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.
Wow! This post! All the things that my heart desperately screams –as a woman who has experienced pregnancy loss twice and amisstaring ever more down the barrel of the shotgun called infertility, I think I assumed an immunity to doing these things but the truth is I’m just as guilty. In a very real way the brief pregnancy experiences I’ve had made me feel “a part of something” that I’ve never vocalized or thought about consciously. Thank you for giving voice to the despair of so many and echoing the feelings of my own struggle.
I can empathise and feel the pain the words written here…
“Who can describe the feel of a tiny hand that is never held?” – so aptly described!
I haven’t “come out” to very many people about my infertility… For the most important person to whom this would be relevant that I do not tell – my mother – I refuse to tell her because then it would become ALL ABOUT HER. HER LOSS of being a grandmother, of getting to watch her grandchildren grow up. I’d get a lot of flack for “why didn’t you try sooner!?” “Why didn’t you TELL me?!” as if she could have done anything. I am making assumptions about her response, but I’ve known her my whole life and they’re fairly safe assumptions to make. sigh.
So. She thinks I’m a lazy, unfulfilled, selfish bum, who cares only for my own indulgences (being an “artist”) which she would never say outloud (to my face, but does say to my brother…), she does love me, and she thinks she is (mostly) gracefully accepting my “choice” to not have children…
But it means to some degree I can never fully grieve… metaphorically speaking, there’s a shallow, unmarked grave where I buried my dreams of motherhood, and I won’t tell her where that is, or even that it exists… It’s this stupid secret I’m keeping hidden because I don’t want her rooting around in there. It means she can’t grieve properly, either. she’s grieving her failure to have a daughter that did the “normal” things, like growing up and making grandbabies for her. but she’s not grieving the reality, which I’m not willing to share yet. maybe someday. IF I ever work of my own courage to fully deal with it.
Jane P (UK) says
Robin – so sorry to hear of your sadness but totally feel the same with regard to my Mum. I never told her of my struggles, when I did want to speak to her I would ring up and she never even drew breath to ask how I was – I never confided in her in 20 years. I gave her some details along the way and foolishly expected her to be able to get it and help support me. She never has – I have tried to forgive her lacking – like you I know she loves me but her own feelings are first and she just isn’t able to put herself in my position and even try and get how devastated I feel. She read an article about IVF and egg freezing in her You magazine and from that “she said she did understand what I’d been through” – I read the article – it didn’t even come close to what I had felt all these years and the aftermath of repeated failures, I actually felt insulted that she read one small article about someone’s else’s, loosely related, IVF experience and decided she understood me when she never asked and certainly never listed to the answer!. So don’t be hard on yourself or pressure yourself to confide in your Mum (maybe give her Silent Sorority or Lisa’s “taking my eggs and going home” to read) – I follow LWB and Brandi and Jessica Hepburn to validate the hardship of infertility. Keep going with your artistic talents. Thinking of you – posting here is very courageous. Hugs to you.
Thank you Lisa for this beautiful post. I think it helps a lot to name these intangible losses to be able to grieve and to finally embrace a joyful life despite childlessness.
This feels so true and raw and real. Coping with loss of self identity and how others also view you is huge as well as dealing with what you feel you’ve lost and have grieved for.
Thank you for verbalising this