06 Jul The terror of pregnancy following assisted conception and miscarriage
“What a blessing!:
“You finally got your happy ending…”
The string of beautiful responses you get when you finally fall pregnant following a long stint of disappointment, heartache and pain are endless… People are in this with you, they really feel the magnitude of this pregnancy versus that of any other. When you are as open as me about your infertility struggles and you finally get to announce it, you have a fully clad team of cheerleaders emanating squeals of excitement and joy that you made it.
So why does it feel so terrifying?
For some couples, falling pregnant following infertility is a blessing intertwined with the thick, muddy web of anxiety and fear. You (and likely others) expect you will be over the moon with elation and joy for finally achieving the end goal. When the harsh reality is, often, we spend the next 9 months searching for any sign of the next thing to go wrong. When experiencing difficulty falling pregnant, many women simply don’t believe pregnancy is going to work out for them from the second they lay eyes on those glorious double lines, right through to when they finally hold new life in their arms. This feeling isn’t just limited to women who have faced fertility challenges – there are many women who feel that pregnancy isn’t like it is in the movies! There may also be many women who do not experience anxiety at all and go on to to enjoy a blissful pregnancy. This post is not aimed to scare anyone – it is just a personal account.
I want to validate those women who are or were pregnant and are plagued by an incessant fear of miscarriage and to prepare those women who may be prone to anxious bouts and are looking to fall pregnant. But most importantly, I wish to educate the masses on how to speak to pregnant women who battle anxiety and depression around what seemingly should be the “happiest 9 months of their lives.” I will provide you with coping and support strategies that I myself have applied to my situation and what I have noted from speaking to countless women through infertility and IVF support groups. The conversation needs to happen so women stop feeling the shame of anxiety they face when pregnant. It is my goal to forever protect the mental health of women and their partners, through the validation, that for some, the day you fall pregnant isn’t always the day your life magically gets better.
Women who battle infertility, assisted conception and miscarriage are often conditioned to fear the worst. When you go through the process of infertility, you spend months, years and even decades thinking something is wrong with you. We “fail” at the one thing our bodies are put on this earth to do. Combined with so many feelings of limited self-worth that women face, this is a perfect storm for mental illness. Many women who struggle to conceive, eventually go on to miscarry, at times recurrently. You feel as though nature is working against you and rarely ever in your favour. I know for me, when I finally conceived both times, I half expected my body to just give up on the whole process as it wouldn’t know what to do. When I eventually miscarried in my first pregnancy, my fears were confirmed… At 10 weeks, my body failed me yet again and I was left feeling empty. Falling pregnant again the following year felt worse than the first time. All I knew was that based on experience, my body would likely give out again.
The untold misery for me came within the first trimester of my current pregnancy. I spent 12 weeks drowning. Not only does fatigue ravage your body but your anxiety bubbles away inside you, ready to erupt at any time. With no energy to manage my fears, I soon felt waves of depression enveloping me. I lost all motivation to do what I Ioved. Most confronting was the guilt that no one warned me about. Falling pregnant was me getting my wish! How awful of me to feel so low…Guilt clouded my psyche and feelings of shame weighed heavily on my thoughts. Naturally, many women spend 12 weeks awaiting their impending miscarriage. We search for blood every time we visit the bathroom, we analyse every twinge, our level of morning sickness – or lack of. We google weekly pregnancy updates and trawl online forums. I got so caught up in a wet blanket of insecurity that when at 10 weeks my nausea and fatigue subsided – I didn’t rejoice at the fact I’d made it out alive, I just saw it as a sign that my baby had died. 3 days later, I saw the signs of spotting – a true indicator from my first pregnancy that I was at the beginning of a miscarriage. Convinced the pregnancy was over, we rushed straight to the hospital. Doctors often give you a text book response, like from a script. “Spotting can be very normal,” they will murmur, “come back if you see more blood” – then you’ll know heartbreak is nigh. Thank god I have a fierce sister who advocated for me in the tight grip of anxiety. She fought hard and had me scanned in minutes. We stood huddled around my hospital bed, we searched that blotchy screen desperate for a flicker of movement. After what felt like hours (but was just seconds), the doctor flung the monitor around and showed us the beautiful little heartbeat, still going strong. Matt, Georgia and I let out a huge sigh of relief and cried together in a special moment I will forever cherish. Our combined relief brought me hope that my journey didn’t have to be doomed with sadness.
