Nineteen years ago on this day, I became a mother without a child.
I don’t talk much about it, mainly because it feels improper somehow, like I’m inflicting myself on others, making them uncomfortable.
I’m sorry if this post makes you uncomfortable. You should read it anyway. Because you should know about us. The invisible mothers. The women who have lost a child before it even lived.
You should read it, and I am finally writing it, because it’s something we as a society don’t talk about enough. We pretend it doesn’t happen. When it does happen, we keep quiet about it so no one else has to hear, no one else has to share that pain.
Everyone understands miscarriages. Something like 1 in 10 pregnancies end in miscarriage during the first trimester, and people account for this by not sharing the news of their pregnancy until they’ve made it through those first twelve weeks. Then you feel safe. After that, you’ve shared your joy, you’re wearing maternity clothes, and you’re making plans. Still, according to the CDC, 1% of pregnancies in the US end in stillbirth, which is ten times the number of babies who die of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome), but I bet you know all about SIDS and nothing about stillbirth.
One thing I have discovered over the years of talking to other women is that the pain you feel when it happens to you is magnified because you feel like you are the only one. In fact, the comfort you get from knowing that there are other women who have been where you are, that they have suffered and grieved and survived, is immeasurable. That’s a big reason for my writing this.
No one should be alone with such a thing.
TO THE MOTHERS
First of all, you are mothers. You need to remember that and acknowledge that and celebrate that in yourselves, even if no one else does. You are part of the vast chain of motherhood that stretches back to the dawn of humanity and nothing — no matter what else happens in your life — can ever take that experience of motherhood away from you.
Second, it is not your fault. Though the weight of guilt and the feeling of failure can be nearly unbearable at times, you have to repeat this over and over until it sinks in. Make a sign to hang on your bathroom mirror, if you can bear to look in the mirror (I couldn’t). IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. You did not bring this on yourself. You did not fail. Your body did not betray your baby; it did not let you down. You did not fail at the single most important thing you ever asked of yourself.
Moreover, it wasn’t anything you did or didn’t do. It wasn’t that sip of wine you had to celebrate your husband’s promotion (or God forbid, to toast finally getting pregnant!). It wasn’t that bite of fish or brie or hot dog. It wasn’t because you did pregnancy yoga, or because you didn’t do pregnancy yoga; it wasn’t because you forgot your prenatal vitamins that one time, or because you didn’t take them for a month because you were so nauseous from morning sickness you just couldn’t choke them down.
It was not your fault.
My pregnancy ended with premature rupture of the amniotic sac, something they call PROM — yeah, gives a whole new meaning to that high school ritual. I literally rolled over in bed one night and felt like I had peed in the bed. I was mortified.
To this day, I don’t know why it happened. There was nothing wrong. There was nothing my doctor could do. There was nothing anyone could do.
We are sometimes powerless in the face of nature.
TO THE FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Acknowledge that you don’t know what to say. You don’t. There’s really nothing you can say. Try this: “I’m so sorry.” Or: “I can’t imagine how you are feeling right now.” Or, probably the best: “What can I do to help you?” Or some combination of all three.
My sister-in-law brought me fancy chocolate covered pretzels and sat on the couch with me while I ate them, helping me not to feel guilty even though that was not going to help the pregnancy weight go away. Favorite foods and quiet love are a good option.
Here’s what not to say: “It was God’s will (or “fate” or “meant to be”).” Unless you want to hear something ripped from the depths of a woman’s shredded soul that sounds like this: “What kind of ‘plan’ would kill my child and make me suffer like this?” Women in the depths of this grief do not want to have a philosophical discussion about God’s mysterious ways. They are not convinced — no matter the depths of their personal faith — that there even IS a God any more. So you should lay off the standard platitude that it’s all part of some master plan.
Another thing not to say: “You’ll feel better once you have another baby.” As though babies are just interchangeable building blocks in a family. As though this one wasn’t as unique and precious an individual before birth as it would have been at one day or one month or one year old. As if I, her mother, hadn’t already envisioned her first steps and dreamed of which college she might want to attend.
All of that, gone. In a brutal, agonizing transition of labor with the certainty of death at the end.
It took me years — probably ten — to feel able to watch fireworks with any sense of enjoyment. This is a bittersweet day for me, nineteen years later. And while I would not trade the two children I do have for anything in this world, I still wonder about the child I lost. How can I not? Who might she have been if she had had a chance?
Moms, you will make it. You will stop hating your body for its apparent betrayal. You will stop thinking that your grief shows itself like a gaping, bleeding wound for all to see. You will stop hating other women when they stroll by with their healthy, living babies. You will stop punishing yourself by walking into the room that would have been the baby’s room and noticing the absence.
You will. And maybe you’ll have another child. And another. And they’ll call you Mommy and you’ll be undone by how much you love them.
But you’ll never forget the baby who made you a mother.