Before my oldest son was born, I had a miscarriage at twelve weeks gestation. It was a messy, terrifying experience; and for years after it was over, I struggled with fear that the loss had been my fault.
I was afraid that I had traveled too much in the first trimester, or that I had been too stressed about the ministry we were trying to begin. Maybe the electricity from the waterbed my husband and I were sleeping on had caused the baby to die somehow, or maybe I shouldn’t have lifted the flower pots by the front step.
The one thing I knew for sure was that I had been too casual about motherhood. Our pregnancy was unexpected, and my emotions hadn’t had time to catch up. I was supposed to have nine months to adjust to the idea of a baby; I didn’t know life and death could change places overnight.
When I woke up from the D&C, I was groggy. I remember asking the nurse two things: first, if they could tell the child’s gender, and second, if I could somehow bury my child. She told me “no” to the first, and to the second, that the hospital had already “taken care of” the baby’s remains. It was a quiet, empty ride home.
Community was not much comfort. The same Christians who would have been horrified if I had aborted a child smoothed over the loss with platitudes. They said, “You can have an other one,” or, “God doesn’t make mistakes!” or “Sometimes these things happen.” They were trying to help, but I felt a lot of pressure to be okay, even though I wasn’t.
So I didn’t tell anyone when my milk came in. I was so young that year, too young to understand what was happening inside my soul as I sat on our couch with my breasts swollen and aching, with my stomach cramping and contracting. My body felt the loss even before I understood it fully. I had been a mother, but my baby was gone. This left a terrible emptiness, and I wasn’t sure who to blame. The most likely answer was myself.
I thought maybe the universe had sensed my reluctance about motherhood . . . maybe if I had been more sober minded, I could have willed that baby to thrive. Perhaps I had failed to extend some invisible, mental umbilical cord (“Live child, live!”); maybe if I had been more ready . . . maybe if I had been more worried . . .
All that guilt and fear went inside me, it took hold in my empty womb. I didn’t know how to process this level of sorrow, but I did know one thing—that if God ever let me be a mother again, I would do everything right. I would die before I ever made a mistake so bad that it hurt another child.
A year later, I was pregnant with my oldest son. I still remember the prayers I prayed when he was living inside of me. I made radical, passionate cries to God. There was still a dark place inside me that felt like I had failed at motherhood first go around, and I was determined to be a different woman now. I would be as sober and earnest as I had been playful and distracted.
When my baby was born, he was beautiful. I had seen pretty babies before, but I had never seen a child so perfectly proportioned and weighted. His little hands and feet were sculptures. What words can a mother use to explain how it feels to hold her firstborn child? It is a severe love, comprehensive and eternal. I didn’t sleep for months because I was so afraid of losing him. I moved his crib beside my bed, and every night I lay with my hand on his chest, measuring his breath.
I determined to make every single decision based on what was best for him; it didn’t matter how difficult those choices were. From diet, to sleep schedules, to early education, I committed to hard, good things. I gave up money, relationships, rest hours; I bowed my dreams, my ambitions, my body down to this enormous task of maternity.
Sometimes I got so tired I didn’t think I could do any more, but whenever I was tempted to waver, I remembered that miscarriage. I remembered how fast it could all be over, and I recommitted to doing my part, even if it killed me. Besides, my son was a wonder. He was bright, funny, strong, deep, wise beyond his years. He shone like the sun. What could I want more than his good?
And then my daughter was born. From the beginning she was a compassionate child. If my son was a war horse, she was a mountain stream. She moved with delicate strength. She was artistic, committed to beauty. Learning came easy for her. It was all too much. I had been given the two most glorious children in all the world! How could I manage it?
I homeschooled after saying I would never homeschool. Then I started a University Model school when I didn’t have the mental energy or time to devote to such a massive endeavor. A few years later, I pinched pennies to make private school work, then I got a job when saving money wasn’t sufficient.
When my husband was a pastor, I tried not to put too much pressure on the kids, because I didn’t want them to resent the church. I tried to provide the right toys, right sports, right books. (I labeled all of our children’s books by date, because I wanted my children to understand where they stood in time.) I researched vaccinations, foreign languages, imported apple juice, and the impact of music on brain waves. I bought craft supplies, circuit kits, and microscopes. I made sure my children were never, ever around creepy men. I carried wipes and sanitizer. I wouldn’t let my kids play in the ball pit at Chick-Fil-A because I was afraid someone might have peed in it. I crawled through the playgrounds at McDonalds with them so a pervert wouldn’t catch them in a corner I couldn’t see.
Every decision about play groups, difficult teachers, radio stations, videos, and slumber parties, I measured against possible benefits and drawbacks. I didn’t let them ride with other people, even when that would have been easier. I found a way to be there, no matter what. I found a way to keep them safe. I would kneel beside their beds at night after they slept, listening to the sweet, steady sound of their breathing and remind myself that not a single day was guaranteed.
