Fertile Ground

Reflections on grief and gardening

Photo by Annie Spratt

A childless friend of mine recalled a time at the grocery store when she locked eyes with a baby in a shopping cart. She said a sharp pain rose up inside her—that it felt like slamming her finger in a car door. I could relate. Once, after a check-up with my doctor, I nearly fell down the stairs rushing to escape the sound of a newborn baby wailing in the waiting room. Attending a baby shower is still out of the question for me—or any event where I might be asked to hold a baby or converse about pregnancy.

Avoidance is easy in real life, but social media is a different matter. Tender baby pictures are posted relentlessly: newborn baby on mom’s chest in the delivery room, baby held by sibling for the first time, baby held by grandpa, baby meeting the family dog. And of course, every person from high school has a cluster of delightfully posed children, documented perfectly and meticulously at every stage of infancy. Strangely, the perfect photos don’t arouse as much jealousy as the ones filled with strife. Parents look plaintively up at the camera with a caption like, “Let’s get real. Parenting is hard.” The commenters cheer them on.

After my stillbirths, I began to harbor disdain for anyone I deemed unappreciative of their parenting role. At the grocery store, I had the urge to walk up to a mom who was roughly scolding her child. I rehearsed the speech I’d deliver as I aimed my cart toward her. You know, some people like me can’t have children, so you should treat your kid better. But I lost my nerve and swerved my cart in the direction of the checkout line instead.

How could anyone fortunate enough to have a baby complain about parenthood when I never even got the chance to be a parent? Looking back, I wasn’t naive to the risks of pregnancy, but I reached a stage where the chance of disaster was less than one percent. I had a great pregnancy until I was in the doctor’s office with unexplained bleeding. After my doctor diagnosed me with a rare condition that would end my pregnancy, my husband and I left the doctor’s office, emerging back into a waiting room filled with pregnant women. They watched wide-eyed as I wobbled out of the exam room sobbing. Some jerked their heads up from their magazines or their phones as I exited the medical building, my husband holding my arm, tears streaming down my face and his. I have no doubt that seeing me added to their laundry list of pregnancy anxieties.

If I could travel back in time, I’d like to see myself reassuring them: Don’t worry, your baby is fine. There is a less than one percent chance this will happen to you. But if I’m being honest, the physical manifestation of my emotional space at that time would have resembled the ghost of Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, spitting through clenched teeth a seething warning to everyone in that waiting room—“Appreciate what you’ve got”—as I flew away, dragging my chains of resentment behind me as I returned to Purgatory.

It turns out those chains came in handy. Anger was the only emotion with enough fortitude to see me through the next twenty-four hours of limbo, which started with home labor with my baby still alive and kicking inside of me and ended at the hospital holding a stillborn baby in my arms. I got pregnant again a year later, and the same thing happened a second time. In response, my doctor mentioned another patient with my condition who had successfully delivered her ninth baby after eight failed attempts. But I wasn’t encouraged. I gave up on a body that clearly could not bear fruit. I couldn’t puncture my heart six more times. Twice was enough.

During my most virulent period of grief and anger, I was afraid to be alone. One day, a thirty-year-old monstera plant was dropped at our doorstep when a friend moved away. I started talking to the primordial plant as I wiped dust from each verdant leaf, one by one, with a damp cloth. I started to think about my mother’s garden in our backyard growing up. She planted currant bushes, hollyhocks, rosemary, lavender, zucchinis, rhubarb, and what felt like miles of calendulas.

I ventured outside to sprinkle cosmos and borage seeds in my yard and watched the bees land on the blossoms later that summer. I chose which seedlings to thin out so others could live. I moved on to marigolds—safe plants that don’t die easily, with long-lasting orange and yellow blooms.

Ten years have passed since I began gardening, and I remain a novice. I still fret over the hard-hearted decisions a gardener must make. Last year, spring in Astoria was marked by endless rain, followed by a summer that started like the flick of a switch. These erratic Jekyll-and-Hyde weather patterns are not normal. New arrivals don’t know that it used to rain all year—even in summer. Areas that were once green, wet, and squishy are turning brown, dry, and crackly.

I’m reminded of the synonyms I found for the word childlessinfertileinfecundsterileunfruitful. Is the planet in menopause? As unappealing as these words for infertility are, I’m welcoming perimenopause with a sigh of relief. As my fertility wanes, so does my anger.

There are still risks to take in the garden, even late in the season. Sunflowers don’t seem to mind the increasingly hot summers, and randomly sprinkled packets of wildflower seeds are a safe bet. When the sun gets too hot, I like to wander back inside the house and plop down into my cushioned chair, waking up my computer from its slumber. As I browse social media, it’s not uncommon for baby photos to surface first, but my reaction has softened into a sense of awe at the life that crops up year after year, in spite of it all.


motherhood, Grief, Nature, loss, fertility


3 comments have been posted.

This heartfelt piece reveals a lot about the author. Yes, she should’ve been a mother. She’d have excelled at motherhood.

Lisa Smith | March 2024 | Philadelphia

Heather your writing is as beautiful as you, your pain through experiences is explicitly shared. Life is not fair, those similar to you would be gods choosen people to love, cherish and hold beautiful children it makes no sense. My heart weeps for you not understanding the cards we are dealt, that we choose to reshuffle and are required to play again. Some people are given so much yet receive so little, sense there is no sense sometimes.....Your story and words from your heart are felt by this mothers heart. Thank you for touching my childrens hearts as a teacher of kind words!! Love and bless you!! ❤️ Ingrid B.

Ingrid Boettcher | March 2024 | Svensen, Oregon

Your excellent writing carried me through the series of tragedies. Thanks for sharing.

Steve Treacy | February 2024 | Port Townsend WA/Las Vegas NV

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