What Could Have Been

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family-of-five Image via Shutterstock

It can hit you at the weirdest times. It just does. And when it does… it gives you an emotional chill like a shadow from your past.

I was driving my wife to work today as we often do in the morning and it hit me just then. She was going through Facebook scrolling by a picture of some old friends with their kids. I asked her, “don’t they have four kids now?” They do.

And it hit me. We could, too. Or could have. But don’t.

We’ve come such a long way… many years and thousands of miles from a phone call to my work one night. Something was wrong. My wife knew it. Through her tears she asked me to come get her. I left work right away. I found her in a stall in the women’s room at Boston University where she worked… crying.. her clothes soaked through with blood. I took her to the doctor but by then she knew… we knew… how could you not know… she had suffered a miscarriage.. what would have been our first baby as a newly married couple. Of course, my wife was physically OK and that was most important. We were assured we could try again at some point when the time was right. That was important too. In the meantime, we went home for a couple of days and hid ourselves in takeout and movies and self-pity. We told the few family members who already knew she was pregnant. But let’s face it.. There’s not a whole lot someone can say or do to make you feel any better. And all the good will can’t replace the fact that you were already secretly picking baby names and nursery colors and getting excited to be new parents. You compartmentalize that chapter of your life like an old photo in an album that you tuck away on a shelf and only glance at once in a long while.

Time passed. We went on to have a beautiful daughter Alicia.

We’d go on to have another miscarriage, too. By that time we felt like old pros at it. This time my wife was right in the doctor’s office at her pregnancy exam when the doctor informed her she was miscarrying. It didn’t make it any easier. We went home. We hardly told anyone. This time, we poured ourselves into caring for our young girl at home that we already had. And again we compartmentalized that chapter of our life like an old photo in an album that we tucked away on a shelf and only glance at once in a long while.

Time passed again. We went on to have another beautiful daughter Andreya.

We chose not to try for more children. Out of four pregnancies, two ended in miscarriage. I feel blessed to have two healthy kids. Why test the percentages again? Sure once in a while the thought of another baby creeps in… the idea of raising a new baby and having that excitement back in the family. For us, the time has passed. But yes I still think about it… sometimes… at the weirdest times… that our family might have been bigger… could have been bigger… but isn’t. And I know there are so many other couples just like us. This is my subtle nod to them.. we’ve been there too. I’m not going to tell you how to feel. I just want you to know you’re not alone. You’re not. Today I flipped through that old photo album in my mind and was taken right back there.

I dropped my wife off at work and returned home to make breakfast with the kids as one danced around with her panda stuffed animal… And the other drew one of her fantastic drawings. They really are the most incredible kids. Yes I still think about it… sometimes… at the weirdest times… that our family might have been bigger… could have been bigger… but isn’t.

It’s always going to be a page in that old photo album of our lives together. But my family is perfect the way it is and that’s just fine with me.

Related post: The Invisible Moms’ Club

A Missed Pregnancy, Indeed

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Missed Pregnancy

One moment I was lying in bed, calmly reading a novel. Then the main character became pregnant and I snapped. Completely.

I got up and searched through my jewelry box for the pointiest pin I could find. I pulled out a large, vintage yellow daisy pin. I grabbed the condoms from the night table and started poking holes in them. Poke, poke, poke. Jab, jab, jab. The pin was two large and left big, gaping, noticeable holes. Just like the ones I felt inside of me.

Looking at those holes in the silver wrapper was a big wake up call for me. I hid the condoms under tissues in the bathroom garbage can, sat back on the bed and sobbed. I’d been hiding my feelings for so long; I hadn’t allowed myself time to mourn or grieve. The pain couldn’t be held back any longer and came out in a big ball of crazy condom poking.

I had experienced a miscarriage several months before. The pregnancy wasn’t planned. In fact, babies weren’t in the plan at all. My husband made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t want children. I told him that I was willing to sacrifice babies for him. I actually thought he’d change his mind. He didn’t and I struggled with letting go of my strong desire to have a child.

