I love my unborn daughter. I love her so much it hurts sometimes. I have a bracelet with her initials marked on it, and every time I see a rainbow I feel a pang of love and loss.
But sometimes - and this is the bit that I think a lot of people feel, but nobody talks about - I also fucking resent her. She took a lot from me. She took away my wife's health. She took away 6, hell, 12 months of my life. And for what? She didn't even make it into the world to say hello. She's made permanent scars on all of us, a trail of destruction and hurt in her wake, and left us with nothing good.
I remember during the early stages of both our pregnancies, Annamarie would talk about how she felt terrible, because she couldn't find it in her to love this little thing that was living inside her. It felt like a parasite, sucking her life force, reducing her to a vomiting, crying, snivelling mess - robbing her of humanity, and (as yet) giving nothing back. How can you love something like that? Pregnancy is supposedly a "special time" where you connect with your inner earth parent and your wondrous ability to bring life into the world. But what if, to use that ability, you have to suffer pain that you've never known before? What if your super-power is also a curse? She's like Wolverine, my wife - she's completely unstoppable, but when she gets hit by that train it still fucking hurts.
Having a second baby was a choice we made. We wanted our son to have a sibling, and I guess we wanted a second chance in some sense. Not that the first round was a failure - we love our little man, and we're incredibly proud of the person he's becoming. But we didn't get to experience a lot of the "magic" of pregancy and birth. Annamarie suffered through 5 months of constant vomiting, and she told me the rest of the time she "just felt like vomiting, but didn't". Ahh, what a special time. Fuck off.
Then the birth. It started promisingly enough. I remember cycling home from work, jumping off the bike, and Annamarie casually leaning out the window. "Hi. Welcome home. When you're ready, have a shower and then we should probably head to the hospital. My water just broke."
So we go to the hospital, they tell us that Annamarie hasn't gone into labour, but she should soon. If she hasn't in the next 24 hours, they'll induce her, since now that her water has broken there is a risk of infection (we have since learned that this is not entirely true, and that many women will in fact wait through this rather than be induced, but things were happening so fast and our heads were spinning, we never thought to question it). So we go home, get Chinese for a late dinner. I suck down a beer and contemplate how my life is about to completely flip. We have a restless sleep.
The baby doesn't arrive that night, or in the morning. We go back to the hospital the next day to kick things off. If you've never been through it, there are several things they'll do to induce labour, but I think the main ingredient is to pump you (you being the pregnant woman, not you the reader - you might be a pregnant woman, but you might equally be a sausage dog. If you are a sausage dog and reading this - congratulations, and please email me, I have many questions) full of Oxytocin.
As you may know, Oxytocin is a hormone which humans naturally produce at certain times. It's commonly known as the "love drug", since it's produced in small quantities when, say, you hug someone and much larger quantities during birth. The mother produces loads of it, as does the baby, and even Dad gets a dose. Supposedly it's the most Oxytocin you'll ever produce in one burst in your whole life - a "peak experience" if you like. It's one explanation for the bond that mothers and babies feel especially - at the first moment of life, you've shared a massive experience like this with another human, and that can never be taken away.
The Oxytocin they use to induce labour is a little different. This is synthetic Oxytocin, administered (for us at least) in a drug called Syntocinon (Pitocin in the US). It's not produced by a human body. It's produced in a lab. We've since learned there is research / theory out there about synthetic Oxytocin, and what it does to mothers and babies who had it used as part of their birth experience. You've got to ask - what does it do to a person if their first experience of "love", before they're even born, comes from a lab?. That's a question I think about sometimes, but maybe it's a topic for another day.
So, back to hospital. IV hooked up. Love drug injection incoming. I won't "labour" over the story (oh yes, I went there), but the short version is that it was 26 hours of awfulness. It didn't take a long time for Annamarie to start experiencing contractions and once she did, they were very painful - halfway through the night, she had an epidural because the on call OB told her that these were "unnatural contractions", so way more painful "and she had a long way to go" and he wasn't sure her body could cope. The baby moved around, dropped down, at one stage seemed to get crushed when Annamarie moved a particular way. Eventually it became clear that this was not a happening thing & that the baby wasn't enjoying his experience, so we were strongly recommended to opt for a c-section. We took the option.
