By Carol McMurrich
My children were conceived in my mind long before they ever existed in cellular form. As a child and teen, surrounded by siblings, children for whom I babysat, cousins and friends, I would feel warm and grounded at the dream of a newborn that would actually be mine. It seemed logical and indisputable, albeit surreal, that at some point when the circumstances became right in my life, I would simply carry out this dream. I remember almost quivering at the idea of having a baby all to myself. I was sure that I was made to be a mother.
By the time I was twenty-six years old, I had what I wanted - I was pregnant on our first attempt and was experiencing a gloriously healthy pregnancy. But all did not go as I had planned. Baby Charlotte died while she was being born. When she was placed in my arms, I felt a surge of disbelief and primal love and protectiveness, and then hours later my long-awaited baby was gone, as if I had never been a mother in the first place.
After she was gone, I longed to have a living child in a way that is difficult to put into words. It was more than a longing, it was a desperation, a hunger. It was the beginning of a calling I could feel deep in the beating of my heart: I needed to have a baby to raise. There would be nothing sweet or easy about it.
It took only one more year. A new baby was born, and this time he lived. When his cry echoed through the delivery room it was as if golden streaming light poured down from the heavens and melted everything. I lay there, tears running down my cheeks, and knew that I would give all of myself to this little boy.
I imagined that having a living child would make everything perfect, so I could not admit to the struggles. I was really, truly happy with my son. But Liam didn't latch on properly for days after he was born. By then my nipples were cracked and sore and my breasts were hugely engorged. Liam got thrush, and the cracks turned into huge sores. He began to bite, because it hurt his tongue to suck. For seven weeks we tried to find a solution to this incredibly painful problem, to the raging yeast that we were passing back and forth, to the huge, bloody sores, to the lack of proper latch and suck due to the soreness in his mouth. Finally, I nursed him one day and it didn't hurt. I wasn't hunched over and stiff and tearing up from the sharp, shooting pains. He was eight weeks old.
My insistence on how very much I wanted this had kept me going: I had spilled milk for one dead baby, and I would nurse this one through hell or high water. I felt dizzy and unsure of myself. I had powered through, but only because in my confused tailspin of grief, I wouldn't allow mothering to feel difficult. But there was this tiny, sad voice inside me wondering whether I was truly made for mothering after all. I felt a little bit like a failure.
These feelings were compounded by the nights with Liam, which consisted of three times more nursing than sleeping. There were nights where I would lean back on the bed, tears streaming from my face, my entire body trembling and quaking with sheer exhaustion. I willed myself to keep holding onto him and not just stand up and walk out the front door without stopping. I remember seeing his tiny little face nursing contentedly on my ravaged breast, and feeling unbearable love for him, but wanting him to stop. I wanted to put him back in his basket so I could sleep. I thought constantly of Charlotte.
I was tormented: isn't this exactly what I wanted? Isn't this what I asked for? Did I not deserve this beautiful little boy? "Be a good mother," I would scold myself. "Show Charlotte what you're made of". I felt shameful that I was not doing this right. I didn't understand that these struggles were part of being a mother.
I have gone on to have four living children, and in the throes of my love and struggles with them, I often reflect on one of the founding principles from MotherWoman, which is, "Mothering can be both a joyful and challenging experience.... look for opportunities to find the gold, even in the darkest places."
Looking back on Liam's infancy, the gold and the dark places were there all along. Years later I can see clearly that these struggles and frustrations actually were good mothering. When I imagined having a baby to love, I had only thought to dream of the sugarcoated version, because I didn't know what it meant to be a real mother. In my devoted, consistent, never-ending care for him I was being exactly the good mother he needed, even if I was crying while I did it.
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.