When I think of Mother’s Day, a wealth of images comes to mind. I see women in restaurants wearing corsages and red roses and baby’s breath pinned to their dresses, close to their hearts: Visual symbols of motherhood. I see my mother in the 1960’s, wearing a flower-covered puffy hat and a cream-colored coat fastened with buttons the size of half dollars, three children trailing behind her on Mother’s Day morning. As usual, we are late for church.
But I also see women who are not wearing corsages, who are not necessarily walking with children. These women carry in their hearts a quiet, lonesome sadness. Some are women I know by name; most are strangers to me. They are everywhere: In office buildings, in grocery stores, in libraries, in movie theaters, in airplanes, traveling to new destinations. They are women who have had miscarriages. I am one of them: Part of the sisterhood of unspoken sorrow.
Miscarriage is common, but not talked about much. Though part of life, it is often a taboo topic. Even women who have miscarried aren’t sure if they should mention their loss to anyone. Pregnancy, childbirth and menopause get more public attention. Women are often not prepared for the complex feelings of loss and grief they must cope with when a baby dies within the first 20 weeks of pregnancy. According to Fran Rybarik, former director of Bereavement Services in LaCrosse, WI, when a pregnancy ends in miscarriage, “The whole person is affected—physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually.” A parent invests in a child’s life long before it is born.
One day a woman is pregnant, the next day she isn’t. She has nothing to carry in her arms. Unless she has had multiple miscarriages, usually she never finds out the reason for the unsuccessful pregnancy. Even then, medical staff may not be able to give her answers. Sometimes, only a few family members and friends know of the pregnancy; sometimes, no one knows except the father. Through tangled emotions, it is hard for a woman to say, “I was pregnant a few days ago, but now I’m not. This is terribly sad for me.” Society doesn’t often acknowledge miscarriage as a death that can-and should-be mourned.
People easily sympathize with the death of someone visible, someone whose passage has been marked in legal records, someone with a name. People say, “I’m sorry.” They expect mothers and fathers to grieve. They encourage them to talk. They are compassionate listeners. They offer tangible solace: A gift of food, a lilac bush to plant in the backyard, an appropriate book.
On Mother’s Day, it is appropriate to acknowledge a woman’s loss—particularly if the miscarriage was recent. But even for women who, with the passage of time, have come to terms with their loss, Mother’s Day can bring back a sadness. A simple note written on a blank card and sent in the mail is an act of kindness on this day.
For women who have miscarried, thinking about the lost child is inevitable. They are confronted with rows of greeting cards in gift shops, restaurant advertisements urging early reservations for Mother’s Day brunch, phone companies reminding people to call mothers who are far away and bouquets of long-lasting carnations delivered to neighbor’s houses. The day of celebration is obvious. As women think about their own mother, they again are reminded of the child or children they do not have. It is bittersweet.
Mother’s Day, though, can be a day of healing.
Women who have a miscarried child should give themselves permission to grieve. They can read about miscarriage, putting themselves in the company of others who have experienced this common, but often publicly unspoken loss. They can talk to family and friends. Given the chance, people will reveal the circumstances of their losses with vividness and compassion. A woman can write about her miscarriage. Through writing, no matter how informal it is, she can put some sort of control on the uncontrollable. Because it is spring, she can plant a rosebush, a maple tree, or a deep red peony in the yard: a visual symbol of “almost” motherhood. On Mother’s Day, I think about women whose lives have been affected by miscarriage. Perhaps their hearts—like mine—have been mended over time. Perhaps the pain is fresh and their heartache needs to be acknowledged by family and friends.