Americans are expected to spend some $2.6 billion on flowers this Mother’s Day, when many of them will also go out to dinner and celebrate.
Yet on such a festive occasion, there’s the painful reality of those whose mothers have died, and those who have difficult relationships with them. But there’s another group that also dreads the day: the women who have lost babies to miscarriage or stillbirth but who deeply feel they mothered those children. I call these women Invisible Moms. Many of them suffer, and do so quietly lest they bring everybody else down.
I have two children, ages 9 and 7. I am grateful every day for them — all the more so because I also lost three pregnancies, in three consecutive autumns, the last one about a year and a half ago. The first was Jack, at 23 weeks, after I could feel him kicking. The second, Henry, at 17 weeks. I went to my obstetrician for what I hoped would be a regular checkup, and found him dead, floating lifeless on the ultrasound screen. The third was 8 weeks. I hadn’t named him or her yet. I’d learned that lesson.
Before those losses, I had no idea how much a person’s joy could trigger another’s grief. For example, about 10 years ago, just days before I gave birth to my son, I lumbered into a knitting shop in my Upper West Side neighborhood. Not one of the women there asked me how I was doing, or even flashed an understanding smile. I lumbered out disappointed, wondering whether they were just a mean-spirited bunch of knitters. But now that I have let down several other women by not acknowledging their pregnancies in similar situations, I know there could be other explanations. There’s the possibility some of them had experienced some kind of pregnancy loss. Or maybe one of them had, and the others were protecting her by not raising the subject of pregnancy at all.
So many women are walking around with this pain — the Mayo Clinic puts the miscarriage rate as high as 25 percent. A recent survey, by the U.K.-based pregnancy research non-profit Tommy’s, found that two-thirds of more than 6,000 women who’d had a miscarriage said they found it hard to talk about it — even with their best friends.
Those of us who have lost pregnancies might struggle, and even fail, to rejoice in other people’s good fortune. After my first loss, my therapist told me something with tears in her own eyes that I have never forgotten: Animals mourn, too. They will search frantically, for days, trying to find a loved one who has died. Elephants and dolphins will carry dead calves.
The dead are still our babies. Grief lessens, but it doesn’t disappear. A woman I know never takes off a necklace that bears the name of her stillborn baby. “It always feels like someone is missing,” she said. I know exactly what she means. Just a few weeks ago, my husband, kids and I ate Friday night dinner with another family. They have three children, the youngest is 6 months old. It was such a lovely evening, but my husband and I exchanged sympathetic glances and hard hand squeezes. Just being around the baby was tough.
Thankfully, I have two children, and I have experienced some wonderful Mother’s Day moments. But it’s still a bittersweet day – and for many, it’s harder than that. There are the women who couldn’t bear babies; mothers whose adult offspring have died; and mothers whose children are estranged from them. Still, there are ways we can be sensitive and caring: Send a card or place a call to a mother who’s lonely. Think twice before plastering your good fortune all over Facebook.
And if someone doesn’t share your happiness, as the women in the knitting shop didn’t seem share mine, give them space and forgive them.
Helen Chernikoff is the news editor at The Forward.