I like to count things. Over the past four years and a half years I’ve become quite skilled at counting babies. I count months: “Oh, someone else had a living baby! During which month would he have been conceived?” I count weeks: “How many weeks would it have been since our last baby was born (if she had lived)?” I count days: “When I took that pregnancy test, how many days had passed since my period?” There’s something about counting that soothes my anxious mind; a mundane distraction from our troubled world.
Now, let me count the number of times I’ve attempted to start writing this post: 5. The number of pages I’ve written below (without really saying anything at all): 3. The number of times I’ve had challenging thoughts about pregnant women, babies or mothers in general: innumerable.
I’ve hemmed and hawed and wrung my hands so much over how to write this. My preoccupation – when seen from a distance – makes it clear that there’s a lot about this topic that I probably would rather keep hidden. There’s something very uncouth about what I am going to say. A swarm of anxiety mosquitos are buzzing around my head going: “Noooo!! Noooo!! What the fuck are you doing? Why would you ever say these things out loud? These are not the kinds of things you share in public if you want people to keep liking you and thinking you are a decent person.” So yeah, I’m nervous about this and I’ve been procrastinating. I have shame around the feelings and thoughts. Yet it seems that I may not be alone in my experiences of jealousy, resentment, regret and just straight up anger. In modern culture, there’s an icky taboo tangle around infertility, miscarriage, abortion, stillbirth and perinatal death. Spaces for airing the “ugly” feelings seem all snarled up with the rest of the “unpleasant” threads we’re not supposed to talk / think / write about when it comes to our un-conceived, undesired and departed babies.
I once sat with a woman who had a traumatic miscarriage. She told the story of walking through a market sometime after she “lost” her baby and noticing a filthy toddler chewing on a piece of plastic in the corner, next to his mother’s stall. The thought that went through her head was: “WHY!!?? Why was your child allowed to live and mine died? You can’t even take care of this kid!” Of course this is a harsh and difficult thought, but I admit feeling an enormous sense of relief and recognition upon hearing this story. I was not the only mother of dead babies walking around with these thoughts in my head.
I have had many such experiences since Rafa died. Here are just a few of the reactions or judgments that have crossed my mind and heart:
“Why did you get to have healthy twins and all four of my babies have died? Do you really need two babies?!”
“Now that this friend of mine is going to / just had a baby they probably won’t want me to be in their lives because it will be too uncomfortable or awkward.”
“Why are you complaining so much about being a mother? Even saying you want to ‘send back’ your child! Do you not realize how lucky you are? Your kid is ALIVE!”
“Woah. You are announcing to a group of 100 people you barely know on WhatsApp that you received a positive pregnancy test this morning. What happens if the pregnancy ends in miscarriage, stillbirth or perinatal death?” (This last one is particularly cruel since I also shared the news with near strangers during the first trimester of my second pregnancy.)
I have felt a wide range of emotions upon learning of the pregnancies of people I don’t know at all, acquaintances, and even dear friends and sisters. These include disdain, jealousy, extreme melancholy, depression, indignation and rage These feelings are, of course, mixed with joy, excitement and love but I would be ingenuous if I were to say I only feel “positive” feelings when I hear about a new baby on the horizon. I have also felt doom, anger, envy, nostalgia and even ill-will towards visibly pregnant women. Overall, I recognize that these reactions come from an adolescent and immature version of myself. I wonder if anyone else has ever felt or thought any of these things.
Years ago, in a post called Life on a Measuring Stick, I wrote:
… I [find] myself thinking about, and comparing myself to mothers of living children… It is a deep ache inside me for that which I do not have. Then I realize that I haven’t the slightest clue of what I’m longing for. Having never given birth to a living baby, how would I possibly know? And then I think: I’m sure that moms with kids who live must face many difficulties in their lives. It must be very challenging and sometimes scary to have a little being totally dependent on you and then to slowly witness that person becoming independent and eventually going off on their own. I imagine that it is exhausting and rife with daily challenges.
And I still do believe this. If comparison and competition were not such strong forces in modern society, it’s unlikely that I’d have such “ugly” responses to pregnancy, motherhood and babyhood. If I had better rituals and ways of integrating what has unfolded in the course of my life, I might be less prone to compare. Unfortunately, the practice of knowing myself and the world I live in by juxtaposing my life with that of other people around me has been profoundly ingrained in my socialization from a young age. I aspire to unlearn and undo this pattern. One of the first steps is naming my proclivity for meaning-making through comparison and some of the more untoward thoughts and emotions that arise as a result of it.
