We have a narrative in our culture about pregnancy and motherhood: The inevitably fertile woman conceives—sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with a little planning, and sometimes with the assistance of medical intervention—and then delivers a live, healthy baby 40 weeks later. She may experience challenges along the way, such as debilitating first trimester nausea, excessive second trimester weight gain, and the general third trimester discomforts that come with carrying a rapidly growing baby, but ultimately her journey is a linear one that results in her leaving the hospital with a living child.
Of course, at the same time we know it isn’t that simple. We implicitly acknowledge that the first trimester of pregnancy is a precarious one, which is why expectant parents are generally advised to keep their news a secret until their 12 week ultrasound scan, at which point the risk of miscarriage drops significantly. But after this milestone is reached, pregnant women are expected to plunge ahead at full-force, decorating a nursery, stocking up on diapers and baby clothes, throwing a celebratory shower, and generally planning every aspect of their lives with the assumption that they will be raising this child into adulthood.
Simply put, despite the facts that 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in a loss and 23,600 babies are stillborn each year in the U.S. alone, we take for granted that expectant mothers who make it past the first trimester will bring a living child home—and if a woman’s personal experience disrupts this narrative, she can keep her grief, her trauma, and her deceased child to herself, thank you very much. One thing I have learned since my daughter’s death is that infant loss makes people very uncomfortable. It defies everything they want to believe about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood—both for their own sake, and for the women in their lives whom they would like to believe are immune to such tragedy.
So what does this mean for those of us in the unfortunate minority who know the unspeakable pain of leaving our children’s cold, lifeless bodies behind at the hospital? In short, our experiences—and, by extension, our deceased children—become anomalous tales to be hidden away from expectant parents and society at large. We become “that one woman” you know whose full-term baby died of sudden, unpreventable complications—but don’t worry, it was just “one of those things” that will never happen to you or the women you care about.
In short, we become aliens, walking around in our unruly bodies, weighed down by our empty arms, all the while surrounded by “normal” people who get pregnant, give birth, and get to watch their children grow up. We become accustomed to the fact that well-meaning but misguided individuals will say hurtful things to us, but we bury our feelings and smile politely in response, because goodness knows they are trying their best. We accept that many people simply don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our deceased children, while others pull away and stop talking to us completely. We quickly realize who our “safe” people are, the ones who bravely walk hand-in-hand with us through our grief journeys without judgement or expectation, and we learn to withhold our difficult truths from those who lack the capacity—or perhaps the willingness—to hold space for us while we navigate the most excruciating type of loss that a human being can experience.
While it may seem counterintuitive, my pregnancy with Leah’s brother has only made me feel more like an alien than I did during the five months I spent as a childless mother. To be sure, grief in and of itself is incredibly alienating, regardless of the type of loss one has experienced. Grief has caused me to feel completely alone in a room full of people whose orderly worlds continue to turn while mine has come to a screeching halt. Grief has ignited foreign flames of rage within me when non-bereaved people offer advice for how I should cope with my loss, subtly suggesting that my emotions are a sign of weakness or pathology. But at the same time, during those early grieving months people generally accepted that it was normal for me to be sad and despondent in the wake of my daughter’s death, at least for a designated period of time.
But things are different now. I am no longer simply a bereaved mother, but a bereaved mother who is privileged enough to have fallen pregnant again without having to endure the crushing pain of secondary infertility. I am a bereaved mother who is well into the second trimester of what has thus far proven to be a complication-free pregnancy. I am a bereaved mother who, if all continues to go well, is on track to bring a healthy son home in three months’ time. Conventional wisdom presumes that I should be bursting at the seams with joy and excitement about the future. Likewise, such wisdom dictates that I should not be fearful, anxious, or quietly wondering if I am too damaged to be as good a mother to this boy as I would have been to Leah.
Here’s the thing with pregnancy after loss: Each and every day, I am living inside my trauma. Each morning I wake up wondering if my baby will still be alive when I go to bed at night, and each evening—after obsessively completing a day’s worth of kick counts—I heave a sigh of relief knowing that he and I have both made it through another day. Simply put, I know what it is to have a perfectly healthy full-term daughter kicking away at my ribs one morning, and to feel her slowly dying in my womb by the end of the same day. This sort of embodied trauma cannot be repressed or forgotten. As profoundly grateful as I am for Leah’s brother, and as hopeful as I am that he will come home to stay, each day my trauma ignites a chaotic clamor of thoughts and emotions that most people simply don’t want to confront.
And so these people tell the aliens not to worry, because they “just know” that everything will be okay. Never mind that the exact same thing was said to me repeatedly when I was anxious during my pregnancy with my daughter, and we all know how that turned out. They ask us if we understand that negative energy isn’t good for our babies, so shouldn’t we decide to choose peace over fear? Right, because what I need right now is a reason to have anxiety about my anxiety, reminding me of yet another thing that could harm my baby which I have no control over. They advise us that these new babies deserve to be loved and celebrated just as much as their deceased siblings, so don’t we owe it to them to excitedly plan for their arrivals? Of course, thank you for implying that the grief I carry for my daughter each day must mean that I am a terrible mother who doesn’t love my son as much as I should.
I understand that this is not the sort of pregnancy after loss post that most people want to read. It contradicts the expectation that this time should be filled with optimism, excitement, and rainbows. Luckily, this post is not written for most people. Instead, it is written for the other aliens who are too sad, exhausted, and traumatized to feel all the things that other people believe we should be feeling. It is for those who become frustrated when people proclaim positive outcomes over our pregnancies, as if hope, faith, and the power of positive thinking will magically do for these new babies what they couldn’t do for our deceased children. It is for those who cannot bring themselves to decorate a nursery or stock up on baby clothes, remembering too well how harrowing it was to come home from the hospital with empty arms. It is for those who feel isolated while listening to people talk nonchalantly about “normal” pregnancy and birth stories, mistakenly assuming that we are “normal” too now that we are pregnant again.
To these other aliens, know that you aren’t alone. Pregnancy after loss is complicated, and there is no “correct” way to navigate its messy terrain. You have the right to feel every ounce of fear, joy, anger, hope, devastation, and love that grief and trauma throw your way during this bittersweet journey. Every morning you continue to rise from the ashes of despair and do the very best you can to get through the day. And, despite what other people may tell you, your best—whatever it happens to be at this particular moment—is more than enough.