Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bust a Myth: Loss and IF Aren't As Bad for People With Children

Warning: graphic post about infertility and loss.  No food this time.  Read at the risk of being a little shocked; this is not for the faint of heart.  This post is in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week, as part of its Bust a Myth campaign.

It seems to be an unwritten rule.  You don't talk about the bad things that can happen during pregnancy, and you especially don't talk about them to pregnant women.  Sure, you can share stories or morning sickness and cramps and aches and cravings, but the really awful things are taboo.  Pregnancy always ends in live, healthy birth in our happy little world.  And you particularly shouldn't be complaining if you already have a child; you've got no right to demand another.

I was 32 when I had our son.  It was a picture perfect pregnancy.  I didn't even experience morning sickness.  I was on top of the world with my pregnancy glow.  Though the birth wasn't easy, I got a healthy baby.  I knew that things could go wrong; one of my friends' children was stillborn.  But I thought somehow that I was safe ... after all, I'd given birth.  Other children would come, too, if I wanted them.

And then, loss.  The first was early, just six weeks.  My son was two.  I'd made an appointment for my first prenatal visit, and the day before I was supposed to go, I saw pink in the bathroom.  No, I said to myself.  Shit, no.  I tried to believe that it wasn't happening.  They took my blood, and confirmed that my hCG levels were dropping.  I bled, and I mourned the loss of that baby, its potential.  I knew when I'd passed the clot that had contained that small life, and I felt sick; I could no longer trust my body to carry a child to term.

A year later, again.  This time, much later; I was just about to begin my second trimester.  I had passed the six week mark, and thought, again, that perhaps this time I would be safe. I was developing a baby bump already.

And then, I saw the blood. A light pink stain as I cleaned up in the bathroom at work. Oh, shit, I said, under my breath. No, no. Not again. Oh, god, please. No. I talked myself into believing that it was nothing. That I would check again later. That I was imagining things. But I knew I wasn’t imagining things the next time. I called the doctor, and they said I should come in that day, even though I had a scheduled appointment on Monday, to see the baby, to see that everything was all right. They seemed so confident, that I believed them. I didn’t call my husband. It wasn’t necessary.

Until I saw the monitor, and the technician, searching. Measuring. Quietly. Looking for something that she wasn’t finding. I’m sorry, she said, I’m just not finding a heartbeat. Oh, god, I said. Oh, no. I covered my mouth, open, like an o. They took me to another room, said some things about what I should expect next, let me go. I cried a little. I hugged the midwife as she went to close the door and leave me to collect myself. I thanked her. I dried my tears and opened the door to the waiting room, walking through a sea of pregnant bellies. I saw a woman I knew in the parking lot, with her sick son. I sympathized, told her I would check on them this week. She didn’t ask why I was there. I drove home.

I became methodical: I emailed the people I knew who had known about it. I called the woman who had offered me her maternity clothes to tell her to give them to someone else. I went through the house, throwing away the prenatal paperwork that I was supposed to return on Monday. I threw away the container they’d given me for my first morning urine specimen. I threw away the pamphlets on prenatal nutrition. I threw away the paperwork to register for maternity stay. I told my husband. I cooked dinner, I bathed and put my son to bed, I checked work email, I went to bed.

On Friday, my car battery was dead. I was tired of death. My husband jumped my car. I went to work. I went for a run, not sure if I could, not sure if I should. My body protested. I could feel the blood coming. I walked back. I went to a lunch meeting of mothers, sympathizing with people’s day care stories, feeling like I was talking in a tunnel, listening to myself in some other body. I bled more, and now even more. I excused myself, staggered to the bathroom, hoping that I was not leaving a bloody trail on the historic carpet. In the bathroom, I began to feel as if my body was emptying in great waves of blood and islands of slippery tissue. Would the bleeding never stop? I returned to my office and finished the work day. I drove home. I fed my family, I bathed and put my son to bed. I went to the grocery store to do my Friday night shopping, walking slowly. I came home, put away the groceries. Checked email. Went to bed. Lay awake, listening to nothing.

