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Maternal instincts: the pain of pregnancy loss leads one woman to discover the true meaning of mothering.

In the past three years, 11 of my friends have become mothers. Every few months, it seems, there's a baby shower to attend, then an excited e-mail announcing a birth, then a new baby to meet. Holding these babies for the first time, I marvel at their compact perfection: their tiny fists, those minuscule fingernails, the sparse hair that sticks out above their ears, slightly damp, like the down of a newly hatched bird.

It's a joy to be around these children, but it's painful, too. In the fall of 2004 I became pregnant for the first time. Soon, however, my husband and I learned that it was an ectopic pregnancy, when the baby implants outside of the uterus.

The loss devastated me; it took months before I felt emotionally ready to try to conceive again. When I became pregnant a second time, my husband and I teetered on a highwire of anxiety that it would turn out to be another ectopic. When we discovered that the baby was located in the uterus, the relief we felt was inexpressible. Our joy was short-lived, though; at 10 weeks, an ultrasound showed that our baby had no heartbeat. It's just bad luck, the doctor told us as we wept in the examining room. There is nothing anyone could have done.

There is a certain kind of pain that follows a pregnancy loss, a pain rooted in the horrible subversion of one's expectations. The generous promise of new life becomes, within moments, the grim finality of death. With both of my losses, the grief that I felt was visceral, primal; time blunts it but can't remove it completely. And I'm not just feeling pain for what might have been; I'm also struggling with fear for what might never be. Although the doctor assures me that my chances of a viable pregnancy are still quite good, the fact is that these tragedies have forced me to confront a painful reality. I've had to admit the possibility that I may never have a child of my own.

It's brutal, this crash-course in grief and anxiety. At the same time, I'm recognizing that suffering never takes without giving. In my case, what my suffering has given me is a new pair of glasses. Because of my own losses, I see kinds of pain that I never saw before.

Women I know have opened up and shared stories of miscarriages, of ectopic pregnancies or other problems. I've become more deeply understanding of the pain couples go through as they try unsuccessfully to conceive, hoping month after month to see those magical two lines on a home pregnancy test. Because of my own sorrows, I have an inkling of the pain and courage of my good friend who, because of her cancer, will never be able to have a child of her own. There are so many women out there, I've come to realize, who long to be a mother as intensely as I do.

Through all of this. I'm led to think about the nature of motherhood. Although I've always hoped to have a biological child of my own, I've had to crack open this narrow vision and remind myself that there are, in fact, many ways to be a mother. Countless families have experienced the joy of adoption or the satisfaction of being a foster parent. My husband and I have talked about this, recognizing that our path to parenthood may be different from what we had always envisioned, but just as fulfilling.

Over the months I've also thought a lot about "mother" as a verb. It's always been natural and instinctive for me to want children, but lately I've found myself consciously pondering the reasons behind this longing. Why do I want to be a mother? What does a mother do? There are an infinite number of answers to that question, but if I had to boil it down to just one sentence, I'd say this: A mother is someone who helps you do the thing you can't do on your own. Whether it's tying a shoe, learning how to ride a bike, finding the courage to break up with that horrible boyfriend, or any of the other millions of things morns do to nurture their children, a mother helps you get beyond the place where you are stuck-and she does it with love.

Thinking about it in this light, I realize that mothering is far more than just a biological process. I also recognize that mothering doesn't have to be about an exchange between an adult and a child. Reflecting on the past year, I've learned something surprising: According to my own definition, I already am a mother. In fact, thanks to my own losses, I'm a better mother now than at any other point in my life. Because of my own suffering, I see human vulnerability and need in places that I never did before.

I find that I'm mothering my high school students who come to me for help with writing their essays. In that moment when they approach my desk, I see more than I used to. I don't just see a student with an awful rough draft; I see a student with an awful rough draft who knows it's awful and who is deeply embarrassed. I see a student who is afraid of having that awfulness reflected back to them in a hurtful way. I've always been kind to these students, but I'm even more gentle now. I help them do the thing they can't do alone--improve that paper and maybe, just maybe, mount a rung or two on the ladder of confidence, so they can more easily reach success the next time around.

Sometimes I find I'm mothering my peers. I listen to and encourage my childhood friend who is longing to meet someone special, yet who is terrified of having her heart broken once again. I can't offer her Mr. Right, but I can offer her a perspective that she's unable to find on her own. Recently I even found myself mothering my own mom, as we went for a walk and she told me about her struggle to decide whether to retire from the teaching career she's had for 27 years. In that moment, she needed someone to listen to her, to respond, to get her beyond the place where she was stuck.

When one of my work colleagues opened up about her struggles with a rebellious teenage son, I found I could feel and respond to her pain in a way that I never could before. There's something different in me now. My own grief did what grief always does: it hollowed out my insides. In the process, though, it uncovered the depths of my ability to help others, whoever they may be. The love that I would have given my children is still present within me; it's just being put to a different use.

Through all of this, my faith has stretched and grown in surprising ways. Foremost among them is a stronger connection to Mary, the universal mother. Oddly, when I think of her own journey of motherhood, the moment that I find most inspiring is not the birth of Jesus or the joy of the Annunciation. Instead I feel the deepest connection to the scene at the foot of the cross, as Mary stands next to the apostle John, watching her son die.

Because of my losses, I can imagine what she feels. Up on that cross is the baby she nursed, the child she taught, the young man she encouraged into his first public miracle. The one she has always mothered is dying right before her. Then Christ looks at her, indicates John, and says, "Woman, behold, your son." With those words, he's saying, "You know all that love you've always given me? There's someone else who needs it now." And as she considers the young man grieving beside her, she knows that her life as a mother is not ending--it's merely entering a new phase. She won't be nurturing the person she'd expected to be nurturing--but she'll be mothering all the same, helping a different young man do the things he can't do alone.

It goes without saying that I'd give anything to have my babies here, alive and healthy. Every day I think of those little lives that passed through my world, so briefly but so indelibly, and I wonder why they couldn't have stayed. Still, I can't deny that this suffering has given me a clearer sense of vision, for it's through these very losses that I'm able to see the depth and contours of others' pain, that I've learned to identify more powerfully with their grief.

Most of all these losses have shown me that even when life throws us the most vicious of curveballs, our natural impulses toward love and compassion are never wasted. Every day, it seems, I am more like Mary, learning that there are a thousand different ways to be a mother. Every day I can hear the voice of Christ in my ear as he points to someone in need and says to me: Woman, behold your son.

GINNY MOYER, a writer and teacher in the San Francisco Bay area. She is currently working on a book about women's experiences of Mary.
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Author:Moyer, Ginny
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:May 1, 2006
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