There are certain societal norms around pregnancy, motherhood and families that many of us take for granted. If we want to start a family, we just need to find the right person and pick a time. <insert sarcasm>A conscious decision not to have children is questioned. People who want to have children, but are not able to should be silent about it.
Before my first miscarriage, I never thought twice about scheduling a time when I wanted to have children. My education took a good amount of my twenties and I was married at 29. I worked full time as a therapist at a community mental health center. We moved to Italy the night of our first wedding anniversary. It was a year later after we’d gotten settled in when we decided to try for a baby. Looking back on the time leading up to that first miscarriage makes me sad because I know I’ll never regain that innocence again. That naivety was a gift that I’ve had to return.
Life is divided between 2 time periods for me: before and after loss. Here are 10 things I’ve learned on the second half of my journey.
1. Baby announcements can be painful for some people who have suffered loss (including miscarriage, infant, and infertility).
The Pinterest perfect, ultra sound clad pictures on social media are a joyful expression of the hopes and dreams of budding families. They always gain a ton of positive attention. Before my miscarriage I did’t understand how deeply painful these types of posts could be for those who have had suffered miscarriage, recurrent miscarriage, stillbirth or infertility. It’s possible to be happy for people who can have babies, but they often come with a sharp dagger of what has been lost and what may never be.
2. Baby showers can be painful for some people who have suffered loss (including miscarriage, infant, and infertility).
I come from a big Italian family very keen on baby showers. A ton of women get together to gush over the momma to be and shower her with gifts for the future. Some people don’t like baby showers simply because there’s a lot of oohing and aahing over gifts that most people don’t know the purpose of, finger food and bad games. I happened to be in the camp of those who enjoy baby showers. I liked spreading love to expecting mothers and have even hosted a few showers myself. Before my miscarriage, I never could have understood how painful a baby shower could be for some people. The strength it must take to wear that mask for 3-4 hours while nibbling whatever candy fills the party favors.
3. It’s not automatic that everyone who wants a baby can get one.
This is a big one. People talk all the time in future tense about when they’ll have a baby or what kind of baby they’ll have. For some people, it works out well this way. They want a baby, they get pregnant, they have a healthy pregnancy/pregnancies, and give birth to healthy baby/babies. I have a lot of love and admiration for these people. I would call them pregnancy privileged. What I mean by that healthy pregnancies and babies are the norm for them. I have nothing against these women as they are my friends and family. I am grateful for them that they have no idea what this is like. Pregnancy privileged people don’t know anything different, so they expect it to be his way. It can be tough for some of these people to understand what it’s like to have to work long and hard to even get pregnant, let alone carry a healthy pregnancy for 9 months. It’d be helpful if people would stop assuming norms and asking questions about when you’ll have kinds, if you’ll have kinds or why you don’t have kids. Another thing worth noting is the all to common phrases of “comfort” after suffering a loss: “Don’t worry, you’ll have another one.” “You will get pregnant again.” “There must have been something wrong with this one, the next one will be healthy.” “You can always adopt.” Not everyone gets to have a “rainbow baby” or the opportunity to adopt. Let’s stop pretending that having a baby is a reality for everyone.
4. Mother’s Day can be a strong grief trigger.
This one hit me like a ton of bricks. I’d say Mother’s Day was just as hard as the anniversary of my losses. Before miscarriage, I celebrated this day with love and appreciation for my mom. I made cards, bought gifts and celebrated a long with everyone else. I could scroll through the hundreds of posts on social media praising one’s mother, mother of their children, and breakfast in bed for mommy photos. This year, I cried. I curled up in a ball most of the day until it was over. It wasn’t only the strong yearning I felt for my lost children, but also an anger for being left out. Nobody acknowledged the fact that I’m a mother because my babies had died. When you’re pregnant you’re a mother until suddenly your not anymore. I still feel like a mother, but my motherhood is not recognized by others. The change in roles from mother to not a mother is really emotionally difficult. I understand now that for so many people around the world, this isn’t a holiday full of happiness. It can be a powerful grief trigger for people who have suffered loss including miscarriage, neonatal loss, and infertility. This goes for all holidays.
5. There is more than 1 way to have a family.
I know this because of my professional background. I have worked with many different kinds of families including foster families, blended families, adopted families with biological children, adopted families without biological children, couples who choose not to have children, and couple’s who are unable to have children. What I didn’t understand before I had a miscarriage was how much I had been conditioned by my own experiences growing up that the only way for me to have a family is to have a biological baby. That’s just what you do. You get married and have babies. I wasn’t exposed much to different ways of creating a family until I was an adult.
