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.
When I was working on this essay the original piece didn’t have much of my daughter’s birth mother, Jessica, in it and they kept asking for more about her.
“Well, we want to know why she placed,” said the very nice editor’s assistant. “She seems so together so we can’t really understand.”
See, they had this image of what a woman who makes an adoption plan must look like and the word “together” wasn’t really part of it. My daughter’s birth mother had to have a reason. Some obvious reason that fit into the “brave birth mother” stereotype. Heroic! Sacrificial! Unworthy of parenting her own kid and the good sense to know it! So I called Jessica and told her that I was getting frustrated with the edits and wanted to talk to her about them because I felt like what was coming up was a good illustration of the things that made me hesitate to publish the piece. Like some other people who read the essay before I sent it to the editor felt that Jessica didn’t seem too realistic; they felt she appeared “too good to be true.” (Hey, I didn’t make up any of her quotes.) They wanted her story to slip into some kind of predetermined sense only that wasn’t going to happen because there is/was no one reason. Jessica’s decision wasn’t a tidy little If x = y then z type of thing.
So where does that leave Jessica (and every other woman whose children are being raised by other people)? To be brave and courageous she has to have a reason and that reason will damn her. If she’s unworthy of parenting this child then how much harder will she have to work to prove she’s worthy of parenting the next? Or the ones she already has?
But if she doesn’t have an acceptable reason she will be damned, too, because then she’s just “selfish.” I mean, it’s got to fit that simplified equation in people’s minds.
And of course, the birth mother will be to blame for whatever happens next. Either it will be her fault for her bad genes or her fault for making an adoption plan. Unless the child turns out “good” and then it’ll be because the adoptive parents are so fabulous. In other words, the birth mother gets kicked coming and going.
For a woman without her child, to get out from under these assumptions she’d have to denounce her decision. To be given the right to grieve it, to critique it she has to reject it, which isn’t fair either. There should be room for ambivalence in adoption, in abortion, in infertility, in mothering. While the rigidity in our birth mother visions are most clear, we (all women) are stuck with the polarity of saint and sinner.
this post appeared in a slightly different form on my old personal blog, this woman’s work
I was reading this post by Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, about loneliness and how feeling lonely makes us more negative, less likely to engage with other people, and altogether less likeable. We become “more aggressive, more self-defeating or self-destructive, less cooperative and helpful, and less prone simply to do the hard work of thinking clearly.” (This last bit is a quote from the book Gretchen was referencing in her post, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection.)
I remember that when I was going through secondary infertility that I was very sad and that this sadness made me very lonely. Going through a personal crisis is like living in a bubble. You can see the people outside and you can hear them, but there’s a barrier between you and everyone else. People’s voices seemed to be coming from a long distance away, someplace where there was happiness and sunshine but I was living in this muted bubble where I could see the sun but not feel it’s warmth. I felt self-conscious in my sadness and found myself withdrawing from friends and family.
This is why I sought counseling. I knew I was in danger of isolating myself in a way that would not be good for me or my son. I could show up for things, sure, but the hard work of being present with other people felt beyond me.
Some people tell me that they are uncomfortable with counseling because it feels weird to pay someone to talk with you. But for me, there was safety in knowing that she could not reject me. The structure of our relationship — that I would hand her a check at the beginning and get 50-minutes of her time — was reassuring. I could be my worst self, my most selfish self, and she would still listen. I could be vulnerable and sad and she wouldn’t try to change the subject. I could ask her to lead the conversation when I was too exhausted by sadness to carry my end and she would.
That safety, that space we built together, helped heal some of my loneliness so I could be with my friends again. And even though I was paying for her time, I know she genuinely cared for me. I know this because I genuinely care for my clients.
I want to write more about that, too, how the boundaries of therapy is what makes the therapeutic relationship possible. Stay tuned for that, same bat time, same bat channel.
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.