There’s been a lot of talk in the last week about the notion of the “replacement child,” in response to John Travolta and Kelly Preston announcing they’re expecting just a year after their son Jett’s tragic death. ABC News acknowledges that the phrase “replacement child” is “a cruel term,” and CNN takes a more tactful approach, titling their piece, Conceiving after loss: ‘You can never replace a child’. And yet both articles seem to insinuate that Travolta and Preston may be having a replacement child. The Daily Mail, in a headline that can only be described as inflammatory, even goes so far as to claim that the couple believe their unborn child might be a reincarnation of Jett.
Psychiatry professor Katherine Shear of Columbia University says, “When a child dies, many parents have a “natural urge” to have another.” That makes sense. Babies, in addition to being wonderfully lovable little creatures, represent hope. Therese Rando, author of the book How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, says, “In Western culture, all feelings of hope and meaning and expectations are projected on to the child.” But that doesn’t automatically imply that people who’ve lost a child have subsequent children as an act of selfish comfort.
ABC gives several examples of high-profile couples who have had subsequent children after losing one, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife and John and Elizabeth Edwards. The Edwards’ have both been very vocal about how difficult it was for them to deal with their son’s death, but to suggest that they went on to have two additional children to “replace” him smacks as highly offensive.
According to CNN, “it’s not a matter of time” that dictates whether or not a subsequent pregnancy is meant to replace a deceased child, “but the parents’ ability to cope with the loss and prepare to raise another child.” Psychoanalyst Dr. Arnold Richards says, “Parents should ask themselves: ‘Are they having a child only to replace the child that’s lost? Or are they genuinely interested in another child?’ Because if it’s only for a replacement child, that’s going to place a very heavy burden on the psyche of both the parent and the new child.”
Some people do feel they were conceived to replace a deceased sibling. Judy Mandel, author of the memoir Replacement Child, says her parents dressed her in the same clothes and hairstyle as her deceased sister. “This sister was the angel sister. There’s the aspect of being in the shadow of that. You can’t live up to that promise the child had. I was always told what a special child she was, how promising she was in school, how perfect she was — it’s tough. I was thinking I can’t be as good as that.”
Many in the media seem to think this pregnancy is happening too soon for Preston and Travolta, as if they haven’t had proper time to grieve their son. Preston is 47 and Travolta is 56, so there is tabloid speculation that they required fertility treatments to conceive. (Not to mention rumors that Travolta is in the closet, but that’s another subject for another day. Oh, Scientology! For the record, I think Travolta is a genius performer and I don’t claim to know anything about his personal life. I’m just saying, it’s complicated.) I suppose the lingering question is this: Would Travolta and Preston have had another child if their son Jett hadn’t passed away? According to ABC, they told People magazine they were thinking of adding to their family back in 2007. After such a terrible year, to dampen their joy by insinuating their motives are less than pure seems a little heartless.