Coping with Miscarriage After ART
Image credit: Shutterstock.com
An open letter to grieving moms
I am so sorry to welcome you to the sorority no one wants to join: the Miscarriage Club. Rest assured, Mama, you are not alone. Statistics suggest as many as one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage. So, imagine, dear sister, how many women have experienced what you’re going through right now. Imagine all these women gathering, in this moment, to witness and honor your loss. Take a deep breath into that feeling, and when you’re ready, read on.
Miscarriage is difficult no matter what your circumstances. When you’re a Solo Mom whose conception required assisted reproductive technology (ART)—donor sperm, egg harvest, medications, ultrasounds, hormone injections, insemination, in vitro fertilization, seemingly unending doctors appointments—pregnancy loss can feel much more complicated.
On my road to parenthood, I lost three ART-conceived babies, and I learned a few things about coping with pregnancy loss.
1. This grief is like no other grief. When a loved one dies, we grieve the loss of someone we knew, someone with whom we shared a past. When a baby dies in utero, we lose someone we hoped to know, someone we imagined knowing, a future we hoped to have. We have no happy memories to wrap ourselves in; instead, we have bare loss.
In the aftermath of my miscarriages, I questioned my grief. How can I hurt so deeply over the loss of someone whom I never met? It was as if by exposing my grief’s faulty logic, I could make it go away.
Then I tried something new. Rather than pushing my grief away, I tried getting to know it. I meditated on and kept a journal relating to these questions:
- How does grief arrive?
- How does it move through you?
- Where does it live in your body?
- What does it want to say?
When we give our grief gentle attention, our feelings can come forward in surfable waves rather than building into a tsunami that threatens to topple us.
2. Find your tribe. You may be planning on being a Solo Mom someday, but that doesn’t mean you have to go through this difficult time alone. If you haven’t already, it’s time to build a support team. Look for these players:
- A trusted friend, clergy member, or counselor who will support you without judgment, letting you ride the waves of your grief without trying to fix or change anything.
- Friends or family members who will hold you accountable for self-care, who will call you out or step up for you if it looks like you’re neglecting yourself.
- Friends who make you laugh, for those moments when laughter feels like the best medicine.
- Women who have experienced pregnancy loss, with whom you can connect either online at a place such as Reconceiving Loss or in person.
3. It’s not your fault. Women who miscarry often question if they did something to cause the pregnancy loss. Did I lift something heavy? Did I forget to take my prenatal vitamins? Did I eat the wrong thing?
No. You didn’t.
Women who used ART to conceive can find all manners of reasons to question themselves. Did I skip a progesterone injection? Did I choose the wrong donor? Would I have miscarried if I had conceived in the traditional way?
If you catch yourself asking questions like those, stop.
Self-blame is nothing but an attempt to assert control over a situation where you had no control. Your miscarriage didn’t happen because you did something wrong. Your miscarriage happened. Period.
The trappings of ART—charting, blood tests, sonograms, medication—can give us a false sense that conception and pregnancy are something we can control. If you just do it all right, you’ll be rewarded with a baby. But miscarriage reminds us that control is an illusion. Even under the supervision of the most skilled medical professionals, pregnancy is a realm of uncertainty and vulnerability.
Instead of trying to assert control over (or assign blame for) your miscarriage, try working with this concept of uncertainty. Buddhist nun (and Solo Mom) Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart (Shambhala, 1997) is a good place to start.
4. Remember the hormones. Even very early in pregnancy, your body is teeming with hormones, preparing to grow a baby. When a baby stops growing, those hormones don’t suddenly disappear. They work their way out of your system slowly, just as they do after birth.
The bad news: your grief may be compounded by a postpartum hormone letdown, adding an extra layer of awful.
The good news: your hormone levels will right themselves in time. Be gentle with yourself along the way. If your body and mood are feeling particularly topsy-turvy, make sure you tell your doctor.
5. Well-meaning people will say unhelpful things. Ask any woman who has miscarried about the inane things people have said to her, and you’ll probably hear some of these:
- It’s a blessing, really. I mean, the baby wasn’t viable anyway.
- Well, it happened early, right, before you were really attached?
- Everything happens for a reason.
- At least you know you can get pregnant.
Some of the pat phrases well-meaning people sling at grieving women are particularly hurtful to Solo Moms who rely on ART to conceive. For instance:
- Was this a planned pregnancy?
- You can always try again.
- You need to relax. Don’t think about it so much. Stress affects fertility.
When you’re met with these unintentionally hurtful, potentially alienating responses, make a self-loving choice. If you simply want to remove yourself from the situation, you can acknowledge the statement with a nod and move on. If you can’t move away, you can set a boundary, offering a line such as, “I’m not up for talking about this” and then changing the subject. If the person is a close friend who truly intends to support you but just doesn’t know how, open a conversation and share your perspective:
- Actually, it doesn’t feel like a blessing. It feels like . . .
- Yes, it happened early, and I’ve felt attached to this baby since . . .
- I don’t know if everything happens for a reason, but I do know that I’m feeling . . .
- Yes, I know I can get pregnant, and I feel . . .
- Yes, I planned this pregnancy, I put months of effort into making it happen, and now I feel . . .
- Yes, I can try again, and the idea of starting over feels . . .
- Yes, I have felt great intensity around conception and pregnancy, and I’m using ART; if I don’t think and plan and schedule, pregnancy doesn’t happen for me.
Don’t hesitate to tell folks exactly what feels helpful to you. The people who really want to support you will want to know what you most need.
6. Affirm yourself as a mom. I’ve heard many women who have experienced miscarriage talk about the jealousy, sadness, or anger they would feel when they would see other moms pushing strollers, celebrating baby showers, or smoothing their Pea in the Pod–shirts over their round bellies. I, too, had moments, particularly when walking through my hometown’s shopping district, where I felt swarmed by happy moms gazing lovingly at their cooing babes. In those moments, my arms felt painfully empty.
But if my mind started concocting jealous or angry thoughts, I stopped it. Instead of hating on their motherhood, I worked on affirming my own. As I describe in my memoir, Love Song for Baby X: How I Stayed (Almost) Sane on the Rocky Road to Parenthood (Ig Publishing, 2013):
“[E]motionally speaking, I was a mom; I lost a baby. For weeks I moved in the world as a parent, doing everything I could for my baby—eating for her, reading to her, singing to her, swallowing gag-reflex-inducing prenatal horse pills for her, and drinking gallons of pregnancy tea that tasted like straw mixed with cedar shavings for her. As soon as I shifted my life to prepare for a baby, I became a zygote of a parent. Now I’m an almost-mom with empty arms, no visible evidence to prove my membership in that club.
Mama, though you don’t have (yet) a baby to identify you as a parent to the external world, you can honor and affirm your own parenthood as you have experienced it so far.
You were a mom. You had a baby. And I’m sorry for your loss.
Sending you big hugs as you work your way through this difficult time,
Cheryl Dumesnil, ESME’s LGBTQ Resource Guide, is an author, educator, writing coach, all-around do-gooder, and one of two moms separately coparenting two amazing boys. You can follow her on Twitter at @cheryladumesnil.
Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.