Denise Wolfe, 36, and Johanna Mutz, 31, are founders of laurelbox, a website that offers heartfelt gift boxes for women after loss. Together, the women saw a desperate need to share the complex stories and individual truths of motherhood outside the cheery portrait so often reflected on Mother’s Day cards.
“A few months ago at a family reunion, we looked at the matriarchs of our family and realized that none of us had a straightforward Mother’s Day experience,” they explain. “We had stories of loss, foster care, infertility, step parenting, miscarriage, and the loss of mothers. From our 85-year-old grandmother to ourselves, our stories aren’t simple. But, we also know that each woman deserves to be acknowledged on Mother’s Day and that women find community in shared stories. We knew that shared stories would bring encouragement and support for the many women whose stories look outside the norm.”
Both Wolfe and Mutz have their own stories of mothering outside the “norm.” Wolfe is a stepmother and biological mother, while Mutz struggled to conceive after miscarrying in 2016. Mutz also grew up witnessing her own mother’s grief when her grandmother took her life. In realizing that not one woman they knew had a “typical” Mother’s Day, the caring duo decided to highlight the stories that others don’t want to tell — the ones that won’t appear in those shiny ads or pretty Instagram posts.
And so their Motherhood: Rewritten project was born, bringing to life the stories of many types of mothers. The project features a digital magazine that the pair produced, an online photo essay series, and a social media campaign that encourages women to share their rewritten motherhood stories. From stepmothers and foster mothers to birth mothers, mothers without mothers, and mothers who have suffered tremendous loss, each one of these mothers will experience Mother’s Day in different ways.
Through the project, Wolfe and Mutz hope to not only share the message that we are more alike than different, but that extending grace is a beautiful way to live. “So many women live second stories that you can’t see at first glance,” they note.
Here’s a glimpse into those second stories:
A Communion of Mothers
After trying to conceive for over a year, Tanisha Garnier was thrilled to find out she was pregnant with her son, Xavier Lawrence. At only 19 weeks into her pregnancy, Garnier discovered she had a short cervix. Despite efforts to save him, she lost her baby boy at 21 weeks. Garnier found hope and healing through what she describes as a communion of mothers coming together in mourning.
“A few weeks after my son was born, [a friend who also has lost a child] invited another child-loss mama and me for breakfast,” Garnier shared. “Waffles and coffee. Not bread and wine, but the communion was just as holy. There was a moment that morning when the three of us were just silent. No praying. No clichés. No fake smiles. Just silence. Quiet tears. Lamenting together. I believe in that moment the Lord was knitting our hearts together as a tangible provision of His love for each of us.”
Adoption, Special Needs, and Loss
After becoming a birth mother, Aleisa Yusko went on to have two more children later in life. She reunited with her birth daughter when she was 17. Months later, she found out she was pregnant with her fourth baby, Nora, whom was diagnosed with trisomy 18. Nora passed away shortly after she turned 2.
Yusko sees a connection of hope from the time of mourning she went through in placing her first child for adoption and the loss of her fourth baby.
“I draw comfort from the parallels between my adoption decision and Nora’s physical death,” she explains. “I know I will miss Nora for the rest of my life, yet I am capable of enduring this pain. I will ache for her every day and dream about her longingly. I imagine she’ll be there waiting as I pass into the next life, chubby little arms outstretched, ready to receive my impassioned embrace. Because of my birth daughter, I got a glimpse of that euphoria in this life, and it is wondrous.”
Mother’s Day Without a Mother
Cyndy Hanson, mom to Mutz, knows what’s it’s like to live through Mother’s Day without your own mother. Two months after Mutz was born, Hanson’s own mother ended her own life.
“That first Mother’s Day was rife with emotion,” Hanson writes. “The highest heights and lowest lows. Joy and grief were bed partners, forever joined. For years, my feelings on Mother’s Day would vacillate from true joy and thankfulness in being a mom, to sadness and anger at my own mother. I would see my friends with their children and doting grandmas and desperately wish my mother were there to share in that joy. I missed my mom, her laughter, the smell of her perfume, and her sometimes zany ways.”
Kristy Sutton, a biological mama to four children, is in the process of adopting. She has called almost 30 other babies her own since starting a life of foster motherhood in 2012 with her husband, Zach.
“The weight and emotions of Mother’s Day feel different than they used to when I was mama to one or two or three babies I brought into the world,” Sutton says. “I was naïve then. I didn’t know the tug of war I would feel when I held another mama’s child in my arms and celebrated the beauty of being a mom through the eyes of us both. I long to see her made whole and fully regain the precious moments of being a mom. The milestones and memories may always belong to only me. I grieve what she cannot have for now. And I wrestle with what to do and how to convey the hope and heartache of the motherhood I’m living for her today.”
When Wolfe met her now-husband, he was the father of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old. When she chose him, she chose them, and as a stepmother she has forged her own way for their blended family.
“I knew I was mothering them, but I was not their mother. I did not womb them, I did not rock them into early morning hours, I did not see their first steps or hear their first words. However, our relationship doesn’t need a title. I was chosen to mother them and I get to love them, accept them, and believe in them. I wasn’t there for their firsts but I am here for the nows and the forever of nexts.”
Mothering With Empty Arms
Kristin Hernandez lost her son, Ethan, 93 minutes after birth due to severe brain and heart defects, along with two subsequent pregnancies. As she describes, she is a mother who knows the full extent of love.
“Even if the unused crib, the empty rocking chair, and the dresser filled with tiny outfits are never touched again, I will always be a mother. While society may try to dismiss my motherhood, I know who I am. The mother who holds her child in her arms and the mother who holds her child in her heart share more commonalities than we may think. Our lives and our hearts have been changed by our children. Our hearts have been filled with a love that can change the world — a love that isn’t extinguished by death.”