Both sides now

Since Edward was born, I find myself thinking in ways I promised myself I never would. It started with: Slow down. Stop growing! (Words that used to pierce like flint before, when I’d see other mums write them on social media, never for a second considering what it’s like when your baby does literally stop growing). Now, after a good six months of being locked down, with almost no childcare, no nights off, and no where to escape to, I catch myself yearning to have the house to myself, or to sit in a coffee shop…by myself. Almost as soon as I catch myself thinking this way, I remember – guiltily – how being alone in my quiet, tidy house used to feel like a rebuke; how I’d come to hate the luxury of spare time and weekend lie-ins. It all underscored how pointless and static being unable to have a baby made me feel. Back then, when I sat in a coffee shop by myself all I could see were the groups of mum friends, feeling flimsy and insignificant next to their prams and changing-bag clobber.  

On the internet, I’m increasingly shown adverts for slogan mugs and tote bags that say things like ‘No Rest For The With Kid’ and ‘Just Another Manic Mum-day’. Every time I see them, I bristle, like a reflex. After all, it once took a lot of time and energy trying to convince the algorithms not to show me these sorts of things. Then I remember it’s fine. The ads have correctly identified their target this time. I am a mum. I buy baby stuff online and I search for weaning recipes and sleep solutions.

More confusing, though, are the twinges of recognition that sometimes follow when I’m shown this kind of mum-merch – once the muscle-memory of indignation has faded. The slogans and jokes are starting to speak to me. I am tired (so tired). I am winging it. I am 90 per cent coffee and 10 per cent dry shampoo. I do sometimes (quite often, actually) wonder if it’s gin o’clock yet. In internet-speak, I feel seen.  And I’m not always sure that I like it. (I mean, what’s next? Am I just a meme away from being the kind of person who blurts out ‘you can have MY kids if you want – hahahaaa’ to someone still deep in the trenches of fertility treatment?)  

When I got to bring Edward home, at long last, I knew my writing here would have to shift gears. I was mindful that I’d have to be mindful of my new status. But in truth, I think I’d assumed this would be a largely academic exercise, involving remembering to acknowledge the lucky turn I’ve finally had in this great fertility game; to check my parenthood privilege. What I did not expect was that this transition from person-trying-to-have-a-baby to person-with-a-baby would shake me down to my core – that it would play out so deeply and personally, throwing up questions about where I belong, how I make sense of myself, and how to proceed from here.

I’ve found the transition surprisingly difficult and discomfiting – and, sometimes, brazenly painful. It’s uncomfortable, I think, because you find yourself empathizing with all angles, all at once. You do not forget the sting of pregnancy announcements or other online ambushes such as bloody World Book Day. You remember all too closely how lonely and draining Mother’s Day feels when you are desperate to be one. The curdling mix of emotions prompted by bumps and scan photos. The prickle of secondhand anxiety when someone close to you is pregnant. None of that goes away. 

At the same time, you’re mired in the muck (often literal muck) of early motherhood. The sub-aquatic half-life you lead when you’ve not had more than three hours of consecutive sleep for weeks. The treacly way your brain and limbs seem to work – or rather, don’t work. How lonely and draining days with no one but a teething, constipated baby for company can be. The constant torn-in-two feeling of craving time away from them during the day (time to yourself) only to miss them once they are finally asleep, desperate to curl your body around theirs, hungry for the feel of their warm skin. It is a ferocious, exhausting, animal kind of love. It’s harder than I could possibly have dared to imagine. And yet on difficult days Dan and I often remind each other how much colder and harder this pandemic year would have been if we’d had a miscarriage instead of a baby. We are, we know, so so lucky.       

This is where the discomfort comes from, I think, this constant reflex to see everything from both sides; to feel everything from both sides. And after a while, it starts to mess with your head. It’s not something we’re naturally very good at, as a species. We’re terrible at accepting that many things can be hard, sometimes things that are in diametric opposition to each other. Instead, we constantly seem to want to rank things in order, as if there were an objective scale of Shit And Difficult Things. 

This pandemic year has demonstrated this with crystalline clarity. Over the course of three lockdowns, I’ve seen people told off for expressing how hard it’s been to have their kids at home all the time as it’s insensitive to those who desperately want children. I’ve also seen people shut down when they express frustration at fertility treatment being cancelled because…don’t they realise the insane burden that’s being placed on working mothers right now? And I know people trying to conceive who’ve been brushed off with a  ‘well, you wouldn’t want to get pregnant now, anyway’ given how maternity care has been fractured under covid. 

We’re seemingly always trying to avoid the discomfort of having our empathy and attention tugged in different directions. It feels almost instinctive. It’s there in the ways we self-censor the small sadnesses of our locked down lives because we know ‘it could be worse’. And, on a grander scale (alongside a big ol’ helping of gender politics) it’s there when women trying to talk about how they feel unsafe on the streets are told that, actually, men are far more likely to be murdered. 

