Sunday, May 12, 2013

Visible & Invisible Mothers

All over the country, people are thanking their moms for being their mothers. It’s a day when I really, really miss my own mother, Dorothy Dangler Jacob, and my two mothers-in-law, Betty Delaney and Myrtle "Matt" McDowell. In Tolkien fanfiction writings, in-laws are referred to as “in-loves”, as in “mother-in-love.” I love that, because motherhood is the personification of love, and I know that the mothers of my two husbands were strong, loving women who did their best to raise their children, and extended to me a welcoming affection, respect and kindness—and trust.

This morning in the Sunday newspaper, in an article of essays about being a mother, I found a German term: Verwaiste Eltern.

It means “orphan parent,” and it means me.

During my first marriage, I became pregnant three times—and each time, I miscarried early, before we announced it to anyone, before I really showed. And it hurt, more than anything else has ever happened to me, more than other deaths, more than health problems, more than pain after car wrecks and other accidents.

It hurt so much I could not even talk about it with my own mother for three years—and when I did, she didn’t want to hear it, I discovered, because she had herself had three miscarriages between my older brother and me, and suffered terrible anger, guilt, shame, grief and depression afterwards. Her reaction to my stumbling words about her unborn grandchildren was, “It isn’t as if they were real, if they weren’t born. Don’t wallow!” and walked out of the room. I felt as if I’d been slapped. We never spoke of it again.

But her reaction was more defensive, I think, than anything else. Years later at a women’s conference, I met a professional grief counselor for the parents of miscarried,and stillborn children, and those infants who do not survive. She listened to my bewildered anecdote, because above all, my mother was NOT a cruel or cold woman, and then she said softly, “Oh, my heart goes out to her! That tells me that she's never really grieved, she’s never let go of all those heavy emotions! The only way she can endure them is to shut them away behind a wall of denial, and she’s been dragging them around ever since she lost those babies, all these years!”

I left, and in the car, parked on a quiet street, I sat and wept for Mother, and for myself, and for all other women throughout time and the world who did not and do not and may not have the support of their families and communities, to help us/them with these deep wrenching hurts. So much of being a woman is defined by mothering. It is one thing to choose not to be a parent, for whatever reason. It is different and difficult to lose a child or children one longs to have. I understand my mother’s feelings of defensiveness and failure; I've had family members snatch their infants out of my arms after less than a minute on the grounds that having never officially given birth, I cannot know how to care for that child for even that short space of time. Never mind that I spent many hours babysitting my sister’s children, one almost from birth, as well as others, for years. Never mind that I successfully finished a course on caring for small children—something that is not required in a country that has more rules about legally driving a car than parenting.

But the hardest, besides all the times, particularly when I was in my childbearing years, were the nights I woke from dreams of searching for my lost three children.

My first husband and I were very active in a church that we attended during and after this period. Every November 1st, All Souls Day, there would be a special service. Its highlight was the reading aloud of the name of each person who had died during the year since the last such service, as family members were given carnations (red for a male, white for a female), to solemnly bring up to two huge vases on the altar, as everyone mourned and celebrated those lives.

There were no carnations for my sons and my daughter, nor for my unborn sisters and brother.

I’m a story lover who has always been immersed in tales. Like everyone else, I make sense of life events by making stories. This is one I have not told before. How long it took me before I began to not just mourn, but to celebrate them, I cannot tell you. They live in my heart. I know their names, the shape of their hands and feet, the sounds of their laughter and tears. I would know them immediately if I met them tomorrow, and I rest in the certainty that someday I will, that Mother has already been reunited with her lost babies, and at last has been relieved of her long burden.

As a storyteller, telling traditional tales, I wonder about the old women helpers at the crossroads, the wise ones who offer testing and help to the questers in search of a good future, whether of rescuing the princess and gaining half a kingdom, or finding their fortunes along a future path. Did they begin as questers themselves, who suffered some loss from which to glean wisdom? Who gave them aid?

I think today of all those my mother mothered: my brother, my sister, and me, and the many girls in her Brownie and Scout troops, and probably others during her long life whom I've never met. I hope that the tales, myths and legends I tell, and the songs I sing and play on my harp, are of use to those who hear them.

I ask that you consider these proverbs about mothers that I found, and if you hear of someone having suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth, that you will offer them some support, and say a prayer for them and their babies. My brother Rip Pelletier and my husband John McDowell never forget to recognize my invisible motherhood on this day; I can't express how grateful I am! Here are the proverbs:

• Who takes the child by the hand takes the mother by the heart. – German and Danish

• God could not be everywhere and therefore he made mothers. - Jewish

• The greater love is a mother's; then come dog's; then a sweetheart's. - Polish

• An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy. - Spanish

• What the child says, he has heard at home. - African

• A rich child often sits in a poor mother's lap. - Danish
• Children are a bridge to Heaven. OR Heaven is under feet of mothers. - Persian

• In every woman there is a Queen. Speak to the Queen and the Queen will answer. - Norwegian

• A baby is an angel whose wings decrease as his legs increase. - French
  • The mither’s breath is aye sweet. - Scots
• There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it. - Chinese

• Children are poor men's riches. - English

• Friendship reminds us of fathers, love of mothers. - Malagasy

• The warmest bed is mother’s. - Yiddish

• A mother’s tears are the same in all languages. - Pacific Northwest

• Mothers hold their children's hands for just a little while... And their hearts forever.  - Irish

• Is blàth anail na màthair.  - Warm is the mother’s breath. - Scots Gaelic

I don’t know, and haven’t been able to find out about, the lady who said this, but I am delighted to quote her, and I hope it becomes a modern proverb:

My mother is a woman who speaks with her life as much as her tongue.-- Kesaya E. Noder

May that be true of all mothers, visible and invisible, today and every day….


