I had originally planned to wait until further into my Pregnancy After Loss (PAL) journey before I shared my experience, however this week has been PAL Awareness week and ends today with the prompt ‘What Do You Want People To Know About Pregnancy After Loss?’ and so I thought, ok I’m going to take the plunge and share my journey so far. Why didn’t I want to share earlier? Well, in case I lost this baby of course. And this way of thinking is the very reason why it is important for loss mothers to speak up and share their pregnancy experience, so those people around us, both family and professionals, can understand the long term mental haul that surrounds PAL, and so that those on a similar path can realise they are not alone.
After losing our son the day after he was born, and 2 subsequent early miscarriages, this pregnancy could not be any further away from my first naïve and relaxed pregnancy. When I was carrying Winter I never expected that he would take his last breath so soon after taking his first. I took good care of myself, yes, I swallowed the vitamins, I swam weekly and I was a daily prenatal yoga champ, but I also ate some soft cheeses and carried heavy loads. I was so relaxed about being pregnant that I didn’t even fret when Winter didn’t kick for a whole two days, instead I rolled my eyes and said ‘they’re sleepy this weekend…’. Sometimes I cringe at my past zen attitude, but I was untouched by loss and presumptive that pregnancy ended with a baby.
PAL is many things, but relaxed is certainly not on my list. I can honestly say I haven’t truly completely relaxed once for the whole 18 weeks. You see, the death of your baby turns your next pregnancy experience upside down. Once you know it is actually really possible for it all to end with a tiny coffin and an empty nursery, there is no going back. And it is a huge emotional mountain. And it is frightening. And it is a challenge even for the bravest of mothers.
Here are 3 things I would like people to know about Pregnancy After Loss…
1. It is scary and emotionally exhausting.
I get up, I go to work, I see my friends, I eat dinner with my family. And always in the back of my mind is the thought that this pregnancy could end, or that my baby could be born and then die. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have lay in bed googling ‘How would I know if my baby had died in the womb?’ and fretted over the size of my bump. My first thought with every twinge or ache is ‘Is my baby still alive?’. Every day I go to sleep thinking ‘I have made it another day and I’m still pregnant, I hope I’m still ok in the morning…’. Seeing that little pink line on the test sparked not an instant feeling of excitement, but instead just a hope that this baby lives. I consider myself fairly strong mentally and a generally optimistic person, but even I have found myself wondering how I would plan this baby’s funeral if it died, what colour coffin would I choose this time? It might all sound a bit dramatic and party pooping to those who haven’t experienced such devastating loss, but really it is a natural protection, a way of preparing ourselves for the worst possible outcome – because for loss mothers that outcome is a tangible reality. I don’t have to imagine how painful it would be for my baby to die, I know how painful it is. PAL is reading and researching every single possible cause of baby death and endless sourcing of apnea mattresses and baby breathing alarms, comparing symptoms and sickness and size of your belly. The fear can be so consuming that we have to find ways to survive in bitesize timelines. I see this pregnancy like a Super Mario game, once I reach the next level the game is saved and I can begin the next challenge; I have just reached ‘first kicks’ level, so right now I’m aiming for the halfway point at 20 weeks, then I will aim for viability at 24 weeks… each scan and consultant appointment is a little ‘tap in’ where I hit the save button before I continue on my next quest. Imagining another 22 weeks all in one go is just too long, surely something is bound to go wrong in such a vast length of time… Then there are the other emotions to throw into the pot. I hear a lot of loss mothers talk about feelings of guilt at another pregnancy. I’ve managed to escape this weight, for me I can reason wholeheartedly that Winter is floating around on his cloud or wherever he is, and he sees me as his mother and he wishes me only happiness and an earth baby to love, he is wise enough to realise that this baby is connected to him and not a replacement. However I fully understand why loss mothers would feel this way and there is a part of me that knows and worries that I will not be able to spend so much time on Winters memory when I am (hopefully) up to my eyeballs in pooey nappies, and there is a very real fear that this baby will somehow ‘overtake’ my first son.
It is not ALL terrible thoughts and anxiety. Of course I’m delighted to be pregnant and there are times when I happily play out stories in my mind, feeding my baby and bathing them, all the things I imagined doing with Winter, but the truth is that every grand daydream is chased by a nervous ‘what if’ and every ‘we will’ is replaced by a cautious ‘we hope’. I want people to know that I am excited, grateful and happy, but I’m also frightened, I can’t commit to saying ‘I’m having a baby’ and instead ‘I hope to bring this baby home’ will have to suffice for now.
2. Preparing for the new baby can be a big hurdle.
I recognise that this varies from person to person. For me, I have had to work on my feelings of ‘jinxing’ this pregnancy. Of course on a sane level it is clear that buying a babygrow does not kill your unborn baby, but it’s a funny ideology that creeps into your mind post baby loss. There’s the fear that investing in this pregnancy too much will somehow end it. During my pregnancy with Winter I was active, I prepared no end and framed his scan photo, but then he died. The first pregnancy after Winter was here and gone in the blink of an eye. The second pregnancy afterwards I declined a scan photo and decided to prepare nothing, I lay as still as a stone on the sofa begging my baby to stay with me, but I miscarried anyway. Through these experiences I realise that nothing will decide the fate of my baby other than life itself, and although I feel at times like I’ve made peace with this idea and have the brave intention to begin preparations, I still struggle with the idea of buying baby things ‘just in case’. A constant hop between courage and caution. I’m forever working on embracing this pregnancy, because I want to have bump photos and memories – whether this baby lives or dies – but I want people to know that it is not quite as effortless as it was before. I want people to understand why I am holding back and I want them to be gentle with my decisions.
3. It does not lessen my grief for Winter, nor will this baby replace him.
Ok, if I’m honest it has made my grief easier to bear, because now I have a positive focus in my life alongside the pain that comes with endlessly missing your baby, but it has not lessened my grief. I’m not magically cured by the grief fairies. This baby is not and never will be a replacement of Winter, they are an addition to our family in their own right. I will always include Winter in my headcount of offspring because I grew and birthed him and he does not cease to be my child even when separated by death. Being pregnant again has heightened my grief in many ways. I’m very aware of the fact that if this baby is healthy and lives, then at 2 days old we will have already spent longer with them physically than we ever did with Winter, and that really hurts. I’m pretty certain these days that there is no way I will ever fully recover from my child dying in my arms, from arranging his funeral, collecting his ashes, reading his post mortem report. These are things that will stay with me forever, whether my arms are filled again or not. I want people to know that this new pregnancy brings with it fresh hope and happy milestones amongst our painful ones, but it doesn’t stop me longing for my son. I want people to know that watching my belly and baby grow will forever be bittersweet for me.
It goes without saying that I am enormously grateful for this pregnancy and I cherish every single moment I have. For over a year I wished to fill my womb again with a growing baby, and I know I am lucky to have this chance. But it is still hard, there’s no doubt about it, and it is an experience I woefully underestimated mentally. Pregnancy After Loss is an absolute blessing, but I wonder if sometimes in a world of infant loss and trying to conceive, loss mothers feel uneasy about sharing their difficult PAL journey at a risk of sounding as though they are ungrateful or complaining. This is why it’s important to share our reality and be gentle with each other, and gain the support we need from loved ones and our hospital teams.
PAL is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, bar losing Winter of course, but I’m just hopeful it will be worth it in the end.