October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. 25% of all pregnancies end in a loss, which means that many, many of us have been through this difficult and painful experience.
Although pregnancy loss is so common, living through it can leave us feeling isolated and alone. People don’t acknowledge our grief or say the wrong thing (“Oh well, you can always try again”) or we may feel that we don’t have the right to be sad because the pregnancy was “so early” or because we had some ambivalence about it. You have a right to grieve no matter the context and timing of your pregnancy. This is a profound event that happens body and soul and however you experience it, however you need to grieve it, you should be given time, space and respect in your journey.
- Some women name the baby they hoped to have even if the miscarriage was very early. That’s one right way to do it.
- Other women may experience an early loss as a loss of possibility, not as a baby. That’s another right way to do it.
- Some women may join groups and become involved in campaigns to increase visibility and understanding. That’s one right way to do it.
- Others may feel more comfortable grieving privately or may attend groups but not speak. That’s another right way to do it.
Healthy grief is hard and it’s a path that meanders; “getting over it” or “moving on” are myths that don’t serve us well. In truth, healthy grieving is about integrating our loss into our personal narrative, it’s about learning how best to tell our story to ourselves so that we can understand it and this takes time and effort.
Healthy grief means good days and bad days, sorrow that comes and goes as we grow and change. Healthy grief means going days without thinking about it and then seeing something that brings it to the forefront of our minds again.
The loss is part of our history and so part of ourselves.
If you have suffered a pregnancy loss and want support, no matter when it happened or in what context, please know that there is help for you.
Locally, Kobaker House offers a wonderful group for both mothers and fathers. It meets the first Tuesday of each month and you can call Sarah Phillips at (614) 533-6060 for more information. They will also be hosting a Tulip Bulb Planting Ceremony at their October meeting on the 6th. From their website:
A time of reflection and remembrance, to come together with those who have lost a baby either during pregnancy or in the first year after birth. Bulbs will be provided. Please bring a small spade or shovel. Families and children are welcome.
If you feel more comfortable reaching out anonymously, you can call Backline, a talkline for all aspects of pregnancy including infertility and loss. Their number is 1-888-493-0092.
If you are grieving the loss of a wanted pregnancy where you needed to terminate for health reasons, you may feel particularly lost. Fortunately, this website, Ending a Wanted Pregnancy, offers parent support and information. They also have a public Facebook page.
Finally, you can seek help from a counselor. There are many of us who have specific training and interest in supporting women who are struggling with pregnancy loss. Please feel free to call me. If I’m not the right person to help you, I will work to help you find them.
You may have heard that Jimmy Fallon has come out about his and his wife’s five year struggle to have a baby. Their daughter, Winnie, was born via surrogate this past July. On the Today show, he talked openly about their experiences and added:
“Try every avenue; try anything you can do, ’cause you’ll get there. You’ll end up with a family, and it’s so worth it. It is the most ‘worth it’ thing. I’m just so happy right now. I’m freaking out.”
via Jimmy Fallon reveals he and wife endured ‘awful’ five-year fertility struggle before using surrogate – NY Daily News
I love it when celebrities are comfortable sharing about their fertility challenges because they normalize an experience that happens to 1 in 8 couples. The more we talk about things, the less alone people feel and that is GREAT.
But quitting infertility treatment is an incredibly personal decision and not everyone ends up with a family.
While I’m very happy for Jimmy and his wife and I can bet that it’s all worth it now that Winnie is here, safe and sound, I need to point out that his experience doesn’t mean that any other person going through infertility can and should “try every avenue.”
I remember when we were just starting infertility treatments and one of the other moms at my son’s preschool asked if we had any other children. I’d just started Clomid, which made me crazy and vulnerable and sad, so I burst into loud, messy sobs there in the hall. I told her what was happening and she told us that she went through infertility, too, but was able to conceive her two children via the then brand new ICSI procedure. In fact, ICSI was so new at the time that she and her husband flew to Rome in order to work with the doctors who had invented it.
She told me this to inspire me.
“You will stop at nothing to get your baby!” she said, leaning in to hug me. But even then I knew that I would stop at something. I wouldn’t fly to Italy, for example, seeing as how there was no way we could ever afford it.
When it comes to making treatment decisions it’s easy to say YES to something if you know there is a baby at the end of it. After all, when you’re dealing with infertility a baby is worth almost anything. But when we’re making decisions we have to consider whether it’s worth it if there is no baby at the end of it.
I know that’s a depressing way to look at it but infertility treatment gets us going the same way that gambling in Vegas gets us. It becomes addictive.
We think, “One more cycle!” and we grab up our silver dollars and pull that lever again. The more money and effort we put into it, the more we need a pay off to justify all that we’ve already spent. That’s how we end up going further than we meant to, spending more than we can afford, and becoming consumed by the great big treatment machine.
Before we fly off to Rome or hire a surrogate, we need to ask, “If this doesn’t work, will it still be worth it?” It’s all right if that answer is yes and it’s also all right if the answer is no.
The thing about infertility, like the rest of our life challenges, is that it is ours to live. There’s not one right way to do it. Jimmy Fallon and his wife chose surrogacy and it was all worth it. Someone else will choose to live child-free and that will all be worth it, too.
