“But for an absence, for someone who was never there at all, we are wordless to capture that particular emptiness. For those who deeply want children and are denied them, those missing babies hover like silent ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?” – Laura Bush
Mother’s Day is not a universally happy day for everyone. In fact, for some, it can be one of the most difficult days of the year.
Since my mid-thirties, this day, the second Sunday in May, has stirred in me an odd mixture of both gratitude and dread. I feel grateful that my mother is alive and well, that we are close, and that we speak every day. But dread creeps in, too, because instead of celebrating with most of the rest of the world around me, I am processing a silent grief; and honoring in some strange way a day that not only changed the course of my life, but also of who I am as a woman.
I had always wanted to have a child. This desire was like a rich vein of coal running through an Appalachian mountain; it lived in me, rooted and deep, from the time I was very little, I thought, ready to be tapped to fuel my future. Not only was having a child a fervent wish, it was also a simple assumption. Not only is the idea of children written in our DNA; it is encouraged, nourished, and strengthened by our upbringing.
I was no different from other little girls. I “practiced” being a mother as I fed, fussed over, and changed my baby dolls, and as I sang to them and rocked them to sleep. It’s an assumption I made in junior high school when I set out to be the best darn babysitter in my small suburban neighborhood. This “given” became even more powerful and potentially frightening as a college student and into my twenties. I navigated it by filling my monthly prescription for the pill, making sure to pop out a little pink tablet from the foil package every night and wash it down with water.
Even when I was 30, I was still making the assumption, casually discounting the gentle warnings of the older teachers who taught in the same hall with me, reminding me that my biological clock was beginning to tick – loudly.
By my mid-thirties and married, I had carried this expectation for so long, and it was so powerfully embedded in my identity as a woman that it didn’t occur to me that one day someone in a white coat would look at me from behind a large mahogany desk and tell me that I had been entirely wrong. That what I had always assumed would happen beautifully and effortlessly, would never come to be. That I had, in fact, waited too long. That I would never be able to have children.
My own particular “white coat” was a competent physician but someone woefully in need of sensitivity training. The language he used to deliver the crushing pronouncement was impersonal and textbook-ish. But I understood, even amidst the complicated medical lingo, that he was saying that I was completely and irrevocably “infertile.”
Infertile……He kept saying the word over and over again. It stung like fire on my skin and made me flinch inside each time I heard it.
Infertile…which is only a neutral way to say uglier, more sinister words like sterile. Or barren. The white coat explained to me that my particular condition, premature ovarian failure, was untreatable. He told me all of this in what seemed like one long breath, looking down at my chart the entire time rather than at me.
Infertile…which is only a neutral way to say uglier, more sinister words like sterile. Or barren.
In the next breath he recited the list of normally viable treatments that would not work for me:
Medication wouldn’t work.
Surgery wouldn’t work.
Intrauterine insemination wouldn’t work.
Nor would in-vitro fertilization, intracytoplasmic sperm injection, gamete intrafallopian transfer, or zygote intrafallopian transfer.
The list went on.
The words began to run together in my mind. I became utterly transfixed by the movement of his mouth, how his lips glided smoothly over nicotine-stained teeth and effortlessly spit out the complicated, foreign-sounding words. I heard his audible words, but what I really heard underneath them was there’s no hope for you.
When he finished listing the treatments that wouldn’t help me, he took another deep breath and informed me that I was actually in the midst of menopause. Not peri-menopause. Not something like menopause, but actual menopause.
I was 34 years old.
With that, I felt the swift death of a tangible, living part of me. The part that for years I’d held so easily open with hope and possibility. That part that had held so dear the dream of a child. It was now, suddenly and abruptly, gone, leaving me no time to process, or adjust, or prepare. It was as if a sharp knife had sliced something inside me clean in two with one deft stroke. There was death in that moment, to be sure. But of what? What was there to mourn, really? There was no physical body to place in the ground. There was no miscarriage; nothing within me that contained even the smallest potential of life. Instead, there was only the sharp, ragged emptiness of my body and the vacuous, unsatisfied longing deep within me, like a powerful, persistent hunger that nags at you relentlessly after not having eaten all day.
I drove home mindlessly and crawled into our unmade bed. I stayed there, immobile, for five days. There was something in me that simply didn’t believe this; something in me that thought that if I was very quiet and completely still, that the traumatizing, destructive entity that had taken over my body would leave me to seek other prey.
Women for whom conception is impossible become experts at putting sadness aside. Because the reminders of what can never be, those small sharp sorrows, are lurking around every corner and can pop up when least expected.
The five days turned into ten, which turned into fifteen. I didn’t shower. I didn’t brush my teeth. I didn’t answer the door or the phone, or turn on the TV. I fell in and out of sleep. In those first blissful moments of waking, I did not remember the white coat.
My husband had no idea what to do or how to comfort me. He crept, hesitant and awkward, in the corners of the house at night, sipped vodka from a heavy-bottomed glass, and chain-smoked cigarettes.
Women for whom conception is impossible become experts at putting sadness aside. Because the reminders of what can never be, those small sharp sorrows, are lurking around every corner and can pop up when least expected. I began to accept that I could not break down and cry when a co-worker brought her baby into the office or when I steered my cart past the baby food aisle at Kroger.
Women like me have to learn to set these little heartbreaks aside and simply go on. I have found that this frequent setting aside is much easier if I give myself one day when I purposefully don’t set anything aside and allow myself to indulge the pain of it all completely. That day is the second Sunday in May each year: Mother’s Day.
I begin the day, however, in gratitude. I call my mother and tell her I love her. And I say a silent prayer of thanks for her. But then I go inward, and find all the pain I’ve denied again. I allow myself to indulge in the full magnitude of the original sorrow. I am quiet. I write. I cry. I pray. I sleep. I remember that old hopefulness, that old feeling of infinite possibility that I had to tuck away in a remote compartment of my heart in order to survive.
On the second Sunday in May, I allow myself to walk in delicate dreams about what it would have been to have had my own child; to imagine what it must be like to completely and intimately participate in the forming and nurturing of another human being; and to have experienced that particular, intense kind of love that must surely be more powerful than any other on earth.
As tender and painful as all of that is, it is also, in the end, cathartic and renewing. It’s like the feeling I get when I finally clean out the car or clear out an overstuffed, cluttered closet, of things being righter and straighter than they were before.
In the most private and intimate sense, Mother’s Day turns out to be my day. My day to mourn what can never be. To be compassionate and kind to myself by not denying the very real sorrow I still hold. It is this day that allows me to handle all the other difficult moments the other days of the year may hold. When yet another diaper commercial comes on, or I open another baby-shower invitation in the mail, or when a person I’ve just met asks the innocent question, “Do you have kids?”
I can set the stinging sadness aside and respond with something like a clear heart, knowing that none of these things, or any of the other painful reminders that I encounter, are intended to hurt me. I remind myself that we all carry some kind of secret pain around within us, which we must handle in our own way. Setting aside Mother’s Day is my way.
Terri Collins was born and raised in Kentucky. She taught in the public school system for 20 years and enjoys writing, playing the piano, watching the University of Kentucky sports, and sampling craft bourbons. She is currently working on a Master's Degree in Education and making progress on a novel.
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