The birth was emotional, amazing, life-changing. But it wasn't pretty. I was in the room with Annamarie, holding her hand. They had a sheet up so we couldn't see the "business end". After what seemed like only a couple of minutes, they were pulling out our son. I saw him being raised up, and to be honest, my first impression was that he looked like an alien. His head was the shape of a rugby ball (sideways, like Arnold), he was all purple and a little bit gross. But I knew this was my child. I felt a tightness in my chest, a loosening at the edges of my eyes and mouth. They briefly showed me his face, and then I was motioned to come over to a table at the side of the room with the doctor. I watched him check over my son - five fingers, five toes, waving them around, crying. I looked up, and saw my mother-in-law through a small window at the far end of the room. She was crying, and now I was too. I gulped air, refocused - something didn't seem right. My son was making some strange grunting noises. The doctor seemed unusually focused, efficient. He offered me some funny-shaped scissors to cut the umbilical cord. I did. Thick, red blood oozed out.
Quickly, the doctor wrapped up our son in some blankets and put him in one of those open plastic hospital cots. We had to go. I didn't know where, but they needed the father to come along. I felt concerned for Annamarie, she must be worried - but I couldn't leave our son. I followed the doctor down the hall. My mother-in-law met us and followed too. They took us to another ward, where a swarm of doctors descended and attached all sorts of wires to our new baby. They put stuff in his nose. They put a hat on him that made him look like a comedy war casualty in M*A*S*H. They put him in a different cot - it was closed in at the top, but had sort of round "port holes" in the side where you could put your arms in. I tried to take in what was wrong, I kept getting confused about whether the doctors were talking to me or themselves.
Eventually I got the basic gist. Because of the C-section, our son hadn't experienced the "squeezing" of his little body that comes during natural childbirth. As a result he had some fluid still on the lungs (hence the grunting), which would go away, but for now he needed some help breathing (hence the tubes). it's called TTN and apparently quite common with C-Section births. We also learned he had a large hematoma on his head (hence the nifty baby beanie), which was probably due to that moment when he was "crushed" during labour because his head was enormous and Annamarie's body wasn't ready to deliver 3 weeks early despite the early water breakage. This would probably be OK, but he would need to be monitored to make sure he could "flush" the bruising.
Once he was settled into the new ward (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) I was asked if I wanted to go and see Annamarie in recovery. I went and explained to her as best I could what happened. She was pretty drowsy, and still a bit worried. They wheeled her bed into the NICU and let her put her hand on him. She was then moved into a separate ward for her recovery. We would be kept in hospital for the next 10 days, and kept apart from our son for the first 5 days of his life, since they needed to keep him in a sterile environment for his initial recovery, at least until he could breath unassisted.
Sam bounced back from all of this remarkably well. Apart from a few initial feeding issues (which we've learned is incredibly common) he's grown like a weed. The point of all this. which as usual I am circling around painfully slowly, is that our birth experience was NOT magical. It was, instead, extremely difficult, painful, and utterly non-transformative. Yes, seeing my son for the first time was amazing - but I feel like I would have got that same feeling if it were the 1950's and they just brought him out to me in the smoking room while I enjoyed a nice whiskey. Seeing my wife suffer for two days (without mentioning the recovery - that's another story), and then worrying about whether the machine keeping my son alive was beeping right - this was not supposed to be part of the deal.
So when we became pregnant for the second time, we saw it as an opportunity to maybe capture some of the birth experience we wanted to have. We wanted get us some of that sweet, sweet childbirth magic. Well, fucking boo-ey to that. Instead we got the fucking worst year of our lives. We got more pain. We got death. We got deep wounds, some of which are still open and stinging. And I'm supposed to sit here and say I'm glad my unborn baby existed, that I'm happy she's "part of our story"? Like fuck.