The other day I was headed to a meeting, listening to NPR in the radio. Fresh Air was on and Terry Gross was interviewing Sarah Polley about her new documentary, Stories We Tell, which is about Sarah examining the story she was told. Sarah’s mother died when she was eleven and she died without telling Sarah that her husband was not Sarah’s biological father. Sarah discovered this as an adult and she was the one who ultimately had to tell her dad that they’re not biologically related.
I stopped and listened because the parallels to closed adoption and parents who don’t tell their children when they are conceived donor gametes are so similar (except that in those cases one can assume that both parents know the secret).
In the featured quotes pulled out from the interview, Sarah says she doesn’t regret her mother choosing to keep this secret.
“To be honest, I don’t see what the point would have been [of] telling me when I was a child about this. I mean, I was growing up as a member of the Polley family and I was very much a part of that family, and I’m not sure what the point would have been in adding all this confusion.”
When I heard that I thought about the many parents who will take that and hold it tight to justify their own secret keeping. But note that her mother died when she was eleven. And note, too, that the story is complicated by the fact that Sarah was conceived during an adulterous affair.
I wonder if/when Sarah’s mother would have finally told her. By keeping the secret, Sarah’s mother gave away her opportunity to be the person to tell her daughter, to ask her for understanding, to explain herself. She also made the decision for Sarah to not know her own truth and the decision for her husband and Sarah’s biological father to not know either; she gave away their opportunities, too. And she saddled Sarah with the responsibility to keep the secret since Sarah knew for some time before she told her father (her hand was forced when a journalist confronted her with it).
That is a lot — A LOT — to put on your kid.
I haven’t seen the movie and I don’t know why Sarah’s mother made the decision she did although I am sure her intentions were good.
Parents keep secrets because they want to protect their children but the secret-keeping can do more harm than the secret itself ever could. Because when the child (or adult) finds out the truth they have to contend with this truth and also their feelings about having that truth kept from them.
If you’re trying to figure out how to talk to your child about his or her adoption or conception story, please think of giving me a call. Maybe I can help you sort through the muddle.
Way back when we were trying to have that elusive second baby, I would go for walks while my then 4-year old son was in preschool. His program met in a pretty, suburban neighborhood with big, handsome houses at one end and modest homes with front porches on the other end. I would pick my routes at random, not deciding which way to go until I hit a corner and found something to catch my eye. Halfway through the two-and-a-half hours, I’d turn around and arrive at the playground in time to see my son race around on a tricycle with his friends during the last free play of the day.
Towards the end of the school year, during a particularly hard time in our course of infertility treatment, I found myself on a street full of smaller houses with detached garages and small front yards. I was walking slowly, admiring the froth of pink and purple flowers spilling out from under porches and the clematis that climbed the wrought iron railings. As I passed one house a woman on the front porch called to me.
“Wait up! Wait up!” she said, waving. “Would you walk with me?”
I stood in the driveway as she made her way down the porch steps. She was an elderly woman wearing a khaki trench coat with a blue gauzy scarf tied over her hair.
“I like to go for a morning walk,” she said. “But I worry about falling. Most mornings my friend comes with me but she’s busy today so I thought I’d wait and see if someone came by.”
She took my arm and we started walking. She had a dedicated route so I let her lead the way and my pace slowed down considerably as we made our way around her block.
We talked about her sons and their children. We talked about their jobs and their wives and their troubles. She told me about her husband who she divorced when her sons were teens. She was matter-of-fact and a little bossy. I’ve always been partial to bossy women so I liked her.
When she asked about my own family, my throat caught when I told her I had an only child and I found myself confessing to her that we were unsuccessfully trying to have another one. I was hoping she’d say something prescient (in those days I was always looking for signs) so my heart skipped when she said, “Oh well, you’ll have another baby” but then she added, “Or not.” She shrugged.
I could barely hear her after the shrug. The shrug hurt. “Or not,” she said, dismissively. I tuned out her chattering as we rounded the corner back towards her house. When we arrived at her driveway and she let my arm go to make her way back inside, I was happy to leave her. I didn’t know her name and I didn’t care to know it.
I picked my pace back up to get to my son’s school before class let out and I fought back tears as I went.
But I was thinking about it. I thought about it while I collected my son and helped him buckle his carseat. I thought about it on the drive home. I thought about it while I fixed the after school snack.
At first I ran her words over in my mind as a way to relive the hurt, like pressing a bruise for no good reason. How dare she! She couldn’t even spare a moment of sympathy? So like the rest of the world! So unfair! So bitter and sad and mean! Everything that infertility already was, tied up in those two dismissive words.
But as the afternoon wore on I started thinking about how things look from an 80-something year perspective. I thought about how many life crises she must have experienced and witnessed happening to her friends and to the people she loved. I realized that at some point in my own life this would be a particular crisis that I would no longer be living. It would be a crisis I had already gone through and I would know the ending. I wouldn’t be here, stuck in the not knowing. Someday, if luck was on my side, I would be eighty-something, too, and I would no longer be an infertile woman. I would have another baby … or not.
