Fear

After Leah’s death, the crippling agony of my grief was immediately accompanied by another all-consuming emotion: Fear. It is difficult to imagine that any parent who has lost their first and only child will not be plagued by worrisome questions as they peer ahead into the uncertain future: What if subsequent pregnancies end the same way? What if I never have a living child to bring home and care for? And, in my case specifically: Will I ever be able to conceive again?

You see, throughout the entire nine months that I carried Leah, I had been quietly wondering if this pregnancy was a complete biological fluke. This is because, months before she was conceived, I had become attuned to the fact that my menstrual cycles seemed to show the classic signs of a luteal phase defect. In a nutshell, the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation. Most medical professionals seem to agree that a 12-16 day luteal phase is “normal,” with anything less than that potentially inhibiting fertility since it may not provide enough time for a fertilized egg to properly implant in the uterus.

I am not sure why it took me so long to notice that my monthly luteal phases were disconcertingly short at 10 days—and sometimes less. As mentioned previously, I had been using the Fertility Awareness Method as natural birth control for about three years. While most women who have read Toni Weschler’s classic text, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, do so in their quest for pregnancy achievement, I had been diligently charting my basal body temperatures and cervical mucus each day in my efforts to delay motherhood. In any case, as soon as I noticed this anomaly in my monthly cycles, I began to wonder what complications it might pose when I did eventually want to conceive. While I didn’t see myself becoming a mother for a few more years, I did some research on the issue and decided to start taking a Vitamin B6 supplement each day for good measure.

This is likely why I had grown relaxed in my charting habits shortly before Leah was conceived, believing that I couldn’t become pregnant even if I did have intercourse during my fertile window. This is also why I was equally relieved as I was surprised when I discovered I was pregnant. This relief would continue throughout the next nine months as my pregnancy progressed perfectly, all the while wondering if this would be my only shot at motherhood without the aid of costly fertility medications and procedures. I had never envisioned myself with a house full of children, so if Leah ended up being the only child I was able to conceive without medical intervention, I would have proceeded through life content with my family of three. Needless to say, when she died unexpectedly at the tail end of my complication-free pregnancy, my anxiety wasted no time before shouting its concerns from the depths of my mind, reminding me that I might never fall pregnant again so easily, if at all.

Admittedly, this anxiety was more consuming at the beginning of my grief journey, when my chaotic postpartum hormones, unable to make sense of my baby’s absence, were urging me to become pregnant again as soon as possible. But this instinctive urge faded as the weeks and months wore on, and I finally accepted that having another baby would not be a magical cure for my grief. Throughout this time, my husband and I devised a plan: We would wait until December, six months after Leah’s birth, before trying to conceive again, with the understanding that it was unlikely to happen right away. If six months of trying bore no fruit, I would speak to my OBGYN about possible next steps. In the meantime, I continued to take my vitamins and chart my cycles so that I would have tangible proof of my short luteal phases to present to my doctor when the time came. I also tried my best not to fall apart each time my period showed up ten days after my ovulatory temperature spike.

cycle-2

My first charted post-pregnancy cycle, with a crushingly short luteal phase of eight days

With nowhere to go but forward, I trudged ahead on emotional autopilot, adapting to a new routine, a new job, and a new life as a bereaved mother. During this time I settled into a strangely comfortable state of apathy, not feeling much of anything beyond the ever-present ache for my daughter. At least, that was the case—until two pregnancy announcements and one birth announcement, all unleashed within the course of a week, reignited my raw grieving emotions with the force of a thousand suns.

Maybe a stronger loss mama could have handled it. I wanted to believe that I could handle it. After all, I did not want these babies, nor was I even sure if I was emotionally ready to be pregnant again. Nevertheless, it all crashed over me with the devastating impact of a tidal wave—the visceral reminders of what I had, what I lost, and what I may never have again. Not since June had my hormones and emotions run so hopelessly amok: For an entire week I hurled pillows against walls, surrendered to uncontrollable sob fests in the washroom at work, and launched more f-bombs into the atmosphere than I had in the previous 30 years of my life combined.

In short, I was a mess. And I was so consumed by this tornado of emotions that I hadn’t even noticed day eleven of my luteal phase come and go, with no sign of my period in sight.

When this realization finally hit me, the fog lifted and I immediately snapped out of my funk. Eleven days! No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something. It was hope. Maybe next month I could make it to twelve days, which would finally bring my cycle lengths to the lower end of “normal.”

