It happens around Mother’s Day, unfailingly. Shop windows, billboards, newspapers, my Facebook feed: they single out mothers for attention, gifts, adulation. Sometimes they ask, “Are you a mother?” Or “Do we have any moms here?” That’s when I wish I could say, to a world that classifies women as mothers or not mothers: Yes. No. Maybe. Sometimes. It all depends.
Early one September morning, some years ago, after eight hours of increasingly unbearable waves of pain in my back, I felt a gush of fluid between my legs, looked down and then saw blood. I was in the second trimester of a pregnancy, two days short of twenty weeks pregnant; almost five months, if that makes more sense to you. I hadn’t realized I was in labour; it seemed like just cripplingly bad back pain. Perhaps a pinched nerve, I’d thought, all of that agonizing night. But hours later, I was sobbing, heartbroken, in the labour room at the local hospital in Mumbai, giving birth to an almost-baby boy they had already told me was dead.
“Spontaneous abortion,” my medical records said, a phrase clinically precise but strange. I always associated abortion with choice and my body had given me no choice, rebelling against the desires of my heart. Weeks afterward, an older auntie said, in an undertone, “I also had abortions,” taking her vocabulary from her decades-old hospital files – she hadn’t chosen to end those pregnancies, and our incapacity to properly describe what had happened struck me forcefully. “Miscarriage,” said many, and assumed this involved cramping and bleeding, a somewhat worse menstrual period than normal. I took the trouble to correct the misconceptions of close friends, but relating this trauma hurt too much, so silence won out with most. “I’m sorry you lost your baby,” said others, a thought that comforted me at first but then confused; this was a being still in the process of becoming the small, wrinkled, helpless human beings we picture as babies. Later, I sometimes used the word “stillbirth,” though it was medically not quite right; stillbirths are defined as losses after 28 weeks of pregnancy. But it seemed to capture something of the horrific travesty of childbirth I’d gone through. What do you call this anyway?
The hospital, with cruel practicality, put the baby into a kidney dish he was too big for, as if this were an excised tumour, a kidney stone, or even a ball of ear wax. That’s the excruciating, surreal image I carry with me – a little, perfect fetus with transparent skin, feet sticking out of a steel kidney dish. It’s either that, or the ultrasound image from the 14th week of pregnancy. I had looked at that and felt intense love, traced that person-in-the-making’s miraculous little profile with my forefinger, marvelling at it. That ultrasound report still sits in a file in my cupboard, between reports from various blood tests. Nothing else, no other visuals. Just a faint memory I can pull up sometimes, of an almost imperceptible fluttering in my belly. More than a large blood clot, much more; but still not quite what we understand as a baby. And inextricable from the context of medical intervention. If I hadn’t imagined myself as a mother, and gone through some kind of childbirth, it might have felt no different than any medical emergency related to my uterus.
In the weeks afterwards, I scrolled through pages and pages of posts on pregnancy and parenthood forums online, desperately wanting to know that I wasn’t alone. And indeed, I was not alone in my loss – but so much of what I read was alien. Hospitals abroad had grief counsellors, they arranged for photos to be taken of parents and their lost babies, they gave parents moulds of footprints, they had little memorial gardens. These were treated as losses of children, influenced in part by pro-life rhetoric, in part by the advances in ultrasound imaging and prenatal care that let us see into the womb and imagine perfect outcomes as routine.
Mumbai was a far cry from such recognition of grief and motherhood. It felt as if the hospital staff, efficient and gruffly kind though they were, were impatient to be over and done with this and move on to more important things. I was left alone, lying on a bed and shivering in shock, while a nurse went off to fetch a hospital gown; scraping a razor over my pubis, to shave off the pubic hair (as is common practice in Indian hospitals before childbirth), the other nurse didn’t even speak to me or meet my eyes. Only my doctor held my hand tightly for a few moments in the labour room, with tears in her eyes, and that may have been because she was an old neighbour who’d known me since childhood. And the next day, another nurse quickly hugged me, remorsefully, after she mistakenly asked if I were five months pregnant and I sobbed, “No, no,” in response.
But the sparing humanity was saved for me as a patient and not for me as a mother with a dead child. The hospital even had to bend some rules to hand over that tiny body; we needed a death certificate for the purpose, which they only issued in case of fetal death beyond 20 weeks. I’m always grateful that they did so anyway, and that my father persuaded them it was important. We could give that lost child some dignity in death with burial and some space to our imagination of him as a baby and a member of our family; I thought of him as a small person-in-waiting, but in the medico-legal scheme of things, this was just medical waste in a kidney dish. As someone strongly pro-choice, I had to reflect on this and understand that it was our love that made him my child.
