Stay positive. Just relax. Don’t stress. How often do you hear these things in relation to pregnancy or trying to conceive?
I know they’re words well meant. But, actually, I find this always-look-on-brightside philosophy supremely unhelpful when it’s foisted upon me. In fact, nothing is guaranteed to fill me with more rage and general ill will towards the world and everyone in it.
Sadly, there’s no escaping the ‘stay positive’ thing after miscarriage. Whether it’s misguided comments in the immediate aftermath urging you to look for the gossamer-thin silver-linings – ‘At least you can have a drink now’ ‘At least it was early’ – or the briskly upbeat tone of medical appointments in subsequent pregnancies.
During our second pregnancy, the midwife at our booking in appointment just waved away my answers to the mental health part of the NHS forms. ‘Any anxiety?’ came the question. ‘Well,’ I said, awkwardly, but honestly, ‘I am feeling a bit anxious… what with, you know, the other miscarriage.’
‘Well, of course, but let’s think positively, shall we?’ She replied before ticking the ‘no concerns’ box.
Three days later, I miscarried again. It looked, the person doing the scan told us, as if the baby had stopped growing sometime earlier that week. All the time the booking-in midwife had been urging me to stay positive – to not dwell on what happened last time, that at our next appointment at 16 weeks we’d listen to the heartbeat and wouldn’t that be fantastic? – and my baby was, in all likelihood, already dead.
I was so furious. Perhaps irrationally so – after all, she had no way of knowing. But equally, I could have spent that appointment talking frankly about how I would handle another loss. What support there might be for us. She could have reassured me that even if it did happen again it really didn’t alter my chances of having a baby in the long-run. She could have simply listened to the fact I was worried. Just acknowledged it. Nodded sympathetically. Confirmed that it was understandable.
Instead I got batted away by the positivity stick.
And that’s the first problem I have with ‘positive thinking’. It becomes a really effective shorthand for dismissing anything and everything that you might be feeling – whether that’s reeling from your first miscarriage, trying again, or pregnant again after multiple losses.
The second is that it tips dangerously into apportioning blame. It adds an unhelpful illusion of control and culpability.
Can’t conceive? You’re too stressed and negative. Pregnant again? Positive vibes only!
Or else what?
Think about the logical extension of what’s being implied here. Are my miscarriages somehow my fault because I was too anxious, too worried, or all too aware of how things can not work out?
There’s a real vogue for a particular brand of insta-positivity at the moment that implies that everything you get out of life is down to what you put in. You can do anything with the right attitude. You just need to believe it. Have confidence. Have faith. Trust your instincts, your body, the law of attraction and all will be well.
Sorry, but I call bullshit.
I’m all for optimism and finding the small moments of joy. I am, I think, a fairly positive person. And I’m not suggesting for a second that you should focus interminably on how terrible things are and how likely they are to go wrong or that it’s never going to happen for you.
I’d even hazard that a bit of Think Positive cultishness will get you pretty far when it comes to your career or another more controllable goal. But pregnancy? Fertility?
I remember logging on to Facebook the week after my first miscarriage and the first post I saw was a supposedly ‘inspirational’ quote from someone I barely know (because that’s Facebook) which read something like: ‘If you don’t like what you’re getting out, change what you’re putting in.’
Of course it wasn’t directed at me, but I felt like I’d been punched.
Because that’s the big fat negative of positive thinking – it fails to recognise that some things are simply out of your control. Some things are random. Chromosomes knitted together in the wrong order. A single cell that turns malignant.
A miscarriage isn’t caused by the wrong ‘energy’. Infertility isn’t down to bad ‘vibes’. All the positive thinking in the world can’t change an embryo’s genetic destiny. It can’t make your ovaries suddenly decide to work. Or bring back a fallopian tube lost to an ectopic pregnancy.
So instead of blithely telling people to think positive, I think we need to be a bit more open to the spectrum of emotions. However uncomfortable. It’s no good pretending to a woman who has lost a baby that it can’t and won’t happen again. Better, I think – and it’s just one nobody on the internet’s opinion – to simply sit with those fears, recognise them for what they are: just fears, not reality. But painful and difficult all the same.
After our first miscarriage I was desperate for stories that confirmed I would have another baby. All I wanted to read were those stories – the miracles, the rainbow babies, and, crucially, how quickly other women got pregnant after their loss. Now, I find myself increasingly drawn to the opposite. I want to read about those who didn’t get the happy ending, but who managed to be happy all the same.
This is not because I’ve ‘lost faith’ or feel any less optimistic about our chances, but more because I want to know all my options. I want that honest conversation. Not just a pretence that it will happen if I only ‘believe’ it hard enough. I want real, thoughtful thinking, not just positive thinking.
P.S. Having said all this, there is a psychological technique called positive re-appraisal, which has real promise (as in actual research behind it) when it comes to helping people cope with the agonies of waiting during pregnancy after loss or while going through fertility treatment. But even then, it’s not about pretending everything is OK, or that it’s all going to be OK, but more about re-framing difficult experiences and emotions. It’s about finding ways to feel more positive rather than a blind instruction simply to do so. Anyway, sorry to be a tease, but another post on how this works exactly coming soon…