And then day twelve passed me by, still with no indication that my period was on its way.

On day thirteen, I tried my best to stay grounded and suppress the flicker of wonder that had ignited within me: Was it possible? My husband and I were not actively trying to conceive yet, but we hadn’t been actively preventing it, either. I told myself to wait at least a week before jumping to any conclusions. After all, a twelve day luteal phase was nothing to sneeze at, and I would likely subject myself to unnecessary disappointment by taking a home pregnancy test so soon.

Yet I couldn’t shake the deep, consuming question that continued to echo in my brain all day at work: What if? After much internal debate, my curiosity ultimately trumped my caution. I stopped at a drugstore on my way home and didn’t tell my husband about my excursion. I was even able to wait until after dinner before retreating to the washroom to carry out my covert plan.

So many thoughts and emotions flashed through my mind while I waited for the results. I could vividly see myself, fourteen months prior, smiling as two pink lines confirmed my pregnancy with Leah. And then, almost as if I had stepped back in time, they slowly appeared once again.

test

December 2, 2016

cycle-5

I wish I could say that this reassuring result filled me with joy and excitement, but this simply wasn’t the case. Instead, I shed silent tears for the daughter whom I seemed to miss more than ever in that moment. I instantly thought about all the things that this new baby would get to see and experience if it managed to beat the odds and make it home—all the things I dreamed of doing with Leah, but never got the chance to. However, I also shed tears for myself, thinking about the nine months of emotional turmoil I was about to experience if this pregnancy progressed normally (which would be the best case scenario), as well as the utter devastation that I would feel if it were to result in another loss.

Was I thankful to see that my fears about secondary infertility were apparently unfounded? Yes, profoundly so. At this point I had interacted with too many loss mamas who had faced (and were still facing) fertility struggles to dismiss this glimmer of hope completely. But the brutal truth is that my grief and fear trumped my ability to feel the same joy and excitement that I did when I first discovered I was pregnant just over a year ago.

As I write this, I am 18 weeks pregnant with Leah’s sibling. To say that the past four months have been an emotional roller coaster would be an understatement. First, there are the flashbacks. Goodness, the flashbacks. Within the first eight weeks I made two visits to the emergency room for reassurance scans, and each time I felt like I had been transported back to June. I was bombarded with visions of myself wandering into the same lobby and telling the triage nurse that I had noticed a reduction in my baby’s movements; being directed to the Labour and Delivery unit, where I broke down crying at the intake desk, trying to explain that I had come to the hospital in a moment of panic, and no I had not called my midwife yet; watching a team of doctors remove my daughter from my body and whisk her away, not knowing what was going on or where they were taking her; holding my beautiful girl to my chest while her body seized and convulsed against my skin, and crying out in agony as she breathed her last laboured breath in my arms. I continue to experience these intrusive flashbacks on a daily basis, and I imagine their frequency and intensity will only increase as I move closer to my due date.

Second, there’s the anxiety. I held out okay until week 6 arrived, at which point the dreaded brown spotting started. Now, brown spotting can be totally normal if it is merely old blood being shed from the uterus during the early weeks of pregnancy—but of course, sometimes it can also be an early sign of miscarriage. I count myself fortunate that it was harmless in this case, but I was still overcome by a wave of panic each time it re-surfaced over the course of the next two weeks. I was also fortunate enough to have far more pronounced first trimester symptoms than I did with Leah, including debilitating fatigue and nausea. I was thankful for these corporeal reminders that my body was seemingly reacting to this pregnancy as it should—until I experienced the occasional day where these symptoms seemed to disappear completely. Of course, this can also be a totally normal response to fluctuating pregnancy hormones—but sometimes it can signify that a missed miscarriage has occurred.

I did not experience a reprieve from my anxiety until I reached week 10. Against the recommendations of the medical community at large, I decided to rent a medical grade Doppler so I could listen to the baby’s heartbeat at home. I can honestly say it is the best decision I have made for myself and my self-care during this pregnancy. It arrived by week 11, and after two practice runs I became quite proficient at finding the baby’s heartbeat during each subsequent use. I now use it twice a day: In the morning before I leave for work, and in the evening when I return home. Not only do these daily sessions allow me to feel connected to the life that is growing inside me, but they also give me reason to pause, smile, and find assurance in knowing that, at least for the present moment, my baby is alive and well.

tng-cropped

Leah’s sibling at 12 weeks gestation

Even so, I cannot speak or think about my future with this child in definitive terms. While I wish I could say that this pregnancy marks a happy ending of sorts for me and my family, the reality of being a loss mama is far more complicated than that. However, this does not mean that I do not love this baby tremendously. To the contrary—rather than plan ahead for things that may or may not happen, I spend each day acutely aware that this could be the only time I get to spend with this child, and I do not take a single heartbeat, flutter, or kick for granted.

