The other day I visited a new baby in the hospital. She squeaked and stretched out her tiny wrinkly legs and instantly, happy tears snuck down my cheeks. That newness, that vulnerability, that softness, that neediness. It makes me ache in the most beautiful way. I’m deeply happy for her parents, even knowing full well the discomfort of recovery and the chaos of adjustment, the rawness of sleep deprivation and the constancy of needs.
Part of me is relieved I don’t have to relive that extreme level of sacrifice again, but another part is full of longing and grief because I’ll never have that again. It wasn’t that long ago; 14 months, actually. But in some ways that was a lifetime ago, and the finality of the never-ness hangs on me.
That feeling of never-ness is a common characteristic for members of a group to which I belong. Actually, calling it a group is a misnomer because it is really many individuals who feel very alone, but we share a common painful experience.
We have each experienced infertility, loss, no opportunity for children, or will not have any more longed-for babies. We’ll just call it the Unmothered Club. It’s for any and all who have mourned over motherhood missed and motherhood lost.
Some might think that because I had three kids in three years, whatever pain I went through is swallowed up by my blessings and I don’t have a “right” to be in this lonely club.
That’s part of this whole messy thing. It’s hard to claim your pain when others “have it worse.” I wish we could own our pain without comparison. Just because you had your foot amputated doesn’t make my broken toe hurt any less. I shouldn’t be ashamed that it hurts—even if it hurts more, or longer than a broken toe “should.” Pain is pain, and being ashamed of it doesn’t make it go away.
Anyone who has struggled through this at any level knows that this pain is unforgettable and it never fully leaves you. You don’t choose to be part of the Unmothered Club. It chooses you.
Time and babies have veiled my pain, yet I still have a visceral reaction when I recall my experiences. I still grieve over the pregnancies I lost. I still get a lump in my throat when I recall the years that passed in two-week increments as we tried to get pregnant, with my emotional cycle being driven by my menstrual cycle.
I can still feel the desperate fears I had during pregnancies. I can still hear the doctors’ voices using scary terms I would later have to Google. Even when blessed babies came, there were anxieties and troubles: birth injuries, nursing challenges, colic, and eventually total infertility.
I genuinely find joy in motherhood. But I think Newton’s third law of physics relates to a lot more than just physics. For the exquisite joy and the overwhelming love I’ve felt in motherhood, I’ve experienced an equal but opposite reaction with grief, fear, pain, and loss. We must taste bitter to appreciate the sweet.
So many dear women have yet to experience the sweet, or are so lost in the bitter that they can’t or don’t yet enjoy the sweet they do have. So many women have stories filled with hidden trauma, shame, guilt, envy, and other difficult emotions.
Maybe your story is “worse.” Maybe they should just “get over it.” These are phrases women often say to themselves and sometimes about others. The Unmothered Club is rough.
Some members are temporary and others lifelong. Some are jaded and some are grateful. Some have let their pain be swallowed up in faith or service, others keep it under their skin where it bleeds out when they get scratched. Some publicly declare their membership and others tuck their card away.
Despite the variety among members, the common denominator is anguish. And that’s why I’m writing about it today. I hope that this will inspire readers to do a few things:
1. Extend genuine compassion to those in your sphere who are Unmothered.
Please be gentle with their tender feelings in your interactions. When someone expresses Unmothered distress, refrain from responding with anything that starts out “at least.”
“At least you know you can get pregnant!”
“At least you have one.”
“At least you get to sleep through the night without being bothered by kids!”
These kinds of phrases will probably not comfort a grieving member of the Unmothered Club.
2. Be careful with your language when talking to women whose story you don’t know.
When meeting someone new, rather than asking something like, “Do you have kids?” say, “Tell me about your family.” That allows those who have lost a pregnancy, lost a child, or those who don’t have the opportunity to rear children decide how much to share.
3. When you become aware of someone Unmothered, don’t take that as an invitation to share your story or ideas.
Someone in the midst of infertility may not be ready for comments like, “You can always adopt.” Someone experiencing a miscarriage may or may not appreciate hearing your story of miscarriage. Someone who is still single probably won’t be encouraged by the story of how your “old maid” niece finally met someone or talk of how they’re lucky to have so much freedom.
When you don’t know what to say, less is more. But saying “I love you” and listening usually work great.
Yearning for motherhood may be painful, but it is a beautiful and natural thing. It can lead to growth and make room in our hearts. If we reach out to each other in compassion, it can forge bonds that build hope where the never-ness was. Let’s use our pain to kindle a fire that warms those around us.
QUESTION: Are there any women in your life who are part of the Unmothered Club? Are you a member yourself?
CHALLENGE: Be gentle with those around you who are Unmothered and consider your language carefully when speaking to them. Reach out to them in compassion and let them you know you love them.
Edited by Deborah Nash and Nollie Haws.
Image provided by the author.