The Mother Wound

Eleven days after Julian’s birth, when I was still in those waning throes of the so-called Baby Blues, I sat down in a rocking chair to eat some yogurt and check Facebook while my newborn son pawed absently at the air on the bed next to me. This was a customary scene. I remember that the sun was actually out for once, if half-heartedly, and I’d flung open our thick red curtains so December-born Julian could understand that Oregon was not a land of perpetual night.

But if I was feeling good that morning, the sensation was soon replaced by growing dread when I saw my sister-in-law’s status: “Hugging my little ones a little tighter today. Can’t imagine what the parents are going through right now. Praying for all of the families that have been affected by this tragedy.”

Even though I immediately felt a sense of I don’t want to know, I somehow found myself on Google, reading a headline about dozens of elementary school CHILDREN being gunned down.

“Oh my God.” I cried out and flung the iPad away from me, as if burned. And that’s not just an offhand simile; I felt physical pain reading those words. They leapt from the screen and pierced me.

I didn’t even try to read beyond the headline – it would be days, in fact, before I allowed myself to glean the whole story. I just crawled onto the bed next to Julian and held him close to me, my lips against his warm fuzzy head, and tried not to think of those parents, who had cuddled with their babies like I was doing in that moment. If they were once me, I could be them. And that was not something I felt capable of facing, then or now.

That was Sandy Hook.

This week I encountered the nightmarish horrors of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, not through the news – I’d been unabashedly avoiding the news since the whole birth control mandate debacle early in my pregnancy – but through social media. Wanting to be an informed citizen, especially about issues concerning women and children, I tried, I really tried to read the article from The Atlantic, but again, I couldn’t make it past the first few words without feeling assaulted, without wanting to be sick. This time I wasn’t at home, where I could sedate myself on baby-love and shut out the world. I was in my office, alone, and so I just sat at my desk and cried.

And now Boston.

I have a recurring fantasy that involves me running a marathon – or a half-marathon, if I’m being more honest with myself – and having Michael and Julian at the finish line waiting for me. This is not a recent fantasy; I’ve had it for years, before Julian even existed, and there was just a cute, nameless baby in Michael’s arms. This image spurred me on when I ran my first (and only) half-marathon in New Orleans in 2011. There’s something about running for someone and towards someone.

I’ve been dodging news stories again, but I know that an 8 year-old boy was killed today in Boston. He was at the finish line. He was waiting for someone. And someone was running for him, toward him. And now that someone will keep running that race, she’ll forever be reaching for the line where he’s waiting to collapse against her in a sweaty hug. But she’ll never get there. She’ll be running for the rest of her life.

This is what it is to be a parent, to live always on the brink of grief.

And that’s just if you’re one of the lucky ones who get to linger on that edge, if you’re not plunged into the abyss entirely when the worst happens.

Never before have tragedies struck so near and cut so deeply.

On the one hand this might be a good thing. Violence is more abhorrent, more intolerable, to me than ever. It’s too easy for me to see Julian’s face when I hear of someone, especially a child, being victimized.

HOWEVER.  The thought of my baby being harmed by another person takes me to a violent place immediately.  A place where I would murder to protect him, no question. I know I should be a pacifist, and I want to be a pacifist, but I also know that I would kill to keep my child safe.

You may have heard about the “trolley problem” – a nifty thought experiment that forces you to consider whether you would sacrifice a life that is dear to you in order to save the lives of many others. This used to be an interesting philosophical problem to mull over; now there is no mystery. My heartfelt apologies to anyone on that imaginary trolley, but I would save my son. Always, always, I would choose to save my son.

A couple of weeks ago I attended part of a writers conference, and one of the keynote speakers discussed Kierkegaard’s reading of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. I missed about 80% of his talk, because I was off pumping breast milk, but I caught the tail end, and I was surprised at my distasteful reaction to the biblical story itself. The story was hardly new to me, having grown up in a Christian home, but sitting there in the audience, missing my infant son, my breasts newly emptied of milk for him, I felt utterly disgusted by both Abraham and God. What a sick, twisted test of faith.

I know one thing: that would not have been me up on the mountain, knife raised high. I would have called God’s bluff from the start. And, if need be, I would have turned my back on him. That might make me a terrible Christian, but I don’t even feel like I’d have a choice in the matter. Motherlove is in my veins, and the force of it is as overpowering as God must have seemed to Abraham. This Motherlove is ruthless and all-consuming, in an Old Testament kind of way.

All that to say, I have been changed. Not that I used to be uncaring or calloused before, or that I did not love incredibly deeply – I wasn’t, and I did. But I am wounded now in a way that I have never been.

Being a mother is like living with your heart outside of your chest. You have tethered it to another impossibly fragile life, and there is a wound leftover, a hole that will never heal.

* * *

I am only four months in. My son, who hasn’t quite mastered rolling over yet (so close!), is probably safer now than he will ever be. But already I’m wondering: how can I live like this, under the threat of such incomprehensible pain, without it swallowing me whole?

