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PAILS of Hope

There, but for the cruelty of fate, go I: How to Cope With Others' Reproductive Fortunes
by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D.
Do any of the following laments sound familiar? Why are there pregnant mothers and newborns everywhere I go?

Why can't that be me? Getting pregnant without even trying, effortlessly delivering a healthy full term infant, bouncing a baby or two my lap. sigh.

Look at them. They just ASSUME they're gonna have a healthy baby on their due date, or that their newborn will survive infancy. How naive!

Why can't I be blissfully ignorant of all the possible terrifying and tragic outcomes? It's so unfair.

What did she ever do to deserve such an easy time?

Why can't my body do that? Why couldn't my baby be so healthy?

She's complaining about twins and it's so aggravating that she doesn't know how incredibly lucky she is!

What if she goes into preterm labor?

How will I respond if her baby dies?

Why do I sort of wish that would happen?

Envy. Paranoia. Yearning. Anger. Failure. Sadness. Frustration. Fear.

These are all normal emotions that bereaved or infertile parents experience when confronted with pregnancies of friends, relatives, acquaintances, even celebrities. In fact, if you don't yet have a child at home, you may have particularly intense feelings. But even if your subsequent and surviving children are healthy and growing up, depending on the severity of the trauma you endured, you still may still struggle with uncomfortable feelings in the face of others' reproductive fortunes.

With sisters and other relatives, your feelings may be complicated by family dynamics such as sibling rivalry. With a friend, you may wonder if her motherhood will send her on a path where you'll be unable or unwelcome to accompany her. You may worry that her pregnancy will drive a permanent wedge of envy and misunderstandings between you. With acquaintances (or even strangers), you may devote a fair amount of energy to avoiding them. Hiding in the house when the neighbor is out with her twins; running errands at odd times to avoid close encounters with the band of pregnant mothers and newborns that have apparently invaded your hometown. Even with celebrities, you may feel amazingly offended or envious, especially because glossy magazines and TV tend to showcase the happiest news in the most glowing terms. Due dates similar to yours can be like salt in your wounds. You may have plenty of tears to shed when you find out that a friend has the same due date you had once.

Where do these feelings come from? You may wonder if there is something wrong with you--after all, you aren't normally resentful of others' successes. You may wish you could rejoice with them, but your emotions hold you hostage.

Alas, these emotions arise because of feelings you harbor from your own reproductive experiences. Mind you, there is nothing abnormal about harboring these feelings, even several years down the road. Your feelings are simply evidence that you have more grief to work through. Rather than trying to banish these feelings, instead view them as a natural result of being faced with others' pregnancies in light of your own grief, disappointment and yearning. After all, you are being reminded of your beloved or wished-for little one(s) you still long for.

Whenever you find it difficult to be around or hear about pregnant or postpartum moms, try some of the following:

  • Journaling--often, writing honestly about your feelings can free you from their clutches. Putting your feelings on paper can stop them from circling around in your mind or haunting you. Writing is also a form of expression, where you can have your say. Your writing can also take the form of poetry, memories, or a letter to the pregnant one, or to your baby, or to whomever you wish to communicate. These writings are for your eyes only, and by airing your feelings, you'll be able to let go of them more easily.

  • Take care of yourself in ways that recharge your batteries. Take part of a day for yourself to do whatever you want. There are no "shoulds". Do the things that will comfort you and nurture your soul. And do this again soon.

  • Talk with other bereaved/infertile parents. You can commiserate and be reassured that your feelings are normal, and that you aren't alone.

  • Seek professional counseling. Particularly if you feel your reactions are getting in the way of your relationships or your ability to function, get help. At the very least, a skilled, nurturing therapist can help you express and cope with your feelings of loss and regret, and those worries and concerns that you feel uncomfortable discussing with others. With that special support, you will find it easier to come to terms with your baby's death or reproductive bereavements. Even just a couple of visits might give you the reassurance and boost you need. You deserve to have this kind of support.

  • Understand others' reactions toward you. Accept that your friends and relatives may feel awkward, for fear of upsetting you with talk about babies. If their silence on this topic is helpful to you, tell them you appreciate it. On the other hand if you feel isolated and left out of the loop, let them know that although it's not easy for you, you want to be a part of things. Encourage them to speak openly and to accept whatever feelings arise for you.

  • Be honest. Explain to your pregnant friend how her state makes you realize how much you miss or want your own baby, or makes you so anxious about her baby's safety, or makes you resent her luck. Do reassure her that you are having a hard time and it's not her fault--it's all your thing, but you'd appreciate her understanding as you do what you need to do, even if that means you can't be there for her in the way you wish you could. Your honesty and openness can reassure you both that your friendship can survive.

  • Acknowledge others' celebrations in ways that are comfortable. Although responding to shower invitations and announcements can be difficult, remember that your feelings are not a reflection of your relationship--they really center around you, your baby, your loss. You can find ways to acknowledge her motherhood and her baby, while respecting your grief. For instance, if you can't tolerate shopping, get them a department store gift certificate--you don't even have to go through the baby section! Or instead of giving the predictable infant clothes, baby supplies or plastic toys, get them something unique and special. Maybe honor the parents and their interests with a gift certificate for a romantic dinner, theatre tickets, a massage, or other such thoughtful gifts. Or get them something for their home that they will enjoy, and may or may not use with the baby. Anything from an heirloom quality woven blanket to framed pressed flowers can be a suitable way to acknowledge their blessed event.

  • Let your grief flow. Sometimes, facing others' bulging bellies and cradling arms can help you get in touch with painful feelings which, in the long run, will help you move through them. So don't censor your emotions or detach yourself from the situation. Take the opportunity to face your feelings and let them flow through you. Release them, and they'll release you. As you grieve, you are also healing.

Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist who specializes in perinatal and neonatal crisis, medical ethics, parental bereavement and adjustment, parent education and child development. Dr. Davis is the author of four books for bereaved parents, Empty Cradle, Broken Heart (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996), Loving and Letting Go (Centering, 1993), Fly Away Home (Centering, 2000) and Stillbirth, Yet Still Born (PILC, 2000). With Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D., she is the coauthor of The Emotional Journey of Parenting Your Premature Baby: A Book of Hope and Healing (NICU Ink, 2002).

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