I started writing this two nights ago, on the eve of a full moon, as the rest of the house was quiet, even the Guinea fowl. Last night, I was supposed to go to a gathering of wonderful women but I found myself too raw to be with people I didn’t know, so instead I continued writing. By the time I finished, I wasn’t at all sure what I’d do with these words. This is intensely personal, The thought of people I don’t know reading this makes me feel very vulnerable, but actually there are some things I really need my friends (and by friends, I mean my actual friends not just those slightly random people who’ve friended me on FB but I’ve never met) to know and maybe this will end up being read by, and resonate with, other women who’ve shared a similar experience.
We don’t usually have chocolate cake and ice-cream in the house but yesterday we had a special occasion, today there are leftovers and tonight I’m eating – without really tasting, fully aware that I’m self-medicating with food – my second bowl of chocolate cake and ice-cream.
A couple of hours ago, one of my close friends told me, with thanks to a sperm donor, she is pregnant. This evening, as she sat in front of the fire chatting excitedly to my husband about the amazing story of how quickly and easily she became pregnant, I stood in the kitchen out of sight, tears silently rolling down my cheeks as I cooked dinner. How could I possibly let her know that I found listening to this wonderful news almost unbearable? How could I tell her that this pregnancy, triggered in me a wave of grief so embodied it made my chest ache?
Last week I listened to a podcast entitled “Getting Grief Right‘ with grief counsellor Patrick O’Malley. He talked about the disservice that has been done by the dominance of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief and how there is in fact no one roadmap for grief. He went on to say that after decades of working with people who are grieving, it has become clear to him that one of the most important things people need is the opportunity to share their story and for it to be witnessed. People who are grieving need empathy, real empathy, which is actually much harder than it sounds (I know this from being on the giving end as much as the receiving one) because basically it means being able to be fully present for someone without giving advice or making well-intentioned comments designed to try and make the person feel different.
Over the last four years, when I’ve talked about the miscarriages nearly everyone has responded with undeniably well intentioned comments which are intended to shift the way I feel. For example ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’ or the variation ‘At least you know what it’s like to get pregnant’, then there’s ‘So many women go through this and go on to have a healthy baby, this will happen for you’, or ‘You just have to trust your body’s wisdom to have miscarried for a reason’, or ‘You’re still not too old’.
Even more challenging I think, has been when I’ve shared the decision to not continue trying and my process of making my peace with that decision and then having someone say ‘Oh that’s when it will happen for you, just stop trying and relax and you’ll get pregnant.’ I know they’re only trying to make me feel better, but essentially what this person is doing is disagreeing with me – I’m saying I’m not going to have a baby and they’re telling me I probably will.
Hardest yet, I think, has been this. A while ago I ran into a distant friend who is an older Mum to a new baby. She told me she was ‘shattered’ and went on to say that she wasn’t sure she’d recommend motherhood. She seemed to not entirely be joking, but I mostly took it as being something a wickedly sleep deprived new Mum might say. However within half an hour, she’d sent a follow up message saying that she knows babies is a sensitive topic for me, so she mostly wants to hide from me, but in this instance didn’t and said what she’d said because she didn’t know what else to say. Again, I have no doubt at all that she meant well and that she was exhausted but it had the opposite effect of making me feel better.
Four years ago I lost three babies, all less than eight weeks old, within six months. It is only recently I’ve been able to refer to them as babies rather than ‘miscarriages’. I am still grieving, although now not so much for them — as I consciously made time and created space to grieve after each miscarriage — but for me. For the loss of something I really, REALLY, really wanted and felt, deep in my soul, was a part of my future. I am now grieving for the loss of an opportunity to feel a baby grow inside me and to be a Mum to a tiny human Adam and I created together.
I’ve just turned forty five. I’ve been unwell for the last four years. Losing those babies knocked the stuffing out of me. A whole bunch of tests later it would seem that a considerable amount of stuffing had been knocked out of me before I got pregnant. After years of prolonged stress, I was, the doctor assumes, adrenally fatigued before I conceived. Four years later I feel infinitely better, but it’s anticipated that I’ll need another two years to fully recover. My child bearing window is rapidly closing (if it hasn’t already). I would really love to have a baby but to be perfectly honest, right now it feels like a choice between me and a baby. At the moment, even a few days of insufficient sleep sets me back and while it seems that nothing is guaranteed with motherhood, I’ve yet to meet a mum who doesn’t suffer through months or years of sleep deprivation.
To add another layer to this story, I was, as a psychologist once said, a parentified child. I’ve spent a lot of my life being a mother to my alcohol dependent mother. I was still doing that, in many respects, when I got pregnant. It was only when I moved Mum into dementia care a couple of years ago that my whole body heaved a sigh of relief and I felt that weight of responsibility lift. So while it might seem to some people reading this that I’m being selfish choosing my health and vitality over a baby, the decision follows decades of putting someone else’s wellbeing ahead of my own. However this layer doesn’t diminish the grief I feel for the loss of mothering my own baby and it is a grief which is impossible to avoid because I’m surrounded by friends who are mothers of young children or babies or who are mamas-to-be.
I read this to Adam last night and he gently reminded me that I need to ask for what I need, not just for what I don’t need. So here goes. I need my friends to know that I love you and love spending time with you but sometimes it’s just too hard to go to your children’s birthday parties or your baby showers. I love hearing about your children and sometimes it would mean a lot if you would stop and acknowledge that I lost mine. Pause for a moment and say ‘I’m so sorry Tink, sometimes it must be really hard to hear me talk about my children all the time.’
I wish I’d had more time with my Dad to talk to him about his experience as a doctor. I have a deep interest in healing and I remember one of the few things he said about his life as a surgeon was that one of the great failings of Western medicine is it’s non-acceptance of death. In 2013, in June, then September and then again in December I lost a baby. Now I’m coming to terms with the loss of my dream of being a mother. Friends, wherever you are but particularly those of you I see more often, I need you to witness that grief and if you can, when you can, I would be so very grateful if you could hold a bit of space for it.