Author Marisa Renee Lee on Grief & Parenting
This week, in honor of Juneteenth, we're featuring an interview with author Marisa Renee Lee. Her book, "Grief is Love" grapples with the loss of her mother. Marisa cared for her mother for many years before her death, an experience that shaped the way she approaches parenthood.
We spoke about the ways that caretaking is both a gift and a burden, especially when it comes to parenting a Black child. Parenting is always about loving someone whose safety you cannot guarantee, but this can feel especially true for Black parents in America today.
Towards the end of the interview, Marisa shared that for her, there are profound parallels between birth and grief. Both are transformational experiences. Grieving involves more birth than you might expect—the birth of a new form of love for someone who is no longer here. And birth involves more grief than you might expect—for the version of yourself you were before you became a parent, and for the version of your child who is gone forever with each new day.
As you'll see in our conversation, Marisa has been through a LOT. I'm so inspired by the way she confronts life's challenges with introspection and openness. Enjoy the interview!
Lindsay, Head of Content & Community @ Oath
A Conversation with Author Marisa Renee Lee
Lindsay: What was your path to becoming a mother?
Marisa: It was an epic journey. I found out in 2011 that I lost my ability to naturally conceive at some point during my mom's battle with breast cancer. I had just turned 28 and I was single. Of course, I met a guy the next year. I had to tell him all of this within the first six weeks of dating. Super awkward—don't recommend it. So we knew from the outset of our relationship that if it were to work out, we were going to be on a longer journey to parenthood.
We got married in 2015, and I decided I wanted us to start with egg donor IVF. So we launched that process in August of 2016, thinking we would get pregnant in 2017. We had our first failure in 2017 where none of our embryos ended up working out, then decided to take some time off because it was really frustrating and exhausting. Started again in 2019. And even with buying extra eggs and doing all of the extra things, we were only left with one viable embryo from the process. We did a transfer in August of 2019 and I lost the pregnancy and we were a mess. That was sort of our last chance at the end of a three year, tens of thousands of dollars journey to become parents. We didn't have a plan. We didn't know what we were going to do.
We spent a lot of time grieving. I was very physically sick from the loss and my underlying health condition. And then came the pandemic. It was miserable, but it’s also what led to “Grief is Love.” I started writing because I couldn't access any of my normal coping mechanisms. And that writing led to a viral article and a book. And at the same time as I was writing that book and working full time, my husband was working on the front lines of the pandemic, and we were pursuing adoption: doing all the paperwork and background checks and all of those things behind the scenes while managing very busy professional lives.
Three weeks before my final manuscript was due to my publisher, we got a call that the baby had been born and we became parents in less than 24 hours. We had no crib, no diapers, no bottles, no car seat, no nothing. It was completely insane and amazing. And now we have a toddler.
Lindsay: It's very far from the typical journey. And I think in any culture, really, there's barely enough resources for people who do go through things the expected way. Did you feel more alone, becoming a parent in a less common way?
Marisa: Definitely. And there's also the race piece to it. You go to fancy fertility clinics in New York and DC, and the only Black people you see are when somebody comes to draw your blood. So that made it lonely, the infertility made it lonely, and then watching all of your friends get pregnant in like, five minutes, and not being able to share in those experiences made it lonely.
Lindsay: And then you somehow took those feelings and wrote a book about something extremely relatable and universal.
Marisa: I've always been a writer, but I didn't realize that when I started writing a book. Because writing was how I got through a lot of the most painful parts during the pandemic.
Lindsay: What do you think it was about that experience that made you turn to writing?
Marisa: All of my usual coping mechanisms were gone. I had encountered grief before. I knew how shitty and painful and awful it could be, especially in its early days and months. Thankfully, when we initially had our pregnancy loss, I was able to be around people. Girlfriends came by that night with Chinese food and cookie dough and whiskey.
But then by March 2020, all of that stuff was gone and I was really struggling. I wonder, looking back, how much of my grief, depression, anxiety was made worse by the fact that my hormones weren't properly regulated, which tends to make all of those things worse. And how much of it was made worse by the fact that I, like everybody else, was living in a global pandemic.
It was a really hard time and the only thing that I could think to do was was write or punch someone in the face, so I wrote.
Lindsay: What does your writing practice look like today, with a toddler?
Marisa: I keep my notebook at my bedside so that I can get it in first thing in the morning. I don't even check the baby monitor because if he's awake, he can wait ten minutes in his crib. I get that writing time by sneaking it in, honestly.
One of my best friends has seven well behaved, smart, amazing children. And her thing is she has to work out every day. It doesn't matter how many sports teams she's coaching or how many lunches need to get made. That is her time. She's a big Peloton person, so when Peloton added the pause button on the bike, she thought it was bad for parents because if you know they've been fed and changed and cared for, then take your time! Do your thing, whatever your thing is.
Even when we first got Bennett, I told myself I would do everything in my power to find 15 to 20 minutes a day. I may not shower, but I can spend five minutes doing a meditation, I can spend five minutes writing, and I can do ten minutes of exercise. Those were my things. I know these things will help my mental health, which will make me a better parent.
Lindsay: I know that you've done a lot of caretaking in your life from a young age, well before you had kids. When I had my first kid, I hadn't really ever taken care of somebody before. It was a huge shock. Did your history with caretaking make a difference in the experience of becoming a parent?
Marisa: My caretaker instincts were there even before my mom first got sick when I was 13. It's always been a part of my personality. I also felt comfortable knowing I'm going to make mistakes and ask for help. I never worried if somebody was going to judge me because of what I'm asking. I was like, “We literally just picked up a kid from an adoption agency a couple of hours ago. We don't know what we're doing!”
I had to ask for a lot of help from the very beginning because we got that call and we had all of the legal, financial, basic adoption stuff that we had to do that nobody else could do for us. So everything that somebody else could do, we let other people do it for us. I let go of a lot of my instincts around doing things myself and being perfect. I needed the village. Having some basic knowledge of how to take care of people and the weight and responsibility of caretaking made me more intentional around what do I needed to do for myself.
Lindsay: It's almost like adoption that gave you permission to experience what it really feels like for anyone to become a parent for the first time, no matter how it happened. A baby's going to be there one day and it wasn't there the day before.
Marisa: Sometimes people ask, like, oh, what are your favorite diapers? Or, why did you get these bottles? I don't know! I didn't pick any of this stuff. Somebody else decided the best stroller, somebody else decided the best car seat to get. We lost a lot of time that we could have spent stressing over things that don't really matter.
Lindsay: What a gift to have a ticket out of those decisions that don't really matter! Last question: if you were describing what parenting feels like to someone who was like, an alien, didn't know anything about parenting, what would you say?
Marisa: Parenting, like losing someone, is a transformational experience. And just like loss changes us, we should open up to how birth changes us. I will never not be this kid's mom. And with that comes some shifts in how I see myself, the world, and my place in it. Parenting, for me, is the greatest gift and also the greatest burden. Because we can't protect our kids. Look at what's happening with guns in America alone. Forget about broken bones and car accidents and hurt feelings. I have a black kid. I can't protect him in this country. So, yeah: greatest gift and greatest burden.