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PAILS of Hope

Is It Possible to Be a Normal Pregnant Woman After Childbearing Loss?
by Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D.
If you have experienced the heartache of any childbearing loss (such as infertility, death of a baby at anytime during or after pregnancy, a high-risk pregnancy, traumatic childbirth, or the delivery of a baby who was ill, disabled, or premature), your emotions can be deeply affected during your next pregnancy. You may be filled with anxiety and dread, distancing yourself from the baby you carry, daring not to hope, and preparing for the worst. Of course, these painful feelings make sense if you have a pregnancy that turns out to be risky. But what if your pregnancy appears to be going smoothly, and the baby appears to be doing well? Why do you still fear and even assume that disaster is pending?

These fears arise from a heightened sense of vulnerability. After all, you know that bad things can happen to you and your babies. You know that you don't have complete control over what happens to you. You know that no one has the power to guarantee that you'll hold a healthy baby in your arms after delivery. So, even if your pregnancy is "normal", you may not feel like "a normal pregnant mother" at all. Your sense of vulnerability keeps you from feeling that blissful glow. And yet, it is still possible for you to have hope in the midst of your worries. Here are a few tips for holding onto optimism during your pregnancy.

Stop comparing yourself to the na´ve pregnant woman (even though this may very well have been you, once upon a time.) Instead, compare yourself to other pregnant mothers who have struggled like you, with infertility, trauma and/or bereavement. Because you have firsthand knowledge of the risks and heartache, it is NORMAL for you to be anxious and to feel vulnerable. Remember that your feelings are natural and typical for mothers who share your situation.

Accept your painful feelings. If you can face your anxiety and any continuing grief, this will free you to also feel the positive feelings, such as joy, anticipation and wonder.

Remind yourself that all pregnant women experience some degree of worry. Chalk up some of your anxiety to the fact that you are a mother and you want the best for your baby.

Try to separate out those fears that arise from your imagination and fears that arise from actual symptoms or circumstances. Discount the fears that lurk only in your mind, so that you can pay attention to any fears related to actual physical symptoms or strong intuitions associated with what you observe.

Remember that your anxiety doesn't necessarily predict the outcome. You may be hounded by disbelief, flashbacks, anniversary reactions, and/or acute sensitivity to every pregnant pang, but these thoughts and feelings are the result of your previous experience and your vulnerability. So try to remind yourself that even when your emotional reality may be in the throes of pessimism, your physical reality (and your baby's too) may very well be normal and healthy.

Redirect anxious thoughts toward positive imagery. Imagine your belly ripe with the later stages of pregnancy. Imagine feeling the strong movement of your growing baby in your womb. Imagine holding your healthy newborn after delivery. While imagery is no guarantee, it can give you a break from your worries and ground you in your hopes for the future.

Use positive imagery and nesting to shove aside any pessimism and build your optimism. After all, pessimism drains you, while optimism sustains you. Your optimism may not be blissful, durable, or concrete, but if you have any thread of hope, do spend some time hanging onto that. Make a conscious choice to not spend all your time swinging on the ropes of worry. Instead, dare to daydream about the soft smells of baby heads. Fantasize about how full your arms and days will be. Go ahead and buy some darling baby clothes. Even a pair of tiny socks can give you something to pin your hopes on.

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Of course, one reason you may hesitate to acquire baby things is because you are afraid it will heighten your despair if your baby dies. However, you would be devastated whether you collect baby things or not. Refusing to go shopping does not protect you from grief. Still, you may fear that if you do any nesting, like preparing a nursery, this energy might be wasted, hopes gotten too high, and too many reminders installed. But to the contrary, these are the very things that would aid in your mourning and eventual healing. These baby things would be precious mementos of this baby you love. Those little outfits and teddy bears would give you something of your baby to hold onto. And on the positive side, collecting supplies and making a place for your baby to come home to can build your optimism and hope, as it reinforces your connection with your little one. Plus, remind yourself that during those newborn days, you'll want to be able to focus on your baby, not a shopping list. So even if you don't feel like a "normal" pregnant woman, dare to nest like one.

Finally, try keeping a journal. Besides the therapeutic value of helping you express and deal with your feelings, a journal can be a priceless memento of a special, perhaps agonizing, but miraculous time in your life. A journal can help you endure the pregnancy and prepare for whatever the outcome. And whatever happens, your journal is a precious keepsake that you've created out of your love for this baby and from your experience of motherhood.

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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