Coping with Pregnancy Loss

The author of my favorite book, the memoir Angela’s Ashes, died on Sunday.  Frank McCourt is the author I most wanted to meet, and Angela’s Ashes is the book I’ve read the most times.  But, I haven’t read it in years, so I started it again last night.  In the first 82 pages, Frank’s family loses four children, seven-week-old Margaret, then an unborn child via miscarriage, then two-year-old Oliver, followed six months later by his twin, Eugene.  Frank’s mother Angela and father Malachy still had two sons, Frank and Malachy, to care for, but the elder Malachy drank himself into oblivion, and Angela spent much of her time in bed, facing the wall.  I don’t know how they had the will to breathe, much less live.  Losing a child is unbearable, much less suffering the deaths of four.

When I was diagnosed with my T-shaped uterus in 2004, I started attending support meetings organized by Resolve: The National Infertility Association.  Every month, 12 to 15 or so women—sometimes accompanied by their husbands—would gather in one of our homes in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago, and we’d go around the room, telling our infertility stories, giving updates about progress—or lack thereof—since we’d last been together.  For many, infertility was a secret outside of these meetings, as if suffering from infertility was as heinous as being a serial killer.  As a result, the desperation, the depression, the despondency poured out in this environment, this setting in which they were able to be open without judgment.  Month after month, I was shocked at the number of pregnancies this collective of women had endured, and I used the word “endured” because none of these women had ever had a live birth, never had the happy ending.  One couple made it though the nine months of pregnancy, only to suffer a stillbirth.

I lost my first child when I was 17.  My family had just moved from Louisville to Cincinnati, I was painfully shy, and the moment I started dating a popular guy I’ll call Nick, everyone knew who I was, everyone would say hi to me in the hallways at school.  I was madly in love for the first time, he wasn’t a virgin, and I didn’t want to lose him, so I slept with him.  I got pregnant the October of my senior year of high school.  I told my boyfriend between the lockers before school.  Telling my parents was unconceivable, without his support.  He didn’t give it.  Instead, he said that, if I didn’t have an abortion, he would never speak to me again.  He described how he’d see me in the hallways at school and not even say hi. 

I submitted. 

I came out of the abortion anesthesia hysterically crying.  I starved myself.  I binged, then look laxatives to get rid of the food.  I loathed myself.  My only emotional resource was Nick, who had been the source of my trauma, and I stayed with him, so I loathed myself some more.  I made him go to a toy store with me to pick out a Cabbage Patch doll that looked like she was our child, with blonde hair for me and green eyes for him:  I slept with her every night for four years. 

My abortion was my deep dark secret.  I didn’t tell my closest friends until I was in my thirties. My shame forced me to mourn in isolation, as is the case with many who lose a child before birth.  I didn’t recover from the trauma for nearly 20 years, and it was my son, whom I had at age 36, who healed me.

I’ve lost five others—in August 2003, January 2004, March 2004, March 2009 and June 2009.  I know that sperm has met egg because my nipples are sore; the veins on my chest practically glow through my translucent, pale skin; I’m starving; I’m exhausted; my sex drive is in overdrive.  I’ll have a positive pregnancy test sometimes; sometimes not.  My period will be late sometimes; sometimes not.  Even knowing that I have problems with embryo implantation because of my uterine abnormality, I’ll have hope because my body has told me that there is life inside me by its changes.  I’ll have hope, until I start bleeding. 

Not being able to conceive month after month is hell.

Knowing you’re pregnant, then losing the baby, no matter how early, is a loss of hope, followed by hell.  When I miscarried in March 2004, I did so over a weekend, and I had to collect the miscarriage material in a plastic baggie and keep it in the refrigerator, so it wouldn’t start decomposing, until I brought it into my doctor’s office on Monday morning for testing.  After that, I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed for a week, except to use the bathroom. 

When I look back, I don’t know how I did seven cycles of donor insemination alone.  I don’t know how I made it through my pregnancy losses due to implantation failures and miscarriage.  I know I kept trying because the alternative—not having a child—was worse.  Everyone else suffering from infertility is experiencing the same dilemma:  Making the decision to live through hell because the alternative is unbearable.

According to Resolve, 10% of the population—7.3 million people in the United States alone—suffer from infertility, which is not only the inability to conceive, but also the inability to achieve a life birth.  Many of these infertile men and women experience pregnancy loss, and they suffer in silence; they mourn alone.  Of course, being at fault for pregnancy loss, as I was with my abortion, is a different issue, but my secret destroyed me for nearly 20 years.  Infertility shouldn’t stimulate shame, as my abortion did to me, yet it so often does.  Infertility isn’t a choice, but a medical problem that shouldn’t carry a stigma.

Whether to share feelings about infertility or experience with pregnancy loss is a very personal decision.  I only want to encourage anyone who is having trouble coping to reach out, whether to a mental-health professional, Resolve support-group member, or close friend.  Please don’t discount the trauma of losing your child.  If you achieve pregnancy, you are a parent, and losing a child is every parent’s hell on Earth.

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