The Other Side of Love
An ancient Bible story sheds new light on a mother’s crushing loss.
by Serena Cavenaugh
As soon as the pain released my body from its unyielding grasp and before I exhaled with exhausted relief, they placed the baby, all slippery and blue-footed, onto my chest. He squinted up at me, and I knew I would be forever enslaved. I was a mother.
Without a thought, I would face fire and fury for him, risk my life, and sacrifice my everything. Days later, as I stared at him sleeping in his bassinet, his little lips puckered as he dreamed of my sweet milk, a huge black spider came into focus, hanging from its silky web right above his face.
I stood there, frozen with fear. If I stepped away to grab a pair of shoes, the spider might land on him. Shaking with dread, I lifted my hands on either side of the dangling fiend and clapped them shut. I shivered as it squished between my palms, and jumped around biting back my screams.
I faced a different challenge years later. Coming from a broken home, I had promised myself I would never get divorced. I loved my husband; but after four years of marriage counseling, anger management, and even an arrest, he was still violently abusive.
I had just given birth to my daughter. With her innocent, dark eyes and my son’s sweet trust weighing heavily upon me, I filed for divorce. To offer my children a healthy home, I sacrificed everything I believed.
Fear and difficulty
Eventually, I married a man with no children of his own. We were both elated when I found out I was pregnant. Four months later, I miscarried. We grieved our loss but, undaunted, planned another baby. Two months later, I became pregnant again.
The celebration was threefold. My little sister, Sheila,* and my husband’s sister, Lynn,* were also pregnant; we were all due within weeks of each other. Whereas Sheila’s and Lynn’s joy was complete, a deep fear of loss and a difficult pregnancy tainted mine. With the dependability of the sun rising, every morsel that went down my throat came right back up. Sheila and Lynn grew plump as my tummy stayed stubbornly flat. They happily exercised while I, undernourished, was too exhausted to get out of bed. There, nightmares of death haunted me, awake and sleeping.
End of tomorrows
In my fourth month, the doctor decided to put my mind at ease by doing an in-office ultrasound. Instead, he proved that life full of endless tomorrows had again escaped me. I stared at the ultrasound image: a perfectly shaped head, a little black spot the heart perfectly still.
Cold tears trickled silently down my cheeks. My husband squeezed my hand. I stared at the screen until the image became too blurry for me to decipher.
Recovering at home in bed, I dreaded seeing Sheila and Lynn, their beautiful roundness. My sister was easy to handle. It didn’t take me long to sort through my anger and envy. But in hindsight, I realize I did this because I had a scapegoat: Lynn.
I gloated as Lynn gained weight and started to waddle. I prayed that she would never fit into her pre-baby clothes. As her shower approached, I made sure to book my sister’s shower the same day. When I called to RSVP, I was all apologies. “It couldn’t be helped,” I lied.
Fuming, I browsed through Babies-R-Us, looking at the adorable stuff Lynn had registered for her baby: the beautiful crib, the cute patterns. I caressed the smooth sheets and seethed. I begrudgingly bought soaps, lotions, shampoos anything that wasn’t soft or cute. In the car, I tore the list to shreds and prayed, through angry sobs, that her labor would be long and painful.
I rushed to the hospital and showered Sheila’s new baby with gifts. I was happy for her and didn’t allow my thoughts to stray to the emptiness of my arms or womb. Then Lynn called to tell us that after five hours of labor, she delivered her baby girl.
Shock and anger
I couldn’t contain my shock and anger. “No way! No way!” I threw myself on the bed and screamed into my pillow, “It’s not fair! Five hours? That’s it? Even my second child took all day!”
My husband hovered above my hysterical form, completely at a loss. He clucked and caressed and asked repeatedly, “Why are you so upset?”
How could I answer? Instead, I comforted myself with secret hopes that Lynn’s baby wouldn’t latch on, that Lynn would get engorged, that her nipples would blister and bleed the way mine had years before.
I begged off going to visit her in the hospital. I had the sniffles the result of my tantrum, not an oncoming cold. My husband looked at me hard, but wisely let it go. Every time he went to visit her, I came up with an excuse to stay home.
Finally, he said, “It’s starting to look a little unacceptable that you haven’t seen the baby.”
