By Lisa Manterfield
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
This simple phrase is the one thing I wish someone had said to me. It would have meant that someone—one person—acknowledged that my inability to have a child was an enormous loss for me and that I needed to grieve that loss, as if my children had existed.
Where Western Culture Gets It Wrong
In Western culture in particular, most people don’t know how to behave when someone loses a loved one. They follow accepted protocols such as sending cards or flowers. Some may call to offer help or just show up on the doorstep with the ubiquitous tuna casserole. A few will know to give people space when they’re mourning, expect unexpected behavior, and be ready for tears or anger. Still, most people struggle with how to handle those in pain.
Our society also has an unwritten hierarchy of loss. Someone who’s lost a spouse, a child, or a parent is given different allowances to someone who’s lost a boyfriend/girlfriend, a friend, or an elderly relative. Further down the ranking come pets, coworkers, and ex-lovers. Even people who’ve lost houses, jobs, and limbs are allowed a degree of understanding, sympathy, and mourning. But most people have no idea how to react when they can’t see the thing that was lost—in this case, motherhood and all that it encompassed. Many people won’t understand—or even acknowledge—your need to mourn at all.
In her 2010 memoir, Spoken from the Heart, former first lady Laura Bush writes about her experience with infertility. “The English language lacks the words to mourn an absence,” she writes. “…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 slant, ephemeral shadows over their lives. Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?”
The fact is that your children and your idea of motherhood did exist for you. If you had planned on having children, you undoubtedly made room in your life for them. This might have included creating life plans around the assumption that someday kids would be part of that plan. In some cases, making room for children in your life might have included making physical room, perhaps dedicating and even decorating a room in your home that would one day become a nursery, or it may have involved moving to a bigger house or a more family-friendly neighborhood. Did you pick out names for your children? Did you imagine which family members they might take after? Did you fantasize about your daughter winning a Nobel Prize for her research or your son bringing home a gold medal from the Olympics? You probably thought about the kind of mother you wanted to be. You collected data as you went through life, putting check marks through things you observed that you’d do better when you became a mother and striking red lines through the things you’d never do with your children. And you undoubtedly imagined what it would feel like to hold a child that was yours.
Here are some other losses you might be feeling:
- your identity as a woman
- the loss of your dream
- the babies you’ll never get to see and touch
- the vision of your future that you’d painted so clearly
- experiences you could only share with your own children
- the legacy of family traditions and heirlooms
- the rite of passage into adulthood
- being treated like a “real adult” by your family
- making your parents proud grandparents
- fitting in with friends or peers
- your place in society
Your children and your identity as a mother existed and were very real to you. You have experienced a great loss, and the only way to begin coming to terms with that loss is to acknowledge it and mourn it.
This post is excerpted from Lisa’s book, Life Without Baby: Surviving and Thriving When Motherhood Doesn’t Happen.
Thank you for this post, I haven’t really thought of it like that until i read this post. I thought you only mourn if maybe you get pregnant and have a miscarriage or lose a child .. because i have never become pregnant .. but still feel a sense of gret loss everday .. exactly like what you said .. we have made room physically, emotionally etc for a child in our lives that never came .. every aspect we were mindful of having a child yet .. there is no child. I thank you for allowing us to acknowledge this .. it’s better to feel and mourn than to be in denial.. very profound post
This is so well put, and true and also beautifully written.
To read this and to know that other women read it and understand make me feel understood and accepted and respected, even though I’m never going to meet those other readers in real life.
Lisa, and all reading this: I am truly sorry for all of our intangible losses. Truly
Lisa, I am sorry for your losses. I am sorry for all of our losses.
Another name for this intangible loss, is disenfranchised grief……..a grief that is not acknowledged or respected by society because the child was never “real.” Only in our hearts……….
Of all the things that I have read in this blog, this by far expresses what I have felt over the years. I am traveling back from Germany/Austria via Iceland right now after a 2-1/2 week trip that will include 4 countries and when all is said and done. I wouldn’t be able to do this with children or without leaving them behind and feeling selfish and/or guilty I think. Still. I would trade it all for the life I might have had.
Thank you.I love this, I’ve saved it to my phone
I copied and pasted parts of this and put it on my Facebook page (with credit given where credit is due) and had a overwhelming positive response. Then shared it on a closed group page and a lot of them put it on their pages and they too had a positive experience.
Thank you so much for posting this.
Jane P (UK) says
Thank you Lisa for a wonderful post – and the comments from everyone have helped. I have been slowly grieving. However, when part of grieving is the acknowledgement of others. For some of us our grief will always been disenfranchised and I feel I cannot get past this when like Cvb says “i would trade it all for the life I might have had”. There is no-one to say “i’m sorry for your loss” because my losses started 20 years ago – and never truly came to an end (i was trapped in “hope” for 17 years) until 2 years ago. I keep looking at the positives and acknowledging my deep sadness. However, every tv ad pregnant women has me suffocated with loss again and again. Thank you for the posts here – its the only acknowledgement – I hope this one day means that the triggers will not impact so deeply.
Elizabeth Loughran says
I,too was trapped in hope for just as long. My first pregnancy loss (of a dozen) was 19 years ago.The pain doesn’t go away. And it is NOT talked about. Stays disenfranchised. The invisible grief.
Jane P (UK) says
Thank you Elizabeth for sharing (i’m so sorry) – I’m beginning to think that “acceptance” is not actually possible when you’ve hoped for so long and lived through so much sadness and loss for such long periods of time. And no its not talked about – people don’t want to know anyway. Yes, its truly “invisible grief” and I feel invisible to my friends and immediate family. I have become distanced to cope.
Jessica Jones says
This post is so well written and speaks to my heart, it says all the things I have been unable to say. A real moment of clarity – thank you.
Thank you for writing this post. I have felt guilty sometimes grieving what was lost by not being able to have a child during my previous marriage. I am older and time has gone by and I am remarried. New situation, but I’m not sure that we will be able to have a child. Time will tell. Thank you for validating that loss with what you shared here.