Sometimes in the depth of night, Julian stirs, begins to cry himself awake, and I put my hand on his chest to calm him back into sleep. My hand easily covers his torso, and I can feel his tiny heart against my palm, fluttering like a hummingbird. Not so long ago, this heart was beating inside me; our twin organs shared both body and blood. Now I swear I can feel both hearts there, beneath his matchstick ribs. Mine echoes in the beats between his, a desperate murmur, a plea: don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t stop…

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42 comments

  1. Caity

    I was just telling my husband (John) last night how I feel so devastated by these senseless violent acts recently, so much more than before I was pregnant. I said that I feel the pain of the mothers as if it were my own. I, too, cannot read those articles on the Gosnell trials, and I also took a few days to be able to read the Sandy Hook stories. I still haven’t read the full stories on the Boston Marathon bombing. And I am on the verge of tears even thinking about it. Some wise mothers told me that to be a mother is to forever have your heart walk around outside of your body…I never knew that it meant I would feel for ALL of humanity’s children–I thought it would only be my biological or adopted children. I now see that to be a mother is to be a nurturer, a dreamer, and a protector for all the children of the world and my heart is broken for each of their sorrows in a deep, heart-wrenching, stomach-turning way. I feel this with you, Abby.

  2. Beth Woolsey

    My oldest baby, Abby, was three years old on 9/11. Everything you wrote here… yes. The fear can be as breathtaking as the love, entwined as they are.

  3. amy

    It is supposed to be unthinkable…killing your own child in a sacrifice…so that we know the price that the Father paid when He sent His Son. HE paid so we can live.

    In this sin-filled, terrifying, ugly, brutal world WE REMEMBER that restraining GRACE holds back so much uncontrolled fear, anger, hatred, and vengeance that would otherwise run rampant in every nation, city and home every hour of the day.

    Grace is our hope.

    • Abigail

      Yeah, I didn’t have the heart to go there in the post, but honestly becoming a mother has made me feel uneasy with the idea of God killing his own son as well. I just can’t fathom it. I can’t relate. But I agree with you about the presence of grace in our world. And we must hold onto that.

  4. Lisa

    Beautifully said. I worry about things a million times more now that I have three kids. One of which is 8. Not only am I from Boston originally but I am a runner. And I run half marathons. My family and friends have been waiting for me and to think that this could happen at any race just breaks my heart.

  5. hollyinjapan

    This is beautiful. I’ve often been ashamed of feeling this way, as if I weren’t God-Loving enough that I would run the other direction if asked to make this kind of sacrifice. Thank you for your thoughtful words. Powerful and touching.

  6. Dona

    Wait until you become a grandma! I never in my entire life thought that most everything you wrote would be so true and then multiplied several times over when you become a grandparent especially because you have NO control.

  7. Debbie

    Well said Abby and I hate to tell you this, but being a mother changes your life forever and the way you feel will never change. I often think that I would gladly give me life for my daughter and granddaughters.

  8. Odd-toed Ungulate

    I think I’ve told you this before, sis, but just in case…

    When our first son was born, and I held him for the first time, I felt the expected emotions that I’d already heard all about (love, joy, wonder, etc.). But I also felt something unexpected, and incredibly intense: a profound, knee-weakening sense of pure vulnerability. It hit me like a hammer, that this little boy had just sneaked behind all my defenses, my emotional armor. I knew at that moment that if anything bad happened to this kid, I would have no defense against it. This emotional realization was one of the most powerful parts of my son’s birth for me. And the sense of vulnerability only became more pronounced when they found the lump on his spine, minutes after birth, and I was following him to the NICU, then to another hospital entirely in the middle of the night.

    God gave me a supernatural peace (the only way I can describe it, honestly) that sustained me through the next hours and months of neurology appointments, spinal surgery and recovery, but that gap in my armor is still there, and I don’t think it will ever close. Nor should it.

    • Abigail

      You have told me this story, but it’s worth hearing again. And again. It’s comforting to me. And now it completely blows me away to think of what you guys must have been feeling before and during the surgery; I remember how strong and zen you both seemed. That’s pretty miraculous to me now!!!

  9. CW

    When newly minted parents leave the hospital that their child was born in they leave as different people than when they checked in. All that was before was a different story that has come to an end to give way to a new, more meaningful, story. The first time I held my son was like a punch in the gut as I felt, for the first time what unconditional love really is. Shocked by the sense that this little creature could do any injustice to me and I would still love him. We love our spouses, yes, but what are vows if not a list of conditions to that love?

    In my first months as a father I felt like a raw nerve. IN my previous life I could walk through a wayward neighborhood or get lost on a wooded trail without fear because it was only I that I had to protect, I had control. A child is an exposed nerve, it is your nerve and suddenly we are bathed in a brand new type of fear, that this world can hurt me the hardest without laying a finger on me. A large piece of myself, all my love, all my hidden emotions is now a living breathing fragile person that exists outside the hardened husk that I have spent a lifetime growing over my skin so that I could appear stoic, fearless.

