Content informed by Amanda Sives, via BACP, interviewing women who were mourning involuntary childlessness, My own and Client work experience..
When the process of trying to conceive becomes problematic, when every month you think you may be pregnant and then you take a pregnancy test or your period comes late. Initial feelings of excitement and possibilities give way to a sense of huge disappointment, despondency and anger. When there are unexpected challenges to conception, the struggle and the accompanying emotional stress remains hidden and in most cases contained within the relationship. The sense of anticipation, followed by crushing disappointment, endured privately and often unspoken. Confusion about the right to grieve over the ‘negative’ test result?
Recognising the silent pain that accompanies failure to conceive. And then, for some the miracle happens, only to be snatched so cruelly away some weeks or months later through a miscarriage. And then the crushing devastation of nothingness.
Having to deliver a baby that is no longer alive is a harrowing experience. To lose your baby that you have carried for so many months, to lose part of you and for many your hope.
Whilst people try to sympathise their well meant but often misplaced words stab at you, ‘Maybe it was for the best - nature’s way’, ‘you can try again, you're young’. People make the assumption that because you may have already have a child that this loss is not as bad.
Words that you do not want to hear- a reality that you do not want to be apart of. Trapped between the excruciating pain of loss and the confusing numbness, everything loses its meaning.
Counselling can offer sensitive recognition of the enormity of the specific losses and the crisis that you may experience and may facilitate a process of healing, especially in the wider social context of awkwardness and/or silence.
“I was a mother. And then I wasn't”
This simple matter of fact statement from Rachel Joyce’s novel, ‘The love song of Miss Queenie Hennessy’ contains within it the horrible reality affecting thousands of women who have experienced a miscarriage. They have suffered an immense but invisible loss, in many cases it is known only to the parents and close family. This grief is disenfranchised - a loss that ‘is not, or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported’. This silence is not only the reflection of the numbing nature of grief but arises too from the social discomfort about pregnancy loss.
Yet it is a grief which should demand and requires recognition and a safe place where it can be acknowledged so that healing and acceptance can begin to take place. Counselling has the powerful role in facilitating the grieving process and exploring the reality of life after such a loss.
The hidden pain and silent grief of women whose hopes of becoming a mother that are dashed temporarily or permanently by infertility, failed IVF, miscarriage or premature death of their baby have been expressed by women as feelings of failure and a desperate sense of isolation. An element of this can be connected to the taboo surrounding pregnancy loss. People ask if you are OK but then become embarrassed if they hear that you are not and how very hard it is for you. Conversations fade away or change direction as they struggle with what to say. “So many conversations but none of them understood,it is just awful.” The feeling of not being heard, exacerbated by unhelpful comments, commonly people asking “how far gone were you”. Women feel that is irrelevant, ”the fact that I lost something, that they will never understand what it meant to me”. The lack of understanding serves to deepen the sense of isolation.
Equally, finding the words to explain how you are feeling can be challenging. ”You want people to talk about it but what do you want them to say, Then you might not want them to talk about it, but then query why didn’t they ask me about it?” Some women may be reluctant to talk as rooted in the fact that they feel their experience is a ”very private,private thing”.
What is experienced repeatedly is the breakdown of communication, as women find it hard to articulate their own sense of loss and grief, and those closest to them appear unable to grasp the full significance of what had happened and so make inappropriate comments or remain uncomfortably quiet. Counselling can offer an environment that is safe, where the pace is unhurried and where confusion is accepted, and may provide a much needed space in which the isolation of grief can be eroded.
Dealing with pregnancy of close friends and family and the presence of other people’s children can be another challenging aspect of losing a baby. Feelings can be conflicting, the friend that had been supporting you, or you her becomes pregnant, your siblings give birth, not wanting to go to family gatherings or parties because of the pain of seeing other people’s children or the relentless and continuous agony of seeing mothers pushing their babies in the street. On one level you want to feel happy for them but on another level the feeling of deep jealousy can be overwhelming. Although uncomfortable for you to talk about Counselling can support you to explore these involuntary and unwelcome feelings of jealousy and are an important aspect of beginning to come to an acceptance and managing your grief.
Added to the pain of pregnancy loss can be the hidden grief associated with involuntary childlessness. A central aspect of this may be the continuing perception that being a ’real woman’ involves being a mother and the sense of an incomplete self. . “There is an implicit assumption that motherhood is intrinsic to adult female identity. This assumption then implies an absence for any woman who is not a mother”. Feelings of somehow “being judged as being not worthy, somehow faulty, feelings of failure, at the most profound and fundamental level at being a woman”. In addition women may direct their anger against themselves and can feel hatred of their own body for failing them. Feelings that they are merely “A tiny dot in amongst all these giants of women, these goddesses who had given birth and there they are, a shrivelled up kind of spot...a nobody.”
The pain endured by women, who have struggled to conceive and who were aware, during the process of loss, that they would be unlikely to have a child, is immense.
A common stereotype about women who do not have children is that it is their ‘fault’, attributing this to their choice to focus on their education, or career, rather than having a child at an earlier age. For some women then, alongside the deep sadness, is a sense of guilt that somehow they are to blame for their childlessness. People assume that this a selfish choice and women find themselves having to justify themselves to others that although they are childless they have tried to have a child. Whilst most women know rationally that they are not to blame, the feelings of being slightly estranged from wider society lingers for many. Women express feeling “on the edge of things” or “not belonging”. The feeling that they were somehow ‘not normal’ resonated with a number of women after the rawness of their grief had subsided. I aim to create a safe,non-judgemental space where women can articulate these feelings and feel supported and heard and facilitate an important part of the process of exploring a childlessness future, together with the possibilities of what that could also incorporate.