Thursday, November 18, 2010

Change is Good-- Or, I love MotherWoman

Oh, I love this organization. Check it out here. MotherWoman, an advocacy group for mothers, held a community breakfast today, with over 300 people, and it was truly inspirational. I am so full of ideas, thoughts, and missions for my future.

MotherWoman is actually creating change before our very eyes, with fierce love and enthusiasm and gentle, tender care. They are refusing to accept the plight of American mothers-- among the most unsupported mothers on this planet-- and are running, faster than the mouse on the proverbial wheel, to try to make this different.

MotherWoman supports and empowers mothers to create positive personal and social change for ourselves, our families, our communities and the world.


It's curious, because personally, while much of the MotherWoman crusade thus far feels incredibly important to me, imperative, even, I don't have a personal connection to it. As a mother who has embraced and adored the ability to stay home with my children (and has not felt for one second like I am a prisoner in my home; rather I feel slightly guilty and giddy that I get to avoid a career and focus every second of my day on raising these amazing people), I have not personally suffered because of a lack of fair wages and/or maternity leave. And, as someone who has gratefully and mercifully avoided post-partum depression of any kind, I have not required MotherWoman's fabulous services here, either. I haven't needed to be held in many of the areas that they focus on: but still, I am a mother, and I am a rational, educated individual who believes in honesty and justice, and so these things mean a great deal to me.

I am so grateful for where I am, for the simplicity, the ease, the meaning to my life with my children. I wish more women had the means, the ability, the head space to find such peace. I wish more women had the community I have to share motherhood. I wish more women were lucky enough to have never felt that being a woman has ever stood in the way of anything she wanted. I wish more women had access to the things I have access to; half the journey is knowing the support is there if you need it, whether or not you actually do. MotherWoman, through so many avenues, is seeking to help women all over the globe to feel (and actually BE) supported by their nations/states, communities, families, and most of all, themselves. I applaud their work.

But there is an ulterior motive to my love for MotherWoman as well, and it is that what they represent also holds my personal mission so neatly. The resources, research, and political activism that they have so strongly advocated for could almost 100% be applied to the experience of perinatal loss. Should we advocate for bereavement leave for mothers and fathers whose babies have died that is longer than the normal three days (if anything)? And then, given that there is nothing of this sort, should there be a policy allowing mothers who utilize some portion of a maternity leave to grieve for a baby who has died to take another maternity leave sooner than would normally be allowed since the first baby died? I argue yes. I know a woman whose baby died. Her body was healthy, fine, in perfect shape to conceive another baby within a few months of her daughter's death. She was desperate to have another baby. But she carried the benefits for her family, and because she had taken five weeks leave when her baby died, she had to wait a year to conceive again so that she would be able to keep her job and support her family once her next baby was born. The pain I felt for her, knowing that her inflexible company's policy was preventing her from taking the one step towards future hope and happiness that felt most important to her, was immense.

But for the most part there is, at the most basic level, the isolating, traumatizing, anguishing experience of having a baby die at any point. This is not a syndrome, it is not a mental illness, it is a reaction. The grief that follows the loss of a baby is crippling for many people, yet it is among the most silenced of all sorrows.
I listened to a woman, a brave, powerful, humbling woman, share intimate details of her own postpartum emotional crisis this morning. MotherWoman had its annual fundraising breakfast, and this beautiful, open soul stood on the podium and threw words out there that I knew only too well: Anger, helplessness, guilt, sadness, hopelessness. As she described herself, right before her husband did the last thing he could think of and brought her into the ER to be admitted, I saw myself, and so many others I know whose precious babies have died. I was curled on the floor. Hours of crying had swollen my face, soaked the carpet, and wet my hair, which hung in damp strands. With no real confusion around this topic, I did not want to be alive. If somehow I could have slipped away from this earth, disappeared, without inflicting this same pain upon the people who loved me, I would have done it in an instant. I remember realizing then the true meaning behind the human act of crying, at any age, at any stage. True crying, the wailing, uncontrollable cry of a baby, or a toddler, or a grieving parent, or a person in complete crisis, says one thing: Help me. I cannot help myself.
Fortunately for me, I was grieving, and was not simultaneously unable to recognize my own importance to others. While the thought of not being here was so very appealing, the idea of acting on those thoughts was absolutely terrifying. Who could possibly hold my husband, also bereaved? How could I deprive my parents of their daughter, as I had been deprived of mine? As I staggered through the early weeks and months, people looked at me, with my swollen face, and tearful voice, and empty arms, and swollen breasts, and they said, poor Carol.
And that was all they could do.
There was nobody they could send me to.
I had no peer support.
There was no recipe for healing, or getting better, or making this okay.

Some would-be supporters returned to the age-old standby of implying that you simply had to get yourself knocked up again and trying for a fresh start. It's true that this is a mentality around pregnancy and infant loss that is still mighty present: people who experience this type of loss are obviously in their childbearing years, and from the outside perspective there are still an enormous number of people who suppose that the obvious solution to this "loss" is to simply conceive another child, effectively replacing and starting again with an new child. Just as the obvious solution to postpartum depression is to get off your horse and enjoy what you've got. Yeah right.

Anyone whose spouse has died will tell you that you can't just go out and get a new husband. So why am I expected to go out and make a new baby?

So what do we do?

