I was born on August 14th in the heat of the California summer. I was the first of the two girls my mother went on to have.
I was elated when I found out I was pregnant with my first child in November. When I went to the first appointment with my midwife, she gave me my due date: August 16th. At that moment, it occurred to me that by fate, I was now embarking on the same journey during the same timeframe that my mother had been on with me.
As a child, you don’t recognize the internal struggles your parents are faced with. My mother, like many others, struggles with mental illness. My childhood was characterized by her extreme highs, lows, and erratic behavior. Depression hung over our house like a dark cloud for weeks at a time. Then there were a few good weeks, where things felt normal, and she would run around organizing parties and attending school functions. Unfortunately, it always ended abruptly with a sharp drop into darkness, and normalcy was never something I was able to depend on.
Her absence and self-involvement forced me to become independent, and I achieved a lot on my own as a result. I graduated from high school early and left home at a young age to move in with my boyfriend. I got married at 19. It was a difficult road, but I persevered. Through blind faith and a little bit of luck, I had chosen a good man, put myself through school, and created my first taste of true stability.
As life went on, her internal struggle only became more obvious and more difficult.
Our relationship went from extremely strained to non-existent. She had succumbed to her illness, and when it became apparent that I would never get the old mom back, I was angry. She didn’t come to my wedding. She wasn’t at my graduate school graduation. She missed out on all of the special moments I saw us having together, and I mourned her absence intensely. As she had in childhood, I felt like she cheated me out of normalcy once again. I spent my late teens and early twenties mourning the loss of the mother I wish I would have had.
The healing process took many years and lots of therapy, but I felt like I had finally gotten to the other side: acceptance.
Each week on the calendar was a reminder that my baby was growing during the same timeframe in which I grew inside my mother. As I moved through my pregnancy, reaching each milestone, I would often daydream about how my mother must have felt. I thought about what she might have experienced through the unrelenting sickness of the first trimester, the glow and growing bump that came late in the second trimester, and the anticipation of birth in the third trimester.
My baby bump showed later than I anticipated it would and stayed fairly small, which led my husband to ask me, “How did your mom look when she was pregnant with you?” I spent a while grappling with that question because I wasn’t sure. After that question, I started to come up with questions: Was my mother as sick as I was during the first trimester? Was I an active baby or a sleepy one? How long was her labor with me?
The worst part about verbalizing these questions was realizing I would never know the answers because we never got the chance to talk about it.
I learned that even after reaching acceptance, grief comes in waves. Although I thought acceptance would be the end, pregnancy brought on an entirely new set of emotions. The loss I felt in my teens was amplified. I felt like my grief had been renewed.
Being on the same journey that she was on with me, I began to feel something new: empathy. I was less angry about her abandonment and her instability during my childhood. I was empathetic toward her plight as a mother, especially going through each prenatal appointment myself and holding my breath waiting for positive news each time. The journey I was now on helped me to humanize her struggles. I no longer saw her only as the mother who failed me; I saw her as a mother and a human being with real problems.
When I curl up into a ball against my husband and cry about how difficult pregnancy is, I now think about how my mother spent both of her pregnancies alone because my father was largely absent. When I worry about birthing alone because of COVID-19 restrictions, I remember my mother birthed two babies and recovered alone. When my husband promises me he will advocate for me every step of the way, I ask myself, who advocated for my mother?
If there is one thing I wish I could say to her right now, it would be I’m sorry.
In the process of my grief, it took me almost 10 years to reach this phase of empathy. The anger, the denial, and the sadness are secondary now as empathy has taken over my heart whenever her memory pops into my head.
Through losing my mother, and becoming a mother myself, I have truly learned what it means to be empathetic.
There is no replacement for the woman who took nine months of her life to create yours—it’s a bond unlike any other. I can’t imagine a reality in which I don’t remain close with my son, and it further illustrates to me the kind of turmoil she struggles with internally.
Now, instead of praying for my healing, I pray for hers. Instead of focusing on my grief and loss, I remind myself of everything she lost. My grief looks different now and it’s all because of the pregnancy journey that God put me on to give me empathy toward the loss of my mother.