We were in a really stressful place about six years into our marriage. We were trying to sell a house in a market where no one was biting, after feeling forced to vacate it due to harassments and threats from the people across the street. We were living in an empty home owned by my mother-in-law until our house sold and provided us with the funds to buy again. We weren’t happy living there and the situation created all kinds of family drama. Finances were tight. My husband was a full time student. His father was extremely ill. We were stressed to the max. I forgot to take my birth control pill for three days.

I was sure the exhaustion, headaches and nausea were from the stress. I thought stress was also what was delaying my period and that my breasts were so incredibly sore because of PMS. I assumed I was having a bad reaction to my toothpaste when I threw up several mornings in a row. Being pregnant didn’t even cross my mind. Sex was scarce during that time, so I didn’t think much of it. Plus, I’d missed doses here and there in the past without problem.

Then I woke up in the night and a pool of blood hit the floor the moment I stood up. Pregnancy still didn’t enter my head. I thought my period must be extra strong because it was late. I called my gynecologist the next day when the heavy bleeding continued. The doctor called it a “missed pregnancy”.

I was numb and in shock. I stayed in bed crying and eating chocolate peanut butter ice cream for a few days, but I didn’t fully deal with my feelings. I shoved them down. I went back to work. I pretended I was okay. I told myself I was fine.

But I wasn’t fine. Women who are handling things “fine” don’t poke holes in condoms. I was a mess.

My husband was sad when he learned of the miscarriage, but it was only because he knew I was hurting. He was relieved there would be no baby and terrified pregnancy would occur again. I finally realized that he wasn’t going to change his mind. No matter how much he adored me, he did not want a baby.

Would I have actually gone through with using the condoms if the holes weren’t so big and noticeable? I like to think I wouldn’t, but I don’t know for sure. I’m glad the holes were so glaring. It forced me to stop what I was doing and to acknowledge my grief and pain.

I opened up to my husband about all the feelings swirling around inside of me. I wasn’t just mourning the loss of my pregnancy, but the hope of any future pregnancies. I felt so ripped off, like the universe was playing a cruel joke on me by allowing me to get pregnant, but then miscarry before even getting the chance to be happy or excited about the prospect of motherhood.

We talked and talked. The conversation kept coming up again and again for months. I had a lot to process. Through these talks two big points became clear. My husband wasn’t totally opposed to being a father, he just didn’t want a baby. I just wanted to be a mother and how it happened actually wasn’t important to me.

We’d thrown around the possibility of older child adoption for years, but never seriously talked about it prior to this. We started to really consider it. We made it a tentative “some day” plan. I dove into research. I was shocked when I told my husband about upcoming classes to get licensed to adopt from the foster care system and he said, “Let’s sign up.”

A year after we officially started the process, our daughter moved in with us. She was nine years old and had been in foster care for five years. She had suffered abuse, neglect, poverty, homelessness, abandonment, instability and many other things children should not have to face. We finalized the adoption six months later.

Parenting a traumatized child is challenging, but it is also so very rewarding. Our daughter has made huge progress since coming home to us. She’s learning to control her anger, work through her feelings and trust us. I felt a pull to her from the moment I saw a photo of her sweet face. She is my daughter. My baby. I was made to be her mother. My husband is an amazing father. Nothing brings me more joy than watching the two of them laugh together. She has healed me. She has completed me.

The holes in my heart were waiting for her to fill them. And she has.

The Invisible Moms’ Club

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sad-mom

My children, Jesse and Sam, are definitely less stressful (in a day-to-day sense) than any children in your house. I can absolutely guarantee it.

They don’t wake me up at nights with endless requests for the toilet or a drink or a cuddle or to banish monsters.

They don’t mess up my stuff, break things, fight with one another or incessantly demand my attention.

They leave me with plenty of time to pursue my own interests, have a shower unmolested and get the shopping done without interruption.

You see, neither of them made it to full term. Neither even made it close.

And yet…they were my children. Are my children.

It’s a confusing issue.