I learned a new word a couple months ago: compersion. Compersion is when a person feels joy and pleasure simply because someone they love is experiencing joy and pleasure. Some might describe it as the opposite of envy. It’s often used in circles practicing ethical non-monogamy and polyamory. I’m not gonna lie: I need some work to develop compersion in this lifetime. Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to the why behind my strong feelings about pregnant people, babies and moms. I think I may have felt that I was entitled to feel this way (and, simultaneously, not allowed to express these feelings) because of my story about “what has happened to me” these past four years.
I’m reading a book right now that is changing my entire view about entitlement and what we may or may not deserve in this life: Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanity’s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism by Vanessa Machado De Oliveira. It’s an invitation to see the ways that we have been shaped and made to be complicit with the monoculture of the modern lifestyle and worldview and the way that we are educated and socialized to become willing (and many times unwitting) reproducers and promotores of this system that causes incredible harm and may, in the end, be our undoing. When I view my proclivity for angry and resentful reactions of this kind through the lens of Hospicing Modernity, I am reminded of something that I wrote about in this post: no one is owed or deserving of anything in this life. There are no guarantees. We do not reap so-called “good” returns here by wearing well the modern trappings of politeness, social mobility and concern for appearance. This perspective pulls the rugs of resentment, martyrdom, righteousness and entitlement from beneath my feet every time.
Lately, I’ve been getting pissed off (at myself and the world) about not feeling comfortable or brave enough to talk about our dead babies. I’ve had a few new acquaintances or complete strangers ask me if I had children or if I haven’t thought about having them. Just the other day it was a friendly taxi driver. One part of me feels super indignant because they asked me in the first place. What makes people think that this is a question that might not contain a shitload of pain, regret, sadness, and anger and that it’s an appropriate topic to bring up in small talk with a total stranger!? Another part of myself feels ashamed and angry because I don’t have the guts to tell them that all four of my babies died. This is a choice I make in the moment simply because sometimes it’s easier than talking about it. It prevents the other person from feeling uncomfortable, while leaving me with an uneasy sensation in my belly.
I’ve been incensed by the fact that it is socially unacceptable to speak about these things but I also acknowledge that this is its own kind of entitlement. Yet it seems to all be part of the snare of modernity. Our culture is so averse to talking and revealing our feelings about death, suffering, grief and pain that we never learn that these are really just “normal” things that happen as a part of life. Yeah, it sucks that we often don’t feel brave or secure enough to speak about our miscarriages, abortions and stillbirths but it is not our right to be able to do so. We need to cultivate whole new ways of relating with these realities and to recognize that these experiences are not ugly marks or vengeful twists of fate on our otherwise unblemished and perfect lives. These experiences are actually NORMAL. Our perfectionism and concern with appearance in the modern fiction we are constantly trying so hard to uphold are ultimately killing us from within.
The inner rage and resentment that grows inside of me as a result of my shame seeks out ways of being fed as well. I have recently realized that it’s not simply that I have these reactions to pregnancy, motherhood and babyhood. I actually seek them out in a semi-conscious way. There’s some little part of me that’s scrolling through my social media feed to see the next pregnant belly or happy parents of a newborn so that I will feel my righteous anger and entitlement. Can you believe that? Yes. It’s true. I’ve started to see that the part of me that wants to feed the story of victimhood and life not being fair actually looks for an excuse to act out. I bet, as I’ve already said, that if we had better practices, rituals and means of processing our collective grief and difficult emotions, my adolescent drama-phile self wouldn’t go looking for ways to let the ugly out.
Yesterday, I spent time with two families with little kids. This morning, I was counting again, comparing again. The older one is about six month younger than Rafa would have been; his mom was two month pregnant when Rafa died. The younger one is almost two, a couple months older than our third child would have been. I see that being a parent to living children is not easy. Doubts come up about whether or not this is something I still want for myself. It’s confusing.
I take solace in knowing that I am not alone when it comes to my counting. I know I inherited the inner accountant or the “counter and measurer” via my matrilineal line. My mom, my grandmother, and maybe even my great-grandma before her: all counters. When Rafa died, my mom was the only one who got a tattoo to remember him. It’s a hummingbird. A few weeks ago, she had some additions made to this tattoo: a vine with leaves and flowers and buds. Each of the leaves represents a little baby boy born to friends or family in the last four years; each of the flowers: a baby girl; and each of the three unopened buds: a baby that we’ve “lost” since Rafael. So there it is, laid out into perpetuity on my mother’s skin: a living abacus. I noticed a little judgy-edge come up when I heard about the tattoo, but below that is a sense of deep recognition in my mother’s choice. Neither of us wants to forget and sometimes we keep our memories alive by counting.