On Saturday, I baked banana bread while I made breakfast for my son. I walked with him to the library, promising him a trip to the store for a treat. I went to the bathroom in the library. I knew something was coming, and I had to push, but it came — whatever it was, a mass of blood and cells and tissue — it looked like a human heart. It was my heart. I looked into the toilet, trying to see the baby I knew must have been in there, as my son sat reading Dora’s Valentine on the bathroom floor. I knew I couldn’t look much longer before my son would come over, and I didn’t want him to see what I saw. It was surreal. I flushed it away, feeling sick, knowing what I had just done, washed my hands, ushered out my son, closed the door. The pain was unbearable. I walked home, every step a torture. I made my son lunch, put him in the car. I drove the hour to my mother’s house to get her settled after her return from the knee surgery rehab. I ordered her dinner. I entertained my son while feeding him dinner. I drove home, made lemon poppy cake, checked work email, prepped my Sunday RE class. I went to bed, listening to the roaring of my heart and blood in my ears. I lay awake for hours, shifting to make the pain subside. It would not.

On Sunday, I made breakfast, collected our things, drove to church, set out the cakes and fruit for coffee hour. I washed dishes and made polite conversation about the minister’s pregnant wife, due a week before I would have given birth. I drove home, made lunch, returned to church. I taught a sex ed class, beginning with a memorial service for the co-teacher who had died this week of a sudden heart attack in traffic. I drove home, went to the park, watched my son play in the puddles in his rain boots. I came back home, I made dinner, I put my son to bed. I baked a red velvet cake. I took hours to frost it. I roamed aimlessly; I lay awake for hours.

I felt hollow. Empty. A shell full of nothing. I was just tired; not sad, not angry. I was just nothing.

I thought about the minister’s wife, how she would have a baby in August. I thought about my friend, who would have her baby even earlier, in May. Another friend, in May. Another, in June. I wondered how that would feel to me. I would have no baby. I would have no reason to post “pregnant” as my Facebook status. I would have no maternity leave in the fall. I would do the same things I do every day. Nothing would change. My changed plans had changed back to unchanged plans. I felt cheated, maybe even jealous.

I began to wonder if I didn’t want this one, or the last one, for that matter, badly enough. If they knew this, and left my inhospitable body. I began to think about all of the things I might have done: not enough thyroid hormone. A mistake at Starbucks, when a barista might have given me caffeinated coffee. A piece of chocolate cake. Too much exercise. Overheating. A hot shower. Stress. Negativity. I knew, intellectually, that it was not my fault. That didn’t seem to matter to my superego.

And it didn't matter that I already had a child.

No one tells you that you are going to experience something like labor and lose the baby that could have been in the toilet of the public library.  They just give you a slip of paper to get your blood drawn when you stop bleeding, to make sure your levels are at zero. You are done bleeding, and they take blood. The irony of this was not lost on me.

Another year, another loss, and then it seemed I couldn't even get pregnant.  I went to my ob/gyn, and they told me that I was now officially high risk, that my losses and my age and the length of time it was taking us to conceive meant that I was infertile.  I couldn't understand; how was this possible, when I'd given birth to a healthy child?  They handed me a slip of paper with "INFERTILITY" written in big block letters across the top, with the names of several clinics, and suggested that I call to make an appointment.  There was no explanation for my loss, for my empty body.   I felt marked.  I felt like a failed woman.  I was unable to do the one thing my body was supposedly built to do.  I could not create or support life.  And the fact that I had a beautiful son whom I loved didn't change how that label, and those losses, made me feel.

Though I did, just this past February, successfully carry a second child to term--thanks, I believe, to an endocrinologist who was willing to listen and who believed that there was something he could do--that pregnancy was full of anxiety.  I hold tightly to the children I have been gifted, knowing just how precious life really is, but their presence does not erase the losses that came before.  I also know that it would have been good to know more people like me, to know that I was not alone, to know that others had stories, too.  To know that one successful pregnancy doesn't equal fertility, and that to have difficulty carrying a child to term after a successful first pregnancy was also normal.  And I wish that the stories of loss and infertility were less taboo, so that we could perhaps help other women to be less alone.  We should not assume that the woman in our playgroup is fertile.  We should not assume that the childless woman doesn't want children.

