A recent Washington Post blog post, "About that mom who's not bragging about her kid," grabbed me and so many other mothers I know. In it, Nancy L. Wolf wrote:
So the next time you are having lunch with friends and the talk turns, as it often does, to what your kids are doing and the kvelling [bragging] begins -- one of the moms is happy that her daughter aced the SATs, the other's son just got into law school, a third mom glows about her daughter's engagement -- and you see that one of your friends around the table is sitting silently, fiddling with her drink, just waiting for that part of the conversation to pass? Consider that quiet mom. She loves her son or daughter just as much as you do. Smile at her, and ask how her child is doing. She may need to do a different kind of kvelling.
Wolf's words really resonated with me as a psychologist and parent of a child with a learning disability. But I found the phrase "the quiet mom" returning to me for several days for another reason. As some of us know far too well, there's more than one type of quiet mom to consider. The quietest mom may be the one whose children aren't always included in the answer to "how many kids does she have?" The mother who has experienced infant loss -- through the pain of miscarriage, stillbirth or infant death -- also often waits for conversation topics to shift when she's chatting with other moms. Sometimes, especially if her grief is a few years old, if the child she lost would now be in school or high school, friends may not realize the reason for her quietness, even friends who knew her at the time of loss. The stillborn child doesn't come into conversation much anymore, furthering others' hidden assumption that "she's over it" or that it's best not to show awareness of the loss or "remind" this mother of the baby who didn't get to live.
Mothers who have lost, however, know that you could never "remind" them of their loss. They never forget. Any reminders from others can't compete with the mother's daily ones -- the turn of the clock, the calendar, the season -- that come all on their own. And the words you might think serve as painful reminders may be far outpaced by the subtler, equally painful but unintended reminders that are outside of your awareness -- or sometimes even hers. It could be that you were pregnant the same time she was. It could be her sudden realization that your child is in the same grade hers would have been if she'd lived. It could be that the blooms on the trees on her way to the restaurant looked remarkably the way they did on her ride home from her final ultrasound, the last time they heard her baby's heartbeat before it stopped. She may be quiet because any of those reminders or fleeting thoughts made it to consciousness and then made it a little harder to breathe for a second.
She may be quiet because of the cognitive drain required to calculate whether or not to add to the conversation. Few ever realize how frequently and repetitively other mothers tell their "stories from the front" -- of pregnancy, labor and delivery, newborn gazing, breastfeeding -- unless they are one of the mothers who must master how to avoid tears just to be able to stay in the room. Some of us develop our quirks and smirks -- the way we shift our gaze or hold our lips to keep it together while we decide whether to leave the table, physically or mentally. Sometimes we're distracted by wondering if we should join in: should I too tell tales of contractions or the funny thing my husband, like yours, did on the way to the hospital? But stories that end with "and then they couldn't find the baby's heartbeat" generally stop a conversation. So these recollections tend to be kept inside, ratcheting up the aloneness that feels like it can smother a mother who has lost a child. Sometimes we may decide to jump in, to be like everyone else at the table and add our story. But then we sense the discomfort -- the head tilt of sympathy, the "bless her heart," the "what should I say now?" -- which may ensure our "quiet mom" status for another hundred lunches to come.
When you wonder if a grieving mom still grieves, know that no matter who she is, she does. Maybe more subtly and differently than in the beginning, but she is never completely finished with grief. When you ask "Why isn't she more over it? It's been years," don't forget she never goes a day -- maybe hardly more than a few hours -- without some reminder, subtle or blatant, of the child who is missing from the conversation. The grieving mother knows her dead child's name can bring a conversation to a halt. Some days, we're up for that. And some days, we're "just waiting for that part of the conversation to pass," though we know it will likely be back at the next lunch.
Fortunately, in our sorority no one wants to join, some mothers who grieve decided to stop being quiet, to set this month and date to mark the lives of our children we didn't get to see grow. October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. October 15th is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. As this type of quiet mom, I am grateful for the power of the community of grieving moms that gives me a place to share our memories and an understanding place to rest when being quiet is exhausting. We are not alone in our quiet, and other mothers of loss can kvell with us over our face-scrunching, tear-halting feats of strength or our endurance in the seemingly eternal wait for the conversation to move on. But even after October, please consider the other quiet mom. This mom, in Wolf's words, also "loves her son or daughter just as much as you do." Smile at her, too, and don't be afraid to say her child's name.