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"Every mother’s day, I remember with clarity what it was like to yearn desperately to be a mother. Every mother’s day I relish the homemade gifts and earnest attempts at breakfast in bed. And every mother’s day I remember there are many women who feel locked out of the “club” as I smell my children’s hair as they climb into bed with me. "
The vast majority of my sexual education focused on how to keep from getting pregnant, so much so that I naively assumed that to get pregnant you need only to have unprotected sex once. Without revealing any embarrassing details, my husband and I truly thought I would be pregnant in a month’s time the summer after I received my graduate degree. We calculated on our hands more than once that our baby would be arriving sometime in March. But my period came after that first month of trying; I cried and immediately alleged that there was something wrong in our technique. Then the next period came; I sobbed and assured my husband with my typical dramatic flair that I was ready to adopt.
After two missed attempts, getting pregnant became something to accomplish. The process was not to be enjoyed. I peed on sticks, prayed, raised my feet over my head, talked to every recently pregnant woman I could find, and waited in fear. So it was with great joy and relief that after six months of trying I discovered I was pregnant the second week of my very first pastorate. We glowed with anticipation and again naively assumed that everything would be smooth sailing—we were pregnant now. All we had to do was wait nine months for the arrival of our baby.
A week before my ordination, while being questioned on the floor of presbytery, I knew I was miscarrying at ten weeks. The sight of blood before the presbytery meeting lead to a call to my midwives, yet I knew I could not miss that night’s meeting. My ordination depended on it. I stood before a group of elders and pastors who asked me highly controversial theological questions about my position on atonement and salvation, but I remember only thinking about where I could find a bathroom after so I could check if there was more blood spotting my underwear. The next day an ultrasound stole the promise of that sweet child from us. Our final innocence, as those who deeply yearned for children of our own, was over. Fear laced our life as parents from then on.
I have never forgotten our first baby, long forgotten by the world, nor the sheer uncomplicated joy accompanying the promise of that first positive pregnancy test. Almost eleven years later, I cannot bring myself to throw away the medical records that document my miscarriage; they are my only physical reminder of our first child.
Our first remains unnamed. I am not sure why we have been unable to name our child. Perhaps because it still feels like a dream, the medical records the only thing confirming that it did really happen. Or perhaps because we never had a strong sense whether our promised child was a boy or girl. Yet still, this child’s brief life has embedded itself deep into the fabric of our life together as parents.
Silent waiting ruled our lives in our four bedroom parsonage. We couldn’t bear to wait, yet we had no other alternative. Again we found ourselves consumed by the process of getting pregnant. Each month our waiting was laced with hope, but every period plunged us back into sorrow and mourning and despair. After dinner, with no children to tend to, with only work awaiting us, we would fill up the empty waiting with an ongoing game of gin rummy. We kept our grief and loneliness at bay by staying in constant motion. Then we got a dog. We needed something to love. And then the testing began—painful dyes injected into tubes, brown paper bags and dirty magazines, and results.
At twenty-six years of age I began IVF—in vitro fertilization. There were waiting rooms filled with silent women, waiting for blood work, waiting for consults with specialists in white coats, and waiting for the defining test result. Occasionally a stricken partner waited alongside us. There were needles and vials upon vials of hormones, delivered efficiently by Federal Express. There were the evenings my husband’s face, gripped with steely resolution, stuck a needle deep into my hip, I would sob in pain, only to run off to a deacons’ meeting after a band-aid was applied. We waited in silence, hoping, fearing the worst, and preparing for the unthinkable, another round of shots and harvesting and waiting.
But it worked. At five weeks gestation we saw the fluttering heart of our baby. Still we were forced to wait. We could not embrace the promise of that undulating muscle until the crucial marker of thirteen weeks. We had been deceived before. Thankfully, with time that tiny beating heart grew into the strong heart of a screaming ten pound baby boy.