I've been doing a lot of learning about mindfulness and meditation. I guess it goes with the territory of grief and recovery that you experiment with this sort of thing. Buddhist practice has a core teaching that all life is suffering, and we shouldn't fight it. It's necessary, apparently, for balance. We can't know the light without the dark. That might be the case, but it doesn't mean I can't be well and truly fucked off about it.
I think that's the issue I have with a lot of methods and techniques that are often encouraged for those affected by grief. It doesn't leave room for feeling like shit. Which, honestly, is most of what you do. You're doing this meditation, or this yoga, or this exercise - and you still feel crap. And you feel more crap because now on top of how shit you were feeling before, you're failing to get the good feeling this healthy habit is supposed to give you. The rope to climb out of the hole with becomes a whip to punish yourself with. Pain may be transient, temporary, just another state of being. It also feels like shit.
I'm not saying you shouldn't try these things - or that they are inherently bad. I've tried a lot of them myself, and some have stuck - exercise was a big one for me, but more on that in another post. I suppose what I'm trying to get at is that it's OK to feel paralyzed. It's OK to feel like nothing is working. It's OK to sometimes feel like you hate your spouse, or your child, or even the person you lost. As we've discussed before, "getting better" can be a horrible concept, because it suggests that if things aren't improving for you, you're somehow failing. That's not fair. When did things ever consistently feel like they were "getting better" in your daily life? You always had shit days. And you always will. And that sucks. But it's also OK. And so are you. Even when you're not.
When I got pregnant with Sam it was planned. We consciously made the decision to start a family. Nick had been keen for a long time, but I'd wanted to wait, to have more time together before we included a little person in our team. The year before I turned 30 we went on a big trip, a month in the US. It was amazing finally getting to see these places in person. New York was a particular highlight for both of us and we did all the generic tourist things - queue to go up the Empire State Building, take the ferry past the Statue of Liberty etc. When we came back we agreed that we would "settle down" after I turned 30, wanting one more soiree where I could drink & be free. So after my awesome Mexican themed 30th birthday we decided to do away with contraception.
It was a Sunday, I think it must have been around Mother's Day, because Nick's parents were coming over for morning tea. I was a day or so late, so I thought I'd try a pregnancy test. His folks were due any minute, so it was terrible timing, but I'm an impatient person! After waiting the requisite 3 minutes I came out to show Nick - "is this a line, or am I seeing things?". We both agreed, with rapturous joy spread across our faces, that it was indeed a faint line, exactly what we hoped for! And then we had to tone down our excitement until we could get the result confirmed by a Doctor.
So the next day I booked an appointment. I couldn't see my own Doctor, so I settled for one of the other ones in the practice, one you could say was a little more direct than my own. I picked Nick up and we went along for me to pee on another stick. The line was still very faint. Said Doctor informed us that while it was a positive test, it showed my hCG level was very low and I should be prepared that it was an early term miscarriage, one I would never have noticed if I hadn't been tracking my cycle so closely. I was to do a blood test the next day and then two days later and if my hCG levels rose enough we'd have a "viable pregnancy". So we left. We went home positive, hopeful. For the rest of the week though, I was cranky, the shadow of the unknown hanging over me. If this was an early term miscarriage, would we care? Would we just move on an start trying again, knowing that this one "wasn't meant to be"?
It was a Friday morning and I needed the results, I couldn't wait for the phone call, so I pulled over to the side of the road on my commute to work and rang the nurse. Not knowing that I was waiting for a confirmation that I was pregnant, she just read me the results. What did I know about and 800-odd reading? What did that mean? Compare it to the last one woman! She said the results showed a rise and left it at that. I hung up and sat there for a moment. Did that mean that this tiny collection of cells was going to hang around to grow into a tiny human? I hoped that meant yes. I believed that meant yes. I rang Nick and told him I thought I was actually pregnant this time but to be honest, it was a little unclear. Later it was confirmed when that strange Doctor rang to ask if I had thoughts about midwives. Woop, woop, all systems go!