The day of the 12 weeks scan for many is pure joy. But for others, it’s just another chance to fear a missed miscarriage or to hear of an abnormality in your baby. My experience was not the blissful time I heard about from gushing mothers. I overanalysed everything on the screen. Was his head big enough? Did he have the qualities of a baby with down syndrome? Was he missing an arm or a leg? It didn’t help that our little man jumped around like an acrobat so the sonographer had to call in her supervisor. Our marvel at the little baby on the screen soon turned to un-maskable fear. Matt and I both froze and my usually stoic husband went pale. As it turned out, it was all fine – but our positive experience in that room was definitely tarnished and it only made me more nervous for my upcoming 20 week scan.
Then you get to the “safe mark” which feels anything but bloody safe! At 12 weeks, the likelihood of miscarriage is so low. But for women who have battled infertility or miscarried before, we are convinced we fall into the small percentage of women who will lose their baby. From 12 weeks, the next phase of anxiety starts…You analyse your stomach for adequate growth. Am I just bloated? Has it stopped growing? Is it growing fast enough? Has it died? For me, some mornings my stomach was flat – I almost convinced myself it was all a dream and I wasn’t even pregnant anymore. The rest of the day spent catching my reflection, checking to make sure I still had a bump at all. Relief would come when someone remarks how cute your belly is but then is soon taken away by someone commenting how you barely look pregnant…
Soon, you get to week 16 where you may be one of those lucky women to feel “flutters” of movement. Never mind that these movements can sometimes not be felt until week 25! You spend weeks analysing every little feeling. Some describe it as butterflies or popcorn. The amount of time I have spent desperately feeling for an insect or movie food inside me is a joke. Wait! Was that it? Or is it just gas? Food churning? Sometimes you feel it one second and then not again for hours or days… People ask you ALL THE TIME if you have felt the movements. For me, I never want to even admit it because what if I get to the 20 week scan and find the baby died weeks before. Then would I be imagining all of it? All of this may sound totally insane to you, or you may be nodding your head as you read as you have or are experiencing something similar. Many women who go through this can feel ridiculous sharing these irrational thoughts with others in fear they may be judged, misunderstood or shamed.
I think it is important that for those of you standing on the sidelines to know helpful approaches and those that tend to be more of a hindrance. The most important being, to just LISTEN. There is a beautiful hebrew word ‘selah’ which means to just pause. Listening to what someone has to say is magic. Going on to validate anxieties and to admit you can’t relate and acknowledge how hard it must be is often preferred over dishing out unsolicited or nervous advice. It is important that I stress that – sometimes no advice is good advice. I want to recommend avoiding the need to be overly positive and tell someone how they should feel, or that there baby is fine, or that you know someone who had X, Y or Z happen and they were a-okay! To an anxious woman, they don’t always see themselves in the experiences of others and they are more soothed by tangible evidence in their own bodies. The language you use is also important. Sometimes it can be wildly unhelpful to tell a woman how amazing pregnancy is and they “should” “enjoy it” or “be happy” it finally happened. This can perpetuate shame and guilt without you realising it. A more helpful approach is just to ask questions like, “has anything been happening to make you think bub wouldn’t be okay?” Here, women may not be able to list anything and they come to a realisation themselves. You can then be quick to highlight, “well that’s great news!” And, if there are complications with their pregnancy, just let them know you are there for them and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Lastly, remember the men/partners need supporting too – they are living and managing the anxieties of their partners on a daily basis. Often, they can feel helpless and drained. They too matter in these scenarios!