Contentious moral or religious beliefs aside; science tells us that upon conception, what’s present is a human being in its earliest form. Begotten of my husband and I, ergo our children. Initially I really did think it was that simple.

But not having them present leaves more challenges (grief aside) than I could have expected.

How do I respond when someone asks if I have children?

I usually tell them no, cut the conversation short and wonder if I just utterly trashed the importance and the presence of those two tiny people who lived inside me for far too short a time.

When I tell them yes, and explain the circumstances, the conversation grinds to a screeching halt, which may or may not be accompanied by the Pity Face.

Either way is tough.

Yet invisible motherhood happens more frequently than you’d ever imagine…until you suddenly end up the mother of an invisible child. Until you’re able to hold back the tears long enough to talk about it. Then women with similar experiences seem to pour out of the woodwork, heartbreaking stories and empathy shared in equal measures. And I want to ask them “Where were you until now?”

I’d always understood ‘miscarriage’ to be a bit of a dirty word. One of those distasteful things which happens in life; like ingrown toenails or root canals. Unpleasant and Not a Topic For The Dinner Table. As such, I knew very little about it. I knew a few women in the family had had one. I knew of a family friend who’d had a stillbirth.

Not one conversation broached the topic of emotion or motherhood.

It was as though those babies somehow didn’t count.

I think that’s why it took me so staggeringly by surprise. I’d even anticipated that I might miscarry my first, given the family history, but nothing ever prepared me for the sheer weight of emotion that crashed down on me and proceeded, over the coming months, to suffocate me under a dark cloud of anguish.

Nothing prepared me for the waves of anger at pregnant women in the street.

At no point was I told about the blind rage which would leave me shaking when I saw misbehaving tots being screamed at by their end-of-the-tether parents. Or being smoked near. Or being ignored when in need of attention.

I was utterly unprepared for the isolation from my husband, who (at first) just didn’t *get* why I was so upset.

I was defenseless against the accusing voice in my mind, telling me that I was clearly undeserving of a baby/hadn’t been careful enough while pregnant/had done it wrong in the first place.

I was ill-informed about how to respond to throw-away comments from the unintentionally insensitive, which left me feeling as though I’d been emotionally assaulted.

So I dug deep, reached out, and slowly, painfully, began making the connections for myself.

Since then, though, I’ve been keen to do my bit – to give back – to share with those newly invisible mothers some of the things which have helped me.

I began by blogging bits and pieces of my story. The feedback was positive – people began to exhibit signs of understanding. I was thanked for generating conversations and enabling others to support their friends who were in the same position as me.

I created a couple of guest posts where bloggers were seeking to promote understanding of miscarriage and childlessness, with an aim of spreading understanding, empathy and compassion. I’ve entered writing challenges with my story as the subject, all in an effort to reach as wide an audience as possible.

I’m gradually becoming adept at talking about it in Real Life, too.

It’s still difficult and it still hurts, but I want to go further from here and take my online presence (and passion for breaking those barriers and trashing the taboos) into the everyday.

I want to be active in working towards a world where miscarriage isn’t swept under the rug; where women can openly acknowledge (and grieve) their losses without feeling uncertain as to the validity of their feelings. I want to be a person who others can come to for information and advice. I want to be at the forefront of a movement which purposefully demystifies miscarriage and aims to establish helpful dialogue on the subject.

I will strive to support the generation of a mindset where each of these little, lost lives is important, and their heartbroken mothers (and fathers) are surrounded by empathy and care, stemming from genuine understanding on the part of those around them.

My children count.

They have changed me, and I am their legacy.

The Unexpected Hatred

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hatred

What surprised me the most about myself when I had my second miscarriage was my capacity to hate.  I’d never really been a hateful person.  Not particularly angry, jealous, or spiteful either.  But when I lost that baby, that tiny, hopeful whisper of a new life was replaced with something horrible and raging.  My hatred was powerful.  It had teeth, claws, and narrow, angry eyes that at first could only focus on one specific group of people: pregnant women.

I didn’t want their babies to be fine.

I didn’t want them to be happy.

I wished them ill.