Hope is a funny thing. It's something that keeps you going even when you're faced with extreme adversity. It was week 9 of my pregnancy, after suffering for more than 2 weeks (with what I assumed to be normal morning sickness) that I decided I wasn't coping. This was not normal morning sickness and I could not function. Within a few weeks I lost 10% of my body weight (and I was already the slimmest I'd ever been, so I knew it was serious when I could start to see how bony my wrists were!). I couldn't eat, all I could do was vomit. We had an early scan in case it was twins, could that be the cause of my nausea? Nope. Hyperemesis Gravidarum. A pregnant woman's worst nightmare. And for the rest of my pregnancy I suffered, but through my darkest days I hoped. I hoped that my lack of nutrition wasn't having an adverse reaction on my baby's growth. I hoped that I would start to feel better after 20 weeks. I hoped that my child would be happy & healthy when I was not.
And then when my waters broke early at 37 weeks for seemingly no reason and it was decided that I would be induced. I hoped everything would be ok, that the induction would be quick and I'd manage the labour & delivery without too much drama. And then after labouring for 26 hours and not yet getting to 3cm dilated, and needing to have an emergency c-section because the baby was starting to get in distress, I hoped it would go ok. I guess you could say I was calm with hope. When Sam was born and his breathing was patchy so he was rushed to NICU while I was still open on the operating table, I was hopeful. Hopeful that his breathing would get better. When I was wheeled from recovery to lie next to Sam's incubator and stick my hand through a slot in the side to touch him for the first time, I was hopeful that I could hold him soon.
Hope got me through a ridiculously challenging pregnancy and birth and it was hope that made the ultimate decision to have another baby. I knew there was an 85% chance I would be sick again. But I looked at it as a small blip in time to create the family we wanted. I could survive 9 months, I'd done it before. And this time I would do it differently, I knew what I expect, I was a pro.
So when my health further deteriorated and it became clear this pregnancy was not like my previous one, I had hope that my baby & I would survive it. I was once again calm with hope. Until I had no hope. Until I knew in my bones that this awful rare condition called a molar pregnancy ticked all the boxes. And since that day, the day we found out we lost her, I have been wary of hope. I don't hope for another baby. My body is still recovering from the one I lost, so how can I hope for another? I hope for health. I hope for good days. I hope for a break from trauma. My relationship with hope will never be the same.
a feeling of expectation and desire for a particular thing to happen.
a feeling of trust.
"our private friendship, upon hope and affiance whereof, I presume to be your petitioner"
We're going on an adventure. An epic one. Three months in Europe - planes, trains, automobiles and the odd boat. It's an amazing trip, we've been planning it since before Christmas last year. At that time we knew we needed a seachange, to push a reset button after our shitty 2016. We did dabble with the concept of selling up, Nick chucking in his job and just becoming nomads. But after some soul searching we decided a mini break was probably the more sensible option, that going away for a long time was just running away from our problems. Our goal for this trip is to find ourselves again, find some happiness and have an awesome adventure with Sam before he starts school next year.
In December last year it seemed like we had an age to wait til we left. And in that time I'd have physically healed, I'd have started to get fit again. I'd be travel-ready. And now I find myself a month away from our first flight and I'm in bed again, recovering from another minor procedure yesterday and waiting for my body to heal, hoping that it will heal in time for me to manage the first 12 hour flight. Sigh.
To say that I'm pissed off at my predicament would be an understatement. I do know that my anger is pointless. I accept that I will be weaker than I intended to be, that I will need to rest constantly at the beginning of our trip while my body heals. I accept that we'll have to go slower than I had hoped. But I also accept that I'm angry, angry at being physically compromised for over 18 months now. It's frustrating to not trust my body, to feel let down by my body. And when you've planned something for so long, when you're doing something to try and heal your emotional wounds, it's crushing to feel like the actual travel will be a burden, another thing you have to survive.
When will I start to enjoy things again? When will I have that great day, feel effortlessly happy? I can only hope that I'll find this on our trip, that this massive adventure we're planning is as healing as I hope and need it to be.
