Sunday, May 12, 2019

not my choice

here i am, seven years into this journey of motherhood between losses, and i'm still deeply ambivalent about Mother's Day.  sure, i am beyond cynical about the commercial part with packed restaurants and overpriced flowers and cards, but i find it easier to place myself with the people for whom Mother's Day is difficult (see last year's Mother's Day post) than slip beatifically into a role of a smiling mommy having adoration force-fed to her.
ok, maybe i'm still beyond cynical.
but here is the thing: none of this was my choice.
i struggled with infertility before each pregnancy.  not my choice.
i experienced motherhood four times only through happy nausea, hopeful tiredness, proudly tight pants, blessedly hearing a heartbeat, and then crushing grief.  not my choice.
i wrestle with the reality that there are millions of secret mothers with invisible children out there, just like me.  not their choice.
i know that there are also plenty of hurting secret dads out there too, who have even less space and social permission to experience their grief.  not their choice.
i have already hugged several friends who are dreading Mother's Day because their mom won't speak to them, or is a squizillion miles away, or is dead.  not their choice.

i told my patient and understand husband that i didn't want anything special for Mother's Day, since i still feel so negative and sad about it, which confuses me.  "are you sure?" he asked.  "you know that's not your choice to make."
i did not like this answer, and said as much.
"honey," he said, "our son gets to decide that.  Mother's Day is for him, too."

clearly i married up.

and my wise and beloved husband is absolutely right.  our child is all whispers and secrets and hiding things in Dad's closet and dashing around and happiness.  he keeps asking me how long it is until Mother's Day when he will be able to, if his excitement is any indication, unleash what must be a surprise awesomeness of epic proportions.  "it is a special day!" he proclaims. "for special mommys! and you are my only mommy so it is special for you!!!"
this is so clearly Not My Choice.

what is my choice, then, is to accept that my confusing cynical gloom cloud can coexist with the sparkly rainbow sunshine of my family's joy, and neither shall negate the authenticity of the other.  and i shall choose to inhabit the sparklyness with all my presence, and in so doing, honor my invisible children by holding space for them in that expansive joy.

Monday, October 15, 2018

international pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day

on this October 15th, on International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, i'm incredibly honored to have been interviewed by the courageous and wonderful Shannon Vandermark, creator and host of the podcast "Happily Ever After...Without Children."  when she first asked me, i was surprised she would want to have someone who has a living child on the podcast, but i understood why when she explained that she wanted to hear the perspective of someone who can say from experience that having a child isn't some kind of magic bullet that wipes out all the pain and grief of infertility and multiple pregnancy losses.  as easy as it is to think that "just having a baby" would make Everything All Right Again -- satisfying all the longing, wiping away all the pain, making everyone happy -- it's simply not true.  the opposite of happily ever after without children is not happily ever after with children; it's sadly ever after either with or without children.  each person responds to grief and loss differently, and each must choose what that Ever After will be.  joy and sorrow dance in lockstep; our enormous capacity to love brings with it an enormous capacity for pain.

you can look in the right sidebar under "labels" and see that i've written extensively here about this emotional duality and how i do not believe that L is a "happy ending;" that motherhood after loss is a unique experience that is affected daily by the struggle that preceded it; that grief has no expiration date, and of course, about the importance of Talking About It. this day is a huge part of that.
October 15th is the internationally designated date to remember and promote awareness of pregnancy and infant loss, and to give those affected by it a worldwide community of solidarity in grief and hope.  for many who swallow their sorrow, this day is perhaps the needed "permission" to recognize the pain of losing a loved child before or briefly after he or she was born...and this would also include the would-be grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, godparents, etc.  

tonight, for Tummymuffin Remembrance Day, our little family of three will light five candles; four for the children we will not meet, and one for our bonus miracle L. we'll hug and talk about the things that make us a family.  later, i will speak aloud the names of those i know who are remembering their lost children, and light candles for them too.  this will be happening in hundreds of thousands of places literally around the globe.  there will be so much light, and so much love.  

and if you like, you can listen to me talk about October 15th at the following places below  (warning: mild profanity.  it is, after all, an honest conversation from the heart and i saw no need to self-censor.  apologies in advance.):

