By Laura C. Alonso
It’s one of those days. I curl on my side in a c-shape in the center of my bed, wrapping my arms around myself. Oh, these empty arms of mine, mocking this Fucking. Empty. Womb. I breathe in, breathe out, and allow myself to fall into the dreamspace where I can scream as loud as I want without scaring the neighbor’s children . . . my husband . . myself. I don’t scream in waking life. I don’t even talk about it, really. This gaping hole of real, raw, aching grief has no category, no name (at least none that I know of, none that seems to define this experience for me). There is no sympathy for me, for my loss. What loss? How do you lose something you never had in the first place? Well, you can. And I have.
No sweet fruit to nourish the spirit, just a thin film that veils each day – velvet cheeks, never kissed . . . the souls of our unborn children.
Those twenty-five words were published about two years ago in a “tiny and colorful literary journal” called Nailpolish Stories, where writers tell stories in exactly twenty-five words with titles named after the colors of nail polish. At the time it was the best and the most I could do. It quite literally ripped through my heart to put those few words on paper, and it was a gift to me for it to be out in the world. Now I’m trying to do better, and for some reason it feels really important to get it right.
In sitting down to write this, the title that came to me first was “Notes from a Childless Mother.” Ugh. And . . . um, no.
To be clear, I don’t want or need sympathy. Empathy, perhaps, but sometimes I feel so unworthy of expecting anything at all. If my own empty arms can mock the fact that there never was and never will be a baby growing in this womb, then why shouldn’t you mock me, too? After all, there are people who have lost REAL babies. Living, breathing, beautiful children. Miscarriages, SIDS, horrible childhood diseases. Mothers losing babies. The stuff that makes you want to tear out your hair and scream at the universe for doing that to any mother, any child. Fuck chaos; fuck the lottery of where one lands in this world. Fuck the fact that those amazing women will never be the same. Never. Never again. I’ve known and loved those women. And I feel all of that, and it hurts me, too – it hurts me to my core, and I do scream out loud for them in my dreamspace as well.
I also wouldn’t dare to put myself in the shoes of those grieving mothers. And I don’t expect anyone else to, either. The same with couples who’ve tried and failed – often for years – to conceive much-wanted children only to then go on to fail at infertility treatments as well. Couples with so much to offer. Homes that children would be so blessed to be born into. So. Fucking. Unfair. I ache for them, too. But I also have not walked their path . . .
I just want a pair of shoes of my own. Shoes that actually fit – that I can walk around in and be who I am and feel what I feel and be understood by a handful of people. Is that too much to ask? To most people I’m just a woman who never had a kid. It was a choice, after all. She never had kids. We’re a childless couple – we never even tried to conceive. They never had children . . . Never had a baby, those two . . . Tsk, tsk.
Yet not one of those “nevers” matches my experience. Not even close. In the permanent punched-out hole in my gut, I feel every day like a childless mother. I knew my children before they were(n’t) born. They existed for me. They had little nameless, faceless souls, but I knew them, and they were mine, and I looked forward to meeting their father and eventually meeting them – getting to know them and helping them unfold into the amazing little humans they chose to be. I dreamed often of the day I would be given that privilege. Emphasis on would have. Not might have. No; I knew. They waited for me in a future I hadn’t yet reached – in a life that I didn’t yet know . . . but I couldn’t wait to meet them there someday.
I read parenting books when I wasn’t even in a long-term dating relationship. Throughout my twenties I worked full-time and went to university with an average of nine credits per semester. I spent a year working on an honor’s thesis and was preparing to apply to graduate school. I volunteered at a crisis hotline; I had many friends and a great social life. I was busy and happy and on my way. In addition to the reading, writing, studying, etc. that I had to do for my undergraduate work, I was a voracious reader outside of academics as well.
And somewhere in that “leisure” reading, I always had a book or two in my bag about children and parenting issues. And I read them. A lot. Many of them several times. And my friends would sincerely ask, why are you reading about parenting now? And that seemed like a silly question to me. I wanted to do it well. I hadn’t had the best preparation for it based on how I grew up, to say that in the most simple way possible. And if we spend the equivalent of four years of full-time study before we can enter most “professions” (and often study beyond that is required or at least recommended as an asset to your skill set), then why did it seem SO crazy to most people that I was studying about children and parenting several years before I was likely to actually have a child and be a parent?
