The long second trimester
Looking back, the second trimester seemed to go on forever. Despite being incredibly busy in one way or another, the weeks felt long and the anxiety and worry seemed to gradually build. Whereas in the first trimester, I was able to adopt a more ‘whatever happens’ attitude (a sense that there was very little I could do apart from maintain good health), in the second, the sense of responsibility became heightened. I started to feel movements very early on, as early as 12 weeks, but this of course was intermittent and followed no pattern that would allow for reassurance. The familiarity of those flutters and pokes was simultaneously comforting and terrifying. Since the nausea and tiredness had subsided, this was the first sign that I really was pregnant – yet there was a sense that I couldn’t even trust my own judgements about this. How could I believe that what I was feeling was actually a baby? And when I couldn’t feel anything, what did this mean? Falling pregnant so soon after losing Orla meant that these feelings were so recognisable; having Orla safely cocooned inside of me was within touching distance and feeling the movements of her younger sibling brought me closer to her, yet also painfully further away. A physical reminder of everything we had lost, creating its own renewed wave of grief.
Ongoing loss of trust of my own mind as well as body
Losing Orla, as well as a previous ectopic pregnancy, meant that I had already started to doubt my own body. It had let me down in the most horrific and cruel ways and broken my heart into pieces. Yet, during pregnancy after loss, I realised that I had also lost trust in my own mind as well.
Now, I’m the first to admit that I am on the OCD spectrum when it comes to doubting my own judgement. I am a checker and will check things once, twice, and even more when I’m stressed. I have been known to walk back down the road to ensure that I locked the front door, to call home to get someone else to look to see that I have switched off my straighteners, or to have to touch / push windows to make sure that they are closed in case my eyes are deceiving me. This doesn’t impact on my life significantly, but it definitely increases at times of high anxiety. It is often my early warning sign that I’m taking on too much and need to chill out. The underlying theme of this though is responsibility – what if I miss or forget something and then responsible for some kind of disaster?
So, imagine when the responsibility is that of carrying a baby. But not just any baby, one that you are carrying after the death of another – a baby that had died inside of you.
Once those familiar flutters, rolls and jabs started, my anxiety hit the roof. My head was constantly full of doubts about my own judgement: ‘was that the baby?’ ‘Did I feel something earlier or did I imagine it?’ ‘Maybe you dreamt it or are hallucinating’. I couldn’t trust whether what I was feeling really was the baby – and if I did believe it, I went on to doubt my earlier judgements as the day progressed.
Although you are advised that movements are sporadic and inconsistent for the first few weeks, it was hard to hold that faith at the quieter times. Was the silence and stillness just because the baby was in a position that I couldn’t feel? Or had this baby died? The constant advice to monitor baby’s movements is obviously important and key to knowing that your baby is okay, but the stress and worry that this creates in pregnancy after loss is overwhelming. Carrying this for every moment of every day, whilst trying to function as a normal member of society is unbelievably exhausting and distressing.
I would (and still do) sit in meetings at work and suddenly the dark thoughts would drop into my head: ‘you haven’t felt the baby – what if they have died?’ There was no middle ground, no consideration that the baby was asleep or that I had been distracted and missed it. It was fast track to the worst-case scenario and I would feel the blood drain from my face, an intense rush of adrenaline and my mind racing to try to think of what to do next. Sometimes I could reassure myself, sometimes not. But as time has progressed, the need to act, to make the baby move or to seek reassurance has increased. Up until 24 weeks, there was still an element of powerlessness. Yet there was something about hitting viability that suddenly meant that the weight of responsibility, and fear of this, hung heavily around my shoulders.
Detachment as a way of survival
I feel that I spent the majority of the second trimester in a state of detachment as a way of surviving. In schema therapy we would refer to this as a ‘detached protector mode’; a way of coping with aversive and overwhelming emotional states. It is a way of numbing the pain, of avoiding experiencing feelings and prevents you from getting your real needs met. You don’t ask for help, since you don’t allow yourself to feel vulnerable enough to even know you need it. I got up each day, went to work, answered questions about how I felt in an almost automated way. I could talk about my dark thoughts, my deepest fears, without really showing any emotion. There were very few tears or breakdowns during these weeks. I was on autopilot, would be ‘matter of fact’ and pragmatic and this would often be responded to with ‘you’re doing so well’.
And I guess I was doing well. But it was a coping mode, an avoidance of really feeling what I was experiencing. It was functional and not necessarily healthy. But it was the only way I could find to survive – and maybe surviving was enough.
