The number of times I forget that I’m pregnant over the course of any given week is laughable. “God, why am I so bloated?” I think, feeling my swollen abdomen pushing against the confines of my maternity leggings, which are pulled up as close to my ever-expanding breasts as possible. I place my hands on my belly and, realizing just how big it is, I remember.
As I write this, I’m 26 weeks pregnant with my third baby. You’d think I’d have come to terms with this by now, but the truth is, it’s been an incredibly difficult pill to swallow; I never saw it coming. Having been slapped with a secondary infertility diagnosis some four years ago, the idea of ever being pregnant again felt about as likely as winning the lottery — and I don’t play. To say that my relationship with my body has been complicated as a result would be an understatement.
It wasn’t always this way. Before the birth of my daughter in 2013, I was blissfully unaware of the myriad things that can and oftentimes do go wrong for women during pregnancy. My first pregnancy was wholly uneventful. I was 29 years old; I felt powerful and beautiful, and aside from an aversion to hot tomatoes that will stay with me until my dying day, I was content. Yes, of course I ate my weight in Tums and yes, it took the strength of ten thousand men for me to roll over in bed, but I wasn’t complaining. (Not much, anyway.)
Pregnancy loss was barely on my radar, and when it did come to mind, no great emotional component ever really wove its way through my thoughts. I wasn’t entirely unfeeling; I knew sadness was involved, and realized a miscarriage meant the loss of a life, of potential and of a future mapped out with careful detail, after all. The concept of sadness, though, is so ambiguous — it can connote such a wide range of things. So I didn’t fully grasp that a biological occurrence as common as miscarriage could be so life-altering.
But in 2014, when my daughter was 18 months old, I learned how deeply devastating pregnancy loss can be. It’s biological, sure — but it’s emotional first and foremost. It was for me, anyway, when at nine weeks along, my second baby’s heart took its final beats before letting go. I underwent a medicated D & C procedure, which spurred on the painful process of both physical and emotional recovery. I spent the following handful of months numb and lost, bleeding and broken, harmed and hopeful all the same — until an infertility diagnosis took center stage. From there, I was thrust into grief and denial that lasted for years before I finally learned to let go and walk away with the quiet acceptance that I’d be mother to one and no other.
To find myself now mysteriously pregnant with my third child, four years post-loss, has been unlike anything I could’ve conjured. I’d painted a picture in my mind of the bliss of such an occurrence — of the restoration, the healing and the unbridled joy — but, in reality, all of that escapes me. As it turns out, what I was never prepared for, aside from this biologically inexplicable pregnancy itself, was the tangled mess of grief, shock and confusion that has laced itself into the experience.
Pregnancy after loss is neither blissful nor light. It is profound, and heavy with the anticipation of and preparation for what may never occur: a healthy, live birth. Whether a woman has experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility or any other such type of loss, losing a life so deeply longed for is gut-wrenching. It changes her, and stays with her in perpetuity. She may expect to be elated upon finding out she’s pregnant again, but she discovers instead that delight and excitement are on the bottom rung of her reformed emotional ladder. Joy is replaced by perplexity, uncertainty, apprehension and oftentimes outright depression. This is grief’s ripple effect.
We think of these small human gifts as rainbows after the storm. But before their safe arrival, are they? No longer do we find ourselves naively and whimsically perusing websites to learn what fruit we can compare our growing babies to each week. Instead, these pregnancies comprise tears, restless nights and home Doppler wands frantically scanning our abdomens in search of a heartbeat that isn’t our own.
They also mean advocating for ourselves with our health-care professionals when more of us is demanded than we have to offer. When we find ourselves dragged deep into darkness, we clamber toward our therapists’ offices and we diligently take our SSRIs to combat the prenatal depression that crept in while we were sleeping. It’s what we need, after all — because practicing honest and intentional self-care is not only permissible but of utmost importance as we work to bring ourselves out of the shadows and back into familiar territory.
There is no instruction manual for those who are creating life amid the awareness of the possibility of death. This isn’t easy, straightforward or free of the strings that trigger the memories of what we’ve already lived through. Women shouldn’t let the world tell them that the conception of a rainbow baby is an automatic path to divine peace after the storm. For many of us, in no small way, the storm rages on. The joy will break through, but first we must chip away at the walls packed tightly around our hearts.
So in the midst of our fear, uncertainty and apprehension, we need to consider wholly surrendering, not only to the human experience, but also to the quiet whispering of our gut, and, perhaps most important, to the future that’s revealing itself to us with every passing day. While we certainly won’t find ourselves unscathed, we will undoubtedly make it out of this alive.