After her child died at birth, and before the days of easy “unsubscribe” buttons, Carrie Goldman couldn’t get off the email listserv that kept updating her on the status of her nonexistent baby.
“I kept getting these emails like, ‘Your baby should be smiling by now, Your baby should be sitting up by now, Your baby should be crawling by now’ and I couldn’t get off that mailing list and had to email them over and over again and finally they took me off, and I remember that alone was so devastating,” Goldman told HuffPost about the painful ordeal she underwent 14 years ago.
Those emails, along with coupons that kept coming in the mail for years afterward, for things like baby food and diapers, were the triggers that compounded the pain of having lost a baby. The triggers only got worse on Mother’s Day.
After one has suffered a loss, holidays are often difficult. But a holiday dedicated to mothering after the loss of a baby can be particularly brutal.
“Mother’s Day is just one more place where you feel like there’s this club of motherhood that you’re not part of. It’s really hard,” Goldman said.
“Mother’s Day is just one more place where you feel like there’s this club of motherhood that you’re not part of.”
Thirty-three-year-old Ellie from London called her first Mother’s Day after miscarrying twice “horrendous.”
“I couldn’t even buy my mom a Mother’s Day card, let alone a present or even acknowledge that it was Mother’s Day,” she told HuffPost.
That Mother’s Day in 2016, Ellie was actually pregnant with a daughter who she would give birth to later in the year, but it was too early for her to feel safe about the outcome given her experiences. Like Goldman, she found herself particularly triggered by the cards and displays in stores, the advertising on television and particularly social media, which all of the interviewees described as overwhelmingly painful.
“It felt like it’s not something that anyone really considers,” Ellie said.
“The cards were very, very hard to see,” Goldman said. “So many of them say, ‘Best mother in the world.’ If you’re a mom who has lost a baby, it just compounded that sense of failure. What kind of a mom was I? I couldn’t even keep my baby alive.”
“What kind of a mom was I? I couldn’t even keep my baby alive.”
Rachel Frey, an ordained minister who works as a chaplain in healthcare, has perhaps the Worst Mother’s Day Ever story.
“It was the day before Mother’s Day that I miscarried. So I was in the hospital that night having emergency surgery because I was losing blood so quickly. I was coming home on Mother’s Day from the hospital and we had already planned on going onto Facebook and announcing that day. So then it was Mother’s Day, and I was wondering, ‘Am I ever going to be a mother?’ Just that loss, and thinking ‘Is this ever gonna happen for us?’
More elemental than wondering if they’ll ever be mothers, many women who have lost babies are left wondering if they already are. Does the mother of a stillborn child still count as a mother? What about a mother who miscarries? At how many weeks? Who gets to lay claim to the designation of “mother”?
“It was particularly complicated because he was my first baby,” said Goldman, who now has three daughters, one through adoption and two biologically. “So when your first baby has died and Mother’s Day comes... It was such an identity crisis. Was I a grieving mother? Was I no mother at all? Even my own family didn’t know how to handle it.”
For all of the women I spoke to, even many years later, even after the birth or adoption of healthy children, the day holds a special power.
“This year we had our daughter, which was obviously a very different experience,” said Ellie, who celebrated her first Mother’s Day with a living child this year in the U.K., where the holiday takes place earlier. “But it didn’t stop being kind of bittersweet, because my son still isn’t there.”
“Was I a grieving mother? Was I no mother at all?”
Tabatha Johnson, a pastor in Blue Springs, MO, underwent two miscarriages within a year, the first of which happened in a Walmart bathroom with her 1-year-old son nearby. She felt betrayed by her body ― that it had failed her and the children she was supposed to bring into the world. Today she says the grief for those lost children will always be a part of her.
“There is always a mix of joy and sorrow each Mother’s Day. I would say the joy outweighs the sorrow, but it is something that I don’t think will ever go away in its entirety,” she said.
Not only do these women grieve their own losses on Mother’s Day, they are extra sensitive to other mothers who are grieving.
Frey, who went on to conceive about a year later and now has a 5-year-old, said, “I’m hesitant to post really celebratory things on Facebook even though I am celebrating, even though I do have this child, because I do know that people are carrying this silent grief with them, and people are mourning the emptiness that’s in their arms where they want a child to be.”
Goldman also uses the holiday to think of and honor her oldest daughter’s birthmother and the struggle and sacrifice she went through.
Despite their sensitivity to other’s pain, no one wants to stifle the joy of the actual day, or for anyone to tamp down their happiness. But they do want people to be aware that there are some women out there for who this day is a painful reminder. Frey takes action to raise awareness around the holiday.
“I do know that people are carrying this silent grief with them, and people are mourning the emptiness that’s in their arms where they want a child to be.”
“I have posted around Mother’s Day on Facebook and among my friends I’ve talked about pregnancy loss as a reminder that there are people who are suffering, and just saying ‘You’re not alone in this. I’ve gone through this.’ Trying to destigmatize miscarriage and pregnancy loss. ‘This does happen and we can talk about it.’ I’ve posted some articles or just even shared my story in or around that time as a reminder to people.”
She recommends that grieving mothers who are having a hard time getting through the day share their stories and surround themselves with people who understand and support them, even if only virtually.
Goldman also suggests reaching out and accessing communities of women like those online who had have similar experiences.
“It’s interesting, because when I had my loss, I wasn’t really on social media yet, and it’s such a mixed thing, because I think I would have found it unbelievably painful to see everybody’s pictures and ‘Happy Mother’s Days,’ but at the same time, I know I would have found some people who got me. There is such comfort to be found in finding someone who has a shared experience with you.”
“There’s a broader definition of being a mother than is depicted by the greeting card industry.”
Instead of the phrase “Happy Mother’s Day,” which made Goldman cry during some of her harder years, she suggests telling friends who are having a difficult time that you’re thinking of them or that you honor them and their experience as a mother today.
“One of the things that’s good is just recognizing that there’s a broader definition of being a mother than is depicted by the greeting card industry,” she said. “That mothering its just a very big and varied role.”
The women themselves all deal with the day in their own ways: one visits her child’s gravesite, another spends time in nature, one attends worship services, one stays home and avoids social media and other triggers. But they all experience some level of grief, even when it’s mixed with gratitude for their other children.
For Frey, it’s important to remember to feel those feelings, not keep them bottled up in service to a happy occasion.
“With any grief, take time to honor that grief and to name it and say ‘This is real, this is who I am. Even if you only do that with yourself. Grief is a strange thing. It never really goes away. The loss is always with us ― pregnancy loss or other types of loss as well. Find ways to honor that grief.”