As grateful as I am for this pregnancy, and despite being well into the mythical “safe zone” that comes after 14 weeks gestation, there are no guarantees that I will get to bring this baby home. As much as I am hoping for the best, I also know how suddenly and unexpectedly a complication-free pregnancy can careen towards the worst. Moreover, even if I do get to bring this baby home, doing so cannot suture the loss wound that Leah has left on my heart. Don’t get me wrong: Having a living child will certainly restore some of the joy and hope that disappeared from my life when Leah died. But I will continue to ache for my firstborn daughter each and every day, just as I do now.

I also understand that this development will inevitably change the nature of this blog. As a friend and fellow loss mama said to me not too long ago, the only thing harder than being pregnant after loss is not being pregnant after loss (assuming that the woman in question desires to have another child). I know firsthand the difference between being a pregnant loss mama and being a childless mother, and I can say without a doubt that the latter experience is far more difficult. While this pregnancy—like all pregnancies—may result in a heartbreaking loss, the imminent possibility that I may bring a living child home makes all the difference in the world. I thus recognize that sharing my pregnancy experience means this blog may become one more trauma trigger for loss mamas without living children, and especially for readers who know the pain of infertility and secondary infertility. For this reason, I cannot say that I am blessed to have fallen pregnant again so soon, when so many women struggle for years to conceive, and many others never do so at all. There is no way around the fact that this is devastatingly and infuriatingly unfair, yet it is the reality that many loss mamas are forced to live day in and day out.

In the meantime, all I can do is continue to write about what I am living, which for now is a chaotic mixture of grief, anxiety, fear, and—dare I say it—hope. Despite my aching loss wound and my trepidation about the uncertain future, I do count myself fortunate to awake each day with a heart that is filled to the brim with love for my two children—the one whose hand I hope to hold throughout the years to come, and the one whose hand I hope to hold again someday.

Chasing Rainbows

I’ve always been an anxious person. Even as a young child I habitually anticipated the worst possible outcomes that could result from innocuous daily events. For instance, in kindergarten I purposefully missed the bus on field trip days because I was convinced that I would somehow get lost and never see my family again. Similarly, I lived in a state of perpetual terror that my mother was going to die each time she left the house to run errands, and I would haul my infamous blue stool to the living room window and wait for hours on end for her to return. I hated going on boats and refused to venture into the deep end of any swimming pool due to the possibility of drowning. At age 30 I still don’t have a driver’s license because of my fears about the carnage that may ensue each time I get behind the wheel.

Despite these early catastrophizing tendencies, somehow I managed to get through the bulk of my childhood and young adult years without my anxiety interfering with my daily quality of life. That is, until I began embarking on my doctoral studies at the ripe of twenty-four. It has been aptly argued that the hyper-competitive nature of graduate school, in conjunction with the precarious job prospects that await doctoral candidates in an increasingly neoliberal academe, creates the perfect storm for otherwise dormant mental health issues to ignite with unprecedented fervor. While I had always been prone to anxiety and worst-case scenario thinking, never before did these tendencies take such an excruciating toll on my physical and mental well-being.

I will never know with certainty if my experiences in graduate school were the catalyst for my ongoing battle with generalized anxiety disorder. All I know is that my anxiety spiked to unprecedented heights during the final year of my PhD when I discovered I was pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, there were days when I was quite confident that Leah would be born healthy, and I was able to imagine the bright, love-filled life that we would share together. But there were other days when the possibility of my daughter making it into the world unscathed seemed too fantastical to be true, and imagining a positive outcome for my pregnancy made me feel like I was chasing rainbows.

rainbow

Image credit via QuickMeme

Still, during the months that I carried Leah I always had contingency comforts to fall back on. I could often talk myself out of my recurring anxiety spirals by reasoning that there was no life precedent or statistical reason why my baby would die. When science did not offer sufficient comfort, I could seek solace in my faith that God loved my daughter and would protect her from harm. And if I still couldn’t muster belief that Leah would come into the world safely, I drew consolation from the steadfast confidence offered by the people around me that everything would be fine. I reasoned that they must have all known something that my anxiety prevented me from seeing, and their certainty was enough to keep me going when I teetered on the brink of hopelessness.

