The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World
By Therese J. Borchard
"You come from a long line of fertile women," my mother said to me matter-of-factly. We were on our way home from the store. I couldn't have been more than twelve years old. But, even then, I sensed this was something special. I suspect she passed this information on to me not so much to instill a sense of pride as to ward off teenage hanky-panky. Still, it was something I relished knowing about myself.
My first two pregnancies seemed to prove this genetic predisposition. I conceived easily; I grew big, healthy babies; and I birthed them without complication. I nursed my boys and fed them organic food. I made friends with other mothers who shared my parenting philosophies. We swapped stories, attended one another's home births, and practiced homeopathy. Things were just as I had always imagined they would be.
In the summer of 1998, my husband and I decided it was time for baby number three. I became pregnant quickly; and then, ten weeks into the pregnancy, I miscarried. I could not believe it. More precisely, I could not believe it had happened to me. I worked through the grief and the loss well enough, I suppose. I even prided myself on how bravely I handled it. Two months later, having put the miscarriage behind me, it was back to makin' babies! Then the unthinkable happened. I miscarried again. And again. And again. All told, I would lose four pregnancies over the course of the year.
A wise person once said that hard times don't build character, they reveal it. Oh, I wish this weren't true. I had flown so high and long on paper wings, smug about what my body could do and secretly believing it somehow made me a good mother, that the fall to earth was inevitable.
Intellectually, of course, I understood that a miscarriage is nature's way of ending a pregnancy that is not developing normally. But the thought that I might never bear another child left me feeling utterly broken. I couldn't reconcile the mother I had been with the barren woman I seemed to have become. How could my body not know how to do this anymore, I wondered.
And always, in the back of my mind, were the whispers of the Good Mother, the unyielding archetype of maternal perfection: "Good Mothers have their babies," she taunted. "Their bodies know what to do to keep those babies inside."
Complicating matters was the fact that these were "only" miscarriages. I had not lost a living child. People were sorry for me, sure; but, the truth is, no one grieves a miscarriage the way a mother does. And it seemed to me I was expected to move on from these losses in a timely fashion. Determined not to overstep this boundary, I worked at accumulating a list of the many things for which I should have felt grateful.
Think of all the mothers whose children have cancer, I told myself. Think of the parents whose children have died! Think of your boys-aren't you grateful for them!?
And this is where I made a critical mistake. I thought I could shed the skin of failure by showing the world that the love I had for my boys was greater than the pain caused by the miscarriages.
"Yes," the Good Mother agreed. "A Good Mother's love for her children heals all wounds. It is always enough."
And so I took my grief and pushed it aside. I stuffed it down and force-fed myself gratitude, day in and day out. I told anyone who would listen about how my heart was so full of love for my children that I didn't really feel much grief when those babies bled out of me. Really. I don't. Really. And the grief dug down deeper.
And it did what any good wound will do when left unattended. It ravaged me from the inside out. I found out the hard way that when you deny grief its voice, it comes back at you with a vengeance. In my case, it reemerged as bitterness and rage. I was seething.
What kind of mother can't bear her own children! How dare this be taken from me! I couldn't stand the shame, the pitying glances, the judgments I was sure people were making about me. I wanted my unblemished motherhood back. I didn't want to be this broken halt-mother anymore.
And then, in another terrible miscalculation, I allowed myself to begin to indulge petty, hurtful thoughts about the people in my life, and especially pregnant people. I started small, just a little nasty thought here and there to take the edge off. But it was like discovering a wonderful new drug. Little thoughts became big ones and before I knew it, they were my most loyal companions: "Look at my neighbor patting her barely pregnant belly. Ugh -I'd love to see her miscarry"; "Susie-Q is pregnant again, is she? She's already got five kids. A little miscarriage is just what she needs."
It was the most self-destructive thing I have ever done, and it was terribly isolating because these kinds of thoughts are dark secrets that must be kept. So I held them in and they roiled around in my mind and my soul. I was a mess.
The afternoon I realized I was about to suffer my third miscarriage, I called the assistant pastor at my church (a woman I hardly knew), and poured out my rage to her over the phone. I had stopped by her office earlier that week to say a prayer of thanks because this pregnancy, which had looked like it might not be viable, had come along. The doctors had found a heartbeat and I felt as though I had experienced some kind of miracle. So when, one week later, the bleeding started and didn't stop, my despair overwhelmed me.
I called Jenny, my mouth barely able to form the words, "I'm losing this one too." I don't remember what she said, only that it brought me some comfort; then I had to go and pick up my boys from preschool.
When I arrived home, I found in my doorjamb Jenny's business card with a note saying she had come by to be with me during this awful time. She closed by writing this: "There is nothing more painful to a mother than the loss of a child."
These words stunned me; I had to read them several times before they sunk in. She did not see me the way I saw myself: broken and pathetic. What she saw was a mother in terrible pain. By that point, it was inconceivable to me that anyone could hear my story and feel that I was someone who deserved this kind of care and attention. My litany of reasons to be grateful had long since claimed victory over my right to grieve. But there it was in my door, proof that on this day, in that moment, my loss and my grief were real, they mattered, and they needed tending to. I saw myself through her eyes ... I saw things the way they were.
And I wept. I wept for all the grief I had denied. I wept for my shattered dreams. I wept for the children I would never hold in my arms.
I would go on to have one more miscarriage after this. But I grieved it. I grieved all my losses with this one, I think. And I began to re-frame my picture of motherhood.
Motherhood is not simply about bringing babies into the world; it's about taking life on with arms wide open. I was a mother when I prayed night and day for the viability of the four cells God had sown together inside me. I was a mother when I dared to care for a life that fought to survive. I was a mother when I allowed myself to grieve a tiny heart that beat, valiantly at first, then more slowly, and that ultimately ceased. Somehow, from the wreckage of everything I thought I lost, came the mother I was meant to be.