Sunday, May 13, 2018


i see that now i come here to post twice a year: once on National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, and once on Mother's Day.  i didn't intend to do this, but i suppose this is because these are the two markers in the year when one simply cannot NOT remember.
i'm having a small existential crisis right now; the construct of "Mother's Day" is still not really that cemented into temporal reality for my son, and so it's up to me to figure out what i "want to do for Mother's Day." my original idea has been sidelined due to capricious weather, and i still have a very, very fraught and confusing relationship with the holiday.  after having a small meltdown about it, my wise husband pointed out that perhaps it is just that what i would like to do is NOT have a Mother's Day, just a normal family day.  oh. huh. but of course.
an artist i regularly appreciate for her keen human insight, Mari Andrew, created an illustration that is titled "Thinking of You." it depicts six different lovely bouquets of flowers, each one with a caption underneath:
:: Mothers Who Have Lost Children
:: Those Who Have Lost Mothers
:: Those With Strained Mother Relationships
:: Mothers With Strained Child Relationships
:: Those Who Have Chosen Not To Be Mothers
:: Those Yearning To Be Mothers
this more or less perfectly sums up how i feel about Mother's Day and explains to me why i still cannot approach this day with anything like peace.  i have no problem celebrating my own amazing mother, but i have a hard time celebrating my own motherhood without also acknowledging those other bouquets i've held and still hold.
i used to feel incredibly guilty about my turmoil over the holiday for various reasons, but now i'm choosing not to. it takes a lot of energy to choose not to feel guilty about something, and that's probably where the existential crisis is coming from.
i see that my last post dealt rather thoroughly with the idea that something as wrenching as infertility and/or pregnancy & child loss remain potent through time, circumstance, and growth -- both negatively and positively -- and so to any of you who are awkwardly clutching any of the above bouquets, especially you secret unseen mothers, i hope for you some measure of joy and peace even as what feels like legions of other women triumphantly wave their "normal" bunches of mom flowers.
and remember: until we speak, we do not know one another's please: tell a trusted friend or family member, or even me about your bouquet(s), especially if they are still painful, for there is no shame in them.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day

very recently, i went to a movie with my husband -- we can do that sort of thing now, because L is now in kindergarten, and we can enjoy the early bird shows.  We were the only people in the theatre, and we were pretty early, so my husband went to use the bathroom, leaving me alone with the ads for concessions and insurance and lawn care and mobile phones and whatever it is they run forever before you actually even get to the trailers.
i was excited to be feeling like a grown-up, relaxing in an air-conditioned movie theatre, on a date with my husband, when an image came on the massive screen in front of me: a woman looking at a pregnancy test, with a slowly spreading smile on her face, and then a shot of her and her partner, cuddling happily with the test in hand.  i sat in shock for a second, and then completely, unexpectedly, and utterly lost it.
it literally felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my chest.  i gasped for breath, clutching the back of the oversized plushy seat, heaving with sobs.  while the lizard brain part of me fell to complete pieces, the rational bits of me were terrified: what if there's someone in the projection booth and they think i'm having a heart attack? what if my husband comes back right now and finds me like this? and what, for the love of all that is holy, is happening to me?
i curled into a fetal ball into the corner of the seat and tried to breathe through the giant, primal sobs. i scrabbled around in my bag for a tissue, and tried to keep from drowning in my own tears and snot.  i had no idea what that ad had been selling, and didn't even really understand what was happening to me in the moment, but i certainly knew why it was happening: it was the concentrated grief of all those many, many pregnancy tests...and how even the positive ones amounted to a negative when it came to actually having a child.  it was the memory of the last, unexpected one that hurt the most.
"that's all i had for some of you," i whispered, "just blue lines on a stick. i wish you were more. oh, i wish you had all been more!"  and then -- like a switch had been flipped -- the sobs just...stopped.  it was as if the acknowledgement of my lost babies' presence in my life was the truth that needed to be spoken to acknowledge the grief and send it back to rest.
i stabbed the tissue furiously at my eyes, blew my nose, and did box breathing while the lights went down and the trailers started.  miraculously, my husband did not re-appear until a few minutes later, and the darkness effectively hid my swollen eyes. we proceeded to enjoy a movie like a couple of happy teens cutting class. now, you'd think this abrupt emotional shifting would've ruined things, but instead i found myself simply relieved to know that They Still Matter A Lot. 

