I have often wondered how grief has impacted mother's guilt, feeling that perhaps there is an added layer of expectation or standards that we as bereaved mothers hold. After all, we should feel that much more blessed to have what we have and be that much more patient, calm, and understanding with our living children. If we have an imperfect moment (as defined by us and usually an average moment for most) then we are not truly appreciating what we have and don't have and therefore invalidating the life of the baby or child that has died. Yep that is pretty much what the guilty cycle of a bereaved mother's brain can look like, especially when vulnerable (emotional, tired, triggered, etc.).
Here is my account of how this amplified guilt played out on my emotional well being this past week ~ the week we anticipated the birth of our daughter.
As part of my pregnancy and on the advice of my Obstetrician, I was going to be induced after I reached 38 weeks gestation. My doctor made the recommendation, it was not my request and he told me that his concern was for both baby and myself therefore an induction was warranted. I knew there were a number of reasons for this recommendation, some of which included maternal anxiety, stress on baby and the previous death of Flynn however it was something that I had to reconcile as I idealized my ability to have a "normal" pregnancy. This would be the first place that my mother's guilt manifested. What is a normal pregnancy and why did I feel the need to push myself (physically and emotionally) to experience that? I recognize now that I wanted to prove that I could physically carry a baby without any medical concerns and emotionally handle that experience - almost a re-birthing of my pregnancy experience with our Oldest. That is why I told my doctor early on that I would go to 40 weeks gestation and I would not be induced. That is after all what "normal" pregnant women do. He kindly nodded at that time and said "as you wish" but I am sure he knew that the conversation itself was premature.
When I reached 32 weeks gestation my emotional well being began to deteriorate. I had been working three jobs, volunteering, coping with an illness in the family in addition to my usual roles of being a mom and partner. Moreover, I was not eliciting as much self care as was warranted for all that I was taking on or working with. Yet another place that the guilt could be found; all the things that I should be able to do regardless of being in a subsequent pregnancy. The difficulty with managing the guilt was that it was not only emotionally driven but financially (and there is not much room to say that out loud). It may have made more sense to cut back on work but we had bills to pay and the financial strain of not working may have caused more guilt then pushing through, it is hard to say for sure. At any rate at 32 weeks into my pregnancy my doctor asked "how are you doing?" ~such a simple question~ and it opened the flood gates. I realized in the moments following that question that I had not even allowed myself to be anything other than "ok." I was walking around in a holding pattern of professionalism and stoicism even in my everyday life while deep down my emotional self was suffering with the weight of anxiety, fear and guilt that this subsequent pregnancy had brought. I turned to my doctor and for the first time said out loud "I am not okay" to which he responded "I know and that is okay."
The next six weeks would be a roller coaster of appreciating how I was feeling and working at letting go of the guilt as it arose. It was a constant process. I would let go of the fact that I was not okay and it would lead me to feelings about medical intervention in pregnancy and trusting my body. The guilt would then manifest in the reality that as a subsequent pregnancy I did not trust my body, it had let me down in a very profound way in the past. I held the impact that knowledge had on trying to just be in the present moment and not catastrophize or project into the future some unknown reality. I would have to let go of the fear and anxiety on a daily basis that this pregnancy could end in tragedy, taking it moment by moment some days. I quietly apologized to my unborn child for not having more faith in myself and in her. I struggled with thoughts of my own self worth in relation to having and holding a healthy baby at the end of this pregnancy. Really, what did my self worth have to do with my ability to carry and deliver a healthy baby? Nothing and yet it was there. Let go, Let go, Let go.
Then came the week I had been counting down to. The 38th week. The baby was considered full term and deliverable. We had done all the early testing to ensure that the dates were correct. We had done ultrasounds and non stress tests to ensure the baby was "ready." Here it was, time had finally gotten us here and I was struck with enormous guilt ~ so big that it seemed to fill my chest cavity making it hard to breath and constricting every beat of my heart. This was worsened when my doctor told me at my last appointment that my cervix was not dilated or effaced and we would have to do an additional procedure to help that along. GUILT! I sat between the suffering of every day believing that this baby would die or that my body would fail her to knowing that I was intervening with my body's natural state to have her here alive. This could be worsened by well meaning people, people who loved me asking "why are you inducing?" or "why can't you go to term?" or nursing staff in labour and delivery asking "why are you having a non stress test again?"and "why did your doctor order this test?" And even if all these questions were free of judgement and based out of simple curiousity all I heard was "Why can't you cope with this?" "What is wrong with you?"
I cried a great deal over the next 24 hours leading up to the beginning of the induction. I wondered if I should just try to "suck it up" for one more week in the hopes that my body would figure it all out. I treated my body and mind as though they were separate entities and not part of a whole and it created such a depth to the guilt that it was all that I could feel. "What if......" started every thought I had and tragedy ended all of them. All of the thoughts were based around my decisions as this babe's mother and all of the societal, cultural and even medical expectations that I believed I had to live up to. Of course these expectations were based in healthy, normal pregnancies and not applied to the experience of a subsequent pregnancy ~ but as stated I was not holding myself to reality but rather to an idealization of normal. I realized that I needed help and so I reached out to my support network. I talked about my guilt and my fears and my anxiety. I opened myself up to those that I knew could support me and help me to focus and find the thoughts and realities that were helpful not hindering. I acknowledged the guilt but also found the counterbalance, the successes and the coping mechanisms that existed within me. Let Go!
On the day of the induction I told myself just two things: "You are worthy of love" and "Only you know what is best for you." I just repeated this in my head and sometimes out loud. I repeated it through the tears, the fear and the anxiety. I repeated it when the nurse asked "why are you being induced?" in a tone that even Landy noticed. Every once and awhile I added "I want my daughter to live with these mantras as a way of being rather then the exceptional thought she has to tell herself," I wanted to be her example and that was motivating. I just kept letting go of the guilt. Labour and delivery was not perfect it was what it needed to be and I am amazed at how freeing that thought has been. It is not riddled with guilt and in fact it does not even exist in the experience. If at some point the guilt arises, I will have to let go. After all, the guilt is weaved into my existence and has been there from the beginning, however in the past I had let it define me and this time I allowed myself to step out from under it and Let Go.