So medicine, people around me, and I understood what had happened in several different ways; I was a mother, I wasn’t, I was almost one. But in a society that equates marriage and then motherhood with the completion of a woman’s life, the path to healing somehow overlapped, in everyone’s imaginations, with the path to motherhood of a living baby. “You’ll have another baby” was the chorus intended to comfort; for some, “at least you know you can get pregnant” was the upside to the situation. Others added, “It’s alright, you will take better care next time,” making me feel I was to blame in some way, rejecting the randomness of nature and putting an agency I didn’t actually have into my body, as a woman with the capacity to bear a child. I gave into this for a year or so, violently angry at myself and the universe over what had happened, feverishly wishing for another baby and simultaneously terrified the same kind of loss could strike again.
During that time, my body and mind threw me back constantly to the pregnancy; I’d wake up at night to find myself cradling my belly protectively, but every menstrual period brought fits of weeping and nightmares about drowning in blood and death. Most encounters with pregnant women were ambivalent, with stabs of envy and uncontrollable anxiety – it didn’t seem fair that everything was going fine for them, yet my greatest fear, particularly with dear friends, was that something would go terribly wrong for them as well. One humid evening on a crowded train, I gave up my seat for a young woman who whispered in my ear, with bashful pride, “I’m carrying.” I watched her for the remaining twenty minutes of that journey, as she stroked her slightly protruding stomach, looking down and smiling. That impulse of joyous bonding was so familiar, so precious and my heart ached with the knowledge that it was so very fragile, that hold to life so tenuous.
It seemed increasingly that everything would be fine again if I carried a pregnancy to term. The emotions around the loss of the baby were separate, however, from the physical trauma associated with it, the terror of how my body had betrayed me and revealed my mortality. It was a long struggle to grasp something of the complex relationship between these two traumas – and it took several conversations with women who’d been through pregnancies to understand that. They were difficult conversations because of the lines we draw between the public veneration of selfless, pure motherhood and the supposedly private labour of women’s bodies, tied so closely to their sexuality. Some talked about what pregnancy and labour did to their bodies with enlightening frankness; others fumbled to find the words, except when they narrated their experiences in terms of pain leading to joy. The lines between miscarriage and birth were also hard to blur; miscarriage remains even more taboo, a private loss to be put away, while the pain of birth finds a place in films, novels and very private conversation, just as its reward of new life evokes public celebration. It seemed strange even to me that I was talking about miscarriage with women who’d experienced childbirth. But the conversations had and the accounts read made it clear that not only those who miscarried suffered; even those women who deliver healthy babies are traumatized by loss of control over their bodies and by the consequences for their physical health. Motherhood does not, after all, make us all whole.
So many miscarriage narratives go on to discuss how a couple tried to have another baby and eventually had their one, or two, or three children. My husband and I surprised everyone, ourselves included, by moving on in other directions and not “trying again.” This was partially decided by circumstance and my health; but I also decided, in the aftermath of our loss, to focus on long-held dreams that I’d put aside, and he supported and encouraged my decisions. In the years after that fateful September morning, I went back to research, reading, writing and teaching and am now in the middle of a PhD. The decision to have a child at one point in time does not and should not mean that a woman cannot change her mind later or cannot feel ambivalent about playing the role of a mother. So there is no happy ending here of the sort society imagines, because we had no babies; and I know there are people who pity me my childlessness. Our loss can’t be rationalized as the necessary pain on the way to some bliss of motherhood and family.
But the heart is more complicated than that; mine broke in that labour room but healing and fulfilment come from other joys of life as well as from motherhood – from long walks and flowering trees, from love, friendship and family, from laughter and music, from work well done and insights reached. And even from baby chuckles and the glee and affection of other people’s children. We’d all do well to remember that. It’s a lesson my parents gently reminded me of some weeks ago, when I called them, in tears and told them I missed our lost baby. “We understand and we also feel sad,” my mother said, “But we’re so proud of everything you’ve done after that. Your work is so satisfying, no?” And I had to agree with her.
Every Mother’s Day, every time motherhood is brought up for discussion, I will, for certain, be faced with that question again: “Are you a mother?” And I will answer, in my head: Yes. No. Maybe. I don’t know. I am a contradiction: the quiet sorrow that walks by you, the one you never suspected, the bereaved mother and yet also childfree now by choice, happy with a life beyond my reproductive functions. I am a woman and I contain multitudes. May we all work towards a world that imagines us as more than just mothers or not-mothers, that sees us as multitudinous.