Invisible Motherhood

Author: Becky Wagner ’15

“So, do you have any kids?”

The question stops me in my tracks.

It is a warm Alabama evening. An acquaintance and I are packing up our things after a swim workout, idly chatting, until that question clouds my mind and heart. An innocent question that, one year ago, I would not have batted an eye at. But I am not the same person I was one year ago.

In the seconds that follow, I silently debate how to answer. Should I say yes, that we have three angel babies that we lost to three miscarriages in a row? Should I tell her that we would have had a newborn if not for a traumatic early pregnancy loss on Thanksgiving morning? Should I share that we have been desperately hoping to have a living baby but are not sure what the future would hold for us after multiple losses?

I settle on the safe and socially acceptable response: “Just our fur baby. She counts as a kid, right?!” We share a chuckle, and my well-meaning acquaintance goes on her way, oblivious to the emotions and memories her simple question has evoked. Oblivious to the further questions and thoughts that would swirl in my mind for the rest of the night. 

When does motherhood* begin?

Does it begin upon conception, seeing two pink lines on a pregnancy test for the first time? In a dark ultrasound room when the technician turns the screen to show the grainy image of a tiny bean, when the sound of the baby’s heartbeat reverberates in the room and eyes are filled with happy tears? In the moments of excitement, dreaming of names and pondering what the baby’s personality will be like after birth? In the moments of apprehension, worrying about the journey and challenges of parenting? Does it begin when the baby is the size of a sweet pea, or a grapefruit?

Or does it begin when the mother’s heart decides it to be so?

My vision for what I thought motherhood would look like for me was straightforward; my experience was far from it. I dreamed of maternity dresses, cute pregnancy announcements, a thoughtfully decorated nursery, a baby in my arms. My reality was a tear-filled call to my parents to announce a pregnancy and miscarriage at the same time, a sinking heart hearing the words “I’m sorry, there’s no heartbeat” twice in the span of a few months, a surgical procedure to remove the “products of conception” otherwise known as our baby. My reality was a void where love had been, just moments earlier.

Does everything happen for a reason?

Deeply ingrained in my belief system was the sense that life followed a predictable pattern, a path by which one could make decisions that would lead to an expected outcome: cause and effect. Study, pass the test. Exercise, get stronger. Spend time with friends, build relationships. Get pregnant, have a baby.

It feels comforting to have an answer, to know why something happened. It helps to find meaning, even when life is difficult, to make sense of the world.

But what happens when there is no reason?

Nothing could have prepared me for there to be no reason for our losses. For my obstetrician to shrug his shoulders and say, “It happens.”

Nothing could have prepared me for the understanding that a positive pregnancy test doesn’t always equal a baby. For carrying our child in my womb but not home from the hospital.

Nothing could have prepared me for the strange limbo of feeling the most profound internal sense of motherhood simultaneously with loss. For externally appearing as though nothing had changed.

There is a whole community of us out there, grieving the lives that never were. A community of friends and family who hadn’t shared their stories with me until I had shared mine with them. The mom with two daughters who miscarried in between. The newly married couple who lost their first baby at 10 weeks. The family with two grown boys whose mom also had three miscarriages and who still remembers feeling terrified to try again so many years ago. The many anonymous women on online forums, sharing their diverse experiences and supporting fellow strangers on the internet with love, advice and “baby dust.”

We are walking similar paths in different lives, some known and some unknown to the outside world. We are so different with our individual backgrounds and stories, and yet connected by the same thread that none of us wanted. Our healing is as unique as our lived experiences, with each of us searching for peace in our own ways. We feel stronger together, in the knowing that we are not alone and that our feelings are valid. Asking similar questions and craving similar words of reassurance and advice. Navigating the limbo within our hearts: Invisible Motherhood.

*Note: I write of “motherhood” because this is my experience, however I want to be clear that I am not implying that people who have miscarriages are the only ones who experience loss and grief in these moments. Dads, non-pregnant partners, and those working with a surrogate can and do experience emotions that are just as valid following pregnancy loss.

Becky Wagner’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2021 Young Alumni essay contest. She lives with her husband and dog in Auburn, Alabama. In her free time, Becky loves spending time outside and trying new recipes.