This fucking trip man. Loads of people keep telling me how awesome it is and how excited I must be. I am excited. But I'm also fucking terrified.
Physically, it feels like we're limping to the finish line. Annamarie's health is still on a knife edge, and I'm still in a full leg brace following knee surgery. My hip is giving me grief, probably because I'm walking like Robocop. My back is killing me, partly because of my shoulder injury, and partly because that's where I carry stress.
Emotionally, we're still a mess. We have good days where it feels like we're on the right track, and where I'm amazed at how far we've come. We recently celebrated our 10 year wedding anniversary, and I went on a trip to Sydney to see Arsenal (yes, I am a fan, for my sins). Those were amazing weekends, some of the best I've ever had. And then some days we spend yelling or sniping at each other from dawn til dusk.
Mentally, I'm shattered. Tired, and stressed about our finances (a dream family trip can be done economically, but not for free my friend), worried about everything we have to do before we go, worried about leaving work behind for 3 months and what might happen.
But I am also one other thing - I am fucking going. We are going. We might run out of money. An Airbnb guest might trash our house. I might get hit by a bus in Berlin. Hell, given my track record I almost certainly will have some kind of terrible accident while we're out there in the world. But to hell with it, we've dealt with worse. We're going. See you out there.
Some days are good, great even. Some days are utter crap. And some days are just, well, "meh". You know, those days when, although the actual stuff you're doing is objectively "fun" (going out for brunch, playing with your son in the paddling pool, playing sport), for some reason you're just not feeling it. Everything feels a little grey, faded somehow. My wife and I call these "Down Days".
We've always had them, really. Everyone does, I guess. Just energy-less, sapping, floppy days. Days when your body might get out of bed, but your soul, the essence of you, whatever it is, never really does. I think when you've suffered a recent (or I guess even not-recent) loss, the down dip is a little lower - the grey feels a little greyer, a little sadder, the emptiness is a bit deeper. That makes sense, really. When you access "sad sack mode", there are certain parts of your inner mope that are going to activate.
We tell each other it's OK to have a Down Day, that you shouldn't judge yourself for it, and I guess that helps a bit - but you still have to actually go through the day. A whole day of feeling limp, lifeless, lacking motivation, lacking . . . anything really.
Often, my Down Days seem to be synced with Annamarie. I don't know if that's some sort of weird quirk, where our bodies and minds are woven together in a coil through the rich and beautiful tapestry of life (oh yes, deep as a river I am) or whether we've been together so long we just match moods and energy levels, as one of us subconsciously queues off the other. Either way, we often end up in the same vein, which in short means on Down Days our house can be a fucking depressing place to be. Sam seems to play off it too - his brat-meter goes into the red, and suddenly washing his hands requires an endlessly complex analysis of the inherent motivation for having clean fingers.
So, we mope at each other, we occasionally snap at Sam. We feel bad for the moping and the snapping, which makes us more mopey and snappy. Nobody makes food, because everyone is so lazy, so we get hungry and grumpy. Then we eat crap and feel temporarily better. And then the guilt kicks in and the moping and snapping starts again. And so it goes.
So how does a self-respecting non-masochist get through Down Days? Well, there's no perfect prescription. Grief is a slippery fish like that. Annamarie already shared her thoughts on coping, and that's probably a good place to start if you haven't read it. But here's a few other things we've found that have helped a little:
TV / Movies
Often, we'll use these days as a chance for a family movie. Sam doesn't get all that much "screen time", but like his parents he enjoys a good movie or TV show. So we'll watch the Lion King, Sing, Shrek, or Finding Nemo - something he'll enjoy but entertaining enough for us to sit through (because of course, we won't be permitted to leave until it's over). This is also a sneaky way to get cuddles from the little man, without him clambering all over us, kneeing us in sensitive areas and other general preschooler mixed martial arts.
