdomen so she can hear it.

He knows she is growing, and has noticed that I’ve grown, as well. The other day, on a trip to the big potty (he still uses his little one most of the time, but likes to branch out occasionally) he saw that our toilet seat has a small crack in it (our bathroom just gets more sketchy all the time, sigh) and asked why. I said, “Well, we sit on it all the time. We put our weight on it, and we weigh a lot, so eventually it just cracked.”

“Yeah,” he responded, “Just like your belly!”

While I was digesting the aptness of this analogy – my belly taking more and more weight until it would “crack” – he continued, “Mama, your belly is humongous. I mean, it’s really huge!” Yep, thanks. I saw that too, kid.

I like to think that our layered pregnancy puzzle, given to E as a gift during the last pregnancy, might have been helpful in clarifying what’s going on.

pregnant mother layer puzzle

He is also dealing with the knowledge that this pregnancy thing will never happen to him, because he’s a boy.

E (as we are winding up playing with vehicles in the living room): Mama, you be the school bus and I’ll be the ambulance.

Me: Sweetie, I have to go eat lunch.

E: But don’t go eat! [Favourite argument in any situation: “But, don’t!”]

Me: Remember, I have to eat so your baby sister can eat. [We’ve talked about how I “share” my food with her, how she gets the nutrients through the umbilical cord, and that’s going to form her bellybutton.]

E (pause): Mama, I want to have a baby and I want it to be in MY tummy!

Me: Oh, buddy. You know what? I’m afraid you’re never going to have a baby in your tummy.

E: Why not?

Me: Well, boys don’t have babies in their tummies, ever.

E: Why don’t they?

Me: They don’t have the right parts. You have to have a uterus.

E (thinks this over): Then who has uteruses??

Me: Just girls, and women.

E (another pause): Will the baby have a uterus? [This struck me as a very astute question.]

Me: Yes, she will. She just won’t need to use it until she’s older, like a grownup.

Poor kid doesn’t necessarily want to resign himself to the reality of his inability to bear children. Weeks later, he had this conversation with Daddy.

E: Daddy, I’m pregnant.

Daddy: I don’t think so, buddy. You can’t be pregnant.

E: Why?

Daddy: Boys can’t get pregnant. It’s not in our physiology. Only girls can be pregnant. [This is the point where I am certain that, in his mind, Daddy was thinking, “Where’s the fetus gonna gestate? You gonna keep it in a box??“]

To illustrate his point, Daddy continues: Who do we know who’s pregnant?

E names me, and another pregnant friend, and then a non-pregnant mom we know.

Daddy: No, not her…

E: But you said all girls are pregnant!

Aha, the oh-so-subtle but vital difference between “all” and “only”.

I was quite glad when Sean related to me the conversation he’d had with E about how the baby was going to come out. Glad E had asked, and even gladder that he’d asked Daddy. 🙂 And that Daddy handled it so well.

He explained simply that most of the time (unless there is something unusual that means a doctor has to get the baby out surgically through the belly), the baby comes through the mother’s vagina. Shrewdly, E expressed his hunch that a baby would be too big to get out of there. Daddy explained that women’s vaginas are designed to do this, to get bigger and let babies out. Bravo, honey – way to be clear. (Considering how many obstetricians all over the planet seem to have forgotten this important fact.)

We have also explained that once the baby is out of my belly, she will be staying out. (Implication: even if you get tired of your baby sister getting lots of attention, sorry – you can’t go back to being an only child.) Instead of me transporting her inside me, we will have to carry her, or wear her in a sling, or bring her places in a car seat. E seems to have a very logical approach, resulting in one of our favourite quotations: “Well, maybe we can just put her back in Mama’s tummy… for trips.”



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