Photo: Courtesy of Lawrence Ng
The other day, I sat across the table from my friend, in deep conversation over her fears that she might never become a mother. I found myself saying these words to comfort her: “The thing is, once you open your heart up to becoming a mother, even before you hold the baby in your arms or carry it in your body, in that very instant, you become a mother.”
As I said these words, I realized I wasn’t just saying them to her; I was saying them to myself, because I needed to give myself permission to admit that I was a mother, too—not only to the child I had carried successfully into this world but also to the one that I hadn’t.
I am the mother of a beautiful, healthy four-year-old boy named James. But I am also the mother of a baby girl who died at 20 weeks. This statement—that I am a mother of two—hasn’t been an easy one to come to. When my body finally decided to let her go, I woke up in the middle of the night bleeding, feeling in my gut, before the ultrasound confirmed it, that I had lost her. The experience came with trauma and memories that I am still processing to this day: how it felt to lie awake all night in the hospital after I was told my baby had died, waiting until the next day to undergo a C-section to deliver her because of complications with the placenta. It was so strange, those hours, knowing that she was no longer alive but I was still carrying her inside of my body, allowing me the illusion of her life just a little while longer. I remember the way the skin on my face felt, so puffy and inflamed from crying that my eyes had been reduced to slits I could barely see out of. Walking down the hallway after my surgery, I recall each pull on my fresh incision reminding me that she was gone and I was still here—that everything was going to be different now.
Along with her death came the death of how I saw myself, as a woman and a mother. Before, I had been almost arrogant about how fertile I was since I had conceived on the first try for both pregnancies. It was the death of the perfect family I almost had, even though I knew there was no such thing as perfect. But that’s how it felt to me: one boy, one girl, the ideal three-year age gap. The struggle that came to define the past two years of my life began at that moment, when I had to figure out what it meant to be a mother all over again in a situation that was completely imperfect, to one who had lived and one who had not.
For those of us who dream of a child who never comes to be—who imagine what that child will look like, what they will smell like and how they will sound when they say “Mama” for the first time—we exist in a realm of parenting all our own that is often kept in secret, in shadow. It’s where we are mothers to all that could have been but isn’t. There is nothing quite like knowing, viscerally and in the depths of your being, that you are meant to be a mother—again, or for the first time—to believe that there is a baby somewhere in the ether for you and then be forced to face the harsh conundrum that, because of life’s circumstances or your body’s inability to carry a child all the way through, you aren’t able to be a mother to that child. Or are you?
I lost my daughter almost two years ago, and I’m starting to get asked the questions every parent who has lost a pregnancy dreads: “Is this your only child?” followed by “Are you going to have any more?” Up until recently, my answers were designed to keep everyone comfortable—“Yes, he is our only child, but we’re hoping for more and having fun trying”—to disguise the fact that, each month that goes by and my period comes, I worry that the possibility of becoming a mother to another child is slipping away. For the longest time, I couldn’t summon the courage to say “I am a mother to two children: one living and one dead,” partly because I was scared of the reaction but partly because I didn't believe it myself. Did I really get to say that I was the mother of two children when I hadn’t even held one of them in my arms?
But when I said those words to my friend—that we become mothers the second our hearts open up to a child—the truth of what I was saying rang like a gong in my own ears and resurrected my sense of being, as a woman and a mother, bringing my journey over these past two years to a precipice. I was finally able to step out of the shadows and allow for the truth that I am a mother to more than one child. I am the mother to a baby girl I loved so desperately and lost, and I will always be her mother. Nothing can change that, not even the fact that I have never held her in my arms. I am also the mother to a child I long for, the one I hope will give me another chance to live through pregnancy cravings, sleep deprivation, brutally sore nipples and the pure joy of first steps and first words.
The other day, while picking up my son from school and chatting with one of the other moms in the yard, she asked me the inevitable: “Is he your only child?” This time, I replied calmly and proudly, breathing deeply before I spoke: “No, I have two children, but only one living.” She was unnerved at first and didn’t know what to say, but when I explained to her that I had lost my daughter late in pregnancy, she was compassionate and relief flooded over me. By acknowledging my daughter’s brief existence, I was also acknowledging my own version of motherhood.
The thing I know now about being a mother that I didn’t know then is that it’s more than just a physical relationship; motherhood happens in all different ways, in all different forms, to all different types. And when it does happen, it’s a deep state of being and a sense of knowing that, quite simply, can’t be undone and can’t be denied.
Allison McDonald Ace is a writer, mother and co-founder of The 16 Percent, an online community dedicated to creating a safe space for sharing stories of infertility and pregnancy loss. She is also a co-editor of Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss.