Given my own experiences, and having experienced many friends, colleagues, and clients’ stories of difficulty in their fertility journey, it’s occurred to me lately that there is a lot of shame and silence surrounding all things “baby”. It seems to me that there are so many “rules” placed on what can and cannot be talked about publicly, which reinforces this idea that certain parts of this journey should be shameful or secret.
I’m addressing a few of those topics today in the hopes that it gets folks talking a bit more about ALL parts of the perinatal world, if they want to, and not just the “joyous” parts. After all, any of us who have had our own journey to parenthood know that it’s not all puppy dogs and sunshine. I, for one, tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and depend on the empathy and shared experiences of others to heal.
Now, I also fully recognize that that is not everyone’s desire- some people would much rather keep their difficult experiences private and that is, of course, FINE. My point is simply that I would love for some of that stigma to be removed so that, if we want to talk about some of these things, we feel free to do so without shame or embarrassment.
Infertility is cruel. A mean, spiteful, all-consuming little demon. When you are ready to make a family, however you decide to do that, and you’re not able to, I really think that there is almost nothing worse. But so many of the folks I know dealing with challenges are ashamed to talk about it, as if it intrinsically means that there is something wrong with that person. That they’re a “lemon”, or a failure. That their bodies just don’t “work” right.
I’ve also noticed that a lot of folks who confide in me that they are undergoing struggles with fertility are not aware of other people we mutually know who may also be going through those struggles. They feel alone, their Facebook feed is seemingly full of joyous pregnancy announcements and new babies. They can’t go to the store without being bumped by a baby bump. Because those “happy” aspects are announced and seen so readily, they often aren’t aware that, in fact, that person who just announced the birth of their twins has been struggling for 3 years, and has gone through multiple failed IVF cycles.
In stark contrast to the norm, a friend of mine on Facebook recently shared pictures of her two kiddos as embryos, i.e., she acknowledged that they were both conceived through IVF, and was open about her struggle. I thought those photos were incredibly beautiful, special, and validating of what was such a wonderful, but also challenging part of her and her partner’s lives. As she later told me, she has had several people opening up about their own struggles with fertility, and what a relief it was for them to see her posts. It feels good to not feel so alone.
Miscarriage and Loss
Losing a baby, no matter how early in the game, is something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It fills you with a sense of grief that is hard to compare. Not only have you lost the pregnancy, you’ve lost all the hopes and dreams that went with that baby. Even when the pregnancy wasn’t wanted, folks may feel sad about the loss, or even guilty that they somehow made the pregnancy fail (which, by the way, is almost never the case). Unfortunately, miscarriages are not uncommon. Most statistics report that approximately 1 in 4 or 5 known pregnancies end in loss.
One of the pieces that I find saddest about pregnancy loss is the lack of support around it because of the whole “wait until you’re 12 weeks pregnant to announce” rule. For those who aren’t aware, the risk of miscarriage is reduced greatly as you move into your second trimester. Most losses do occur in those first weeks, usually due to chromosomal issues. Because of that, there’s this “rule” that people should wait until their second trimester to announce pregnancy, just in case something goes wrong.
With my first pregnancy, I followed the “rule”. I fought back waves of nausea in silence, pretended I had a headache, or was on antibiotics when friends offered me a drink. As has nearly every single one of my friends who has been pregnant.
But the thing is, after losing that pregnancy at 10 weeks, I still told most of my friends and family members, because I needed their support. Their support was what got me through that time, in fact.
What was sad was that most of them hadn’t known about the pregnancy in the first place, because I was following the “rule” and waiting till the second trimester to announce. So, I had their support and love after announcing the loss, but they never got to experience any of the joy I experienced in the first 10 weeks of that pregnancy.
When I became pregnant with my son, I actually did plan on announcing it earlier because of that very reason. However, when I told one friend that I was pregnant at about 6 weeks, she said “Ooh, you probably shouldn’t tell people so soon in case something happens”. Which automatically made me feel ashamed and embarrassed, and I promptly shut my mouth until I was well into the second trimester. I wish that instead I would have said to her, “Even if I lose this gummy bear [side note, that’s what he looked like on the ultrasound], I still want to share him with the world while I can.”
Again, as with infertility, I don’t expect everyone to talk about these things. For some, having to tell people that the baby was lost would just be too painful. I understand that. I’m simply wishing that, if you WANT to talk about it, there’s not one ounce of shame or stigma attached to that discussion.
Nursing vs Formula
Good grief people. If I had a dollar for every time I found out that a friend, client, or acquaintance had also had difficulties breastfeeding but never talked about it because they were too “embarrassed”, or felt like a “failure” because they had to supplement or switch to formula, I could just stop working and take a nice, long vacation.
WHY is this such an issue? Seriously?? The important thing is you HAD A BABY AND FED THAT BABY, in the best way you could. Period. End of discussion. As I went through my own struggle, I clung onto other people’s stories of their experiences like a spider monkey. I just wish that I’d heard more of those experiences before my own struggle so that I didn’t go into it thinking breastfeeding would be this natural, easy, blissful walk in the park (spoiler alert, it wasn’t).
Postpartum Depression & Anxiety
As a therapist who works with people moving through the perinatal period, and as a friend of people who are, you know, human beings, I see postpartum depression and anxiety all. The. Time. These illnesses are not uncommon. Approximately 11-20% of postpartum folks will go through some postpartum depression and/or anxiety. Why are those stats so unspecific, you ask? Because most people don’t report those illnesses.
As a culture, we are smacked in the face with the idea that pregnancy and the postpartum period are supposed to be this blissful state of baby snuggling nirvana. Again, as with breastfeeding, I find the reality to be different for most, at least in the first month or two after our babies are born. For many, the sleep deprivation, hormonal changes, and near constant feeding can be a perfect storm in laying fertile ground for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Not to mention any history of anxiety or depression we carry into our pregnancies that put us at even higher risk.
And yet, many of those who have experienced these illnesses are not open about their struggles. So many times I see a parent who has been suffering for months, but hasn’t told anyone or talked about it with friends or family for fear of being judged, or because they feel like they are somehow “failing” parenthood.
For most illnesses that we have no control over, that same sense of shame is not attached. So why is it so with postpartum depression and/or anxiety?
Post-Pregnancy Bodies & Sex
Can I give a shout out to wrinkly bellies, stretch marks, and saggy “laundry bag boobs”, as one friend so eloquently put it?
If we only have examples of what we see in the media, of celebrities who “bounce right back into shape” (i.e., they had a full time trainer and liposuction), then we will feel shame and embarrassment when our own normal bodies don’t measure up.
I absolutely love it when I see images of folks embracing their postpartum bodies. How incredible, strong, and beautiful. Let’s have more of that!
And let’s talk about sex for one minute. Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding can ALL effect sex and make it painful in the postpartum period. Most people understand that having a baby vaginally can change sex. But many don’t know that a C-section can as well. And even less know that breastfeeding a baby exclusively can ALSO cause painful sex. Breastfeeding actually lowers our body’s estrogen, which is the magical hormone that causes lubrication and elasticity, two things that are VERY necessary for comfortable intercourse. Some women develop a lovely condition called “lactational vaginal atrophy”, which is actually not uncommon. But how many times has someone talked to you about that fun little fact?
If we start being more open and honest with each other about these experiences, maybe some of that shame and stigma will start to fall away.
Are there parts of the reproductive journey that you wish were talked about more, or shown in a different light? If so, let us know in the comments below!