Back when I was between miscarriages and short on optimism and answers, there was a special, secret corner of my jealousy and anger reserved for people who I’d connected with over struggling to have a baby, who then seemed to dive headfirst into post-baby bliss without so much as a backward glance. They’d post nothing but nursery #inspo and tiny outfits of the day. Or they’d get really into baby-led weaning. And, every time, I’d feel spasms of rage and betrayal. Now, though, now I’m the one on the other side – finally parenting – and I’m starting to understand why you might choose to go that way. There is, at least, a narrative neatness to it. I can see how it might make the transition to parenthood feel superficially less painful than trying to reconcile all the different sides of yourself; all the difficult bits, both past and present. Just enjoy the thing you yearned for. Never complain, never explain. 

My brain doesn’t seem to want to work like that, though. Although I do think I am going to have to push myself to move on, just a little. In a recent episode of the How To Fail podcast (this one, here), the radio presenter Emma Barnett said something that stopped me in my tracks: ‘Fertile people cannot comfort infertile people’. 

It stopped me in my tracks, because it was so succinctly, bluntly obvious – and because hearing it felt like a penny finally dropped. I think until then I’d been labouring under a delusion that because of our reproductive history, I would always be able to empathise perfectly and completely with others who are where we were two or three years ago. But of course I can’t. Not any more.

While there are many, many things I will probably never forget about our path to parenthood and there are things I struggle with as a parent precisely because of our history, there are also a lot of things I was carrying before that have simply fallen away now that Edward is here. I no longer live with the weight of uncertainty as to whether my body can carry a pregnancy to term. The wondering how that would feel, how I would look, whether I would get to experience labour, breastfeeding…all of that aching curiosity has been satisfied. I know what our child looks like, after years of imagining. I don’t think I realised just how heavily all of that presses on your mind, until it wasn’t there any more. Like taking off a backpack you’ve been wearing all day and appreciating how much it had been weighing you down. But, of course, in the blur of early motherhood I hadn’t noticed that particular sack of stones slipping from my shoulders. I hadn’t stopped to think about it, until it was spelled it out for me on a podcast, which I listened to as I hung out sleepsuits and muslins.  

And something about this reminder has helped. Somehow, while I may always feel caught between two sides of a story to a certain extent, remembering the things I have left behind makes it feel a little easier to move forwards. 

  • If you have had a baby after pregnancy loss and/or infertility, what surprised you most about the shift? What did you find hardest or that other people didn’t understand? Please do feel free to tell me in the comments…

12 Comments

  1. This blogpost is beautifully written. I think, in fact, it is one of the most honest posts I’ve seen regarding parenthood after miscarriage and fertility problems. I have had a history of recurrent miscarriage in the past and I currently have no children. However, I’d like to think that I’ve seen both sides of the story. People close to me have struggled enormously through maternity even though the children were deeply wanted. On the other hand, like you say, I’ve been hurt by comments such as ‘this is what you are striving for, why don’t you take my child!?’ Type thing. In a weird way I’m familiar with these contradictions myself. When I fell pregnant after years of infertility, I surprised myself thinking that ‘I couldn’t possibly have a baby now…’ and ‘what is going to become of me if I have this baby’. Both really wanting it to happen and not wanting it to happen at the same time. I think as humans we need to learn to live with these contradictions, have compassion with ourselves for them and love ourselves in spite of our messy feelings and thoughts. Thanks for your post. It meant a lot to me to read it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Always so well put Jennie. As a mum to 3 children prior to my loss, I struggled with many of those things but in reverse, so loss after birth. So many times I would hear, but you have children, be grateful for what you have, is a real conflict. I don’t blame any parent who manages to shift their focus from loss to total devotion to their newborn in this online community without so much as a nod to how they got there. In fact I often think about how hard it must be for those with online presence around loss, having to remain forever present and loyal, despite going onto having a baby- how maybe that could feel like a step backward, one in which is like you say just too painful and exhausting to connect with any longer. It is their right to put it away and enjoy what they longed for, without guilt or reprimand, even if it means you become that knackered mum with a glass of gin by 5pm!

    I have had those who I connected with so deeply over loss online go to the lengths of ‘ghosting’ me, and 9 months later a picture of them and there bundle appears on social media, it’s ok- it really is, I don’t blame them and I don’t blame me for feeling sadness over it either.

    So many layers to all things related to baby loss, the last thing any of us should be doing is carrying any weight of guilt over the best way to do it, baby/no baby, It is complex, sensitive and personal.

    X

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have really struggled with trying to feel happy all the time about having a baby. Some days are really bloody hard and I do long for a lie in, or a morning infront of the telly, not watching Little Baby Bum but when I have these thoughts I instantly feel really guilty because of the struggle we had with miscarriages and a difficult pregnancy. I feel like I’m taking this gift for granted and anxious that it’s going to be taken away from me.

