All mothers walk around with secrets. You see us, dropping our children off at school, with babies at the park, and pushing swings at the playground. There may be nothing to visibly set us apart, but beneath the surface there is often something that we aren't capable of showing you. Perhaps we have an experience in our past that has shaped who we are. Maybe we left the house in the midst of a terrible argument with our partner or child, or there is sickness in the family. Perhaps one of our children is struggling mightily in school. Maybe our new baby isn't bringing the joy we expected, or wasn't planned and has changed the course of our life. Maybe we are overwhelmed and consumed with guilt. Pick through your life, your identity. There is likely to be some struggle nobody else can see.
Every day of my experience as a mother is like this. Motherhood came in jagged stages, and I began my journey deeply conflicted about my own identity. My first baby, Charlotte, died as the result of a cord accident during her birth. I had no schema to guide me through this unthinkable, sudden loss, and I felt incapable of negotiating the world. Was I still a mother? I was bursting with love for this child who had left me, yet others' reactions told me my story was too sad to tell.
I was held by only a small circle of family and friends until the birth of my son Liam just shy of a year later. This child rekindled the flame of life beneath me and pushed air into my lungs where before I had been struggling to draw breath. I crept slowly back into the world, savoring my ability to go to mother's groups, to walk my living, breathing baby in the park, and to be viewed sitting with him sleeping on my chest in a cafe. I had finally achieved Motherhood.
I was out there in the world with Liam, and it was a beautiful thing to do everything I had envisioned myself doing with Charlotte. I loved him fiercely and without reserve, often feeling like I was giving him the mothering of two children bundled into one. I was grateful to avoid any postpartum depression or anxiety. I was even making new friends, who saw me glowing, gratefully and graciously caring for my adored little boy. Most of them even knew this sad, slightly secret fact: before Liam, there had been another baby, and she was dead.
I did not feel like a normal mother. I was happy with Liam but I was incredibly lonely. I could share that there had been a baby before Liam, but nowhere, not in any mother's group or playtime was there the space for me to truly tell my story. Nobody could see me only months before, alone, sobbing on a carpet that was soaked with my tears. Nobody else knew the animal cry of a bereaved mother's wail, ricocheting through the darkness of the night. I was walking around with this living baby, a smile on my face, but I could still hear that wail ripping at my soul. I could still feel the quiet, unmoving baby I had held before Liam. I was the mother of two, yet I was silenced from that truth. I simply assumed this was how it had to be.
It wasn't until several years later, after I began an organization to support bereaved parents in my community, that I became involved with MotherWoman and suddenly, without warning, I was given the first real, public place in my life to be my true self. I found myself sitting in a room full of mothers of all ages and I was invited to share my story. Not just pieces of the story, with the happy ending -- but all of it. For the first time, in the presence of "normal" mothers, I laid down the words that had been itching to come forward for years. I named all of my children. I shared my long journey, and I wept.
One by one, the other mothers shared their stories. They spoke of disabilities, premature babies, and divorce. They cried for poverty, for suffering relationships, for their difficulty in parenting, for the burden of racism on their lives and on their children. Just as the bereaved are silenced in many social circles, so were these mothers. Suddenly, I was no longer alone.
MotherWoman states in its principles, "We believe that speaking the truth about mothering is a revolutionary act which breaks silence and isolation for women... We support mothers in naming the deep challenges they are experiencing, knowing there are few places where mothers can be truthful about the full spectrum of their experience." Being able to speak my truth has not only allowed me to be truthful about my own life and loss, but it has also reminded me that honesty grows honesty. Across my life, when I share the truth about what isn't visible, I learn about the depth and texture of others' lives as well.
Carol McMurrich is a mother of five living in the hills of Western Massachusetts. MotherWoman was the place where she could finally speak her own truth and now she shares the MotherWoman model with other grieving parents.
She is the founder and president of Empty Arms Bereavement Support and blogs at www.happy-sadmama.blogspot.com and fourminusonemakesfive.blogspot.com.