I wish my painful story of conception and gestation ended here, but the joy of pregnancy has eluded me. My third pregnancy ended in miscarriage at thirteen weeks on Ash Wednesday, after announcing to my entire congregation the Sunday prior that I was pregnant. This time we named our baby—Kasia. On a warm Spring day we planted summer bulbs in her memory, our young son wading in the water nearby.
I spent my fourth pregnancy reeling in terror, holding my breath between each revealing gesture of my baby’s limbs within the womb, sure that the baby, even at twenty weeks, would die before I had a chance to hold it. This pregnancy, which produced another ten pound baby boy, is mostly lost to me. I can only remember the terror. I am not sure if I ever experienced any joy until my second son was six weeks old, nursing calmly and happily at my breast.
No one ever told me how difficult it would be. No one—not my mother, or my aunts, or my grandmothers, or the women whose children I cared for, no one. After I lost my third child, I awoke in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, a crushing weight on my chest, and the clear resolution that I could never have another child. I was certain in that still dark room that the pain of pregnancy would keep me—the teenager who watched a family of five and did their dishes without breaking a sweat, the college student who babysat every Friday night instead of going out, the young bride who had decided with her beloved mate that they would raise four children together—from ever having more than one child. The fear of conception and gestation suffocated all my confidence and all my hope.
I remember one evening in particular, after our first child was born: I hid away in our bedroom and wept. I was utterly exhausted by my dashed hopes and terrified by the chance of more loss. I thought if I wept alone I could ironically protect myself, as if in hiding my fear, no one, including myself would know how really bad it was. I understand now, that I was in essence rejecting the very vulnerability that parenthood entails.
Yet I did not grieve alone; I grieved in the presence of loving community. Grace encircled me with the stories of many gentle people, mostly women, but also men, who had lost children as well. Their stories were ones of pain and grief, but also of hope, survival, and eventually more children. They were the stories of twelve-week-old twin girls, a twenty-five- week old baby girl still referred to as an angel by her parents, a still birth boy, a still birth first, another set of twins, five miscarriages in a row before a healthy baby was born. These stories I laid beside mine. As I entangled my own grief, I came to understand that these stories were the unavoidable stories of conception, gestation, and birth. They are the stories of parenthood.
Sadly, my story continues. After my second son was two I miscarried for a third time. I was placed in the high-risk pregnancy category. They even performed an autopsy of sorts on our sweet 13 week in utero baby girl who we named Elise. I began a regiment of anti-depressants and weekly therapy because I could no longer fight the grief and fear on my own. The good news is that somehow, my call to motherhood was so undeniable, I found enough courage to try again. The trying was fraught with waiting and wondering if we would ever get pregnant again. And when finally I did get pregnant, my anxiety spiked and my anti-depressant prescription increased from 50 grams to 100 grams. At the end of that successful nine month gestation, I had a perfectly healthy baby girl. And three days later I was greeted with debilitating postpartum depression.
I do not want to make light of postpartum depression; it was horrible. Yet I was fortunate that I received medical help immediately and responded positively to medication. For me, more than anything, postpartum seemed a slap in the face after the exhausting effort I had put forward to have a third child. I remember very little of my daughter’s first six months of life. Now that she is three this seems to bother me less. Who remembers the blur of sleepless nursing anyhow?
My children are old now; their bodies stretch out, filling their beds, relaxed in sleep. Some days I barely remember how painfully I yearned for their presence. Some days I even desire a break from all the work that they generate —lunch boxes, laundry, speech therapy appointments, lacrosse games, snit fits, dishes.
Every mother’s day, I remember with clarity what it was like to yearn desperately to be a mother. Every mother’s day I relish the homemade gifts and earnest attempts at breakfast in bed. And every mother’s day I remember there are many women who feel locked out of the “club” as I smell my children’s hair as they climb into bed with me.
I have not one profound thing to say—not one thing that will make sense of any of this pain or longing or unfairness. Some of us end up as mothers, others wait, others mothers too many more children than ever desired, and still others long for someone with whom to share motherhood.
I pray for all and carry each woman in my heart.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.