If we're without child for whatever reason, or Sam is in bed, we'll probably crack into a Netflix binge, something engaging but not too serious - so maybe not a sitcom, but not Black Mirror. Definitely not Black Mirror, that shit will give you nightmares (but you can't stop watching). Annamarie and I both studied film & media at university, so binge watching is a shared hobby for us. It might not be for you - but maybe music chills you out? Maybe playing chess, or Candy Crush? (the two key games for the modern intellectual . . .). Maybe Twilight fan fiction is your jam? Whatever, it's a Down Day. I'm not here to judge.
(Annamarie note: some of the best series we've been addicted to are The Good Wife, True Blood, Outrageous Fortune, Luther, The Wire, good ol' SVU: Crime Scene Investigation, oh, and so much more. We're voracious consumers of TV series. And sometimes we look at each other and comment that we should probably spend our time doing something more useful. But the truth is, the total escapism is what we need)
So yeah. We eat crap on Down Days. Like real CRAP. Carl's Jr crap. Colonel's special recipe crap (Annamarie note: this is a lie - It has been many a year since KFC has touched these lips! To be honest, we normally put on some oven fries and chicken nuggets, throw a couple of carrots at the plate - job done). And we try not to feel too bad about it. I know salad would probably activate my positive body/mind cycle - but screw it, it's a Down Day.
Not easy to do when you feel like bollocks, but always makes me things better. I find organised sport where I can lose myself in the game is always therapeutic. It's meditative, in a sense - you're so involved in the moment you can't possibly think of anything outside of it. If I can play a game of football on a Down Day, I will. I'll try not to get in a fight. Most of the time I succeed.
(Annamarie note: I can tell you, exercise has not made me feel better in a long time. Exercise is a chore, something I struggle with, physically and mentally. But I can see how effective it is for Nick. My point is, mentioning exercise as something you can do to feel better actually makes some people feel worse which is counter-productive to this list!)
Getting out of the house
This is hard to do on a Down Day, because you're sapped of energy anyway - but even getting down to the park with the family for 10 mins can sometimes lift my mood.
(Annamarie note: I can count on one hand the number of times we've made the effort to leave the house on a Down Day. We're more likely to set ourselves up on the driveway so Sam can ride his bike & draw pictures with chalk)
Staying in the house (specifically in bed)
Ahhh bed. Difficult to do with a child in the mix, but can be managed if you're willing to let said child watch TV or play on an app for a bit. There's something about the inactivity that bed forces that is restorative in and of itself. This can be a double-edged sword though - Annamarie spent so much time in bed during her illness that I think sometimes this can trigger negative thoughts for her. Still, it's freaking bed, and it's so sooooooft.
(Annamarie note: our bed is this amazing GelFlex bed from Waitemata Backcare Beds. We bought it when I had a redundancy pay out almost 10 years ago. It is the most comfortable bed ever. Everyone in my family now has one! These babies were designed by NASA, yes, NASA. I'm not sure what they know about beds, but they did an awesome job. And it's true, I have spent a significant portion of the past 2 years in said bed. But I can't think of a more comfortable place to relax. If you're going to spend significant time in bed, a good quality mattress and high thread count sheets make all the difference!)
I'm shit at this, but I wish I was better. I just can't sleep during the day. But I hear these things are awesome.
(Annamarie note: I don't know why we even mentioned this. Neither of us nap! And if we happen to miraculously be so tired or sick that we do, waking up in the day and being awake at night when you're meant to be asleep is crap. I heard the best way to nap is to set an alarm for 20 minutes, any longer is too long to nap during the day. Not sure how accurate that is though).
I actually find doing the dishes, or the laundry, therapeutic in some ways. I do it slowly, unhurried, and I'll listen to a podcast or audiobook, or some music while I do it. It's repetitive, a tiny bit active, but not too demanding. I know, I'm a dork.
(Annamarie note: Nick walks around the house with his headphones on all the time. He is constantly listening to something. Learning something. Sometimes it's trivial crap, other times thought provoking, life changing stuff. And it's awesome that he does, it's really soothing for him. I, on the other hand can't walk around with noise canceling head phones on, that just would not work with a demanding 4 year old!)
