Two years ago, when the loss of my baby girl at twenty weeks gestation was still fresh, grief defined me.
I had other identities of course. I was a wife, a writer, and a mother to two living daughters.
But at that time, my identity as a grieving mother was so strong that it seemed to define my existence in ways that nothing else did.
I mourned the loss of my stillborn daughter and her sister who I’d also lost in the second trimester of pregnancy a few years previous.
My sense of sadness was oppressive and inescapable.
On the outside, I looked like your average, busy mom of a five-year-old and a two-year-old.
I got out of bed, took my kids for walks to the playground, went grocery shopping, made meals, and did laundry.
I smiled at my children, laughed at my husband’s jokes, and asked my friends questions about their lives.
But inside, I was heartbroken.
Life had lost all of its lusters, and things that previously would have brought me great joy – a walk on a crisp fall morning, dinner out with friends, even my birthday celebration – felt dull, empty of the life-giving energy they once held.
During this time, I avoided situations with strangers, unable to endure light-hearted chitchat and fearful of conversations about babies and questions about how many children I had.
It was more comfortable to be alone or with friends who knew me and my story well. Attempts to engage beyond those safe places left me feeling fragile, vulnerable and exposed.
Last fall, a year later and nearly two years removed from my stillbirth, my feelings of sadness had eased, but newly pregnant again, I felt defined not so much by grief, but by the tenuous nature of pregnancy after loss.
I tried to be excited, but mostly, I was guarded. I knew that I could lose this baby at any moment, that passing the first-trimester mark was no guarantee.
I knew too that regardless of the outcome, this fifth pregnancy would likely be my last.
Once again, strangers and small talk were awkward.
I wasn’t sharing news of my pregnancy publically just yet, in part to protect my living daughters from worrying about losing another sibling.
I didn’t want to talk about being pregnant, but my constant feelings of nausea meant I could think of little else.
And so once again, I kept my world intentionally small, limiting most of my interactions to my family and a few close friends.
Even when my pregnancy became public knowledge, when I could no longer hide my rounded stomach under flowing shirts, I was often uncomfortable talking to acquaintances and strangers about the baby on the way.
They were – quite understandably – excited for our family, and while I was allowing myself to begin to anticipate my son’s arrival, my emotions were complicated.
Grief and joy were mingled together along with continued anxiety about this baby’s safe arrival.
This fall, however, things are shifting. My rainbow baby is here. He’s a happy, healthy five-month-old.
His arrival has not in any way erased my losses, but his presence and smiles and snuggles have further lessened my feelings of grief.
Now, for the first time in several years, I find myself choosing to interact with strangers.
A few weeks ago, the baby and I attended a parent coffee at my younger daughter’s preschool.
Next week, I will start a Bible study with a group of women I don’t know.
These are things I wouldn’t have been able to do a year or two ago.
It still feels strange to me, these small steps out into the broader world.
I catch myself mid-conversation talking about things like babies and naptimes, and I remember a time not long ago when these topics were too painful for me.
Someone asks me how many children I have, and I still stumble for the right words to answer.
I remain a grieving mother, and I will always be.
But I am beginning to embrace the other parts of my identity again.
And when I strike up a conversation with someone I don’t know, I try to remember that they carry their own hidden stories too.
That beneath the surface of each person lie joys and sorrows I know nothing about.