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By Birth Doula Lauren Hasz
Tears streamed down my cheeks, as I clenched an empty coffee mug and sat cross-legged in bed, overcome by a familiar grief. My 10-month-old was asleep in her crib. My husband was sitting nearby. Nothing seemed amiss on this particular evening in February. But, the images wouldn’t leave.
Of myself curled in a ball on the bathroom floor, waiting for the bleeding to begin. Of framed photos of beautiful embryos no longer living in my womb. Of a pair of baby shoes sitting on my bathroom sink, once again NOT destined to be worn by a rambunctious toddler.
I can’t predict when the memories will surface, but surface they do, causing me to catch my breath and mess up my makeup every time.
As I ponder the journey of the past several years, my conclusion is undeniable: My postpartum “stretch marks” began long before I eventually conceived through IVF. Long before many mamas begin to notice the purplish lines tracing their way along swelling abdomens, I had them lining my broken heart. It’s true that they have faded, but their jagged hues remain present. I know I am not alone in this.
First there were the “scars” of anovulation and shameful months spent naturally trying to kick start my menstrual cycles. Then the actual bruises of daily subcutaneous and intramuscular injections. And, finally, the cramps and bleeding and grief of several early miscarriages. So early on that some wouldn’t have even acknowledged that I was pregnant in the first place. But, I knew. I fell in love from Day 1 and didn’t let go.
Even now, I don’t let go. Not when I nurse a busy, beautiful miracle of a baby girl. My heart still cradles the losses of babies who are no more. Of years spent enduring invasive procedures in the hopes of seeing those two pink lines on a pregnancy test.
I have joined the host of couples labeled “infertile.” Research says that at least 10-15% of couples struggle to conceive, but I would argue that the numbers are probably higher. Some of us just keep our scars hidden in places where few see.
From my experience as a mama and birth doula, when infertile couples DO conceive, their pregnancies, birth experiences, and parenthood journeys are usually affected by the efforts that conception took and the tolls of previous losses. Infertility and loss create special lenses: nothing looks the same as it did before.
During pregnancy, it is hard not to worry about every little detail. While some might take the attitude of “it’s better not to know what could go wrong,” previously infertile couples understand that things DO go wrong and that their baby is still weeks (or months) away from viability. As writer and registered nurse Jen Dozer explained, infertility “can result in a loss of innocence, as a woman finds herself on the wrong side of the statistics. Suddenly, bad things don’t just happen to other people” (2008, Sept. 20).
I don’t think there is an infertile couple that has not at some point dealt with that fear. I remember that it was not days after we received good beta numbers and were cautiously slogging through the emotions of a positive pregnancy test that the lab messed up my blood work report and gave my doctor the wrong update. His conclusion was that we were most likely about to miscarry again. I was frantic. Calling nurses. Lab technicians. Anyone who might be able to tell me that my baby was going to be okay. The hours it took for the lab to realize its mistake felt like an eternity of grief.
In addition to worry, mamas also tend to feel guilty about ever complaining about pregnancy ailments. They reason that since they wanted this baby so badly, then they should be laughing their way through morning sickness, swollen ankles, and midnight heartburn. The guilt can go so deep that they almost feel like they are betraying their unborn child to whine about something as trivial as 24/7 nausea. This guilt often continues after birth and can lead to postpartum depression and anxiety, as moms feel that they aren’t measuring up to their own expectations and/or feel overwhelmed by the realities of motherhood.
When Considering Birth…
After a long road of fighting infertility, mamas can view their birth plans with a lot more angst and pressure to “get everything right.” You see, these mamas (of which I count myself one) often see their bodies as failures. We couldn’t get pregnant without help. Sex just didn’t work. Hormone levels were or are wacky. We’ve lost babies in the past. ANYTHING could go wrong.
So we write birth plans. In detail. Leaving nothing to chance. White-knuckled, we hand these guides to grimacing birth professionals, who know all to well that birth is unpredictable.
Those of us who have undergone infertility treatments and/or lost pregnancies need our children’s births to be redeeming events. We need to feel that our bodies are strong and powerful. Lingering fear haunts us as due dates approach. “Failure to progress” or “medically-necessary induction” can instantly cripple our hopes and add to the self-condemnation, simply deepening the scars etched originally by our struggles to conceive.
As New Parents…
Then, finally, the baby is born. Because, one way or the other, babies must come out. The first few days pass in a blur. Family and friends stop by with food and congratulations. Everyone is a soggy mess from leaking breasts, poppy diapers, and postpartum bleeding.
The following weeks are often tough. Hormones drop and surge, and us infertile mamas sometimes face one of our hardest battles. We’ve at least temporarily “beaten” infertility, as evidenced by the swaddled bundles in our arms, but we don’t feel normal. We feel like we should love every minute of cracked nipples and long days without showers. We feel like we should be glowing with the beauty of motherhood. A beauty that we’ve now realized is not always tangible in the sleep-deprived moments of early mommyhood when you would give your right arm for another cup of coffee.
It’s at that point in my motherhood journey when I finally met with an incredible counselor who had been in my shoes and traversed the same road of self-forgiveness and release that I needed to walk. Months of sadness and guilt finally fell away, as I embraced one of my most profound truths: I didn’t fail my babies. Matter of fact, I had done everything in my power to become and remain pregnant. I tasted the words aloud again just to feel their strength: “My body didn’t fail.”
I had just as much of a right as anyone else to be a mama. I had just as much of a right to not enjoy middle-of-the-night pumping sessions or days without showers. I had just as much of a right to struggle with the cries of a colicky baby.
So, if you struggle with infertility, don’t wait until the stretch marks run deep and jagged, purple and raw before facing this gloriously redeeming truth: Pregnancy is not the cure for infertility. Birth doesn’t wipe away all pain. Parenthood is not any easier just because it took months or years to achieve.
Yet, here is where you can release your fears: you are not a failure. Repeat the words over and over until they bind up your gaping wounds. Infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth - none of these tragedies are your fault. Find a compassionate counselor and go. Talk and cry and sit in silence until truth resonates where lies and guilt previously wreaked havoc.
Like most stretch marks, those left by infertility will fade with time. But wear even the faded marks proudly. Trace them and tell their stories. Your story. Of a brave woman. Who dared to dream of motherhood. Who dared to never let go.
Dozer, Jen. (2008, Sept. 20). Pregnancy after infertility or previous pregnancy loss. Our Bodies, Ourselves: Information Inspires Action. Retrieved from http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/health-info/pregnancy-after-infertility-or-previous-pregnancy-loss/.
Lauren Hasz, a doula with Doulas of Denver, lives with her husband and baby girl in Arvada where she pursues her interests as a writer, runner, and coffee drinker. Nearly four years of infertility and a miraculous natural birth experience have given her a passion for providing families with comprehensive emotional support throughout pregnancy, birth, and the immediate postpartum time. Follow her practice at http://www.facebook.com/AnointedBeginnings, read her birth story HERE, or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org to meet Lauren and discuss your ideal birth wishes.