Staring gormlessly into space
I personally think society does not place enough of a premium on the value of doing nothing. There's a great scene in Office Space, where the main character, Peter, is asked by his redneck neighbour what he would do if he had a million dollars (this being a common way to figure out your "dream job"). Peter responds "I would do nothing. I would relax... I would sit on my ass all day... I would do nothing. ". That. Is my JAM.
Meditation is recommended to everyone these days - and I have tried a bit of it (and other "meditative practices" like breathing techniques etc, with mixed success. However, in my opinion, there is nothing quite like the feeling of sitting down on the couch for a minute, just to remember what you were supposed to be doing, and then 10 minutes later realising that you've just been sitting there, staring but not seeing, lost in a thought you can't even remember now, like you slipped out of time. Often this happens, and our immediate instinct is to feel guilt, or shame for being so unproductive. Is there something wrong with me? What am I doing?
I would argue (and most of the time I'd even agree with myself) that one of the most central aspects of the human experience is doing absolutely nothing. Down Days are one of those few times that your guilt-ridden conscience will allow you to sit your ass down and be a vegetable for a few damn minutes. I try to roll with it. Speaking of which . . .
Just go with it
I think ultimately the key to getting through a Down Day is just to get through it. Recognise it for what it is. This is not you on a normal day. This doesn't define who you are. Let it be what it is, don't feel guilty about "losing" a day. Think of it like charging your phone. You can charge it while you play with Snapchat filters and Facebook stalk your work acquaintances, but it will charge up much more quickly and efficiently if you leave it the hell alone. Your phone doesn't feel guilty about charging up, and neither should you.
So there you have it, the 100% foolproof, 60% of the time it works every time, method to dealing with Down Days. Hit us up in the comments - are we weirdos? What works for you?
When we lost our baby last year, we were forced to be incredibly open about it. Annamarie had been so sick that we just couldn't hide the pregnancy, even at early stages, and of course that meant that we couldn't hide what happened next. Since that time, and since starting this blog, we've had so many people open up to us about their experiences with miscarriage, or losing a baby, and various other seriously crappy experiences. It was tough to hear obviously, but we felt good that people were able to talk to us. Because this is the thing about pregnancy loss - I think people struggle to accept it as an actual "loss" since you never "had" anything to begin with. It can feel in some way "wrong" to make a big deal of it, and nobody will really understand it anyway, since they can't fully appreciate what went on inside your body and mind.
But the thing is, so many people do go through this stuff, and while they might not appreciate your exact experience (can they ever?) they do know what it's like to lose something. I had another friend who shared with me that he and his wife had an early stage miscarriage. They hadn't told many people, but because of what we'd been through, and because we shared it, he felt he could talk to me.
I'm not sure I was any help to these people, really. I didn't give them any sage advice or magically take the pain away. But I suppose one thing I did do (or that my experience did) was give them permission to talk about it. I recently listened to this podcast about loss and resilience with Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, and they talk a lot about how people are afraid to approach the negative emotions - loss, grief, sickness, pain - so we avoid it in every day conversation, even with people we've known and loved for years.
When we first lost our baby girl, I was afraid to bring it up with others, even though everyone knew what we'd been through. I didn't know how they would feel about it. Maybe they thought I needed to harden the fuck up and get on with life? Maybe they just didn't like talking about death and loss? Or maybe (and this turned out to be the most true by far) they had experienced something like this themselves in the recent (or even distant) past? I was afraid to "remind" them of that.
But here's the thing - if they were going to be reminded, that's already happened. Just by existing in their world, and having the experience I did, I've already stirred things up for them. I can't stop that, and neither can they. And is it a bad thing, thinking about someone you loved and lost? Does that have to be a problem? I felt uncomfortable and awkward when people asked me about baby TJ (still do sometimes), it feels raw to talk about it, and I always feel like I'm just having a big moan and that other people in the world have much bigger problems. But I've come to realise that's my problem - I feel like I've said it a thousand times, but for the person I'm talking to it's all new, and they're probably glad I opened up (I always am, when the shoe is on the other foot).
