Am I Still a Mother If?
Am I still a mother if my children are dead?
Merriam-Webster thinks not. They define a mother as a female parent. I cannot parent dead children; therefore, am I not a mother? Many, including Merriam-Webster might say I’m not, but do not tell that to the congregation of the little white church my husband and I were attending at the time our son died shortly after birth. My first Sunday back, after giving birth, was Mother’s Day. Ironic. Why was I even there on that day? I certainly wasn’t there to celebrate the day. My own mother had died 10 years earlier, when I was only eight. I wasn’t there to celebrate being a mother. My child had died. I didn’t feel like a mother. Mothers leave the hospital with miraculous joy and a beaming face. Mothers leave the hospital with a baby in arms. Mothers do not stand at the grave of the child they never got to hold. Yet, on Mother’s Day, I sat among this congregation of people who, led by the pastor’s wife, doles out various colors of carnations. A carnation for the oldest mother. A carnation for the mother with the most children. A carnation for the youngest mother. And the carnation for the youngest mother goes to… Somewhere among the achingly painful grief in which I sat, all the while hoping we could get past the mother stuff, I hear my name. The youngest mother in attendance that day.
Congregation members are beaming; they have done a good thing. They have not brushed over the fact I bore a child. They honor me as a mother. I look around, and in my anguish, I see their beaming faces watching and waiting for me to take the white carnation from the hand extended to me. I am sure I reached forward to accept; I know this only because I still remember, more than forty years later, the carnation resting in a vase of water I placed on the kitchen windowsill at home later that day. I still remember, also, how I cried uncontrollably as I took the flower and as the grief poured from my innermost being. Am I still a mother if? Soon, the carnation died, a cruel representation and reminder of my dead child.
The pregnancy/birth/death scene repeated itself three years later. We placed our second son in the ground next to his older brother with the hope they would keep each other company. Dead is dead, but a mother can hope. Am I still a mother if my children are dead?
The American novelist and short story writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, wrote, “Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” I was living the truth of this. Mama died when I was a child, and my two sons died when I was a young adult. The shadows of these events built one upon another, complicating the grief of unfulfilled realizations of expected life events. Was I doomed to never bring home a healthy, living child? Try again doctors told us with the birth and death of each son. Yet, trying again carried a risk I was uncertain I could face again. How many times can I endure? How many times?
Life necessitates a certain level of courage for all of us, so we tried again. I am courageous, but I am a realist. Experience warned me that my body does not play the game of pregnancy and birth well. The worry and stress that invaded me during this third pregnancy seemed more than I could bear at times. Will history repeat itself? What makes me think this time will be any different?
If humans believe they can lay out the best plans and predict everything that might happen in life, they deceive themselves. Twice I had relished in my pregnancies and with great expectation and anticipation of bringing home my beautiful children to their sweetly prepared rooms. Twice life had punched me in the gut and said no way. Pregnant with my third, I prepared myself for the inevitable. What makes me think this time will be any different?
Yet, this time was different. Three years after the death of our second son, we welcomed our first daughter into the world. Although her brothers had been born months too early, this stubborn child hung on, refusing the leave the warmth of her embryotic home. Doctors worried that at nine-and-a-half months, there were still no signs of impending birth. This is a better worry than too early, in my estimation. I’ll take late rather than early any time.
After a successful C-section, I held my almost 10-pound wonder in my arms and swore I would never let go. Finally! I am a mother, in every sense of the experience. Finally! A baby in my arms, in my home, and in my life. Finally! I am a female parent. Take THAT, Merriam-Webster!
The Sunday after her birth, my husband and I are sitting in church. Not the same little church as before, but a different church with a larger congregation. Irony replays, yet in a different way from the first time. There were no carnations; Mother’s Day had passed while I was still pregnant. But ironically, this Sunday was Easter, a day representing birth and life. How fitting, I thought, as I held my daughter and marveled at her chest rising and falling with the breaths representing her life. How fitting. Finally!
But, is anything ever final? Perhaps for some, but not for me. Two years later, the pregnancy/birth/bring-home-your-baby-girl thing happened again. Nor was irony finished, only this time, irony had nothing to do with being in church the Sunday following our hospital dismissal. Irony was the timing of this child’s birth, which was on my own birthday. The final birth I would give. Four children; two dead, and two very much alive.
“Time flies over us but leaves its shadow behind,” said Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Am I still a mother if my children are grown? My daughters are women, both in their 30s, and one with a daughter of her own. I raised them the best I knew how, and if their characteristics are any testament to the work I did, I was a good mother. But, am I still a mother if my children are grown?
I finished my work in raising them half their life ago, but my daughters still consider me their mother. Mommy, to be exact. I am whom they turn to when they have good news to share. A new job. The adoption of another pet (also known as my furry grandchildren); a new love; a promotion; a pregnancy. I am whom they turn to, also, when life is punching their guts. A divorce; a wrecked car; a job elimination. I am whom they turn to in all things life. I am still a mother. Yet the Hawthorne shadow hovers, always there, to remind me I AM a mother to four beautiful children; two who flew too early and two who stayed behind.
Am I a mother if? Of course I am. Then, now, and always.
Susan R. Barclay is a writer, author, and educator living in central Arkansas, where she enjoys writing both fiction and non-fiction and, most often, stories from the darker side of life. Susan is a 2019 Writer’s Digest Short Short Story Competition Award Winner. She is currently working on an anthology of short stories.