Five Ways to Cope When a Pregnancy Goes South. Literally.
By Amy Boyes
“I’m sorry, but the baby is completely in the birth canal. A part of the membranes is leaving your body. Your baby will be born today.”
These words would make any expectant mother sit up and take notice, except I couldn’t sit up. I was on bed rest—a strategy to keep my baby inside of me—and my pregnancy was only at twenty-four weeks, way too early for my baby to be heading south, out of my body. The prospect of giving birth to a micro-preemie filled me with abject terror and the feeling didn’t subside when, several hours later, I met my one-pound daughter Madeline. She was in an incubator and I was on the outside.
She laid still, her wrinkled limbs flopped across a stiff flannel sheet. A sunshine-yellow toque covered her tennis ball-sized head. Her tiny bits of ears peeked out from under the toque’s fuzzy yarn. Cartilage hadn’t formed yet, so her ears were just flaps of skin, folded forward against her head. Her puffy eyelids were fused together like a newborn kitten’s. Their inability to open created an illusion of blindness, a suggestion she’d never see the worried faces hovering over her. Saliva foamed and dried around the ventilator tube that slunk over her pointed chin, into her gaping mouth. She had no fat, nothing to plump the pouches of skin that dripped off her jaw and piled into layers on her neck and shoulders, just a coat of downy hair to protect against the amniotic fluid she no longer floated in. With each breath forced into her underdeveloped lungs by the mechanical ventilator, her ribs protruded against her crimson, gelatinous skin like shark fins skimming the surface of the ocean. Her fragility disturbed me. I was overwhelmed by her helplessness.
Whether a pregnancy ends in miscarriage or results in premature birth or other complications, mothers experience overwhelming sadness. It is in our nature, as women, to protect our little ones, to make every sacrifice so that they can thrive. But sometimes it is beyond our power to help. We must rely on the assistance of doctors and nurses, or, perhaps, we just go home and quietly mourn a life lost. The grief of a pregnancy loss or complication can be devastating.
Consider these five ways to cope with pregnancy trauma:
1.) Stay busy. Although returning to work was the last thing I wanted to do, my maternity leave wasn’t scheduled until my original due date. I returned to work, howbeit with flexible hours, a week and a half after my daughter was born and then took a full maternity leave when she came home. Going back to work forced me to interact in a professional setting. I had to communicate with people who didn’t know about my personal stress. This helped me maintain a balanced view of my life and the lives of others.
2.) Simplify. Although this seems like conflicting advice, something has to give, especially if you are spending a couple of hours a day at the hospital on top of caring for other children or working. Give yourself permission to drop everything that isn’t essential. Volunteering, the book club—anything that doesn’t need to be done or is stressful might be trimmed. Using a grocery pick up service or even getting groceries delivered, for example, instead of grocery shopping is a great way to conserve energy.
3.) Engage with people who understand. I had a friend, Sarah, who also had an extremely premature baby. Even though her experience was not an encouraging one, Sarah was a positive influence. She’d listen without dismissing my concerns. She never urged me to see the bright side nor forbid me from dwelling on negative things. She respected my feelings and outlook. I never felt I had to defend my positions or offer minute details. Sarah just let me talk and I always felt better after speaking with her.
4.) Find moments of peace and joy throughout the day. Even if it’s just enjoying a morning cup of coffee before the rest of the family is up, or buying tulips for the dinner table, allow yourself small moments of pleasure. No one has to give you permission and only you know what will make you feel better.
5.) Write. Even if it’s only a few lines a day, your impression of your experience will be a cherished family keepsake. Medical charts only tell part of the story and recording your thoughts can be therapeutic. Pictures and videos are important, but they don’t capture the feeling. How did you feel the first time you walked into the NICU? When your baby’s eyes opened? When you received the worst news? When you received the best? Write it down. You’ll feel the peace that comes from sorting out your feelings on paper.
Amy Boyes is the author of Micro Miracle: A True Story. Available from Signature Editions.
Micro Miracle is the moving account of a first-time mother whose expectations of childbirth and parenting are dramatically altered when she gives birth sixteen weeks prematurely. Unflinchingly honest, Micro Miracle is a true story of a medical triumph, yet it is also the loving tale of accepting the inevitable, fighting for the impossible, and honouring the most fragile of lives.