so why do i tell you this very personal and awkward story?  because you can see the tickers in the right-hand column (scroll down if you want to) saying it's been eight and a half years (!) since we first honored a would-be day of a child that never came -- and the sorrow still packs a hard punch.  it's another October 15th, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day (click the links if you want more information on what this is), or "Tummymuffin Remembrance Day," as we call it in our home.  with time, each one is no easier than the last...they're just different.  i wrote in my last post about growing within the measures of joy and sorrow, and as my story shows, said growth will likely never be done.  i will likely always carry some pain of hopes crushed, just as i live every day the joy of a dream fulfilled beyond measure in so much more than even the life of my one living son.

friends, there are a lot of other parents tonight who will be lighting candles, remembering the ones they never met and choosing to courageously keep loving them anyway.  so please break the silence: offer a word of encouragement.  say "i love you and i'm remembering with you." give a hug.  light your own candle. ask for stories. say their baby or baby's name out loud.  just be there. 
and thanks to all of you who have been there, some of you for each and every one of these October 15ths over the last many years, who have extended so many acts of love that have defined our family in ways we could not imagine.  my candles will be lit tonight with so much gratefulness because of these, because of you.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

the measure of a (wo)man

recently, someone said to me they had realised a basic truth about life: that the measure of joy in your life is in no way connected to the measure of the amount of sorrow.  in other words, if you are very happy, it doesn't necessarily mean you should have very little sadness. and if you are struggling with some overwhelming challenge that leaves you  breathless with grief, this shouldn't preclude the presence of joy in your life.
there is no other day in the calendar of my adult life that so starkly racks this usually hazy duality into sharp focus than Mothers' Day. i am at the life stage now where more and more of my friends are losing their parents to the inevitabilities of age -- cancer, heart disease, accidents not recovered from.  they miss their mothers (and fathers) with a raw emptiness than i can only guess at.  i have my own inkling about it though, because i still miss my four lost children in a way that startles me.  how is that chasm of grief still so deep, and dark, with edges i cannot see? 

i am five years into being the mother of a living child, and every day of those five years has changed and shaped and challenged me in the best and most exhausting ways possible.  i have never before felt so much love, and joy, and also terror, and frustration, and above all, how strong i am.  my son is a miracle in every way -- and i know that the tenderness i feel when he puts his small arms around me is all the more fierce because i truly never thought i would have this experience. 
some of you have followed this journey from the beginning; some of you are new to it, and so i will admit to you all that yes, i gave up.  the clutching hands of my exhausted soul were cramping up after years of infertility and three lost babies, and i felt i had to simply let go of hope.  it actually felt good, like releasing a spiked iron ball into an ocean wave.  in time, i realised that it was being replaced with another, different kind of hope: hope for me, hope for my amazing husband, hope for the family of two that we were.  and since that was what i already had to work with, i didn't have to hold it so tightly.  so when i lost the much-wanted, and not-realistically-hoped-for-pregnancy after having my miracle-gift son, that spiky ball had been growing soft algae at the bottom of the sea for several years already.  getting through the day by focusing on my everyday, present hopes alongside recognising my crushing anger and hollow sadness felt actually normal.   i suppose i can call this Growth, or maybe it's just Growing Up. because generally, growing up isn't fun, but it is certainly healthy and good.
please don't hear what i'm not saying: i am not saying to anyone dealing with the grief of a denied future to just "give up hope." what i am saying is that the more i do the hard work of internalizing the dual nature of joy and grief; of having and having-not, the more i grow and the stronger i become.  letting go of hope for a dream that is not going to become a reality is a true loss, AND that loss is not connected to all the dreams that have come true; they should not lessen one another in any way.  there are many other things in my life that require this awful, messy work, and i cannot shrink from them with an unfounded fear that to do so would somehow decrease the overflowing joy in my life.

