I Don’t Know If I Can Call Myself a Mom

The first walk I took by myself after my baby died was just to my neighborhood coffee shop a block away, but it felt like a mile. I had a heavy pad in my underwear because I was still actively bleeding, a belly band velcroed tightly above my C-section scar, and nipple covers tucked into my nursing bra to soak up the last of my milk.

Many new mothers have done this walk. But they generally have a baby in their Ergo carrier or nestled into a stroller. They get loving glances from strangers, who coo at their newborn or joke about lack of sleep. But no one on that walk—not the cashier I ordered from, nor the young couple walking their dog—knew I was a mom. I had no idea either.

I’ve asked many questions since my daughter, Lucy, was born in the fall of 2022 and died four days later in the neonatal ICU. A lot of them came from a well of rage so deep inside of me that I didn’t know it existed. Others filled me with so much self-doubt that I didn’t believe I could ever trust myself again. But one has been as steady as a drumbeat: Am I a mom?

I’ve had three miscarriages, seven reproductive surgeries, and one infant loss. My husband and I still don’t have a child. Each ebb and flow brings motherhood just within reach and then snaps me back to a lonely, hopeless starting line. I’ve heard people in my situation described as “invisible moms,” a label I share with the many women walking around who have created life inside their body yet have no children by their side.

In 2019, I found out about my first miscarriage the way a lot of women do: flat on my back in an exam room, my stomach covered in goo, neck craned toward the sonogram screen. My doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat, and she left my husband, Danny, and me to be alone. I stared at the popcorn ceiling, the same one I try to get lost in during a pap smear, while tears fell down my face. I felt like my body, once full of promise, had let me down.

I used to have this incredibly naive idea that getting pregnant was easy, that motherhood just happens. You see a positive test and a light switches on inside, like, Poof, you’re a mom. I had no concept of this in-between place. I felt prepared to nurture, to see Danny as a father, and for our lives to expand. That internal groundwork doesn’t just disappear. But when the future you planned for vanishes, you’re left in the gray.

When I saw the word pregnant pop up on a test two winters ago, I was completely shocked. I had zero symptoms and, in the months prior, had taken many tests. (I shudder to think how much money I have paid to pee on sticks.) After snapping a couple of pictures, I tucked the digital test away in my nightstand drawer as a keepsake. When I cleaned out the drawer a year later, one of the last remaining symbols of her had reverted to a blank screen.

Every phase of my pregnancy made me feel closer to arriving in that imagined haven of motherhood: seeing a pulsing strobe of a heartbeat, finding out she was a girl. I know gender doesn’t truly matter, but I was excited to have a girl. My mom died right after my 18th birthday and I thought, Finally, I get to have a mother-daughter relationship again. This was the universe’s way of giving me a gift, of saying Sorry I took your mom from you so soon.

By the time I reached my third trimester with no complications, I started to feel like I was out of the woods. I began letting myself connect to my daughter, talking to her, responding with a rub to every kick she gave me, calling her Lucy. Gradually, my mindset changed from I’m pregnant to I’m having a baby. Our house filled up with stuff—the Snoo and the MamaRoo and other Seussian-sounding contraptions. Danny built a crib while I bounced on a yoga ball. Our former guest room became covered in shades of copper, mustard, and dusty rose. I washed and folded load after load of teeny clothing. A new life was beginning here.

My labor with Lucy was a 40-hour roller coaster: periods of calm giving way to uncertainty, then back to calm, and bottoming out into sheer panic. When we first got checked in, one of the nurses said she’d given birth in the very same room. I felt like I was finally joining a club that had eluded me for years. Later that night, another nurse moved frantically around me, murmuring something to the on-call doctor about an irregular heartbeat. I cared only about Lucy’s vitals. Surely motherhood must be loving your child so powerfully that their needs supersede your own.