I couldn’t tell him how terrified I was of my nasty hopes or how I dreaded the possibility that Lynn would defy every curse with her supreme happiness.
“The baby is almost two months old now. Don’t you want to meet her?” he coaxed.
Lynn met me at the door in her pre-pregnancy clothes.
I clenched my jaw. “How is the nursing coming along?” I asked.
“Oh, she latches on with no problems. From the very start, she’s been wonderful,” she gushed.
I raged inside. “Good. You must be engorged with all that sucking,” I hoped.
“Oh, no. She empties the breast at every feeding.”
I almost gagged at the bitter taste in my mouth. “Lucky you. But is she getting enough milk? I mean, if you aren’t engorged, maybe you don’t have enough. . . .”
“I don’t think so. She’s pretty content, and I do pump out a couple of eight-ounce bottles every morning.” Oblivious to my pain, Lynn gave a contented shrug that made me feel as though I were imploding. The hatred and jealously frightened me. Could I be that terrible of a person?
Just as I asked myself this desperate question, one last, awful wish crossed my mind: that the baby were ugly.
At the kitchen sink that night, I stood, shocked by the bitterness that had filled my heart to the brim. Where was the joy when I beheld the beautiful baby? I had somehow lost my ability to feel love. What was wrong with me? Would this pain and envy ever end?
I called my older sister, whose first child was stillborn, and asked her when I would be normal again.
After a pause, she said, “You are normal. For years after I lost my baby, every time I saw a pregnant woman, I couldn’t help hoping her baby looked like a monkey.”
I laughed through my tears.
She continued, “Don’t you remember the story of King Solomon in the Bible?”
Of course I remembered the story. Two mothers stood before Solomon to settle a heated dispute. One claimed her healthy child was stolen and replaced with a dead child. Solomon ordered the guards to cut the live child in half to satisfy each mother (1 Kings 3:16-25).
One mother, resigned, handed the baby over to the guards. The other mother begged Solomon to let the woman have the baby so long as it could live. Solomon gave the child to the true mother who had pleaded for its life (vv. 26, 27).
“What does that have to with me?” I asked. I thought the story’s lesson was that all moms throughout history have a special love for their own. I knew this love well the kind that strengthened women to kill spiders, leave unhealthy marriages, and mourn inconsolably. The story was all about a mother’s love, not my ugly envy.
“I’m not talking about the mother who loved without thought,” my sister responded. “I mean the other one, empty with grief, raging at fate. So alone in her loss, she cared for no one not the real mother, not the life of the other child.”
For the first time, I saw the story from the childless mother’s view and, with a sick feeling, realized I was that terrible woman. “Why haven’t I ever thought of her before?”
“No one does until they are her, facing the sorrow, the bitterness, and the deep, senseless yearning to fill the emptiness of losing a child.” My sister was crying now, too.
That mother stole another woman’s baby. She was going to let King Solomon kill it just so that someone else could feel her pain. Would I do that?
“I don’t want to be like that.” I started crying harder.
“Of course not. And you aren’t. God knows the painful truth of what you suffer. You aren’t alone. It’s right there in the Bible that these thoughts and feelings are normal. He has forgiven you. Now forgive yourself,” she said in a soothing voice.
I hung up the phone and continued crying at the sink. Each tear I cried acknowledged every shameful wish and sinful hope, and they washed over me, mingling with the dirty dishwater. I pulled the plug and watched the tears drain in a whirl of forgiveness, not only for my awful thoughts but also for the grieving mother of the Bible story.
Companionship in loss
I thought about the wisdom the story portrayed not Solomon’s, but God’s. Beyond wisdom, it shows us the life-giving love and the life-shattering grief of a mother. Millions of mothers never held their babies. Others did, but still had to bury them. I understood Solomon’s story and why it had earned its place in the Bible: to let us know we are not alone in our loss, to free us from the cruelty portrayed so timelessly.
God helped me realize that night that, unlike the grief-stricken mother in the Bible, I didn’t want Lynn, Sheila, or any mother to experience losing something so dear. I wanted them to blissfully relate to the loving, all-sacrificing mother’s love, not to the bitter, lonely mother’s grief.
Now that I have met the other side of a mother’s love, I honor those who, despite having faced the natural bitterness of the grieving mother, still choose love.
* Names have been changed.