  1. Beautifully written, Barra. Once a mother, always a mother. I know the grief at the loss of a child too. Although I had my daughter for almost 21 years, this grief is everlasting whatever consolation may be achieved. I dealed with that loss through writing my book Blue Angel. I remember when I was age 3 staring at my baby brother's white coffin. He lived 3 days. My mother coped with her grief by taking up smoking. She died at age 71 of COPD. I still miss her.

    1. Thank you! How kind of you to share those losses in your family. Unlike my mother, who would *not* be happy with me for my post, I believe in the Scottish proverb that "a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved, and a joy shared is doubled," but she was much more reticent than I am. I try to judge less as I get older; how do I know what things are like for others? But I hope this makes someone else feel a little less alone. I still miss my mother, and my sister, very much every day--and my babies. Thank you again!

  2. Wow, Barra, what a beautiful opening of your heart, sharing the deepest part of you, yearning and celebrating and loving your orphaned children who might have been. My eyes got misty reading it. I send you 10,000 hugs through this post. Tony Toledo

    1. 10,000 hugs back, Tony! Thank you! Um, what I meant, though, was that I'm an orphaned parent. Usually we use that word to refer to a parentless child, but I and women (and men who've lost their babies too) are childless parents, orphaned by that loss. Sorry I wasn't clearer.

  3. Dear Barra,

    My own mother lost a son, my brother Kevin, at the moment of birth. She never spoke about it, only to tell us his name, that he was baptized and his date of birth. I know she carried that grief within all of her days. It is so terribly sad that women, through the ages, have suffered in silence. Thank you for giving them a voice.

    1. Thank you, Karen! I told John last night that I think there was more support in rural communities 100 years ago for families suffering this, and that's sad too. It was a huge relief for me when a clergyman friend, Rev Zev, asked me what their names were. No one else ever has...they were baptized in the Light.

  4. This is beautiful! Thank you for sharing it, and for all the nurturing you have given to so many.

    1. Oh, Mary, thank you! Wish I could be more nurturing....

  5. Thank you Barra. I only occasionally think of the early miscarraige I had. No one lets you grieve, they want to rush you past it.
    There is a Jewish custom to give money ot the synogogue on the occassion of he first son's birth, buying him back from the priests. My husband reminded me when we had our son, that the other one might have been a boy and we'd, by Jewish law, already given him up.--Jane

    1. Thank you, Jane...You're right, people do seem to want to rush people past grieving. It's my main objection to Kubler-Ross's stages of grief theory; she makes it sound so cut-and-dried, one size fits all--and it doesn't! Each person grieves differently, at different rates. I think a lot of the rushing has to do with *their* discomfort, not knowing what to say or do, fear of what-if-that-happened-to-me (as if it was contagious). Kind of like the woman in an article I read last week. Her friend was dying of cancer, but she insisted on seeing her anyway--and then told the dying woman's husband that she didn't know if she could handle her friend's impending death, as if it was about HER and not the dying woman! But isn't friendship and kinship supporting and feelling with each other? Thank thee, friend!--Barra

  6. Hi Karen,

    I have been fortunate. My three children and my three grandchildren are all alive and healthy.

    Although, if not for modern medicine and for living here, I and my third child would have died during labor. Thanks to a modern, simple C-section, I have a 25 1/2 year old son and the miracle of 25 1/2 more years of life.

    When I was 19 and home for the summer, a former classmate from my first school moved into a house a mile from me. One mile. I wanted to go to see her, and seemed to not make that idea into my list of things to do. I did know she was pregnant. Maybe not having a script for that particular event had me hesitant.

    And then the birth. Still no visit.

    And then the death from SIDS.

    I was frozen. I definitely did not have as script.

    One mile. She was alone in small house on a back country road.

    One mile. And now I know the script. Hug the lady. Hug her until she breaks the hug. Go back the next day and the next and the next. Hug, hug, hug. And then listen.

    One mile. If I did have an event that I could relive, re-do, it would be that. I would walk that one mile.

  7. Margaret, Thank you! We often do take modern health care for granted. I'm glad you and your family all survived.

    I was about the same age as you were when I went back to campus after the 1st time I had to drop out because of money problems. 1st friend I saw, Winnie, had been pregnant the last times I'd seen her, obviously no longer was. I sang out, "Hi, Winnie! How's the baby?"

    To my horror, she hissed, "He died of SIDS a month ago. Any other questions?" and ran.

    I felt horrible!

    The next time I saw her, 2 weeks later, we both apologized. No one had told me, and when she'd stopped crying, she'd realized it. I still feel badly, although the last I heard, she'd had two other children, but I don't think we ever spoke again. Being 19 and not knowing what to do are both hard!


  8. Beautiful and tender reflection, Barra. Your mother might be horrified at your writing these paragraphs, but your babies love you for sharing their story.

  9. Mary Grace,

    Thank you! And maybe she will feel differently by the time I see her again.....We've always disagreed on the subject of sharing personal events with others. IMO, secrecy only causes more problems, and makes me sicker physically, mentally and spiritually. Half the terrible domestic tragedies we see reported every day might not happen with more communication between those involved. Less drama for reporters, but better in the long run!


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