Sitting outside the hospital with my empty, saggy tummy and watery eyes, I watched family after family proudly and ever-so-carefully carry their day old newborns out to the car. With every step the beaming parents radiated a wave of pride, nerves, and pure delight. Caught up in a world of wonder, they smiled broadly in my direction, inviting me to join them in this brief moment of bliss. And while I desperately wished to share in their excitement, to feel something, I couldn’t seem to get further than the fake smile twisted on my face.
This was their happiest day. But it certainly wasn’t mine.
As I watched the families load their tiny ones into the car and drive away, I felt the first bitter twinge of jealousy – a feeling that would become all too familiar over the next few weeks.
I went about planning a funeral for one son while making daily visits to my other beautiful, three pound baby in the NICU. And amidst the blur of hospital visits and casket choices, I struggled to feel the way that I thought a new mother should feel.
For seven months, I had imagined what those first moments with my sons would look like. I eagerly anticipated the feelings of relief and utter joy as the doctors laid two squirming babies against my chest. I could picture the first family photo as my husband and I, with tears in our eyes, proudly held two, precious babies in our arms. But these dreams were to be left unfulfilled, another loss needing to be mourned.
I grieved for the son that I would never get to know. I cried for my second born, forever marked a twinless twin. I mourned the dreams that I’d had for the two of them together. And as I watched the new mothers in the maternity ward around me, I glimpsed a world of happiness that I felt unable to participate in.
That summer, it seemed as if everyone had a baby. My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with pictures of exhausted, sweat soaked but love-drenched mothers with their minute old newborns lying against their chest. I looked at these photos in envy. These were supposed to be my pictures too, unmarred by acrid sorrow and intense grief.
I felt robbed of my “motherhood firsts” and worst yet, guilty.
Envious of the other moms’ all-encompassing happiness, I felt miserable and guilty that I was unable to feel that same surge of emotion for my surviving twin. Overwhelmed by the initial grief and exhausted by the energy it took to get through each day, I mostly just felt numb.
Driving home from a funeral appointment, I watched a smiling mother push a stroller along the sidewalk. Carefree, she laughed and tucked a loose blanket around her little one. Once again, I thought to myself that it wasn’t fair. I wanted to be that mom: to have never felt such heavy sorrow corroding my joy. I would never be able to be that happy again.
And yet, that wasn’t true.
As days trickled into weeks and eventually flowed into months, the strangling weight of grief began to slowly lift and the laughter tentatively and (at first) painfully returned.
And through this process, I’ve learned that comparing my experience to that of other mothers’ wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair for me and it wasn’t fair for them.
Because even with the best possible outcome, birth can be a confusing and emotional experience. Feeling happy does not make you a good mother, just as feeling numb does not make you a bad one.
My expectations for how a new mother should look and feel were based on a collection of highly edited and posed Facebook and Instagram photos. But comparing my experience to these sunny, one-sided pictures only served to stir up unfounded feelings of inadequacy, envy, and guilt. Because the truth is, these snapshots of hospital-gowned mothers and their sleeping newborns don’t tell the whole story. This story may belong to a few but it certainly doesn’t belong to everyone.
We fill our social media accounts with photos that we want people to see: our smiles, our joy, our incredible highs and breathtaking once-in-a-lifetime moments. But day-to-day life looks very different from these quick portraits. Rarely, do we post photos that show the pain of infertility, postpartum depression, miscarriage, stillbirth, gestational diabetes, life threatening illness, children with disabilities, and pregnancies lived in fear. For many women, this is what real motherhood looks like.
And in a time when community was most important, I had isolated myself from those who could offer support. I was too busy envying these women of their “perfect” after-labour photos to see that behind their toothy grins were women whose journeys were just as colourful, messy, and imperfect as mine.
And it’s okay to have an imperfect story. It’s okay to not feel the way you’re “supposed” to feel.
It’s okay to feel nothing. It’s okay to curl up in tightly wound ball and cry until there are no more tears. It’s okay to be angry, exhausted or confused. And when the day comes that you begin feeling happy again, that’s okay too. Because as we struggle to stop comparing and simply embrace, we begin to be satisfied with the story that we’ve been given.
A story that is complete in all its imperfections.
And in this place of mourning, sitting empty and numb, desperately wishing to feel “normal” again, we learn of One who is stronger. There is One who’s grace is sufficient and who’s power is made perfect in weakness. There is a healing Father who can use this broken story for His glory and who can bring joy to a weary heart.
My story doesn’t read the way I had originally imagined it would; the words weave a different tale from the one I’d planned on telling. But this story is mine. This story, with its jagged edges and soggy, tear-stained pages is my beautiful love story: a story of hope, restoration, and the faithfulness of a steadfast God.
This is incredibly poignant and beautiful. Thank you for letting others in on your journey no matter how painful the road has been or will become in the future.
Oh dear! Sending you strength and courage….
Elizabeth you express yourself so beautifully in your writings and right from your heart. I love reading them. Our God is sure faithful to bring us through the very hard and painful times!