We reel, us the bereaved, keening in the darkness of the night, alone in our sadness. We know that the world has no words for what has happened and that nobody knows exactly how to hold our hand through this. We grieve for ourselves and the life we imagined, and we grieve for a little person who we loved who never got a chance. We grieve for our family and friends who we've let down, as there will now be no new baby. We agonize over the new, angry self we see: she who wants to throw dishes, curse pregnant women, eliminate other people's babies from our sight. We suffer alone with the extreme guilt that our bodies have failed, that if only we had eaten better or not taken advil or been more vigilant, our babies might have lived. We grieve for the happiness we once knew, we grieve for our innocence lost. We fear for our own lives, for the lives of our remaining children, we face death and know it as real, as part of life. We are vulnerable, alone, and helpless. We can't imagine that this will ever get better, because we know we will never, ever get our baby back. And it seems brutally apparent that nobody, no one, can help us.
Unless there is something. Unless there is something known, something out there, that people know about, that is real, thriving, throbbing with lives and stories of people who have also lain in that ball on the floor, willing themselves to eat, to breathe, to live. Unless you know you are not alone, that what you are going through is normal, and you see living, breathing examples who tell you that it is possible to some day heal around this wound. Unless somehow it isn't hard, or complicated to find all those other people out there who have had similar experiences.
When there is community, when you know that each person's grief follows its own path, when you realize that we all create our own stories for ourselves, we can be empowered to grieve. We can see this as a painful, arduous, excruciating process that accomplishes something as it happens. Even when we are captives in a dark, whirlwind of a gloomy place, we have people with us, who describe being in that same place, who recognize where we are, and tell us we can find the way out over time. And, over time, we begin to believe them. And over the years, we see the light at the edge of the dark, once bottomless pit. And we tell our story, again and again, until it becomes a part of us that is soft around the edges. We carry our child who has died, with us always, and after the knife-like pain has eased, and after the suffocating loneliness has become less so, we begin to live again. This is how it can be, and how it should be.

And this is the reason why I love MotherWoman: because their mission, when it comes to the individuals, is that together we can help each other to help ourselves. They know that we can only save ourselves. And MotherWoman sees this cause, they see my Empty Arms organization, and they know already that this mission is closely linked to all areas of motherhood. They see us bereaved mothers as a substantial group. They recognize that this is a glaring need, and they want to help me.

MotherWoman will help me, I know. They will help me for whatever I need, whenever I ask. But moreso, they represent to me that when you are part of a group that is marginalized, a group that is isolated and crying out for help, attention, and change, you can do something about it. MotherWoman has already changed the lives of so many women in this Valley, this state. They are reaching their arms wider now, on a national and even international level. People are seeing the work that they do, nodding their heads and saying, yes. This works. This is true need, true response, and real results.

I feel so privileged to be a part of such an amazing, fantastic organization. And it helps me to be patient to see the amazing work that MotherWoman has done with the causes they have chosen to embrace thus far. I realize that one day, when I don't have small children at home to devote myself to 24 hours a day, Empty Arms can become exactly what I envision it to be. That it can wrap itself around this valley, and even farther, bringing in all who need each other. I can do the things I dream of, and I will be patient with myself, knowing I am not alone in wanting to create change in this world.


Jenni said...

"The resources, research, and political activism that they have so strongly advocated for could almost 100% be applied to the experience of perinatal loss."

i was thinking this exact same thing. so glad they've got your back. xo

Liz Friedman said...

And I was thinking the same thing too!

When Annette and I went to the Postpartum Support International Conference we talked about mothers who lose babies as a group of mothers that we MUST learn to embrace, support and care for. The postpartum crisis that mothers who have had baby loss experience is the worst kind of hell. It is essential that mothers (and fathers) who have had the horror of losing their babies must be at the very center of the work we are doing. It is the most hidden, least acknowledged grief. And the social justice issues that you raise are essential for us all to consider.

Postpartum depression is often looked at as a mood disorder. We at MotherWoman looks at it as a struggle that has many different aspects. There are many risk factors for why a mother has a difficult emotional experience. Physiological and psychological factors have a huge impact on mothers postpartum emotional experience. Trauma plays a big part. Poverty can be a big factor. Loss, of any kind, can be a big factor. Many mothers who experience PPD or even postpartum psychosis, for that matter, have not experienced depression, anxiety, or psychosis before. For many mothers, it is the first time they are dealing with this type of emotional challenge and when they get thru it (and most do) they never again experience it.

Carol, I am so grateful that you had a positive, joyful experiences during your postpartum period with your three living children. I would also say that you had the worst kind of postpartum emotional crisis with your first child. You know exactly what Elizabeth was talking about on Thursday. You lived it too. That was your postpartum period. Your postpartum crisis. You, like Elizabeth, went to hell and back.

Your experience must be part of the story we are all telling about the postpartum period. We belong together and I'm so grateful to have you as my colleague and my friend. The best is yet to come.

Liz Friedman

Big Love, Big Acceptance - or so I say said...

This is so beautiful. You describe the hell and hope of being a babylost momma perfectly.

Jen said...

Synchronicity... I was just reflecting on how much I love MotherWoman. And then I just donated money to them. And then I happened to read your latest blog posts! I'm so grateful that you are one of the mothers that is changing the world.

Liz Friedman said...

Jen, I'm so excited to see your post. Then I went to read some of your blogs. Then I thought, this is EXACTLY the kind of woman who we want to take our facilitator training at MotherWoman! Email me at to talk about it more.

Carol, thanks for bringing us together.


lesliedispensaperlman said...

It seems to be a wonderfully beneficial organization- thank yo so much for sharing this information...

Charlotte's Mama said...

Liz (and all of you)... I did change my text and insinuation that PPD could be considered a mood disorder, and apologize for this. Everything you say about this makes perfect sense-- and also further highlights all the parallels between PPD and PPGrief.