The other day, one of the bloggers I follow posted a link to a video from a Japanese classroom, as a way of illustrating the Buddhist principle of transforming suffering into happiness.  I was struck by the students' display of empathy, and it got me thinking about blogging, about how being able to share a story with an empathetic community can both tap the silent suffering of others and make us stronger people, offering us a new perspective on our own stories.  Healing would happen so much more often if we just stopped making assumptions about each other and started listening deeply, instead.  I thought that I would share the video here, as a way of ending this post, and as a way of encouraging others to write their own "letters," too.  It's about time your voice was heard.

See RESOLVE for a basic understanding of infertility: and for more information about National Infertility Awareness Week® (NIAW):
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  1. I wrote a long ranting comment. I edited it. It ended up ranting about something else. I submitted it. Blogger ate it. Possibly just as well.

    If I had know how alone you were that weekend I would have driven up to be with you (assuming my pregnant state wouldn't have been an insult.) I'm sorry you had no one to bear witness.

  2. Justine, I'm glad you wrote this. It has prompted me to think about things, really think, in a way I don't believe I did before. I'm the other side of that equation. Having been through so many losses without a living child, I've always seen things from my own perspective. That, I'm learning is a little like looking at the world with blinkers. Human. But still blinkered thinking.

    Loss - especially recurrent loss - is devastating. Period. And you're so right about how they don't warn you. I was told "It could be unpleasant." Um. Wow. Understatement, much? And I wasn't as far along as you for that one. I couldn't believe it. So much about baby-making and baby-having is closely controlled, monitored. But this? This was like sailing in the Pacific Ocean in a life raft. (And no compass).

    I've been guilty of buying into this myth. It's so hard, on the other side, not to think wistfully: if I only had a living child. If only I were a mother. Strange, the way we stratify even our community of loss. But that pain, that emptiness, that devastation, those experiences are the same - I truly do believe - no matter our situations.

  3. Justine, you have summed exactly how I felt in July/August last year when you say you felt adrift, empty, but you were still functioning. I went to class, went to work, went to graduate interviews. And no-one tells you how physically painful that process of actual loss is; even at six weeks. It is physically extreme on top of the emotional pain as well.

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am trying to say that and I am not sure it has come out right.

  4. Tears are running down my face.

    You busted this myth so poignantly. Thank you for sharing your story. It gave me hope and for that, I thank you.

    Visiting from Stirrup Queens and now a follower. I can't wait to read more...

  5. as some one who suffered recurrent loss before having children, i had always believed that somehow if you HAD a baby that the loss would be somehow easier to bear. of course, once i had my boys i realized how horribly wrong i was. gratitude & love for living children never erases the pain & grief & guilt for our lost babies.
    ((hugs)) for you. i'm so sorry for your loss, & grateful that you shared your story.

  6. Yeah, my favorite myth is that if you can have one kiddo the second comes much easier. Once I was diagnosed it took 3 months to get preggo with Babe... not so quick the second time around as it took 16 months for the twins. Thanks for sharing this personal story and busting this myth!

  7. Oh, Justine. What a heartaching and bravely written post. I felt like I was with you in that library bathroom, and I was so teary reading it. F@$#ing heartwrenchingly awful how you had to go through your days as if nothing f@$#ing heartwrenchingly awful had happened to you. I am genuinely sorry for your losses. Thank you for sharing this with us... I've only been pregnant once and thankfully had a baby at the end. Knowing what pregnancy feels like, knowing what having a life inside of you feels like, dwelling in that really intimate space that only the two of you share...I can absolutely see how hard a loss would be after having a child(ren). XXX

  8. This post, my goodness. First of all, I'm so sorry you to go through that alone. I feel doctors generally do a terrible job of preparing us for what a miscarriage is physically going to be like. I'm not sure why that is. Is it because they queasy about it?

    Thank you for being so honest about what happened and why it mattered.


  9. I'm so sorry Justine. Thanks for sharing your story. If I could, I would wrap my arms around you and mourn your lost babies with you.

    When I lost my baby, I was utterly consumed with it: the physical agony, the emptiness, the sadness. I retreated within myself. It's a testament to your strength and love that you were able to take care of others while you were going through such an awful loss.