Which brings me to my current situation. With four grueling months of grief behind me, I now find myself looking toward the future with unsurprising trepidation. While I have begrudgingly accepted that my life will simply never be what it could have been had Leah survived, I still ache to have a living child to love and care for. Yet I cannot look too far ahead without being besieged by the fear that I will never have a living child. Simply put, I have already landed on the wrong side of the statistics once before, and my anxiety will not be placated by fact-based arguments or faith-based platitudes.

When I now confide in my loved ones about my fears of future losses and secondary infertility, they all remain unwaveringly confident that I will have a living child in the near future. I don’t exactly resent their optimism; after all, I can’t fault them for not wanting to believe that I may spend the rest of my life as a childless mother. But as the people around me offer their unsubstantiated certainties and then continue on with their lives, I have no choice but to confront the unpalatable realities: My “young and healthy” body, in conjunction with all my planning, precautions, and excellent prenatal care, did not bring Leah into the world safely. Similarly, despite my faith and heartfelt prayers, God did not protect my child. Since science and faith both failed me the first time around, there is literally no foundation to support any hope that future pregnancies will reap different outcomes.

Indeed, it seems that I am the only person in the universe who questions whether I will end up with a much-coveted rainbow baby and all that it symbolizes. For those who are not part of the loss community, a rainbow baby refers to a child that is born after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. More importantly, the term denotes the calm and beauty that a new baby brings after the tumultuous storm that loss leaves in its wake. For many loss mamas, the hope for a rainbow baby holds the promise of future joy and peace in the midst of soul-crushing grief, so it stands to reason why this term holds so much significance in the loss community.

Yet like some other loss mamas that I’ve connected with throughout the past four months, I remain ambivalent about this term. While I can certainly appreciate why so many parents take comfort in the “rainbow” terminology and its connotations, it simply does not resonate with me at this time. I do not foresee myself referring to any future children I may have as rainbow babies, and I have two key reasons for this.

First, I am cognizant of the unfortunate but sobering reality that not all loss mamas get a rainbow baby. Just as one pregnancy does not guarantee future fertility, and just as every pregnancy carries risks of complications, there is no mystical promise that loss parents will go on to have a living child. The truth is that many mamas endure the agony of multiple losses, and many others live their lives as childless mothers. To that end, loss mamas with no living children often find themselves further marginalized by the loss community’s sweeping preoccupation with rainbow babies, and I do not want to deepen their sense of isolation.

rainbow-3

Image credit via MemeGenerator

Second, I know myself too well to naively believe that bringing a future baby home will instill any sense of calm in my life. The ever-raging storms that are my anxiety and my grief for Leah will not simply dissipate if I am fortunate enough to have a living child. In my life, death is no longer an abstraction that only happens to other people’s children. If death can strike my physically healthy 7 pound baby at the tail end of a complication-free, full-term pregnancy, it can also strike any future children I have long after they have left the womb. Rather than relishing in the calm after the storm, I know that I will spend the bulk of my waking and dreaming moments anticipating the innumerable tragic events that could befall my future children at any given time.

Similarly, while I do not discount that having a living child will bring new joy and love to my life, a “rainbow baby” will not bring a peaceful resolution to my grief. My firstborn daughter is dead, and I will grieve for her and the life she never got to live until my dying day. For every moment of sunshine and laughter that I may share with future children, I will reflect on all the beautiful moments that Leah never got to experience. For every milestone that her siblings surpass, I will think about all the steps that Leah never took and the words she never spoke. With each passing year wherein my future children grow, change, and emerge as individuated adults, I will think about the person that Leah might have been, but whom I never got to know.

Perhaps these resolutions seem self-pitying and defeatist, but in reality they are simply self-reflexive and honest. While my grief may be exacerbated by my ongoing mental health battles, I imagine that any parent who has felt their child’s body go limp and cold in their arms knows that nothing can ease that depth of agony or rectify the injustice of their child’s unlived life. At the end of the day, nothing will change the fact that my daughter was deprived of a lifetime’s worth of birthdays, Christmas mornings, and more love from her mama than I ever thought possible. In the meantime, I continue to search high and low for fertile ground that might sustain the hopes and dreams I have for the future. Despite my tireless efforts, however, I still don’t know where to plant them. Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?