And then my two older children became teenagers. They became beautiful teenagers. If you knew them, I believe you would like them. The oldest is brilliant, edgy, musical, risk-taking, penetrating, and painfully funny. The other is brilliant too, though she is more forgiving, tender, insightful, and artistic. Both are innovative. Both are determined. Both want to know who you really are. I have come to enjoy their company as much as that of my closest friends.
But I am also afraid for them. I am afraid, because that miscarriage still haunts me. Losing that baby got into my bones, and I have lived believing that if I did well enough as a parent, God would bless my children and give them abundant, happy lives. I loved them too much to look at that fear rationally; the risks were just too high. I would simply do the hardest thing, and pray that everything would turn out OK as a result.
When I see that concept written out, I can see that it is too extreme. I see how it was proud, and constricting, and not born of faith. I see how it is rooted in law instead of in grace. However, it’s also a promise that is implied in many popular parenting books. If you raise children according to standard X, then Y will happen. And perhaps some of that is true; perhaps even most of the time X leads to Y. Yet, I am also learning that there is a huge difference between parenting your children with Christian principles and trusting Christ with your children.
The teenage years are showing me how wide that disparity really is. The dangers my children face have so quickly grown from catching cold to my son driving in the rain in the dark. (The latter turns me into a wild bear, all teeth and ferocity. My poor husband.) And now we are looking at colleges, and I am remembering the mistakes I made at nineteen, remembering the questions I had about God and how I was so defiant against heaven at times. I am hoping he will know better than I did.
And even though I was committed to do everything right, I didn’t. I failed. I failed. I lost my temper sometimes. I doubted God. I slandered, I resented, and I wasted hours I could have invested. I was materialistic. I was jealous. I was coarse. I was defiant. I failed in ten thousand ways, and so did my husband. So did the Christians who were in our community. My children saw hard things. They saw religious hypocrisy, and they heard thin answers to deep questions. They saw friends betray one another, and they watched anger take root. They saw believers fail to take responsibility for ugly mistakes. They saw me limp, and grow numb, and withdraw sometimes. As hard as I tried, I didn’t give them the perfect world I wanted to provide. None of us walked with God like I wish we had.
I find myself standing in the wake of all this exhausted, frightened, and overwhelmed. For almost twenty years, I did everything I could do to make life just right, and it wasn’t. Now my efforts to repair the past and insulate the future can do almost nothing. The world is way too big. Suddenly, I am helpless. I am helpless to do the job I wanted most to do well, the one job I was willing to die for.
“Lord God, what now?”
I wish there were an easy answer to that.
At twelve years old, Jesus left his mother and father, and he wandered into the temple so that his individuality could intersect with a world that was bigger than his little family. This is a complex story, because Jesus was a Divine child; I’m certainly not drawing “how to” principles from it. What I do know is that if I had been Mary, I probably would have been there standing in the doorway of the temple with hand sanitizer. That would not have been a good thing.
Mary lost the Son of God in a crowd, and apparently she was terrified about her mistake. She caught Jesus breathless and gave him the same speech I give my son when he forgets to text: “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”
What fear is there in all the world like that of a mother who believes she has lost her son? There are no words fit to describe it.
Meanwhile, Jesus was busy chasing something more important than making his mother comfortable. He was asking questions. He was probably even asking the sort of questions bright boys ask, hard ones, questions they don’t often ask their mothers over lunch. And the living God apparently met him in those questions, because when Jesus explained the whole thing to his earthly parents, He said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Sometimes our children need something we can’t provide. Sometimes they need to go into the swarm and figure things out.
What a story to read in this season of life when I feel almost paralyzed, because letting go is so much harder than I thought it would be. It’s not that my older children aren’t beautiful, bright, and good hearted. They are smarter than I am in many ways, and they have repeatedly demonstrated self-control, wisdom, tenacity, and kindness. It’s not that I don’t trust them; it’s just I am afraid that if I relax, I will miscarry again. Even though they have grown competent, I want to be able to give something costly and painful from myself that is sure to keep them OK. I want to die for them again, but I cannot, because we have reached some sort of threshold where I must stop.
In my imagination, there is a room in some transcendent realm where mothers of teenagers pray. The walls are open through arches, and there are thin white curtains hanging down, and the breeze snaps them. A collection of tired mothers kneels together in this room, scared, tired, palms up, asking for what we finally realize that we don’t have. And the prayer we pray is also a sort of repentance, which is odd, after all we have worked to do that felt like goodness but was never quite.
That prayer goes something like this: “Oh, Lord. I see now. I see that all my work was small. I see now that I was proud to think my strength was enough on its own. My striving and my sustenance weren’t what kept these children alive; you were here all along. You were chasing them. You were loving them even more than I did. My everything was too much like Eve’s everything, I tried to do Your job. At times, I think I even tried to fight You for them. Forgive me. Forgive me for talking about faith while living in fear. Please heal any wounds I have created. Please show me how to take a few steps now in faith. Oh, Lord! There my children go, carrying their questions into the clash and clatter of the cities. It is so hard to see them disappear into the crowd. Father, please do what I could not do for all that I tried.”
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.