    Six years after I walked out of the hospital holding my “heart” wrapped tight in a papoose much of the fear but none of the love I have for my son has subsided. Yes, there is truth in your statement, “This is what it is to be a parent, to live always on the brink of grief.” but this is not a bad thing. To know that profound sense of grief is also to know that profound sense of love and purpose that only a parent can feel. A fact that feels wrong to reveal to our childless friends, I don’t want to be the one to tell them that they are living half a life and that no, dogs don’t count. So, nobody tells us before we are parents the full impact of becoming a parent but who can properly explain what seems so unimaginable to the uninitiated.

    That feeling of vulnerability will subside or maybe we just get used to it, but yes, news of Sandy Hook, The Boston Marathon Bombing and Gosnell (my son was smaller at birth than the pictures I have seen of the slain infants) still impacts me more than it would have that man from the before time. And no, six years later, I do not sleep through the night, every creek awakens me. I have evolved from a man to a father as you have evolved from a woman to a mother and though our heightened senses will never go away we will get more comfortable in our new skin.

    • Abigail

      This is beautiful. And encouraging. My husband had a very similar experience right after the birth of our some. For me, it was a little more like a gradual awakening to the profound ferocity of the love I felt; for him, though, it was instantaneous and completely overwhelming. Thank you for such a poignant comment.

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  13. dawnpoints

    Yes, I am crying now. And I am not even a mother yet. I hope to be one one day though; a good one. My heart is aches just to think of it, and all this you’ve written.

  14. Bethany

    Yes yes yes.
    The first time I took my newborn son to church, we sang “How Great Thou Art.” When we got to the line, “And when I think that God his son not sparing/ sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,” I couldn’t sing anymore because I was crying too hard. Forget the trolley scenario – it suddenly hit me that if the fate of all of humanity depended on my son dying, all of humanity would be out of luck. And I was completely overwhelmed that God made that sacrifice for me. My son is 14 months old now, and I still can’t sing that line without my eyes filling with tears.

    • Abigail

      This gives me goosebumps — and I completely relate to this: “if the fate of all of humanity depended on my son dying, all of humanity would be out of luck.”

  15. sarah k

    Yes to all this. And when the wound is opened–when the worst happens–it does hurt like hell. I know, now, because I have three children who are living, and my heart is walking around outside my body in each of them, and the love and the risk of grief increased explosively with each of them. And I also am the mother to three children who have died, and my heart is wounded and broken forever by their loss. We buried our youngest child, stillborn at 26 weeks, three weeks ago, and part of my heart is in that grave with him. If it weren’t for the three living children who need me, all of me might be in that grave with him. And if God asked of me what he asked of Abraham, I would scream, NO! He didn’t ask it of me–he just took three of my babies away. And I am still screaming, NO!

    I say this with some nervousness, because I don’t want to scare you. But I have learned that nothing is for certain, and all bets are off. I am glad you are holding your baby close. I would give anything to be able to hold mine tonight.

    • Abigail

      Thank you, thank you, for sharing your story. My heart goes out to you in your grief — and because of this mother wound, I feel a tiny sliver of it along with you, even though you are a stranger. I am in awe of your strength. I think it is so important for mothers who have experienced such loss to share their stories, to share this other dimension of motherhood. My love to you and all of your six beautiful babies.

  16. Elizabeth

    Absolutely beautiful writing. Thank you so much.

    When both my children were newborns, I found myself thinking almost hourly of orphanages filled with needy babies and toddlers and being almost overwhelmed with the pain of those thoughts (I had worked for a short while in the orphanages of Romania so I had lots of stark memories in my mind to fuel my postpartum imagination!). I was so aware of the neediness of my own babies and so aware of all the needs of those abandoned babies going unmet day after day.

    Julian is adorable. Thanks for including a photo.

    • Abigail

      Thank you for reading, and for sharing a bit of your own story. I can relate, even without having had experience working with orphans.

  17. matthewhyde

    Beautiful post that made me ask more questions about Abraham’s story – did Sarah ever find out about the ‘sacrifice’? And why did Abraham bargin with God over the people of Sodom but not his own son? And I’m sure it’s possible to come up with answers (“Isaac wasn’t a child, he was a you g man!” “Abraham was playing chicken with God!”) but none of them are particularly comfortable when looked at from the perspective of a parent. Thanks for your honesty and insight.

    • Abigail

      Great question about Sarah — of course the text is silent about her in this story. I can imagine how she might have reacted…

  18. Katherine

    Yes. I know.

    My son was born last June. I had been a foster kid advocate before he was born and I was concerned that I would lose that part of me when I became a mother. Worried that I would be consumed only with my son and forget everything else. 5 days after he was born I was still in the hospital, cradling him in my arms and watching the news about the new civil war in Syria. I realize that there were probably mothers in Syria cradling their fresh newborns, huddled inside houses in the dark, and wondering if they and their babies would survive the week or even the day. They did not love their babies any less than I did. I saw in that moment that the world is more dangerous and more raw when one reaches motherhood and that it’s up to us mothers of the world to speak out for the oppressed – because that child could be our child.