When ‘Happy Mother’s Day’ Is Not Applicable
“Wow! You’re both identical twins?! How many children do you guys have?” Expecting a staggering number, my husband’s and my response, sadly, for nineteen years remains the same.
We hail from Italian-Irish families and yes, that makes us Catholic - the devout kind. The kind who grew up with a clear understanding that missing Mass on Sundays borders on a cardinal sin, believing that eating meat on Fridays makes Jesus cry and heaving a carload worth of guilt and shame to Confession. More importantly, we naïvely believed that having children was a faith-based guarantee and anticipated that our foray into parenthood would be a breeze. But our pursuit to be a Mommy and a Daddy can only be described as more tornado-like.
We didn’t see infertility coming and the emotional carnage it left in its wake felt catastrophic. We were desperate to conceive, birth and raise our own biological children. With reckless disregard for our feelings, failed fertility treatments left my identity, in particular, strewn, scattered and beyond recognition, with the only real feasible option to rebuild from the ground up.
These last few years, I’ve been hard at work reconstructing. Through my loss experiences I’ve matured and grown and as a direct consequence the landscape of my faith has evolved, the journey of which I chronicle in my forthcoming memoir, “Doris, Sophia and Me: Lessons From My Mother Who Didn’t Live Long Enough and My Daughter Who Was Never Born.” An embrace of the element of mystery accompanied by a sense of peaceful resignation replaces rigid rules and precepts and my former belief that rosaries are the currency with which answered prayers are purchased.
Flowers, Brunch and Sadness
While I continue to reconcile my circumstances, I still struggle with sadness on Mother’s Day and I’ve come to discover I have company in my despair. Hidden inside the flowers, brunches and hugs on the second Sunday in May, is an unspoken, profound emptiness many aunties feel because we are on the outside looking in.
If I was lucky in any way, it’s that I was able to navigate the foggy, dimly lit road of infertility in the confines of a warm, mutually supportive marriage. But the emptiness associated with Mother’s Day is not reserved for the infertile or the married. There is a sizeable population of women who are single and long to parent but for a variety of circumstances suffer silently with a loss that escapes the general population.
There is a clinical term for an unacknowledged loss: disenfranchised grief.
In an article in Counseling Today, Karen M. Humphrey, a retired counseling professor and author of “Counseling Strategies for Loss and Grief,” says that all losses are legitimate. She gives the example of a woman who has always dreamed of having children and then discovers that she is infertile as an example of disenfranchised grief. She goes on to say, "That could actually be more challenging and more disruptive than dealing with the death of someone." In that spirit, I would add to the list of disenfranchised losses all women who have ever dreamed of being called 'Mommy,' who, for whatever reason, are not.
Howard Winokuer, president of the Association of Death Education and Counseling and director of the Winokuer Center for Counseling and Healing in Charlotte, N.C. would echo my sentiment, I imagine. In that same article, he says, "While the death of a family member or friend is commonly recognized as a substantial loss, counselors agree it's far from the only event that produces feelings of grief. When we think about grief, generally speaking, we think about death. But I think that's a very limited and tunnel vision view of grief.”
For those aunties who cringe inside when someone innocently says, “Happy Mother’s Day!” and struggle with how to respond to the awkward well wishes, be assured you are not alone. For me, I offer a simple, “Whoops, not me.” A more detailed response has the real potential to score in the top ten percentile of cranky.
Remember, a loss is a loss is a loss. No one else has to understand it in order for feelings of loss to be justifiable. Sure, it might be helpful, but you don't need to gather permission slips from friends, colleagues or neighbors to legitimize your experience.
In a few short months, we can all look forward to our very own Savvy Aunties’ Day and that, aunties, includes all of us.
Stephanie Baffone, LPCMH, NCC is an expert on love & loss.