Just One Thing – Parenting After Loss

Pregnancy and the arrival of a new baby is most usually portrayed as a happy time. A time of excitement. But when you have experienced a previous loss, pregnancy and parenthood understandably can be filled with anxiety.

The birth of a rainbow baby (a baby born after a previous loss) can be a fraught time for couples – filled not only with the usual worries of parenthood, but also renewed grief. Plus the double whammy of feeling (and often being told) that you ‘should be happy now’.

Michelle, a clinical psychologist, set up Dear Orla after she lost her daughter at full term. She has kindly shared one of her blog posts with me, to share her experience of parenting her second daughter Esme following Orla’s loss. Her Just One Thing for those facing parenting after loss? “You are not alone”.

“And just like that, she was one.

Except, when I really think about it, it wasn’t ‘just like that’ at all.  The first year of parenting after loss has been a complete rollercoaster; a Big Dipper, with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and one that I have desperately wanted to escape at times.  Because, despite what I had hoped, having a take home baby did not fix everything. It did not take away my pain.  It just made the hardest job in the world that much more complicated.

Parenting a live baby has changed me.  I am not the person I once was, and at the same time, I have come to accept that I am not parent I thought I would be.  It has shattered my sense of self and I am slowly piecing the shards back together and getting to know the cracks that exist in between them.  Some of those crevices have been deep, dark and quite unnerving to expose myself to, whilst others have acted as a prism and shone the full spectrum of colours.

I thought that when Orla died that I was well and truly broken, but looking back, I had just built up an even stronger wall than I had before.  My own emotions have always scared me and I have run from them; finding solutions or ways in which to numb the pain.  Working harder.  Finding another project.  I would bounce from one thing to another as a way of blocking out what was really troubling me, because I feared that my emotions would destroy me.  I couldn’t trust that anyone else could hold them; the terror that they would either become overwhelmed by them or would reject me was paralysing.  So, I denied that they existed and continued to build my armour of strategies, that enabled me to run away from pain.

But mothering a baby at home has ripped down that barrier. It wasn’t immediate; when Esme was born I was shell shocked – she was here, she was alive and we had survived those nine months of overwhelming anxiety.  Instead, ever so slowly at first, and then all at once, my emotions started seeping in. There has been love.  So much love.  But there has been anxiety and fear and anger and resentment and self-loathing, all on a level that I wasn’t prepared for.  I suddenly had to confront everything I had been running away from. Which essentially was myself.

There is nowhere to hide when you are a parent.  Your baby acts as a mirror, reflecting everything you believe about yourself.  They won’t settle: Am I doing the wrong thing?  They won’t sleep unless they are on me: Am I not doing enough?  They seem unhappy:Am Ienough?  There is no day off and no escape.  There is also no warning.  This stuff is visceral and no manual, no talking to, no soundbites of sage advice can prepare you for it.  It is just utterly mind blowing and life altering.

What I will never know is whether parenting in general would have done this to me, or whether this is specific to parenting after loss.  I have spoken with other loss mums about this and how confusing it is to pick apart how you are feeling or coping on any given day.  I find myself questioning is this ‘normal’ parenting stress, or is it my mental health deteriorating?  Is this expected mum worry or is this anxiety that comes from knowing what it is to plan your own baby’s funeral?  Is this just a bad day or is this grief hitting me at full throttle?  I question whether this matters or not, but in truth I think it does, because each one requires a slightly different approach.  And as a psychologist, it has shown me how little is understood about the stuff that is left behind following trauma and loss and how this impacts on parenting.  Everything changes when your baby dies: your view of yourself, your view of the world, your ability to manage stress and noise and people – it is all that much more complicated because there is always a part of your brain that is processing what you have been through and how that fits with the situation you currently face. And with parenting, there are so many new and challenging situations, that it is no wonder it sometimes feels pretty overwhelming.

Most parents talk about the shock at how much life changes, how all-encompassing parenting is and, at times, how much you long for the old you that wasn’t so tired and dazed.  Yet when you have fought so hard to bring a baby home and have had to face such heart-breaking hurdles, these feelings are that bit more difficult to admit to.  I mean, how can you say that you are finding it hard or that you aren’t enjoying every moment, when previously you would have fired daggers at anyone who said this?  The need to overcompensate, to show gratitude and to savour every waking moment without grumble undoubtedly increased my risk of PND.  Moreover, my internal drive to be self-sufficient and not to need help was unrealistic and punitive.  Yet I persisted and pushed myself further and harder, because deep down, I didn’t think that I deserved the help that every single mother desperately needs.

I have tried to be the parent I thought I was going to be: active, attending classes, making friends and having lunch dates, but I soon realised that my mental health couldn’t quite manage the pressure to perform and ‘just be normal’.  I have been the mum who has spent a lot of time alone, because that felt the most comfortable and safe in the immediate term.  I have been the mum who has walked and walked and walked to get her baby to sleep; who has said no to things because she didn’t think her baby would like something.  And I have been the mum who has tried to get her baby to fit in with what she wanted to do, because surely I cannot be controlled by someone so little….surely?!

And what I have learnt is that every single experience is a stage. A phase.  A new thing to learn and something that will change again, and then again.  I haven’t been a consistent certain ‘type’ of mum, because actually, I have been a responsive and intuitive mum.  One that has desperately tried to always meet her baby’s needs whilst equally desperately trying not to lose herself in the process.  This has often felt like a losing battle on both sides, and there have been so many days where I have felt like a terrible mother and a complete stranger to myself. And whilst the core of me is still there somewhere, I also know that I have changed – and that this is actually okay. Because I’m not sure I want to be exactlylike the old me.  I need to develop a new sense of self that integrates my new role as a parent with myself as a person, a wife, a friend, a psychologist – all so that I can actually be a good enough mother.  The old me was too hard on herself, too critical, too perfectionist.  And I don’t want Esme to be parented in the way that I parented myself.

This year has seen me break.  I have asked for help and been on the other side of the therapy couch. Within the safety of that relationship, I have cried more tears than I probably ever have before and have spoken some of my innermost fears.  I have started to learn how to communicate differently, to understand my limits and to see myself as worthy of care.  Of course, all of these are work in progress and actually take a whole heap of effort. They still don’t come easy right now, but with practice I hope that they might.  But the bottom line of this is always awareness and compassion: to be aware of myself and to be kind as to whatever is arising – because ultimately, this has to start with myself.

If I could give just one piece of advice to other parents going through loss it would be that you are not alone.  But I would also say try not to compare your own experience of loss and life thereafter to others – we all have our own paths, timeframes and additional hurdles to face.  We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma and grief.  And this is okay – you need to do what feels right for you.”

Michelle, Clinical Psychologist

Michelle is a clinical psychologist and mum to two daughters:  Orla who was stillborn at full term in 2016 and Esme who arrived just eleven months later.  She blogs about baby loss, pregnancy and parenting after loss and the impact that these have had on her own mental health and wellbeing, including post natal depression.  Michelle and her husband also fundraise for baby loss charities including Sands and Tommy’s in Orla’s memory.