And it went beyond the books, too. I had all sorts of ideas and plans that I tucked away for that future time in my life. My future home would definitely have a large, beautiful globe. I’d seen some that were made of gemstones – beautiful and multi-colored – and I imagined how delighted my children would be to have that reference whenever we talked about “the world.” Oh, and we would have a very large, thick-spined, gold-embossed dictionary. On a pedestal in some prominent spot in our home – you know, like they have in the library. Yes, and walls of bookshelves, and comfortable places to read . . . all of that and so much more, tucked away in my heart. Still there, really . . . sort of mocking me quite a bit, actually. I don’t know what to do with those things now – where to put them, how to somehow still have ownership of something that never materialized. How to talk about it with other people.
“This is the mother that I would have been . . .”
But things turned out different. Yes, I met a man I loved very much who shared the future vision of us waking up on Sunday mornings with children somersaulting onto our bed. I got married at thirty-one with every intention of meeting those lovely souls someday on the then-visible horizon. But other things happened on the way. I never made it to graduate school. Chronic illness crept into my life. Our finances never lined up. And time doesn’t stand still for those things.
Suddenly I was forty, and then forty-two – and without wanting to acknowledge it, I could feel that hole growing solid, permanent. Black. Never to be filled. And it’s something I’ve been quietly coming to terms with inside my heart and sometimes in painful, tear-filled mourning sessions with my husband over the last few years. I will be forty-six in February. Still chronically ill; still struggling financially. Never. Going. To. Be. A. Mother.
Yet in many ways I feel like we honored those precious little souls by not bringing them into the world simply because we selfishly wanted to know them. We knew we couldn’t care for them the way that they deserved. We wanted nothing more than to be parents. But we wanted to be good parents. And we had to come to terms with the quite literally agonizing fact that it really wasn’t possible in the place where life had taken us.
So, was it a choice? I suppose. But it is one that breaks my heart over and over again every single day. And I know it breaks my husband’s, too.
I often wonder what the future will be like when my peers and I start to become the “aged” generation – if I’m fortunate to make it that far! – what will it be like when I have nobody around me to look into my eyes and see their own eyes peering back at them? No one to cradle my hand, to kiss my cheek . . . and to call me that beautiful name?
At our wedding, a dear friend of mine took me aside and asked me not to bring up the subject of her two young children in front of our mutual friend, as this friend was currently undergoing infertility treatment and was overwhelmingly sad about not being able to get pregnant, and she didn’t want to bring up the subject of children in front of her. I’m not sure if that is how our mutual friend would have felt if I had asked to see photos of our friend’s children, but I know that the friend who asked did so out of the most loving and best intentions. I also know for sure that is not how I want to be treated.
I love kids. Love families. Absolutely adore seeing beautiful loving families doing everything they know to get it right. It makes me happy, brings me genuine, heart-swelling joy to see your photos, hear your stories. I’m HAPPY for you and your beautiful children. I might see something that reminds me – ah, yes, that’s how I thought it would be! – but you having it in your life doesn’t make me have it any more or any less in mine. It’s not really something to be jealous of. What you have in abundance doesn’t give or take anything from me.
So, yes, I’m that Facebook friend who sincerely enjoys watching all the videos and pictures of your children and their amazing milestones and all of those precious phrases, questions, etc., that only come from the mouths of children before they learn to “filter.” Love it. All of it. And it’s not in a creepy way, either. Being both overjoyed for you and sad as hell for me are not mutually exclusive.
