The circumstances surrounding a child’s entrance into this world are something of personal legend; defining moments in our lives, and many of us are often eager to share that experience with those around us. We bond through similarities, learn from differences, and share oohs and ahs over the dangerous and scary aspects of birth. Our stories of motherhood are shared with our tribe, our closest supporters, friends, and family.
A mothers, It is one of the best and most memorable moments of our lives. Even so—as you can imagine and may have experienced yourself—not every birth story is magical. Sometimes it’s a treacherous journey of survival, scars, and emotional torment. Our support system is usually what helps us through. But sometimes that support system isn’t available. Though the birth of my daughter was not traumatic in itself, I was still grieving the loss of my mother just four months prior. My best friend and biggest support was missing from this milestone in my life, and I had to learn to grieve and celebrate at the same time.
Do You Want The Good News Or The Bad News First?
One night when I was 17, my mom called me and told me to come home. I didn’t want to; I was hanging out with friends. “It’s about my health,” she said, and I turned my car around immediately to go home. This is the night I found out she had cancer of the stomach and esophagus. The next two years were a blur of surgeries, extreme weight loss, constant sickness, family upheaval, and intense, unwavering denial on my part. My party days increased, and I found every excuse not to be home because home was far too real and painful.
On my 19th birthday, after dinner with my boyfriend, I took a pregnancy test—it was positive. I was terrified. My mom, who was also one of my best friends, was as supportive as she possibly could have been, given her health. On March 29, 2005, after waking from a vivid dream of my mother saying goodbye to me, my aunt knocked on my door and told me the news: she had died in her sleep. I couldn’t do anything but repeat the word “no” over and over again, through sobs and shallow breaths. My world would forever be changed.
At 19, my mother had died, and I was ready to embark on the journey of motherhood myself.
The following four months were chaotic; between selling our home, disastrous situations with landlords, and being in an increasingly toxic relationship. And suddenly, it was time to become a mother.
“I want my mom,” I said wistfully as we drove to the hospital the first time. My contractions weren’t bad, but they were steady. “You’re only 1–2 centimeters dilated,” the doctor said, as she sent me home to labor more. “They’re getting worse,” I said to my boyfriend, as we got ready to go back to the hospital. “You’re only 2–3 centimeters,” the doctor said, sending me on my way again, crying. Another full 24 hours would pass before we ventured to the hospital again, this time I would be admitted for high blood pressure, and I wouldn’t leave until I had given birth to my baby.
In the birthing room, my best friend and my daughter’s dad were there to support me. My cousin and grandmother were in the waiting room—but the one person I wanted was gone. The actual birth was fast, and it felt like suddenly, though I wasn’t prepared, there was a baby in my arms.
My mother chose her name. Beautiful, bright eyed—like my mother—and completely reliant on me. Many moms are excited to take their newborns home; I was terrified. The thought of having to care for this tiny baby without a proper guide was overwhelming. I didn’t want to leave the hospital.
Even With A Baby, I Felt Alone
The first few months of her life were lonely and scary but luckily being a new mom is pretty all-consuming, so most of my time and energy were put into my daughter. I cried a lot because even though I had this perfect new life to care for, the pain of missing my mom was still fresh. The questions that went unanswered, the calls I could never make, the fear I felt when I fought with her dad and had no one to take my side, it weighed heavily on me and affected everything I did.
There is never a convenient time to lose a parent. It’s a sadness that never leaves, it only becomes more tolerable. But losing a parent right before becoming one is very inconvenient, and extraordinarily painful. Dealing with that pain—especially while trying to be a joyful new parent—was difficult. Grieving and celebrating life at the same time can put extra pressure on your mind and heart since they are competing emotions.
There are a few things I did to help cope and others I wish I had known at the time.
Seeking Out Your Tribe
My baby kept me company but as hard as she tried, she couldn’t understand the emotions I was communicating, or talk back when I needed to express myself. It is so important not to go through this alone, so I turned to my tribe. A tribe is made up of the people closest to you, those you trust the most and who you know will support you through the hardest times.
My tribe was my neighborhood friends, who tried to be supportive even though none of them had children of their own. Also, my best friend from high school who had twins two weeks prior to my daughter’s birth. She was my biggest support. Simply sitting together while breastfeeding the babies, or alternating taking naps was extremely comforting.
Nourishing my body was essential to dealing with grief and essential to being a healthy mom for my newborn. Whether you choose to breastfeed or bottle feed, your child’s health is dependent on your ability to function as a human being. I wish I knew at the time how important it was to take care of myself physically so I could be present emotionally. Taking the time to eat healthfully would have provided me with the energy I needed to deal with the range of emotions I was experiencing.
Crying Out Loud
There were times when I would sit alone, when everyone in the house was asleep, and just cry. I was overjoyed by the birth of my baby and devastated by the significant loss of my mother. I had to learn that it’s OK to feel both, and to feel them at the same time. Do not feel guilty for celebrating in the wake of tragedy.
Try to recognize when you need to express your pain, and let it out in a constructive way. There are many forms of therapy that can be helpful in processing these emotions. If therapy isn’t for you—or you’re in a position like I was where I couldn’t afford it, with money or time—be sure to destress often, so as not to let your negative emotions build for too long.
I was experiencing opposing forces, happy and sad, joy and grief, and feeling those things simultaneously can be confusing. Dealing with the grief was step one. Step two was realizing that it’s OK to be happy even though I just lost someone, or sad even though I had just given birth.
Making peace with that dichotomy is probably the hardest part of the entire process, but once I was able to do it, it got me through the toughest times.