23 December 2010

Unmothered Motherhood

Several nights in a row have ended with tears: the inconsolable kind that always start with the constant and nameless ache in my body, the kind that I carry with me all day and try to push through, and the kind for which -- once they start -- there is no reason to stop.

I've always loved Christmas. But now, while I know it is not the only reason for the seemingly increasing heaviness of my sadness, this favorite holiday ensures that my wounds remain thoroughly salted. Even if I could get away from the more commercial expressions -- the "Baby's First Christmas" stockings, watching families line up with their babies for their first photo with Santa -- I can't get away from the fact that the Christmas story starts with the birth of a baby boy.

I know it will not always be so heavy and bitter. I know the pain of loss will not always be so fresh and raw. I know this, and I feel it as deeply as I feel anything else. I know God's goodness continues. I trust in it implicitly, even when the pain is blinding, and even when I cannot dam the stream of tears.

But I also know how real this is: how this loss has led to a sadness that is layered and complex, indivisible between the emotional, mental, spiritual, and physiological components. There are memories and thoughts and feelings, there are deep metaphysical truths, and there are also a powerful flow of hormones and maternal instincts that don't stop just because my son has been buried. Grief is an emotional and spiritual process, but it is a physical one, too.

A mother's body is made to nurture and support the life of the child from her womb -- her body works for months undergoing the most profound physical changes to prepare her child for life outside, and to make herself ready for the work for caring for him. As the child grows up, his dependence on his mother for his most basic needs lessens over time, and simultaneously, the mother engages in a gradual process of letting go of her child, allowing him to become an independent person.

But nature is turned on its head when an infant dies, whether before his birth or after it -- the body and the heart are forced to do instantly what the mother whose child lives has a lifetime to accomplish: a slow relinquishment, a gradual letting go that is as it should be. Over the years there is a slow decrease in his need for her comfort, nourishment, and protection.

When her child dies, the flow of her motherhood is dammed. She is left to navigate a landscape for which there is no map, the unnavigable terrain of unmothered motherhood, a territory that is fierce and unpredictable. No one can tell her how to get to the other side alive, and not even those who have gone there ahead of her can tell her how best to traverse it. It is in this place that she feels like she has lost herself not just because the child of her womb has died, but because it has been denied her to do what she was made to do. It is no longer in her power to fulfill the end for which she was created. This has been taken from her.

And so the tears will come, and she should let them. It is against nature that a child should die before his mother; every feeling revolts. It is such a terrible aberration that she wonders how it is that the earth does not split open and come to a screeching halt in its rotations. But it keeps going on and so she weeps, because some days that is the only evidence she has that her child has lived and died, and that things are not as they should be.