When I first started reconnecting with old friends on Facebook, I was browsing through the photos of one of my high school friends. There was a picture of her daughter on her first day of kindergarten, and she was wearing the same dress my friend had worn on her first day of kindergarten. I burst into tears at the sight of that photo. But I was smiling. It was beautiful. And, yes, it was just the kind of thing I would have wanted to do if I had a daughter, and I felt that as an ache deep in the pit of my gut. But I also felt my heart swell with happiness for my friend and her beautiful girl. Since then there have been lots of tears from lots of Facebook posts, picture, videos . . . but again, they are tears of joy, of admiration – of “oh, how beautiful that is and how happy it makes me to see people I love and care about experiencing this amazing, awesome journey!”
I love those moments when I can see friends’ and family’s faces mirrored in their own children; whether they are biological children or not, this seems to occur in some fashion for most families I know, and it’s one of the most beautiful things to observe. I’ve had my own dreamlike moments when those floating souls of my unborn children have flashed before me and I’ve glimpsed a version of my own face in theirs – it’s a spark, a blur – and in those brief moments I’ve experienced the overwhelming feeling that comes with that kind of love, that kind of soul connection. I get it to the very core of my bones, and I miss it even if you might say that I never had it to begin with.
On that note, I guess if I have any advice for my friends (and/or for friends of “people like me”), it would be that you not say in our presence that one can only truly understand the love between a parent and child once one becomes a parent. I “get” how it must feel that way to you, but from our side of the experience – to those of us in this little undefinable space that I’m still trying to come up with a name for – that is, quite frankly, both condescending and hurtful. And I simply do not believe that it is true. I loved my kids – the little souls still floating around in my consciousness somewhere – long before I ever knew who their father would be or when (or if) they would enter my life. I love them still. Even if that makes me sound crazy.
I’ve also been extremely blessed to have several children in my life who’ve been my center and my world. My brother was born when I was fourteen, and he and I have shared a very special bond throughout his childhood until he went away to college and beyond. In that same space of time my older sister had a daughter, and then a son. And all three of those kids were the center of my universe for many years. I made life decisions around them and my ability to live near them and to be a part of their lives and to love them as big and as much as I could.
My niece then had a daughter, Kaylee, when she was still quite young herself, and my husband and I have enjoyed helping her as much as we possibly could from the time Kaylee was a baby. We used to keep her with us every weekend, and we took care of her during the week sometimes as well, and it was really such a gift to us – this beautiful baby girl who we had the privilege of helping to care for. In an odd way that experience is what helped us understand in the most tangible way that I could not care for a child full-time, seven days a week, around-the-clock. I would give everything I had for the time she was with us and then would literally have to rest for the entire day or two in-between before she came back to fill our lives with joy again. And I did so without any regret and an enormous sense of purpose. And she is now an amazing seven-year-old first grader who still spends weekends with us as often as she can (she is a very busy girl!), and we couldn’t love her any more if she were our own. It was always the same with my brother. It was the same with my niece and my nephew. And I hope that they all have known, and will always know and remember, that love from me.
But I also know that as much and as deep as I love them, I am not any of their mothers. I know that I am nobody’s mother and never will be. And it’s sad and unfair and it will always exist every day in that punched-out hole in my gut. And that’s my sorrow to bear. And I don’t want or need you to feel sorry for me. I just want this experience to be heard, to be known. And I know I am not the only one.
I think there are many of us “childless mothers” walking the earth, living our lives with their various circumstances, silently carrying the lifelong burdens of these empty, aching arms . . . and when we encounter your children, we happily admire and, yes, sometimes even love them – we often love them very, very much – but not with envy, and not in some creepy, coveting way. We love your children with genuine joy and (you better believe!) with a hard-earned, deep and heartfelt knowledge of what it takes for you to be a parent . . . and, finally, we love them with the truest appreciation of every single one of their beautiful, wonder-filled, velvet-cheeked, miracle moments on earth.
Laura C. Alonso‘s work has been published in In Posse Review, Linnaean Street, 3AM Magazine, SFWP, and other online literary journals. She is the former Senior Editor of Fictionline Press and former Fiction Editor of The God Particle (two sorely missed online venues), and her fiction has been a finalist in the Santa Fe Writer’s Project’s Literary Awards Program in 2001, 2002, and 2010, as well as a finalist for the Glass Woman Prize in 2012.