By Claire Collins
Megan Ulrich, a parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Alcoa, is using her God-given gift of writing to shed light on and start more conversations about the realities of motherhood and parenthood — the things that are the most beautiful and the most challenging to talk about.
“It’s this big thing that the Church is asking us to do, and it’s this big cross in a lot of ways. And then we don’t talk about it. In every stage of it, like being pregnant and maybe not wanting to be pregnant, but being Catholic and being like, ‘I signed up for this.’ Or not being able to get pregnant, or then having a child and then miscarrying a child. Or having a 6-year-old that irritates you,” Mrs. Ulrich shared.
Motherhood is a challenging transition for any woman, from the biological changes happening in their body, to the rollercoaster of emotions, to the ways a new baby affects their relationships, to the traumas and losses that also come with being open to the gift of life. It can be hard for any woman to process it all. For Mrs. Ulrich, she finds writing to be the best outlet.
At first, writing was something Megan just did for herself. It was a way to get out everything that was going on inside of her and to process the complexity of emotions and experiences that she was facing as a young wife and mother. What she realized, though, was that the art she created from her experiences of motherhood might be something others could not only relate to but benefit from as well.
After only a few years of marriage, Mrs. Ulrich happened upon a “dreams list” she and her husband, Joe, had made when they were first married. On that list, she had written “publish a book of poetry.”
“There’s really nothing standing in the way of me doing that,” Mrs. Ulrich remembered thinking. “So I hired a babysitter for two hours a week, and went to the library and put all of my poems together to see if I had enough for a book and I did. I edited them and just started from there.”
What came from this was Mrs. Ulrich’s first book of poetry entitled Hell, Bring the Kids Too. In it, she vulnerably shares some of her experiences being a newly married young adult. She reflects on unfulfilled desires, fears, dreams, and realizations that only maturity and responsibility can procure.
“As I was pregnant with my first child, I was really afraid of losing him, so there were a few poems of just like, ‘what would that be like to lose a child?’ and processing what that would feel like, entering into a space where I could just think about that,” she recalled.
Little did she know that reality became more of a possibility with her second son when her water broke at just 24 weeks. After three weeks of hospitalized bedrest, an emergency cesarean section, and a long stay in the neonatal intensive care unit, their miracle baby finally came home with them. During and after her hospital stay, however Mrs. Ulrich encountered many other families whose stories ended differently.
“My friend, she was 32 weeks pregnant at the time, and her son died. I went to go see her in the hospital before she delivered him, and then she very graciously invited me back the next day to see him. And it was just the most beautiful thing I think I have seen in my entire life. Seeing her husband hold her son, so beautiful, and I just wanted to capture it and I wanted to remember it. There was something very real about knowing that I would never see this child again on this side of heaven, but I just wanted to honor him and remember him. So I came home and just wrote a poem about him. And from there, I also felt like I was also processing what almost happened to my son,” Mrs. Ulrich said.
She didn’t think she’d have anything else to write about after her first book. But her experience with her second son, coupled with the many grieving mothers and fathers she encountered in the hospital and beyond, helped her to realize that God wasn’t finished with her writing. She wrote 4 east about her friend’s son, and this is where the inspiration for her second book, Return Unto Me, was born.
“I wrote that poem and then I wrote the end note,” she explained, detailing how writing this book helped heal her of fears from her traumatic second birth. “…I found so much in common with these women, even though my child came home and their children never would. So I did what I always do when I can’t articulate my feelings: I wrote about them,” Mrs. Ulrich wrote in Return Unto Me.
“What began to emerge was a collection of my own healing. Healing from a loss I never truly experienced, healing from the anxiety that I one day would truly lose everything I had ever loved. And, of course, the realization that life will continue, that there will be a next day. Whether it’s a day I’m prepared for is still unclear to me, but I’m beginning to submit to the providence of God, even though at times I find myself with rather white knuckles.”
She didn’t know whether or not healing would actually come, but she hoped it would through this process of writing. As she wrote Return Unto Me, mostly filled with poems of babies who had passed away or who she had encountered in the NICU, prayer, time, and processing through writing helped her to sift through all of the loss, trauma, hurt, and hope. By the end of the book, she was indeed able to find the healing she had hoped for when she first had written the end note.
Mrs. Ulrich also experienced healing from walking with and seeing other people who were going through something similar to what she experienced in the hospital those many weeks. These “parents of saints” were courageously fighting for the lives of their tiny babies, not ever knowing for sure what the outcome would be. She realized that her worst fear was actually her greatest hope for her children: that they would be with God for eternity. And this gave her peace.
She also knew that she wanted these children to be honored and remembered, especially for the sake of the families they left behind here.
“I want people to know that their children need to be celebrated and that it’s OK to celebrate them; it’s OK to talk about them,” she said.
Though there are never perfect words to say to those who grieve, Mrs. Ulrich hopes through her work to remind everyone that it is OK to talk about these hard realities, to remember important dates, to say the names of these children, and to give comfort in any way possible to families grieving their loss.
Mrs. Ulrich wants those who read her book to be able to open up a place of vulnerability within themselves that they might not have felt comfortable going to without help.
“(Readers) can look at this book and the discussion questions that I’ve included as a way of talking with other people. I hope that this would be a launching point for people to talk about grief, to talk about their grief, children’s grief, just to be able to have a safe spot to open up that conversation,” she said, hoping to open a door to give people the chance to share their feelings and be known, especially in the trials of parenthood and child loss, no matter where they are on their journey of dealing with these sorrows.
While many women feel that family and children can keep a dream from coming to fruition, Mrs. Ulrich has a different perspective. For her, having a family wasn’t a hindrance to her dreams, but the very way God chose to make them reality, and she knows this will only continue. “My vocation is not the thing that’s in the way between me and God, it’s the thing bringing me there.”
She has many hopes for her work and what will come from it as she continues to write and process life’s challenges and joys, and continues to feel called by God to share it with the world.
Megan lives with her husband, Joe, and three sons, Rowan, Asher, and Judah, in Alcoa. She sends out a monthly newsletter of new work as well as updates about her writing, which people can sign up for through her website, www.megan-ulrich.com. She also has access to discussion questions for her books and links to make purchases through her website.
Mrs. Ulrich also has made an appearance on the podcast Three Dogs North, where she discussed her work, life, family, and faith. “The Dogs,” three priests in Illinois who record their discussions in light of their Catholic faith and vocations, collectively wrote the forward to Return Unto Me, saying there is something about Mrs. Ulrich’s work that “made (them) feel more human, and made (them) want to be more human.”
A link to this episode can also be found on Mrs. Ulrich’s website.
In a world where no one is left untouched by grief and trauma, Mrs. Ulrich’s work gives all who encounter it the opportunity to let God’s healing touch bring comfort and peace to these hard situations and hurting places.
Whether individually, in a book study or small group, or among those who are closest, her poetry is a way to enter into vulnerability and redemption of some of life’s most challenging crosses.