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A health and wellness coach who specialises in infertility and stress management should have all the answers to managing anxiety and stress right? Today, I am bang on 20 weeks. I am about to head in for a scan and I am so fucking exhausted you wouldn’t believe it. I have spent 20 weeks at war with my anxiously wired brain. Let me tell you – it is hard work talking yourself down from this day in and day out. Diverting anxious and emotional thoughts down a path of rationality is doable, but it is an extreme drain on your resources. The strategies that worked for me through this whole process would vary from day to day and I hope that they are somewhat helpful for you or as tools to suggest to someone going through this time…
Rationalise with yourself
My psychologist taught me to get real and provide evidence to myself. She asked me to highlight all the evidence in favour that things are okay with the pregnancy. There was no bleeding, I was growing, the doctors weren’t concerned… Rationalising with your emotions puts the ball back in your court.
Acknowledge your feelings and emotions through journaling
I made a point of writing my thoughts every morning, it would be amazing what would come up thatI wasn’t aware of… I would often then go on to chat to my husband about these things. Getting the swimming thoughts out of your brain and onto paper or into conversation is freeing.
Avoid the default reaction of feeling guilt or shame for being anxious and depressed
People will be quick to tell you how magical it is to be pregnant and how you should enjoy it… it most certainly is magical. Magically frightening! Don’t attach to these words. You are entitled to feel how you feel and move through your range of emotions.
Talk with a coach and psychologist
Professional insight into mental illness and mindset is very useful. Often professionals in these fields can validate your experience with research and useful strategies that pave the way to ease and comfort. I continue to regularly visit my psychologist and skype with my coach as my pregnancy progresses. There is nothing like their advice as I tend to listen more to their input than that of my husband or friends.
Be clear with health professionals that you are anxious or worried
I have learned along this journey to speak up. There are so many appointments that I went into and said nothing about my fears or worries. I have spent scans and appointments holding my breath, feeling waves of nerves and looking for things I know nothing about. In my most recent scan, the first thing I did was state how petrified I was and that I would prefer she explain things to me as she saw them if possible. I have begun to open every appointment with “I am a nervous wreck!” The sonographers, doctors and midwives treat me so differently and it’s always with even more support.
Reach out to other women who have been in the same situation
If you know other women who have been through assisted conception or miscarriage, engage with them often. While they may not always have the answers, they can share with you in the same feelings and you feel less alone and the shadow of guilt and feelings of loneliness can drift away.
Speak to mothers whose opinions and advice you value
I suggest surrounding yourself with the advice of mothers who those who don’t catastrophize, judge or make you feel like your feelings aren’t warranted. I have a few key women who I chose to engage with often as I walk away feeling better rather than worse.
Support others as you seek support
Your insight and perspective is helpful to others. Even just sharing your story and concerns helps other women feel less in the dark. Engage in support groups or just open up through vulnerability and bravery. The magic lies within this step.
When this gets too much, you are tired or just don’t have the energy, there are some more “woo-woo” practices that I found very useful…
When you just can’t rationalise or break free from the weight of anxiety, visualising something calming takes a load off. For some you may imagine an image or a colour that soothes you. For some taking yourself to another place through guided meditations can silence anxious thoughts. I often visualised being wrapped in a warm fuzzy blanket.
This strategy I hadn’t used before but the act of tapping on energy meridian points on my body while speaking positively out loud and validating fears did wonders at diverting my focus elsewhere. I searched Youtube for a video that suited my needs.
Pregnancy isn’t always rainbows and butterflies and that is perfectly okay. If you are scared, worried or feeling low – you are not alone! I want to acknowledge that our brains are wired to survive and protect us. When you have been through emotional trauma, your battle is that little bit more difficult. The light on the other side is best viewed if you can clear the path through vulnerability and sharing, through seeking support that you value and to trial a number of different strategies until you find some relief. The golden nugget that has helped me to heal throughout this process is to reach out and support others while you are at it. Contribution is perhaps the most rewarding of any mindset strategy I could ever suggest you apply. You may not know the outcome just yet but with the right foundations and networking, you can make it through whatever is thrown at you with grace and hope.
If you are someone who requires support please reach out to discuss how I can support you as a health and wellness coach who specialises in working with women who are facing stress, anxiety, infertility and assisted conception. Coaching packages are tailored to your individual needs. I have worked with a number of women to manage stress and anxiety and have too experienced many of the same stressors.