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Worst Expectations: Motherhood Lost

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This Sunday morning, my daughter will make her annual bedside delivery of a "For Mom" greeting card. What fun to guess what sort of handwritten promises she might include: an always-clean bedroom, perhaps, or 365 kisses? Whatever she says or does, I know I'll give her a big hug, and get misty-eyed.

Fifteen years ago, however, my tears were bitter. In fact, I woke up on Mother's Day of 1995 and couldn't get out of bed. I hated the thought of motherhood. In fact, I probably hated all mothers.

My wretched state back then had nothing to do with my own mother. Rather, it was caused by a feeling of personal failure, and a sense that my own body had betrayed me. Only four days earlier I had miscarried a much-wanted, seventeen-week pregnancy. Just as I'd begun to grasp and even revel in the reality of new life, this thrilling possibility ended. Suddenly, I wasn't "expecting" anymore. The grief felt unbearable.

What I didn't know then was how vast a sisterhood I was joining. According to The American Society for Reproductive Medicine, 25 percent of U.S. women will experience a miscarriage during their childbearing years, and one in 80 pregnancies ends in a stillbirth. (These statistics do not include abortions.) In addition, an estimated 6.1 million American women are presently experiencing some form of infertility. It's my guess, however, that very few churches, synagogues, mosques or other places of worship will mention these sobering facts as they celebrate Mother's Day. And, due to this silence, many women will grieve alone, feeling uninvited to the party.

Don't get me wrong. It's good that our society takes a day to honor mothers. I truly believe there's no more difficult or demanding a job than the work of day-to-day parenting, yet no form of employment is so taken for granted. Go ahead and cheer dear old Mom, loud and long! But, in the midst of the ballyhoo, take some time, too, to remember your cousin in Houston whose fertility treatments are failing, your next-door neighbor who had a stillbirth three years ago, or your grandmother who lost a child but could never bring herself to tell anyone about it. For all these women, their hoped-for child comes regularly to mind, and each one will cry on May 9th in a way that surprises her.

Because loss-of-motherhood is a suffering like no other. By the time I miscarried, I'd had my fair share of disappointment. There were failed relationships, the death of one dear friend to AIDS, another to a car accident, and a few of my cherished life goals had already slipped from my grasp. But none of this pain prepared me for the feeling of utter helplessness that came about when my pregnancy ended.

In those seventeen weeks, I envisioned my baby's hair color, her first day at school, his college graduation, her middle-aged years, and even his presence at my funeral. Being pregnant overwhelmed my imagination with a wide, mysterious future stretching out ahead. Then, without warning, that future disappeared. I was a puddle of lost hopes.

Imagine Mother's Day for someone in this state. Every beatifically smiling mother's face made me feel sour. And jealous. Why should she get a child and not me? All those cheery reminders ("Don't Forget Mom!") In the newspaper, or on posters in the supermarket and drugstore, made me want to grow claws and draw blood. I was ashamed of these feelings, but I couldn't help myself.

In the end, the only thing that gradually eased my pain was hearing the stories of other women who were bereaved. In that first month after my miscarriage, a trickle of information gradually turned into a stream. Soon enough, almost every woman I talked to whispered to me her own version of my story.

As I returned to my theological studies, I also began to see how the pain of lost motherhood is experienced by various faith traditions. In Judaism, Rachel weeps for the lost children; they are no more. In Christianity, depictions of Mary cradling the body of her dead son are more prevalent than those of her peering into the manger. Buddhists speak of the pained empty vessel of maternal loss; Native American religions have a barren mother at the center of their most precious rituals. The list goes on. By these sacred images, we're reminded that the strength of a community rests as much in its capacity to grieve as it does in its capacity to celebrate.

So, this Mother's Day, I am sure I'll weep a little bit as my daughter hands me her card. In the midst of this joy, though, there will be tears of compassion, too, for women all across America who are mourning. To them, let's remember to say, "You are not alone." We honor you, too.

Serene Jones is the author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, which explores the relationship between grace, redemption, and the trauma of reproductive loss.

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