During my emergency C-section, Danny and I repeatedly asked what was going on, and no one responded. The baby didn’t cry. While they sewed me up, I remember a doctor we didn’t recognize saying, “If she has a shot in hell, they’ll save her downtown.” The next night, at the hospital downtown, we were called into a side room—the kind of beige space where bad news is delivered—to meet with the entire neonatal neurological team. We were told that Lucy had suffered from hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy, or a lack of oxygen to the brain. To the best of their estimation, it happened around the time of her birth and she would not live much longer. There was nothing more they could do. Danny’s knees buckled and he sobbed on the floor. I kept repeating, “But I had a perfect pregnancy. How did this happen?” It was the saddest moment of my life.

I was able to hold Lucy before she died. The NICU nurses disconnected her from all the wires and unclipped monitors from her fingers and toes. They took the brain sensors off her scalp and shampooed the gel from her hair. She had thick, brown hair when it was wet, dirty blond once it dried, like the color of my eyebrows. They wrapped her in a lavender blanket and put her in my arms. I stared at her squinched eyes and thanked her for hanging out with me for 10 months—going to concerts, traveling overseas, taking countless walks and bike rides. Mother-daughter stuff.

The doctors told us that Lucy went “peacefully,” and we received her death certificate in the mail. I keep it inside a gray box I bought from Target, which also contains her inky footprints, her tiny hospital bracelet, and a silky lock of hair. It sits in the closet of her nursery, behind a door that stayed closed for weeks. That was until our friends, in one of many incredible acts of support, undecorated the room. They replaced the changing table with serene candles. Cardboard books became plants. A pile of fleece blankets morphed into a yoga mat. It was tranquil, but it was sparse. The room felt like my body, a vacant space slowly trying to redefine its purpose.

The normal parts of life, without a baby, became the most surreal: having drinks and laughing at bars, going on road trips, celebrating holidays with family. Danny went back to work, and I eventually did the same. Yes, I had a C-section scar and my milk came in. Yes, I had my six-week follow-up with an obstetrician. Yes, I worked with a postpartum personal trainer to get my core back. But a majority of our life looked just like it did before Lucy. I felt so detached that there were days, impossibly, when I wondered if I had ever really been pregnant. I pulled up photos from my baby shower, looked at bump selfies that I’d sent to my aunt, and rifled through my drawer to find that pregnancy test. Any sign that this past year of my life had, indeed, happened.

Then there were moments, like football Sundays and birthday parties, when there was a clear absence in the room. She was supposed to be here. And without her here, where did that leave us? How do you confirm parenthood without proof? Without spit-up on your clothes, a diaper bag slung over your shoulder, or commiseration with fellow mothers?

But I did mother Lucy. Every decision I made for her—from the positive test to her last breath—was mothering. Not drinking booze or eating raw fish during my pregnancy was mothering. Reading parenting books and touring day cares was mothering. Practicing prenatal yoga and labor positions was mothering. Stroking her face while I held her languid body had to have been mothering.

So often in life, we are focused on results. And naturally, parents fixate on what their kids’ future will hold. But my experience has shown me that the middle is when we are mothers the most. Of course, my middle was short—I didn’t get a chance to take off Lucy’s training wheels or rave over her report cards—but it happened.

In truth, it’s still happening. Lucy remains a part of the identity of all the people who love her, thanks to the ways we keep her memory alive. Her sapphire birthstone on my right ring finger. And the donations my dad has made in her name. And the suncatchers my mother-in-law created that hang in our friends’ and family’s homes, each dancing gleam a reflection of her life. And, on the year anniversary of Lucy’s death, the gold vintage makeup mirror, like something out of the 1940s, that a friend sent, along with a card: “So you can always see yourself as a mother.”

As Danny and I continue the journey to get pregnant again, we balance on a delicate tightrope. We honor Lucy and know that she will forever be our first child, that any baby we have will be her younger sibling. But we also have to let go of her just enough to open our hearts again. I wonder how my next pregnancy might feel: like a continuation, a way to rediscover maternal corners within myself, or like I’m beginning all over again? When I start showing, strangers will ask what they always ask: “Is this your first?” I’m honestly not sure what I’ll say.

The Atlantic