sigh. this all feels rather inarticulate, and i suppose it should be, since this is a lesson-in-progress.  i "know" all this, and yet i find myself more and more falling into the trap of guilt and denial over any present sorrow i still feel for my missing children: i have so much -- SO MUCH in my life that is rich and beautiful and marvelous, including a robustly alive son whose face, i am told, looks like mine. (strangers who tell me that on random playgrounds have no idea how deeply meaningful that is, how it feels like they are actually saying, "my dear lady, may i congratulate you on winning the Grandest of the Grand Prizes?")   shouldn't i just be able to leave those years of loss, and grief, and disappointment behind me? isn't it selfish to still sometimes cry so hard that i must sit down because something, anything reminds me of my other Tummymuffins? can't i just be happy with what i have?
the truth is, Mothers' Day is still emotionally conflicted for me. i cannot fully access the joy of my little son reciting a poem to me about our love and giving me a tiny flowerpot, without also fully accessing the years of pain this day has meant for so long -- both to me and to so many i love who are "secret mothers." both are real, both are completely heart-exploding, both are inextricably part of me, and neither negate the other.  perhaps the measure of joy and grief in a life is actually a measure of love.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

national pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day

my neighbours are landscaping their front yard, and it's currently a childrens' paradise, with huge piles of stones and dirt everywhere. they have a daughter only a few months older than my son, and a few evenings ago, they were happily playing together in their makeshift "construction zone." L drove his bulldozer up and down a dirt hill, loading piles of fragrant soil into his friend's little cement mixer.  her mom and i stood nearby, contentedly watching our kids play and enjoying the last moments of daylight.
we first became friends when we both had huge pregnant bellies and no real idea what to expect.   we shared maternity clothes, nursing shirts, baby food gear, kids' books and toys, and each others' yards.  after awhile, we also discovered that we shared the experience of three prior miscarriages previous to our fourth child's live birth.  and recently, we've also shared the grief of letting go of the dream of a family of four, as she also has experienced secondary infertility.
as the sunlight began its steady autumn-evening fade, she turned and asked me, hauntedly, "how do you let go of what you never had? how do you deal with the guilt of wanting another child when you already have one against the odds? how do you move on?"
i listened. i breathed deeply. i was silent. the sound of our kids laughing made me wonder if she also sometimes thinks about how it would be to hear her child's laughter mixed with that of a brother or sister that never was.

at this time last year, i was aching and so angry, hollow and raging, fresh from the loss of Tummymuffin V and full of unanswered useless questions, most of them starting (and ending) with the word WHY? in this year's span, i've healed a lot; i've let go more, but i have done so mostly quietly.  i have yet to write about the unexpected laying to rest and naming of my last lost baby; perhaps my silence is evidence of how soul-weary i am from these sorts of thoughts.
you see, i don't have an easy answer to her question.  it's really asking: how do you balance feeling unbelievably blessed and unbelievably cheated? can you? should you? i don't really know. what i do know is that i still don't think you really "move on" or "get over" pregnancy loss and infertility. you have to move with it; accept its presence in your life, and make it an acknowledged companion so it doesn't become some parasitic vampire of your actual identity. 
recently i have noticed that perhaps the lack of peace i feel is possibly -- dare i say -- feminist in nature: that pregnancy loss, and the insidious culture of silence that society imposes around it, is part of the acceptance of the idea that a woman's worth is measured by being someone's wife (you attracted and caught someone! you win!) and someone's mother (your ladyparts all work! good job!). i'm astonished by how often i hear comments that imply that i'm cheating my son, or i'm being irresponsible or selfish, or even that i "have it so easy" because i have only one living child and i do not (actually cannot) plan to have another.  i can rationally reject these comments, just as i can and have rationally rejected the many unintentionally devastating comments regarding my pregnancy losses and infertility.  but they take their toll.
so on this Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day, or as we call it here, Tummymuffin Day, i lovingly and humbly make this request: please don't ask the couple "so when are you going to have a baby?". don't say to the parents " oh but (s)he needs a brother/sister!".  and for the love of all that is holy, please do not ever say to any woman, "you better hurry up and have a/more kid(s); your clock is ticking!".  and if you are privy to the details of someone's family-making journey, and you know there has been tragedy and roadblocks, just saying "i love you and support you" goes a long, long way.

