By Leslie Stonebraker
Six supermarket roses drooped on their stems the day my dad placed the crinkly bouquet in a cut glass vase on the kitchen counter. “Happy Mother’s Day!” he smiled, patting me on the shoulder.
The statement twisted, serpentine in my gut, as it does every year since I miscarried my first pregnancy.
“Thanks,” I replied, settling my toddler atop my growing baby bump so she could reach the burnt rosebuds and squeal in wonder at how soft the petals were, how they crumpled in her fist. My dad started gifting me flowers the first Mother’s Day after my daughter was born. I’ve never told him why six roses the color of blood might wound me.
I didn’t unwrap the bouquet. Petals, brittle and brown-edged, dropped in clumps. Leaves shriveled inside a cellphone greenhouse. Two days later I finally removed the packet rubber banded to thorny stems and tapped powdered citric acid and bleach into the vase. The sweet grains of poison were insufficient to kill bacteria already suffusing murky water and climbing each woody xylem. The roses hung their heads. In shame, I wondered, or blame? The darkest parts of me warned that I’ve not always been a good caretaker of living things.
It’s not that I dislike flowers. I can’t resist the frost’s first daffodils and will happily pay to take home a bundle of tightly closed yellow blooms to monitor each morning until they finally explode from their spathes in golden coronas. “Those are pretty,” my dad noted, surprised, when I came home from a grocery trip one day with a handful of purple tulips.
But I’ve never been one for roses. Dark red for commitment, six to say “I’m yours”—neither message one my dad would have thought he was sending when he selected the bouquet from the bucket at the supermarket. “I’m not much for Hallmark holidays,” I texted my friend that Sunday afternoon, full of snark about how one day a year was supposed to make up for the other 364 of shouldering most of the mental load. Also, I’m indignant at a culture that glorifies traditional families above families in their many forms: trans parents and non-binary parents and non-parents and chosen families sidelined since Woodrow Wilson created Mother’s Day back in 1914.
All true, but if I’m being honest with myself, the real reason I ignore the calendar reminders and greeting cards and #blessed posts flooding my Facebook feed every second Sunday in May is that I have no answer to the question, “When do I count from?”
Someone please tell me: was I a mom in the absence of a baby to mother?
If the answer is yes—I was a mother the first day of my pregnancy—then my guilt could fill the ocean. It was my body that failed my baby.
If the answer is no—I was not a mother until I gave birth—then why do I feel guilty? It was my body that protected itself by ending a pregnancy it could no longer support.
Both answers are true. Both answers are false.
Where do we define the borders surrounding the nation of motherhood? For five days after eggs were surgically retrieved from my ovaries and mixed with my husband’s sperm for in vitro fertilization, dozens of embryos grew in petri dishes before being frozen awaiting transfer to my uterus. Was I a mother then? What about before that, during the months when fertility doctors tested vial after vial of my blood while the length of my cycle stretched from one month to several? Was I a mother when I peed on handfuls of ovulation strips and pregnancy tests after longer and longer periods of hope? And what if, in some dystopian future, all my babies should die? Would I still be a mother then?
If nobody wished me a happy Mother’s Day, I would be at once satisfied and crushed. I want the Mother’s Day roses as much as I hate them.
This is what slithered through my subconscious when my dad wished me happiness on Mother’s Day. Coiled in the curve of each petal that fell from the six roses dying in the vase on the kitchen counter, until finally I threw the shriveled bouquet in the trash.
Leslie Stonebraker lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two rambunctious kiddos. She is working on a collection of essays about miscarriage, pregnancy, and the challenge of parenting young humans.
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