This also helped to navigate the responses of others. The well-meaning congratulations, the people who I hadn’t seen for months, who didn’t know about Orla and mistook this for the longest pregnancy in history (?!?). The people who wanted to talk with excitement and joy about this baby, completely omitting Orla’s existence. I smiled, I nodded and didn’t challenge. I didn’t allow myself to feel the sharp sting, the frustration, hurt or anger. I could come home and recount these incidents to Andy with no real emotion. I could say it was annoying, frustrating, hurtful. But I couldn’t allow myself to feel it. Because that was too much.
Desperately trying to be ‘normal’
One thing that I grasped on to during the second trimester, was anything that would help me to feel remotely ‘normal’. Nothing about PAL is normal; trying for a baby, finding out you are pregnant, going for your first scan, being put under consultant led care, being handed a fresh set of notes with a sticker announcing you as a bereaved parent – it is all different. Most of the time I can embrace this difference, and feel incredibly grateful to have found a group of women who are also experiencing this. However, we live and exist in a world where we can’t hide from ‘normality’ (I use this in the loosest way as I don’t really like this term, but it feels like the most accurate word in this context) . I cannot only socialise with other mum’s who have experienced the loss of their child and I cannot avoid those who haven’t. Nor would I want to. I know that the early weeks and months after bringing home a live baby can be scary and isolating, and I don’t want to do anything that will isolate me further. Yes, I know that my experience of parenting after loss will inevitably be different, but I know that there will be many similarities too, which I don’t want to lose sight of.
I started attending pregnancy yoga classes again. Being in the same studio, doing the same class as before had a comforting familiarity. Having the same teacher who has since become a friend and provided ongoing support, felt safe. Yet, it was much harder than I had anticipated. I felt separate and distant. The excitement and naivety of the other first time mums was a painful reminder of who I used to be and who I will never be again. But I persisted, and I grew the courage to tell the class about Orla and about how sacred I am being pregnant again. Everyone was kind and compassionate. And despite them not being able to imagine what I had experienced, I felt for the first time that this was okay, and that I could still be with people who hadn’t lived through the same painful loss. I must also say here that I may never know if these other women have had their own difficult and turbulent journeys to motherhood. Although no one else spoke out and said ‘me too’, that’s not so say that they don’t know the pain of loss in another way, or be fighting some other battle that I have no clue about because it’s one that I haven’t experienced. Holding on to the bigger perspective has become key in maintaining a hope of fitting in.
Getting a toolkit of coping strategies together
I think that the second trimester for me was trying as best I could to put together an armour of strategies that would help to see me through these challenging nine months; some consciously, some less so. I returned to work, both for financial reasons as well as a need for structure and ‘normality’, to regain a sense of me and to do something that I know am good at (which I have found so important when consumed with shame and when my confidence and self-esteem has been shattered). I started pregnancy yoga again and ensured that I was walking a good distance each day, which is pretty easy with my job. I signed up for an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course and tried to practice regularly. I bought a new pregnancy pillow and we invested in a new mattress to try and ensure a good night’s sleep. I tried to eat as healthy and balanced a diet as possible, to take regular baths, use essential oils and have little treats when I could.
I started having acupuncture again, something I’m very sure helped me to process a lot of my earlier grief and to conceive. The familiarity of seeing someone who knew me and what I have lived through was comforting and reassuring. I carried around a self-care kit, with essentials that I thought might be helpful; scents and creams for grounding, headphones for blocking out noise and conversations I didn’t want to be part of, decaf tea etc.
I wrote most days and I crafted when I could. Sewing for survival, just like the early weeks after losing Orla. I dedicated time and space to think about and focus on Orla, continuing to write her letters each day and spending time curating a special space for her at Christmas. Being pregnant again, and sharing this news with others, certainly meant a renewed grief for Orla and I think we probably spoke about her more. Maybe through fear of people forgetting her, of others thinking that we were over losing her or that this baby would in some way replace her.
But most of all, I started to set limits. I no longer worked excessively long hours – I just couldn’t as I was so mentally exhausted. I tried not to get too embroiled in work politics. I went in late if I needed to after a particularly difficult night. And I learnt to say no – to set limits to myself and others. I didn’t feel pressurised to go out and socialise, to keep up with everyone by seeing them in person. I look back at the old me and sometimes wonder if I was manic; the amount of work I did, socialising, activities, exercise and keeping home. There is no way that I could manage that now. Giving anything up before would have been too difficult for me, a sense of failure. Yet losing Orla and this pregnancy has taught me that it is okay to say no, to let things go, to give something up. And I’m learning to really believe and feel this. Gradually.