Save

Trying Again

During the earliest days of my grief journey there were moments when I had all but convinced myself that life would be okay again as soon as I had another baby in my arms. I had visions of myself surrounded by family and friends in the same hospital room where I stayed with Leah, only this time there was a purely celebratory atmosphere as we passed the new baby from one pair of loving arms to the next with no thought of saying “goodbye” in sight. I was quite taken aback by how quickly the urge to conceive again overcame me. I physically yearned to feel soft newborn skin against my chest, and my arms literally ached from their crushing emptiness.

I believe this irrepressible urge is biologically instinctive in the most profound sense. I had given birth to Leah and bonded with her. For 33 hours I held her, smelled her, fed her, and took care of her after carrying her for nine months. Suddenly I found myself at home with no baby, and it seemed like my body was not able to comprehend or accept her sudden, unnatural absence. During those early days my need for her was deep and primal; I spent countless hours curled into the fetal position on by bed, clutching my soft postpartum belly and whimpering her name like the wounded animal that I was.

On another level, this urge is also likely motivated by the fact that I am a borderline-obsessive planner, which is common among anxious types like myself. Even though my pregnancy with Leah was a surprise, I maintained my locus of control by planning around her unexpected presence in my life. For the next nine months each decision, whether it be about work and finances or simply what to eat for dinner that day, was made with her in mind. My life was still moving forward with the understanding that Leah would be a fundamental part of my present and my future.

But when she exited my life just as abruptly as she had entered it, my world came to a screeching halt. Despite my anxious propensity to hope for the best but expect the worst during my pregnancy, I could not possibly prepare myself for my daughter’s death. Suddenly I was stagnant; I could not turn back the hands of time and get her back, but I also could not move forward. I had planned for a baby. I had a baby. I had a bedroom full of baby gear and an entire summer ahead of me during which I had no plans beyond caring for my daughter. It didn’t take long for my anxiety to begin shouting its directives from the depths of my mind, desperate to regain some semblance of control:

“Have another baby!

82526

Image credit via Keep Calm And Posters

Of course! It was a brilliant plan. My OBGYN had given me the go-ahead to conceive as soon as my postpartum bleeding ended. This meant that if my menstrual cycles resumed by the end of the summer, I could theoretically be pregnant again in the fall and be holding Leah’s brother or sister this time next year. Certainly I could hold out for one more year and everything would be back on track. I clung to this assurance for a brief period of time before my anxiety intervened (again) and began generously offering numerous “what if” scenarios to consider:

What if you cannot conceive now that you will be actively trying? What if you experience Unexplained Secondary Infertility? What if you get pregnant but you have a miscarriage? And then another miscarriage? And then another? What if you experience another Fetomaternal Hemorrhage in the second or third trimester? What if your baby is stillborn? What if the baby is born with unanticipated complications and dies in the hospital? What if your baby seems okay in the hospital but dies of SIDS or illness at home?

And on and on it goes. Yet every now and then I am able to put my fear of future losses aside and imagine a positive outcome. I consider the absolute best case scenario that could unfold from here: I get pregnant soon after I start trying. I have a healthy, complication-free pregnancy. I hear a strong cry from Leah’s brother or sister after they are birthed by repeat cesarean section. I find myself at home a year from now, doing everything I imagined I would be doing with Leah, but with a new baby instead.

I allow myself to imagine these positive outcomes from time to time, but inevitably the tears still flow. A more nuanced clarity has emerged since my first days of grieving and I now understand that having another baby will not mend the loss wound that Leah has left in my life. Yes, perhaps I could get pregnant again quickly, but Leah won’t be the one performing acrobatics on the ultrasound screen during my prenatal appointments. Maybe I could have a healthy baby that makes it to the second trimester, but it won’t be Leah’s kicks that I feel against my ribs each day. Perhaps another baby could make it to the end without experiencing FMH or a different complication at the eleventh hour, but it won’t be Leah who is passed from one family member to the next in a hospital room where joy is not mitigated by sadness.

With each passing day I become more painfully aware that there is no simple way forward from here. I know that having another baby will complicate my ongoing grief journey, rather than alleviate it. Having another baby will not give Leah back the life she never got to live, nor will it erase the struggles she endured. Still, these days the most comforting thing I can imagine is sitting with another wee daughter or son and telling them all about their beautiful, strong big sister. It allows me to smile every now and again when I am tempted to shrink away from the bittersweet road that lies before me. It does not take the pain away, but it does allow me to hope.

Save