And when I thought of that, I was no longer so angry at my walking companion. Instead I realized that this was my first peek — my very first peek — at resolution. I was still knee deep in my experience but when I think back, I see that was my first therapeutic moment towards an end point. That’s when I finally saw a light way, way, way off in the distance.
I know that for a lot of people Mother’s Day is a super hard and generally awful day. I’d love to give you a list of ways to make it less awful but honestly, sometimes things are just bad. And I think it’s OK to just give in. It’s all right to give yourself permission to check out. That means not steeling yourself, not putting your chin up and suffering anyway, and maybe telling people some white lies so you don’t have to show up for things you want to avoid.
You’re not being selfish; you’re taking care of yourself.
I know sometimes we really want to be the bigger person and swallow our sadness and sometimes that’s the right thing to do but maybe this weekend it’s not. That’s all right.
If this year is not the year you’re going to be able to stuff your feelings then I hereby give you permission to do whatever it takes to get through Sunday in whatever self-nurturing, loving way you can. Please don’t punish yourself for needing a break.
So here is a list of ways not meant to make it less awful but to give you ideas you could be good to yourself — you deserve that:
- You can skip church if you want, to avoid those flowers they give out to mothers.
- And brunch? You don’t have to go to brunch.
- If there are mothers in your life who are expecting you to be part of their celebrations, you can call in sick and promise to take them out on another less fraught day.
- Or you can go but make plans to get out early. If you have a partner, have them help get you out. If you have a friend who can text you with an “emergency,” do that. Even better if you can meet them somewhere after for hugs and sympathy.
- Or you can go and bring along someone who will squeeze your hand when someone says something hurtful so you know you’re not alone. And who will listen to you vent after.
- You can spend the day crying if crying helps you feel better. <– (that links to the Free to Be You and Me song) Crying releases endorphins and relieves stress and it might help you sleep better. So don’t fight it if you don’t want to. Let that day be a sad day.
- Avoidance is OK, too. Denial as a regular coping mechanism might not be a long-term workable solution but if you need to spend Mother’s Day watching your favorite comedies or going for a long run or otherwise ignoring the celebration, by all means do it.
In the spring of 2002, after three years of concentrated effort and several early miscarriages, my husband I decided that we were at the end of our fertility quest. That’s it, we told each other, let our son be an only child or maybe we’ll adopt but this is the end of the charting, the tests and the medical appointments. Our decision was precipitated by a number of different factors – my mental and physical exhaustion; the end of our insurance coverage for infertility treatment; and the toll my emotional roller coaster was having on my then 5-year old son.
I felt empowered but terrified, calm but bereft. It wasn’t an easy decision but I knew it was the right one. For the first time since we started trying for that second baby I felt in control. Even on my bad days – which still arrived with depressing regularity fueled by baby announcements, baby shower invitations or even seeing two closely-spaced siblings at the grocery store – I could finally see a time when this wouldn’t hurt so much.
I went to my secondary infertility support group with my news. A small close-knit email list made up of women who found each other on another parenting board, the women there bubbled with encouraging posts (“Your baby is just waiting for you to bring her down from heaven!”), treatment advice (“Have you talked to your doctor about the benefits of a 3-day versus 5-day transfer?”), and sympathy (“Don’t let your sister-in-law get to you; one day you’ll be nursing your own little one!”). In this cheer-leading atmosphere, my decision to stop wasn’t popular. The de facto leader of our group had herself gone to great lengths both medical and economic to give birth to her daughter. Second mortgages, intense treatment and loss had only fueled her determination. She argued with me about my decision but I remained firm. That was it. I was done.
“I guess,” she finally said. “That I wanted another baby more than you did.”
Infertility support groups work because for the most part everyone is on the same page (or at least a similar one). But when one member decides to call it quits it can threaten the cohesion of the group.
Looking back now, I can see why my announcement landed with a thud in the center of our virtual coffee klatch. These were women who had been told over and over again (by friends, by family and sometimes by partners) that they were being unreasonable. They needed a group that would cheer them on when other people rolled their eyes and told them to quit trying so hard. You know, “Just relax!” and all that. Now I can see how my saying “enough already”, however personal that decision was, sounded like I was just a step away from joining the critical chorus.
Still, it hurt. These were my friends and suddenly I was on the outside as they closed ranks.
My decision to quit treatment was not any better or worse than another woman’s decision to stay the course. However in the context of the list, my choice was seen in some ways as a betrayal of our group’s “baby or bust” values. It was time for me to go.
If you find that your support community is holding you back but you’re not quite ready to leave, take some time to build up a new support system that reflects the values you are trying to embrace. When I have a client who is looking to make changes in her support system, we go slow as we consider how she will find those people who will help her in her new endeavors. We also talk about how it’s hard to leave people who have been important in our lives even when their presence has clearly become more of a hindrance than a help.
Having the unbiased support of a therapist can help you make decisions that best reflect your particular situation, experience and values. If you’re local and find yourself struggling to figure out what to do next, please feel free to contact me. Maybe I can help.