So talking is tough, but I feel a hell of a lot better than when people don't ask. It gives me permission (or maybe even forces me sometime) to talk about it, to feel the emotions rather than trying to cover them up and be all stoic and professional. I get the instinct to ignore it, I do. I used to skirt around the topic, because I didn't want to pry or open up wounds for people. I now know that the wounds are already open, that ignoring them is actually more cruel, that it can make the grieving person feel even more alone, like the thing that is always on their mind is not relevant or wanted by anyone else. That pain is shameful.
I used to work with someone who cried a lot in the office, in sometimes inappropriate circumstances. As a result, she gained a bit of a reputation for lack of resilience. But the thing is, she was super resilient. At the time, she was going through a major illness with her mother (who was in another country) along with boatloads of work pressure from projects and a challenging team environment. Through all of this she kept going, kept walking forward, rarely missed a day of work or let it affect her performance. But she cried sometimes - that was just her thing. Have a cry, get it out and get over it. But there's such a stigma about crying, it makes people feel so uncomfortable (especially in a work setting) that it became a potential career blocker for her. That's ridiculous.
There's a big movement now in the HR / Health and Safety world about "bringing your whole self to work", the thinking being that you'll be more effective, and build stronger bonds with your team and with the organisation if you can bring your full, authentic self into the office every day. But I think there is still a massive stigma both at work and in our social lives to "be OK" all the time. Look at Facebook - everyone is so relentlessly positive (apart from those sad sacks with the blog about pregnancy loss, yeesh) that Facebook only recently added extra reactions other than "Like". Can it really be true that all of our friends are that happy all the frigging time?
But here's the amazing thing that I've noticed. If you do open up, if you do talk about what's going on in your life, if you actually answer the question "how are you" honestly, and then honestly ask it back, good things happen. After my recent bike accident I walked into the office in a sling, which of course prompted immediate questions from everyone I ran into. While it was time consuming having to tell and re-tell the story over and over again, it did mean that I stopped and actually connected with those people. Many shared stories of their own shoulder injuries, or in some cases major car accidents from years gone by. I learned more about them, they learned more about me, and we built stronger personal and professional relationships because of it. Nobody felt uncomfortable, or shameful, or hurt (well, apart from my bung shoulder of course).
Why can't we do the same thing with emotional pain? If we can see someone is struggling today, if they have a bad reaction in a meeting, or they seem angry, or they just seem a bit flat today, why can't we ask the question? And why can't they answer? There's a great quote, and I can't find out who first said it, but I think it really sums up what I'm trying to say here: "Be kind, for everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about". Maybe it's time to ask.
I think Nick has captured everything thing I was thinking this week! So the only thing I have to add is that one of the hardest things I've had to accept over the past year is that grief scares people. My being so open about my grief has pushed people away. And initially it hurt to have people pull away from us, stop contacting us, unsubscribe from our blog or unfriend us on Facebook (I can only assume because they were afraid we would talk about it too much and that made them uncomfortable - spoiler: we don't talk about it on our personal pages).
After talking to my psychologist about it I've come to realise (and it goes back to acceptance again) that I can't control how people react to me. I am being open and true to myself, true to my journey and true to the baby girl we desperately wanted. If that stirs something up for other people or makes them uncomfortable, I can't change that.
So many people have told us how our openness has helped them, supported them and encouraged them. For that reason we will continue to share our journey. And because, quite frankly, it's helping us to make sense of everything. And to those who have felt uncomfortable about us talking so openly (though they'll probably never read this!): I'm sorry that our journey has been hard for you and if distancing yourself from us is something you need to do, then that's ok. But backing away from us and disengaging actually says more about you than it does us and maybe one day that's something you'll need to tackle. Talking about our emotions and supporting each other when we're struggling with our mental health is so important and if people don't feel able to open up & ask for help then the stigma will continue.
We are a family of 3. This blog is the story of how we almost became 4, why we didn’t, and what we are doing to recover from that experience.