I used to dread Mothering Sunday, and even now, as a mother of two boys at secondary school, I still brace myself. No-one, apart from an exceptional few, remember that I also had four other pregnancies, and lost five other babies. Each of those babies, I loved. I always think about them when I’m celebrated for being a ‘mother’ each March, along with the paradox of not knowing if I would have my sons if they had lived.
It makes no difference to me that my pregnancy losses happened ‘early’ or ‘late’ – my twins I gave birth to at 22 weeks’ gestation nestle in my memory just as much as my babies who died at six, twelve and sixteen weeks. I know I’m not alone in the grief I went through, and have since grown to bear: we think one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, but it hasn’t followed that this prevalence has promoted a good understanding or adequate support for the countless once parents-to-be.
It’s no wonder that Mothering Sunday can bite so hard when we can’t claim to be considered a ‘mother’ after pregnancy loss – society has yet to develop the appropriate scripts to consider the many, many women (and couples) who experience the joy, dreams and future wrapped up in a pregnancy, along with her bond with her unborn. But a pregnant woman resides in an in-between world of ‘sort of’ motherhood, making it difficult for her to claim the status when her pregnancy ends without a live baby.
Given that, culturally, we fail to acknowledge the countless once mothers-to-be – or indeed those desperately wanting to be mothers but have been unable to conceive – the disappointing fact remains that we may well have to turn to ourselves to be looked after the best (the same may well apply to anniversaries and due dates, that can be equally tough to get through):
- Plan in advance: be with people who empathise, and you trust to take care of your feelings, and avoid those who struggle to understand what you are going through. There are usually people in both camps. Maybe this means you will only be with your partner, or one friend or family member, but whoever it is, choose carefully. You don’t have to be with people that you don’t want to be with.
- This is still your day, so plan the day for you: honour the fact you were a mother and that your baby was real, and the bond you had with your baby is still real. I believe in the healing power of a ritual, and you may want to consider creating one that suits you: releasing a lantern or balloon, planting a tree or flowering plant, even making a cake. In my book I write about a couple who wrote a letter to their baby which they burnt at a place that was special to them both.
- Be kind to all feelings that may come up, even the ugly ones that you are tempted to push away. Of course you may feel sad, and even frightened of the bodily memories that come up. These need care, and talking them out is important. But it’s also entirely appropriate to feel angry or bitter or envious too (we just need to take responsibility for them, rather than acting on them). I certainly felt enraged by my treatment after my miscarriages. But whatever we feel is valuable information that we should listen to: they speak of what is true for us and needs to be processed – putting it simply, an ‘ouch’ that needs care and attention. Berating ourselves for feelings beyond our control will only create a ‘double whammy’ of distress.
- It’s rare that I meet a woman after a miscarriage who doesn’t feel guilty or self-critical in some way – she often traces some responsibility for her pregnancy ending too soon. Again, please be particularly mindful of these feelings as they are very corrosive. I have yet to know of any piece of medical research that concludes any blame on a pregnant mother for her miscarriage. Given that we don’t know why the vast majority of miscarriages happen, it’s no wonder we turn to ourselves to create a reason – plus I think there are forces at play in our culture that add to the sense of blame a woman often has. You did nothing wrong at all.
- Bear in mind that you may feel desperately alone, but you aren’t. If you have one, think about reaching out to your online community, as you should know that they are thinking of you too.