I hated watching their husbands escort them out of cars.  I hated their round bellies and rosy cheeks.  I hated their maxi dresses and decaf coffees and their stupid swollen feet.  I wanted them to trip on those dresses and spill their coffees all over their dopey husbands.

I wanted someone else to be like me: a miserable, angry failure.  I became an absolutely horrible person.  I took the real me, the generally kind and optimistic person that I used to be, and pulled her deep into my dark depths.  She was gone for a while and even though I was the one who put her away, I couldn’t remember how to find her.

The new, hateful me emerged from those dark depths and blinked at the light.  I was only capable of seeing the world through my own pain and loss and found it impossibly ordinary.  There were all these people, going about their business as usual.  They were astonishingly pleasant and normal.  They smiled, joked, ate and shopped.  They lived while my baby didn’t, so I hated them.  Worst of all were the mothers – both the pregnant women and the women with children.  They were shockingly happy.  Disgustingly fortunate.  They had successfully produced healthy children, seemingly effortlessly, while I had failed.  Twice.  It was almost unbearable.

This version of myself was completely unsure of how to function around others.  Alone, I was okay.  I could hold it together.  For brief periods of time I could lose myself in a book or a movie and not think about the emptiness inside me, the anger in my heart.  But when I had to be with other people, I was raw, a burn victim unbandaged, and I was scared of myself.  I had never before felt emotions so strong that I couldn’t keep them from my surface.  One look, word, or touch of kindness from another person and those emotions would erupt.

I had no control.  And if there’s one thing that I’ve always, always hated, it was not being in control of my emotions.  I always wanted everyone to think I was fine.  Great.  Keeping it together and looking good doing it.  So in addition to hating other people, I really, really hated myself.  I hated my weakness, my vulnerability, and my frightening misanthropy.

There were voices in my head, constantly at war.  They clashed their swords and gnashed their teeth and wouldn’t leave me in peace.  The battles went something like this:

Hateful Voice:  I hate everyone who is happy.  Why isn’t anyone else as miserable as I am?

Rational Voice:  There are millions of people out there who are much more miserable than you, trust me.

Guilty Voice:  Yeah.  Some people have it way worse than you do.  It would be so much more awful to lose a child that had already been born.  A child that you already knew and loved.  Can you even imagine how difficult that must be?  You seriously have nothing to complain about.  You can always try again.

Hateful Voice:  Fuck you.  I don’t care about anyone else.  I just know that I am miserable.  So, so miserable.

For a while, the Hateful Voice was definitely winning most of the battles.  It took a long time for the combination of the Rational and Guilty Voices to gain some ground.  I would love to say that they took over and rescued my better self from the dark depths of despair.  That I healed and moved on because of my own goodness and reason.

But I didn’t.

That’s not to say that I’m not healed now, back to my better self.  Because I am.  But I didn’t do it on my own.  I didn’t even do it with the help of friends and family.  Not completely.

The only reason I can say that I have really and truly come back from that awful, desperate place I was in is that I did eventually have a healthy pregnancy that resulted in the beautiful gift of my children.

I got lucky.  Big time.

If I hadn’t, I really don’t know where I’d be now.  I mean, I returned to my normal life after the miscarriages and before I got pregnant again, and I did okay, but only on the outside.  Inside, I was still devastated.  Broken.  Utterly frustrated.  I’m sure I would have made my way back to living a life of strength and confidence, but I think it would have taken quite a while.

So while I may be one of the disgustingly fortunate ones now, I wish I could let other women who are suffering like I was know that I really and truly get it.  I’ve been there.  It was awful and I’m so, so sorry that you’re there now.  I hope it gets better for you, but please just know that it’s okay to hate everyone right now.  What you’re going through is terrible, and I get it.  Feel the way you need to feel.  Anyone who tells you differently is full of shit.  There is no silver lining.  Sometimes life is just really, really hard.  You’ll get through it because you have to.  Because you are, believe me, stronger than you know.

