A common topic for grieving mothers and the infertile is how to handle the joy of others. It’s a tension and a puzzle for both the one with loss and the one with joy.
What does grief have to do with joy? And what does joy have to do with grief? These two opposite emotions are experienced in deep ways with a mother holding her newborn infant and a mother with empty arms after the loss of hers. Yet, as Christians, we are to bear each other’s burdens, and “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and grieve with those who grieve.” (Romans 12:15)
I’ve often wondered what that verse meant to me, as a mother who has felt great joy in her children, and who has also experienced great loss.
I asked a friend who has struggled through fertility issues and a miscarriage to share her thoughts with me on this topic. She shared not only the pain that her miscarriage brought to her but the sense of aloneness that being surrounded by pregnant women brings. I understand that feeling well and relate to the broken heart, the empty arms, and the sense of being an outsider to joy. While I now have had three healthy babies, the losses I’ve experienced are still with me.
Recently, I hovered over the shoulder of a friend tenderly holding her newborn. I love babies, and I could hardly keep my hands away from this precious soul. My heart rejoiced for my friend.
But there was sadness there too for my losses. About 18 months ago I had started to feel glimmers of hope that my health was improving. Weeks after, I started having dreams, almost nightly, of a son being born.
I pushed it aside as unlikely, but when my period didn’t start and I waited days expecting it, I finally took a test. Sure enough: I was pregnant.
We lost our first daughter, Faith Felicity, to a severe heart defect. Every pregnancy since hers has been undertaken with some fear and trembling. We do have a small heightened risk for having babies with heart defects. The responsibility felt great every time we tried to get pregnant. The first twenty weeks of my pregnancy was always a practice of patience and hope until we could get to the 20-week scan. When we were pregnant with our now three year-old, the technician doing the heart scan told us in friendly voice, “Wow, you guys are brave.” She was right. It has taken a large dose of bravery for each pregnancy.
So when I found out I was pregnant, I cried. Not because I was afraid, but because of pure joy. This was a surprise pregnancy – my only one, and it happened after we “were done” having children. I felt the weight of responsibility for risking a pregnancy again off my shoulders. I felt like I saw the Lord’s goodness in giving me one last child, but without the weight of worry, wondering if we had made the right decision in trying again.
After some very difficult months, the Lord gave me the most precious gift I could imagine – another child to care for. It was my light at the end of a dark tunnel.
But it wasn’t to be. Several weeks later I miscarried, and the hormonal wreckage of the miscarriage did no favors to my health.
What I had seen as a special gift during dark days became another loss during a time of so many losses. I felt stripped of many good things, even while I thanked God for the many blessings I had left.
Many of you, like me, have felt the sting of happiness turned to sorrow, gifts turned to loss, hope turned to regret.
And this pain of loss thrusts you into a world where pregnancy and childbearing are commonplace. My mother-in-law told me that after we lost Faith Felicity, our firstborn, she felt like mothers and grandmothers were taunting her, swinging chubby babies in her face at church, asking for praise of dear little infant joys.
She knew they weren’t taunting, or trying to be cruel. But it felt that way. During a time when all of my friends were gifted with newborns and mine lay in a grave, I found myself taking long quiet walks, letting sorrow roll over me in the solitude of my grief. That grief was large, the hours I walked were many.
If I could go back…
If I were to give advice to myself during those first months and years of grief, I would tell myself to be kinder to myself. I beat myself up for not being able to enter into the lives of my friends with newborns with the regularity I demanded of myself. I wanted to rejoice with them fully, and I did, but I expected too much of myself too early.
If you are also in a time of loss or dealing with infertility or unwanted singleness, be kind to yourself. You don’t have to attend every baby shower you are invited to (send a gift card instead and you don’t even have to shop for baby clothes). You don’t have to only be friends with mothers. You can be honest and open about your loss and the natural pain it brings.
To the friends with babies
If you are baby rich and wondering how to open your life to those experiencing loss, here are my four recommendations.
1) Some are private grievers, and some want someone to cry with. Respect the first, and be open to grieving with the other.
2) If you have a close friend who is experiencing loss when you are experiencing gain, don’t take them distancing themselves personally. Take it as grief, because that’s what it is.
3) Be willing to leave your baby behind with your spouse to go on a coffee date with your friend. If you mother like me, it’s a sacrifice to be away from your child. But it can often open the door to an easier, less painful time with your friend.
4) In our community, after a set of young wives got pregnant, many of the single women in our church complained to me that the mothers became unable to discuss a topic that didn’t revolve around motherhood or wifehood. They told me this while I bounced my second daughter, chubby and healthy, on my knee. They thanked me for not being that way.
I was surprised. I wasn’t trying to do anything special. Perhaps because of my loss, I had learned not to allow my role as “mother” to completely and utterly define me. Their words opened my eyes to the fact that I was not the only one who felt “left out” of a world where babies and children were the only real topic of conversation.
If you want to keep a relationship with those not married, not pregnant, or grieving mothers, keep a curious mind about other topics and interests. If you are left wondering what to talk about, pull from your other interests: Your faith, a podcast you like, a book you are reading. Or better yet, ask them, genuinely, about their own lives.
To the conservative community
A word to both the grieving and the one experiencing joy: If you, like me, are in a conservative community where motherhood is highly elevated, remind yourself that Christianity is not primarily about producing more children. It is about honoring God in our lives. Children don’t equal godliness. Large families don’t equal more favor from God. Biblical womanhood isn’t proved through childbearing. Grief is multiplied when women are confronted with theological errors that equate motherhood with the only way to live a good life. I know those ideas gave me further pain, and it’s only through God’s truth we can learn to set them aside.
Where all of us can always meet
We can’t always answer the questions we want to – why loss is poured out on some, and children on another. But we can know that finding our joy and hope in Christ is our mutual goal for a life worth living.
There is no easy way to merge lives where one is in the middle of greatest joys, and the other in deepest sorrow. But this is where we can meet – a desire to live pleasing lives to God. This is true through long single years, longings over a womb that refuses to be filled, or the joy of a growing family.