When I thought the book I’d write would be a memoir, I read Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel. I am reminded of that with her recent passing. It is the only book by her, and maybe not the best known, that I have read by that author. She was only a couple of years older than I am now.
The relevancy of acknowledging her passing now is that Mantel suffered from endometriosis, which went long undiagnosed and instead, her infertility was assumed to be caused by her suffering a bad case of female overambition. Infertility often leads to adoption. Mantel did not adopt but she did remain childless and channeled her creativity into 17 books including the one I read as well as Every Day Is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession and Beyond Black. Her ghost was from an encounter in her youth as described in that book which I read.
In a 2003 New York Times review of the Mantel book I read – LINK> Unsuited to Everything By Inga Clendinnen – it is noted – One ordinary morning when she was seven, she encountered a terrifying something ”as high as a child of 2” manifesting in the rough grass beyond the new house. ”Within the space of a thought” it was inside her, ”a body inside my body,” and ”grace . . . runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.” Mantel acknowledges that after this event, she was always more or less ”ashamed and afraid.”
The ghosts of the never born, those babies lost in miscarriage, or those that die in infancy often haunt women who have those experiences. It can even become an inherited trauma as in the story LINK> Mothering Ghost Babies by Kao Kalia Yang. Her grandmother lost a daughter at 7 months of age to a sudden unexplained death. Her own mother was silent in the wake of all the ghost babies she delivered into the world. Her mother had six miscarriages, all little boys, all formed enough so the adults could see that they were baby boys, but born far too small, and sometimes too blue, and other times too wet with blood to survive.
Similarly, Yang’s baby died inside of her at nineteen weeks. My own daughter lost her first conceived baby that way. Like my daughter, she had to deliver a dead baby into the world. She notes that she thought back to her grandmother’s story, and that she was her mother’s love of the babies whose share of love she had taken fully and gratefully. She says, My baby was more light than substance. He was silent, but he sang a song full of sorrow.
Sometimes, a woman must give up the “ghost” of the child she will never have. I do not believe adoption is the way to attempt to replace the child a woman would have had. It often fails the “replacement” child because they are not the child the woman really wanted. And the adoptee fails the adoptive mother’s expectations of what her child should be. Women like Hilary Mantel who simply accept remaining childless (even if it is not what they wanted) should be appreciated compassionately.