How to Cope With A Miscarriage

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Mere weeks past conception, my first child passed away, and I was left bereft and overwhelmed; not sure how to handle the situation. I did it the hard way, but I wish someone had given me advice on what on earth to do. Months later, I also lost my second child at an early stage of pregnancy. I was a little wiser this time, and took the advice I had created for myself when I lost my first. The grief is less now, and time has begun the painstaking process of rebuilding my shattered heart, but the ‘How To..’ details remain few and far between. So I took the best of the advice I was given on coping with a miscarriage by friends and relatives, mixed in a few ideas of my own, and came up with a list of hints and tips for anyone who’s going through the agony of losing their baby….

1. Stop to acknowledge the passing of your child. I didn’t, and it remains my deepest regret. Everything else can go on hold. Don’t hang on, teetering on the brink of that darkness – let go, fall into it and begin the grieving process. You have been a mother since you conceived. The loss of your baby doesn’t make you less of a mother, nor does an early loss ‘count less’.

2. If you can, tell people what’s happening. They’ll probably find it hard to hear, but they will at least then understand why you’re (probably) not functioning to par. They can’t cut you any slack unless you let them know you need it. They can’t extend compassion if they are uninformed.

3. Get your girlfriends around you. Friends or relatives; it really doesn’t matter – you need women you can trust. Women you can cry with. Women who can hug you. Because no matter how sympathetic a man is, a woman will understand you in a very different way, and part of the healing lies in fully comprehending the loss, all its implications, navigating the train wreck and beginning to get a little perspective.

4. Try not to let distance grow between you and your partner. This one’s easily done. He’ll see the whole situation differently. He might try to fix it. He might wonder why it’s taking you so long to get over it. He probably won’t have a clue about the million and one ways it affects you every day. Unless you explain it in terms he’ll understand.

I used the analogy of coloured dyes with my husband; his brain processes experiences as individual jars of colour, which he can take out and examine one at a time, whereas my brain processes them as though they’d all been poured into a bowl – they intermingle, interact with other areas of life, and tinge everything.

5. Take your time to ‘get over it’. Grief affects everyone differently. Don’t anticipate a certain length of time before you feel ‘normal’. Go with what works for you in the moment. Don’t rush. Whatever you’re feeling is normal, has been felt by others before you, is not completely mad. If you need it, seek professional help to get through this.

6. Take care of yourself. It should go without saying, but it’s easy to let grief swallow you whole. It’s a vile, heartbroken place to be, (and you may hate me for saying it if you’re still in that darkness) but you did not stop living. You will do yourself no favors in the short or long run if you grind to a halt. You need to eat, you need to wash, you need to get up in the morning and do *something*. Even if these things seem hollow and pointless, keep going – persist and it will help you later. Do it for the ‘you’ in a few months time.

7. Expect sex to be a little weird at first. Whether you’re straight back into trying to conceive or you’re having a break, it’s unavoidable that at some point, you’ll realize that this act of love is what led to the pregnancy which led to such heartbreak. Don’t beat yourself up if your attitude to sex changes. Maybe radically for a while. Try to offer explanations to your partner, which let him know that you’re not rejecting him; that it’s not about him; that you still care for him. Back this up by showing him lots of physical affection in other ways if the idea of sex is too much for you to manage at the moment.

8. Expect the unexpected. It may well be that one day, when you’re no longer even thinking about your lost children, something quite innocuous triggers a descent back into that place of grief. Ride with it. Let those around you know what’s happening. You’ll be back up again soon. The peaks and troughs will gradually even out to a place where you’re able to look back upon them with a small, sharp tug on the heartstrings, but no longer that panicked, howling anguish.

The loss of a child in pregnancy is a terrible tragedy which can never un-happen. If it’s happened to you, you’re part of the Invisible Moms Club. Your life was altered the moment conception took place; you are a Mom, and it’s heartbreaking that you haven’t that child to show for it. Yet Good can still be wrought, even of this pain – whether it’s sharing your story so that understanding and compassion can be spread, or being able to offer a shred of comfort and hope to a young woman suddenly faced with the loss of her unborn child and all that entails.