as the sun became a red-orange glow, and the outlines of our precious children's beautiful, vital, innocent bodies showed against the pink-tinged sky, i turned to my friend, put my arm around her shoulder, and said, "you know, some moments are better than others. in the best, i am simply grateful. and i let THOSE moments define my life. this is one of them."  
tonight, i shall light my candles and speak the names of my own lost children, and then love my friends by speaking the names of theirs, and i will hear my own life taking shape. and i will be grateful.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

i will not, i will

there have been so many things i've wanted to write about coming to terms with "not having another one," and also grieving the loss of a baby after having a living child.  one of the realities of this is that as a full-time parent with a small child around, one is almost always tired, and autonomous time is scarce (and only comes in increments of several minutes or less).  yes, this affects posting on a blog, but more than that, it greatly changes the process of mourning changes and losses.
this recent Mother's Day was a really tough one. i've written before about the challenge of this day for women who are infertile and/or have suffered pregnancy loss, but i was really quite unprepared for how much i'd still have mixed feelings about this day.  last year when the holiday came around, we were at a wedding in the mountains and were too busy celebrating that.  but this year we're right now in Germany, visiting my in-laws, and "Mutterstag" has been exported in all its commercial glory to this country too.  my son is still too young to do the whole breakfast in bed/card/present/flowers/etc. thing, and i told my husband that he should concentrate on his mom and direct all of L's attention to her as well.  we had a lovely day with a long all-family bike ride through the woods (yes, very Black Forest-y) to a little restaurant where we had homemade bratwurst and kuchen, and we laughed and L played, and we all delighted in our love for one another and the good mothering that got us there.
there was such sharpness and strength to that joy: hearing my son's pure lilting giggles while seeing my husband and his mother share a good story, the warm sun filtering through trees, the clean, crisp smell of spring and growth filling my lungs every time i drew breath to laugh.  that tangible joy felt like a sturdy shelter, and even a natural respite, from the heavy grief that permeated the other hours of my day, and i believe its brightness was intensified by the contrast, and its protection.  it made me grateful for many lessons hard-earned about the complementary nature of joy and grief.

today is the Would-Be Day for our fifth child, who is yet to be named.  i feel somewhat lost as to how to lay her memory to rest; she is unlike our first three Tummymuffins, who were alive and real enough but still, for me as a mother, only promises of a future not experienced.  however, this Mother's Day, which was in cruel proximity to today, i couldn't stop remembering, as i sprawled on the floor, sobbing for all the things i now actually knew.  i couldn't stop remembering what it actually felt like to be 40 weeks pregnant; how full and heavy and taut and uncomfortable and thrilling.  i couldn't stop recalling the feeling of tiny feet kicking from within, or even the indescribable exhilaration of feeling my baby finally slide from my womb into the world and burst into full-throated life. 
over the last several months, i have tried to drink my full tea mug of grief, but there has been so little mental space and energy, and i think i only sipped when i should've stared into its murky depths and then downed it.  the Mother's Day cup was scalding, and bitter, and difficult to finish because it entailed recognizing that i was mourning for someone whom this time, i could truly imagine. 
today, i understand now as i did not before with my first three, what this would-be day will not have.   i will not feel the weight of a small beautiful body placed upon my chest.  i will not smell the sweetness of a soft, downy head.  i will not look down into bright clear eyes and see my own face reflected.  i will not be looking at my husband with pride and even deeper love as he cradles his new child. i will not see my parents, or my sister, or my parents-in-law, or my friends' joy at a new arrival. i will not have a little face nuzzled against my breast.  i will not gaze down in amazement at this marvelous creature that i, by some miracle, will call my own.  i will not fall dizzyingly, splendidly, exhaustingly in love. 
and yet, by the same token, i know what i do have.  i will experience bone-deep gratitude when i feel the weight of my son, formerly Tummymuffin IV, snuggled on my lap tonight.  i will run my hands through his thick, bewilderingly curly hair and hear him say in his sweet voice, "I love you, Mommy." i will kiss my amazing husband with decisive pleasure and pride, and tell him again that he is a wonderful father.  i will send photos of today's adventures to my family and know they will take joy in seeing our son's growth and exuberant happiness.  i will be flooded with compassion as i enfold my boy in my arms and comfort him after an inevitable bump or bruise, as he buries his wailing face in my chest.  i will gaze down in delight at him when he does something hilarious, and then in the next moment takes my hand and asks some astonishingly insightful question.  i am daily, over and over, falling in love.

oh my little Tummymuffin V, i will never know you, but i know how it is to be your mother.  happy would-be day, and happy Mother's Day too.  i love you.