  10. Thank you for reposting this. I have to say, it will be hard to forgive you for taking it down, since that caused me to loss my very thoughtful and well written comment. But forgive you I shall. This post is so amazing. So powerful. So beautifully written. Thank you for sharing it (again). I think there is a particularly upsetting belief that pregnancy loss after a successful pregnancy is not as painful as pregnancy loss before a successful pregnancy. Of course that is bull$#!^ just like all the other myths being busted this week and I'm so proud of you for telling your story so that people can really understand that.

    It took great courage to share this. Thank you.

  11. Thank you for your post Justine. I was wondering what happened to it as I wasn't able to access it for a few days. I understand now. This would have to be the strongest post I have ever read from you and a glimpse of your life. Having experienced loss too, I remember lying on the lounge for the week whilst being tended to by my husband and mum. To read your experience and how you cared for so many others whilst going through this is almost surreal. You are an amazing woman. So beautiful in heart and soul. I'm sorry for your losses.

  12. I didn't see this last week. What a beautiful, awful, heartwrenching post. Thank you for sharing.


  13. I read this a couple days ago and have not been able to find words to say how sorry I am that you had to go through that. Thank you for sharing your story. I wish I could have given you a hug, watched I for you or made you dinner, or all three.

    Secondary IF is a really weird thing. I've struggled with my feelings over the past 2 years. I've appreciated being in this blog community and found a lot of support and wonderful women. But many times I have also felt like an imposter. A woman with one child who is not grateful for one and greedy wanting another. It's weird.

    ps.- I taught a human sexuality course at the University in my town for 3 years. Loved it.

  14. I've thought a lot about this over the years. I'm in the achingly small minority of baby loss/infertility bloggers who have not been able to go on to carry another healthy, live child after loss - and never had one before loss/infertility slammed into my life like a wrecking ball.

    I think, when it comes right down to it, we can't possibly know what it's truly like to be in the group in which we're not. I've always figured that if you wanted children, it HAD to be easier to come out of the bloody war of infertility with at least one, when all was said and done. You have that child upon which to lavish your maternal affection, to teach, to love, to nurture, to watch grow. You have someone to whom you can pass your family history, stories, photos and lore on to. You have a child. A living one.

    What I don't think I'd really thought about until I read this post is that a loss itself - no matter what your circumstances - must be exactly the same. Just as awful and horrific whether you have one child or twenty.

    It's the aftermath that I believe is probably different when you have living children to go home to (or have subsequently), versus those who are never able to fill the crib and fully fulfill the dream of actualized motherhood.

    So thank you for forcing me to really examine this issue, and to realize that the loss itself is, of course, the very same agony no matter what.


  15. I felt like I could write much of that post myself. I stumbled across your blog from the Faces of Loss site and can definitely relate to your story. I just experienced my second loss, an entirely different loss than the first one, and also had a blissful first pregnancy. I desperately wish that these subjects weren't so taboo as well, it really makes the pain we experience more intense.

  16. I'm so sorry, Justine. As so many have so poignantly written here, your post is heart-wrenchingly vivid and so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your story. It does indeed take immense courage and strength to give your private struggles and grief a voice but I am thankful you have taken that risk. Hugs to you.

  17. I've just stumbled across your blog, clicking through as I sit in a haze in the midst of my second miscarriage in three cycles (over a year mind you). In two days I will send my twins off to kindergarten.

    Miscarriage post baby is excrutiating, because you know exactly what you are losing, not the idea or the ideal of what you are losing. The literal, day to day, concrete knowledge of what you lose.

    Thank you for this. I'm so tired of hearing "At least you have N & J," even from my own parents. I adore them, cherish them, but people don't replace other people. Not even potential ones.

    Sometimes I wish people'd just say "I'm sorry" instead of trying to find a silver lining.

  18. This is such a beautiful and eloquent post. Thank you for sharing your perspective so honestly and bravely. I don't know what it is like to have a miscarriage after having had a child, but I do know from experience how horrible it is without. I cannot imagine that pain is any easier to bear when you have in your life a little living, breathing reminder of what could have been.

  19. I'm so sorry.

    Thank you for writing the unwritable, so that others can be comforted by it.


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