6. Ultrasounds are not always a positive experience.
This one’s for the doctors out there who are not educated about the experience of families who have experienced a loss. For the pregnancy privileged, ultra sounds can be a joyful experience. They allow a peak into that beautiful, healthy baby growing inside. Parents look up at the screen with smiling anticipation. I remember wincing at the ultrasound after I’d been told repeatedly that I’d probably have a miscarriage from my doctor. In high risk pregnancies, weekly transvaginal ultrasounds are often required through the first trimester. They became a traumatic experience for me due to the news I would receive each time. I told my new doctor for the second pregnancy that I didn’t want these frequent ultrasounds and that I didn’t want to look at the screen. He glanced back at me like I had two heads. I can’t say enough how important it is for medical care teams to be educated on appropriate care for people who have experienced a loss. Professionals should try to take steps to increase support appropriate to those with high risk pregnancy and pregnancy after loss.
7. A miscarriage feels like the loss of a child and the grief can be just as deep.
I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience as well as hundreds of others I’ve followed, miscarriage is the loss of a baby. For many, there is an emotional and physical attachment that occurs between mom and baby from conception. The love and bonding is very real, just as with a full term baby or child. It’s common to feel as though a child has been lost after a miscarriage. There’s no correlation between length of gestation and amount of pain felt after a loss. There’s a loss of what could have been that aches throughout milestones the rest of your life. The pain doesn’t go away, but you become more capable of living with the pain. I don’t know that I could have understood the depth of grief a miscarriage could cause until I experienced it myself. I’m not sure anyone can fully get it if they haven’t had a miscarriage.
8. Infertility can be grieved just like any other loss.
I had a friend reach out to me after I spoke out about my first miscarriage. She said, Sharon although I’ve never had a miscarriage, I understand what it’s like to grieve that possibility for my family. I support you. That meant a lot to me and opened my eyes to something I didn’t understand before. I’ve counseled many women and couples going through the grueling process of multiple rounds of In Vitro Fertilization. I’ve seen that grief. I’ve empathetically felt it. Grief is a normal process that occurs when we’ve lost something or someone that is meaningful to us. The loss of the possibility to be pregnant and give birth to a biological child can absolutely be grieved. It’s just as misunderstood as miscarriage in that people tend to minimize it and try to talk people out of the validity of the grief. I have experienced the loss of my growing children, but I don’t know what’s it’s like to not be able to get pregnant. I’ve had 11 weeks longer with my babies than some women will ever have. Each person’s experience deserves to be recognized and acknowledged. Comparing pain divides broken hearts instead of connecting them.
9. Not all pregnancies are easy and healthy.
In the movies and all of my premiscarriage prenatal books, pregnancy is talked about as a fun, healthy, natural experience to be the climax of my womanhood. If mind, body and spirit are connected, I send daily love to myself and my babies, and take care to relax throughout the process I should have a healthy pregnancy. Concerns such as how we feel about our growing bodies, maternity photos, asking our partner for a foot rub and common cravings are addressed. This is part of the culture around pregnancy. It’s supposed to be smooth and relaxed. If it isn’t, there must be something wrong with us! What if pregnancy looks more like 2 rounds of IVF, lovenox bruises and bed rest? Does that make one pregnancy experience less than the other? Or make one person more qualified to become a mother? Since I’ve had a miscarriage, my head is out of the clouds and grounded in reality. I have a chronic illness. It is harder for me to carry a full term pregnancy without intervention. I accept that.
10. It’s okay that people who have experienced loss and/or infertility are triggered by pregnancy and baby related things.
I admit I knew this one before having a miscarriage. Some of my strongest qualities are compassion and empathy. I see how people who have gone through a loss or unable to have a baby would be triggered by pregnancy posts on Facebook, baby showers and celebrations delegated for mothers. What I couldn’t have understood was the depth of pain that these things can bring. A lot of times, you’ll hear well meaning family and friends make comments about how the grieving person is interacting around pregnancy. “Why can’t she be happy for you?” “She’s being so selfish.” Anyone who would say these things probably hasn’t experienced a loss or infertility first hand. There’s a huge difference between being bitter and self absorbed and being hurt. As I like to say in therapy, let’s try and focus on the underneath emotions here. The emotion underneath bitter and angry in this situation could be deep pain. It’s not that people are not happy for their loved ones for living out their dreams, it’s just that it swirls around the sadness that’s present within. It’s unhealthy to swallow that pain for a pushy in-law or careless friend. That doesn’t make being in pain selfish. If someone has cancer and doesn’t feel up to attending a birthday party due to the illness, are they considered selfish? Emotional pain needs to be treated with the same recognition and unconditional support as physical pain. Accept and support, don’t judge and criticize people for taking care of themselves as they grieve in whatever way they grieve.
There are many things I’ve learned about myself and the world from the loss I’ve experienced. Here are 10 common things I wanted to share in effort to help at least one person to remove their mask. You’re not alone.