“On Mother’s Day, I can think of no mother more deserving than a mother that had to give one back.”
Erma Bombeck said that. I like Erma ― I like that there is a writing retreat in her honor where a writer gets a free two weeks at a Marriott in Dayton, Ohio. I like that she didn’t give an inch when it came to writing, or motherhood. I also like that she paid attention to us bereaved moms, and wasn’t sappy about it.
Six years ago, my second son was stillborn. There is no sentence that can sum up such a thing, so just trust me, it was unimaginable. His death rearranged most things in my life, and I say with more than a little pride that it is truly something to be a functioning person again, to be a parent to my living children, to have survived the great lightning crack of grief that came for us and that still zips through me at a low current. But every year, Mother’s Day shows up, ready to wrestle with me.
My first few Mother’s Days as a new mom were bright and giddy ― pancakes and flowers and finger-painted cards. It felt like a lovely (though very short) day of honor for the insane effort that parenting demanded. I slept late, I got a necklace with my kid’s name on it, I was a mom doing mom things.
And then, our second son died, and Mother’s Day became this great huge bruise. The first year of grief, I was afraid of the day. I wanted to hide, to avoid the sight of smiling women fêted with flowers or running away to a hotel room for the night to escape their kids. I was bitter, angry, offended by a world that was so joyfully uninterested in my loss. And I desperately wanted to be known not just as a mother, but as his mother. I wanted to hear his name. I wanted people to reach out and recognize that this day, of the many hard days in the year, might be a doozy, too. Nobody did.
In my half-decade of doing this holiday with the hard and unwanted title of “bereaved parent,” I’ve grown less bitter. I know people don’t keep catalogs of all of our personal tragedies, and I know that others do remember but choose not to say anything, in case it would make us sadder. Here’s the thing, though: Most of us bereaved parents don’t want that kind of protection. We think about our children all the time. We like to know that you think of them, too.
Not hearing all your children’s names on Mother’s Day can feel like a great erasure. I have living children, and when folks don’t mention my child who died, I assume they don’t see him as part of my mothering experience. If I’m feeling really low, I can quickly jump to the conclusion that nobody remembers him except me, or even that my community doesn’t care about one of the most defining experiences of my life.
What I wish for every year are small nods. A text that says, “Hey, I know this day may be hard for you.” A note that wishes me a gentle day and includes my son’s name. Any acknowledgment that I am a mother who mothered in the hardest of ways, that I am and was a good mom to all my kids. It would be a wonder to know my friends still see the love I carry for my son, and love me for it. I don’t need accolades. What I really want is to know that my community sees me and the full package of what mothering has been in my life.
I’ll double down on this request for the bereaved parents who don’t have living children. For a mom like that, Mother’s Day might become a giant question she can’t ask out loud ― wanting to know if the world can reflect her own identity back to her as a mother. The worst thing to do for a person like that, unless she has specifically requested it, is to say and do nothing.
So here’s my Erma Bombeck-inspired plea, in the name of anybody you know who might be grieving their child this Mother’s Day, even if that child died decades ago. Be nice to us. Acknowledge us. Say something. Whether it’s your sister, friend, cousin: Reach out. Send that text and say her child’s name when you talk about her family. Be brave! I volunteer at a support group for bereaved parents, and I’ve never met a parent who didn’t want to hear their child’s name, or have somebody join them in appreciation for the love they hold for their child.
The best Mother’s Day gift you can give is the nod that you see us as moms, and not just a version of a mom that makes you feel comfortable. The slightest gestures can be profound and joyful, an act of true connection.
Years ago, a woman I’d met once and friended on Facebook was enjoying her first Mother’s Day as a mother. She was a poet, and throughout the day, she posted 300 times, exuberantly shouting out all the variations of mothers in our culture. To single mothers! To those without mothers! To her mother! To those who mother the neighbor’s kids! It was an endless, glowing list of respect for the many versions of mothers there are. The recognition was breathtaking, life-giving.
I think of her joy now, as I head into this next Mother’s Day. I want to coast off of her insistent exuberance. This year, I will send out my wish for other bereaved moms, a really simple one: May you hear your child’s name today.
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