For the first time in weeks, I burst out of my front door and started the short trek to our local neighborhood park for a quick jaunt sans children. My feet carried me with a steady cadence, away from the chaos and noise and clamor. Lily, our pit mix, barely kept up with my stride.
Something in me suddenly burst. I felt like I could breathe again, yet I was crying. I felt sorrow, then confusion. Why am I feeling empty when all I’ve wanted to do is get a little space? I thought. The answer did not come to me quickly, yet it melded gradually from snippets and snapshots of images from my memory and emotions, all gathered into one schema.
I saw myself as a newly pregnant mom in 2010, flustered by every motion of quickening, as I wasn’t sure if the baby (now Felicity, age 8) was safe or not. I’d had enough conversations with friends to know that concern was not unwarranted. Anything can happen, I told myself often. Miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects…
My memory trailed off into the distance, and I became acutely aware of my surroundings once again: the stiff winter wind biting my nose, the silence of nature that dares not utter a word during these long nights of darkness and glimpses of daylight.
I realized that every pregnancy carried more than just a child in my womb: they carried the myriad emotions of extreme fear, sadness, perplexity, excitement, anticipation. Ben and I had struggled with infertility, and I with the painful and arduous treatments of progesterone therapy and HCG shots every month. That was a particular burden: not knowing if biological children were in our future.
Once pregnant, though, I was afraid my body was too fragile to carry a healthy baby to term. I wasn’t accustomed to understanding the many bodily changes taking place, and the hormonal fluctuations only added to my insecurities and fears.
After a while, though, pregnancy became part of me. The babies I’ve carried were indelibly connected to me, and I felt consoled in the knowledge that my babies were safe inside my body – safe from the harsh elements of light and darkness, safe from suffering and pain, safe from loneliness and isolation.
Once childbirth began, I didn’t have time to process what was happening. It’s only in retrospect as I write this that I have begun to scratch the surface of understanding the intensity of changes that occur in such a short time from labor and delivery to postpartum.
As a highly sensitive person, I couldn’t handle these changes. It’s not that I have clinical depression. Yes, I am prone to melancholy and even a little dysthymia, but not the kind of depression that makes me want to stop living or find the goodness in each day or discontinue pursuing what interests me and keeps my spirit alive.
The flood of emotions that hit me during my first postpartum walk after giving birth to our fourth child held a delicate reality: that not only did my body undergo serious trauma, but my womb was now empty. I could no longer protect my babies from harm, danger, and pain. They were gone, unattached from my body that gave it constant sustenance during those long nine months.
I recalled each birth of each baby: some short, some exasperatingly long. All traumatic in their own ways. All draining and depleting, both emotionally and physiologically. The fear resurfaced as I grazed each curve of the well-strewn concrete path I had walked countless times for decades in the park.
What if Joey develops an incurable disease? It happened to Sarah, I thought breathlessly, in between sobs and heaves. I am helpless in protecting them.
The grief, I realized, overwhelmed me in that moment in the same familiar way it preferred visiting me: through the violent crashing of tsunamic waves against my heart, then the quiet receding of the tide back into the ocean of mystery.
Grief is truly that vast. It is a mystery that can never be solved. It is the sea at night in which I cannot see my hand before my eyes. If I stay in that darkness too long, I am paralyzed with terror. Instead, I try desperately to cling to the coming of dawn that will cast gentle amber constellations of light against the glassy morning water.
People talk of postpartum depression but not necessarily postpartum grief. I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by a concerned medical practitioner who had me fill out a Likert scale of questions in order to determine my risk level. All the while, I sighed heavily. I’m not depressed, I knew, ticking the boxes for “seldom” or “occasionally” in response to questions about feeling restless, irritable, hopeless, etc. It is grief.
I mourn the life I had before children. I mourn for the months and years of heartache in never knowing if or when we’d have children. I mourn the sleepless nights that deprived me of the ability to think clearly, reason, or make simple decisions. I mourn the child in the womb who has been born but is no longer attached to me. And I mourn the life we had and have and will have.
Loss isn’t linear. It appears in jagged edges, messy and unexpected, often unwelcomed. But today I notice it peek behind the distant pine as I head back for home. It is subtle but present, and I nod as the wind whistles its cries along with mine through the brush.
Life is not lost. It is only wavering, fragile and delicate like my heart and the pines waving goodbye for now.