When There Isn't A Rainbow: Infertility After Stillbirth Is A Gut Punch
“Am I going to die?” “Am I going to be infertile?”
These were the questions that played on repeat in my mind—the only two questions I kept asking the medical professionals as I lay paralyzed on the operating table, physically numb but painfully cognizant of what was happening to my body. Now before we go any further, it would probably be helpful to update you as to how I wound up on that operating table in the first place.
In March of 2020, days before the world shut down, my personal world imploded when my seemingly “unremarkable” first pregnancy ended in a 3rd trimester stillbirth, with the delivery of my daughter, Addison. About 20 minutes after delivery, I suffered a mass postpartum hemorrhage that I almost didn’t survive. This led to multiple blood transfusions (16 units of blood, per my medical chart), and 2 emergency surgeries.
On an operating table with my numb-from-the-epidural body lying helpless, surrounded by several panicked strangers and one familiar face—my doctor, I tried to grasp the possibility that I might never have another genetic child. Would I ever feel a baby kick inside my belly again? Would I ever get the chance to give birth to a healthy, living baby? Would a newborn be placed on my chest? The possibility that my fertility could die with my child seemed cruel, unfair, and utterly impossible.
After a week in the hospital, I was wheeled out the same way I entered—through the main entrance alongside all of the moms and their newborns. They were wheeled out plus one, I, minus one. All of us moms, and each of us headed for a rough, physical postpartum recovery.
Once home, I struggled to grieve in a society that isn’t built to support grieving people, let alone grieving mothers. I was met with a combination of responses; platitudes, silver linings, and worst of all—radio silence. But my least favorite toxic-positivity-response has got to be the “you can have more children” reflex people tend to resort to. The one they resort to because of the discomfort they feel when faced with the grim reality that sometimes, mothers outlive their children.
The first issue with this remark is that it assumes the addition of a subsequent child replaces another. Whether a parent has zero or 10 living children, there is no such thing as a replacement baby because there is no solution to the death of a child. It’s interesting, because baby loss is one of the only times we offer this sort of don’t-be-sad-let-me-cure-you-of-your-grief response. If someone were to lose a parent, would we tell them not to worry—they have another?
The thing about toxic positivity with grief, and really in general, is that it is dismissive of a person’s experience. And despite the fact that I have now had a birth chart reading, psychic reading, and tarot card reading, there is no way for any one person to predict the future—as cool and reassuring as that might be. Just because something bad happens to someone, does not make them immune or impervious to future bad things happening. It would be great if that were the case, and I so wish that was the world we live in, but sometimes, bad things happen to good people for unexplained reasons. And sometimes, additional bad things happen to those same good people.
The answer to that first question is clearly a yes, or you wouldn’t be reading this article. But the answer to that second question? Now, that answer is a little more complex. The surgeries that I needed to have—the ones that saved my life—have had major implications on my fertility. So, is there a rainbow baby in my future? I genuinely don’t know.
After over a year of trying to conceive, a very early miscarriage, and meeting with multiple providers, I finally have an actual medical diagnosis: Asherman’s Syndrome—acquired (secondary) infertility due to scarring in my uterus resulting from those very surgeries that quite literally saved me.
On an early Monday morning in a beautifully decorated doctor’s office, I sat on a couch intertwined with my husband—the man I have loved since I was 19. I sat there, my arm around his broad shoulder, as the doctor confirmed my diagnosis and prognosis. Nearly 12 years after our first date and 4 years after our wedding—a rainy Spring day in Southern California that everyone claimed would bring us good luck and “lots of children,” a day where the rain stopped only briefly enough for a rainbow to shine through.
I listened to the empathic, compassionate, and knowledgeable doctor relay our options. Though masked, I could feel his warmth and see the kindness in his eyes.
Immediate egg retrieval and embryo making, surgery to see if scar removal is even an option that could present me with a viable chance of carrying another pregnancy, and surrogacy. Options, all of which are timely, costly, and still don’t guarantee a healthy, living baby.
As we absorbed all of the information and asked all of our clarifying questions, my husband paused and turned to me, “After hearing all of this, how are you feeling?” He’s clearly married to me—a therapist, and his communication about feelings is at once hilarious, sweet, and heartbreaking. Wavering on the edge of full-blown meltdown and humor, I managed a response, “shitty.” Technically not a primary emotion, but a valid feeling none-the-less, and a response that united the three of us in some much-needed laughter.
Shitty because there really aren’t feeling words to appropriately describe the pain, desperation, and sorrow that we are and have been feeling since 2018—the year we started this process.
I sat there in that moment, my mind a movie reel of insane moments that sound made up, except they aren’t made up—they are my life. They are my lived reality of 3 years of death, trauma, infertility, and a very uncertain future.
We leave the office and each head our separate ways to work. By some magic, strength, or perhaps, some maladaptive coping mechanisms, (I’ll process with my therapist to determine which) I work over 9 hours at my practice, primarily with patients coping with infertility and pregnancy and infant loss.
At the end of the day, I come home to my husband, two beagles, and my laptop, where I write this article. Because when there isn’t a guarantee—when there isn’t a for sure, known rainbow, I find comfort in what I do know and have; a job that I love, family and friends that cross state and country lines, soul connections with others who have similar experiences (shoutout to all my Instagram friends whom I’ve never met, yet talk to nearly every day), and the relationship I have with myself—the badass, deeply feeling, dark humor, can-now-cry-at-any-moment, fiercely loving person who somehow, amidst all of this, carries on.