Essays

‘Motherhood lost’: how Mother’s Day feels after miscarriage

After four miscarriages, Mother’s Day became particularly hard for Jennie Agg, author of Life, Almost: Miscarriage, misconceptions, and a search for answers from the brink of motherhood. Today, even after the birth of her son, it remains complicated.

Jennie Agg
Illustration: Olivia Heart / Penguin

There is a particular variety of Mother’s Day card that I can’t stand. They say things like: Mum! Well done for keeping me alive! Or: Being alive is pretty cool. Happy Mother’s Day!

They’re meant to be cute. An attempt at comic understatement. But to me such cards only ever read as glib. They make me cringe. Actually, no: it’s as if someone has reached inside my chest and squeezed.

Because my body didn’t keep someone alive. Four times, in fact. Four times, I miscarried, meaning someone – or a could-have-been-someone – didn’t get a chance at life. None of this was my fault, of course, as I was repeatedly reminded by well-meaning doctors and friends in the months afterwards. Months that would stretch into years of trying for a baby. Miscarriage, you are told, “just happens sometimes”. It’s “just one of those things”.

So those cards always make me feel strange, with their chirpy reminder of how I hadn’t done well; underscoring how I, unlike their intended recipients – all those other women who had gestated and birthed so uneventfully, so successfully – had failed at this most elemental thing.

It’s quite a lot to process on your lunch break in the middle aisle at Clinton’s.  

There have been six Mother’s Days – or Mothering Sundays, as it is in the UK – since I decided that I wanted to be a mother myself.

The first one, which fell less than three months after our first miscarriage, caught me off-guard. There were certain days and occasions I had already anticipated finding difficult. What would have been the due date from that lost pregnancy, for example – now a glaring nothing in our diaries. Or the first Christmas we’d once imagined we’d be seeing in as new parents.

But the onslaught of adverts for chocolates and spa days to “treat mum the way she deserves”, followed by a weekend of gushing social media testimonials, blindsided me. Everywhere I looked, I was being reminded how hard-brilliant-magical-important-meaningful motherhood was.

It was a members’ club I desperately wanted to join. And I felt like I’d been turned away at the door.

That first Mother’s Day taught me that miscarriage hurts precisely because it is motherhood lost. In my experience, the possibility of your future child can expand mind-blowingly fast from nothing, Big Bang-like in its speed and scope. Even if you lose a pregnancy at a relatively early stage, you grieve for what the psychotherapist Julia Bueno has astutely labelled “the child in mind”.

'Everywhere I looked, I was reminded how hard-magical-important-meaningful motherhood was'

Fast-forward a year, and another two miscarriages, and I saw out Mothering Sunday sobbing into my husband’s shoulder as we caught the train home, after a difficult weekend that had also included a christening for a friend’s new baby. 

That’s the other difficulty with Mother’s Day. While it hurts that you cannot join in, it can also be hard to explain why you want to sit it out; to admit that it’s a hard day for you. No one wants to feel like the ghost at the feast. Or a mother of ghosts.

As more Mother’s Days came and went – still without anyone to call me ‘mum’ – I learned to protect myself a little more. I tried not to feel so guilty for dreading it. I practised ignoring any nagging feelings that I was bringing others down, either with my presence or my absence.

I learned to lay low. To get my excuses in early. It helps to stay off social media. (I recommend watching something more soothing: like a horror film.) Other people I know – struggling with loss, infertility, or both – take the opposite approach, choosing to celebrate themselves; treating themselves to lunch out, a massage, ostentatious flowers.  

It was five Mother’s Days after my first pregnancy that I finally got my first card – from my son, who had been born the previous summer.

'I felt like a mother long before the world saw me as one'

His existence, undeniably, means the pain of this particular day has faded, although there are residues of grief. Microscopic fractures, deep in my bones. And fresh guilt, too, when I notice my own newfound ease with it, or catch myself looking forward to it as an active participant, after years on the side-lines.  

His birth also crystallised for me that becoming a mother is not a single threshold you step over. It’s an ongoing path, although many will find themselves diverted, its various ways twisting and diverging. You cannot always tell who has walked it according to whether or not they have living children.

It is almost impossible to say at what point I began to see myself as a mother, just as I find it hard to pinpoint when, during pregnancy, the baby I was carrying began to feel like an embodied person as well as a “child in mind”. It’s like trying to define the precise point at which winter became spring, when every day has felt just like the one before it.

In some ways, I felt like a mother long before the world saw me as one. I knew that pull of protective love, both fearful and ferocious, long before I felt a baby move, or even saw them on a scan. And at the same time, I felt awkward and as if I hadn’t quite earned the label of ‘mum’ yet, long after my son arrived. I still needed to grow into the part. Or perhaps it needed to grow around me.  

What I do know is that, after pregnancy loss, it’s hard to view Mother’s Day through quite the same eyes again. So much of this celebration now feels flat and shallow – papering over the complexities of motherhood and what it really means to be one with fresh bouquets and prosecco.

Even now, I cannot un-see how this day looks from the peripheries. And it’s worth remembering: for many, this particular space in the calendar will always come ringed with a penumbra of loss.

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