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  4. This is all so interesting to think about, and I really appreciate your thoughts. In my case, we adopted a newborn baby in May 2020, after going through 2 miscarriages. So on the one hand, I’m “on the other side” of the infertility struggle because I now have a child, I am a mother. On the other hand, I didn’t birth this child from my own body. I don’t feed her from my own body. I still don’t know what it’s like to carry a baby to term, what labor and delivery feels like, what it’s like to recover from those things while taking care of a newborn. So am I truly “on the other side”? A separate, but related, issue I have found myself contemplating is the question of whether I truly qualify as a mother, since my child is adopted and not from my own body, not created from my own biology. I’m her mother, legally and emotionally and in a million other ways, but biologically I’m not and never will be. Yet another in-between space to just dwell in, perhaps…

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I struggled with loss and infertility for years after my 1st child was born (she was a rainbow baby too) when I finally had my son (baby 2) I was amazed how I still felt awful hearing pregnancy announcements, how I forgot that I could actually go for a run because I wouldn’t potentially lose/misplace a much longed for burrowing embryo…all of those feelings were so ingrained in me. I had to gently say to myself ‘it’s ok now, you don’t have to worry about all of this anymore’ That comes with some guilt of course for friends ‘left behind’ but over time (now 3 yrs on) I don’t feel any of those reactions. I suppose I feel relief that it’s in my past and a sense that I can help some friends/acquaintances because of what I’ve been through and the emotions I’ve felt in the past but I am free of now. I obviously can’t help with everything or even understand everything because I have my family but we don’t have to have shared the exact same situation as people to to connect and listen and offer some level of understanding of their pain and worries. X

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for this blog post. Beautifully, honestly and sensitively written. I remember being here at this very point after the birth of my daughter. You’re right that we do need to let go a bit and over time embracing parenthood does begin to feel more natural. Unfortunately for us, attempts to give my daughter a sibling have thrust us right back into miscarriage land. So there is now a sense that we are “back there again”. While I have some reassurance in that I now know I can carry a pregnancy to term, so many of the old anxieties are back, as is the jealously of people just falling pregnant without trouble. Self compassion is vital – we just are where we are and we cope how we cope x

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Beautifully written as always Jennie.

    3 years after finally having my child and I’m still stuck in the weird limbo between fertilty and infertility.

    Although I felt the huge burden of infertility lift as my newborn was placed in my arms I could still feel the indent it had left behind.

    And 3 years on I still feel the ghost of infertility and grief haunts me.

    The sting of an announcements, the pressure of Mother’s Day, the discomfort that comes with seeing jumpers emblazoned with “Mother” taunting those that aren’t, that can’t be, I still feel it.

    Even though I am privileged to be in the position of knowing I am one of the lucky ones who got what they’d wished for for so long, the pain of not knowing if I’d ever be a mother is still there.

    And I’m not even sure if I want to forget that, it’s made me who I am, it’s made me see the world through a different lense. It’s made me understand the pain, enabled me to more deeply empathise, its allowed me to imagine building a life without kids, as I really thought that would be my future lot.

    I am also keenly aware of the group of people that come out the other side with a bundle of joy in their arms and tell all those left behind to “keep going, you’ll get your miracle too”

    I know that’s not the case for so many and those well meant platitudes aren’t helpful.

    Maybe as time goes on I’ll start to forget but for now I feel as if I’m sat on the edge of the Infertililty group, I may have been given membership to join Motherhood but I don’t feel I belong there either, maybe we’re our own gang of survivors, straddling the two?

    So I do think I am able to comfort the infertile, much better than most, I have been to the edge and looked over, leaned over, I know what helped me and what didn’t, I know not to bring my child into the discussion as I hold someone’s hand (virtually, you know covid!) and let them know “I understand”.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Beautifully written as always Jennie. I’m surprised at how I still feel the ‘curdling mix of emotions’ as you so perfectly put it, when someone announces a pregnancy or sends a scan picture. I’m surprised at how I still feel jealous and inferior around my friends who have never experienced baby loss, and who get to innocently enjoy and celebrate their pregnancies. I’m surprised at how I feel exactly the same fear around trying for a sibling as I did before my son was born. I used to think it would be easier if I at least knew that my body could do it eventually. Our first attempt at a sibling recently ended in miscarriage and I am surprised at how hard it has hit me; before my son was born, I would have imagined I wouldn’t even necessarily feel the need to have a sibling, as long as I was a mum.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Very well expressed! Hannah was stillborn 42 years ago. Tom was born very alive and wriggling 38 years ago. I still remember the real pain and grief of other peoples well meaning ‘At last!’ ‘That must make it all fine.’ ‘You can put all the sadness behind you now.’ How could they think we’d rub her out like that? To this day my husband says ‘Two children born to us – one in heaven and one here.’

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thank you for this post. We finally welcomed our rainbow this January after 6 miscarriages. The strangest feelings I have are when I have the pangs of jealously when I see a scan photo or hear of a new pregnancy. My delayed brain then has to remind myself that I don’t need to be jealous anymore but the ingrained response doesn’t seem to want to leave.

    Even more strange, if a friend or acquaintance announces a pregnancy, I am weirdly intrigued by their dates. I find myself on my google calendar working out when they would have conceived or when they would have been going through the first trimester as a force of habit to the many, many times I would be forecasting my own failed pregnancy.

    So many emotions currently and not that much time to really think about them but this post was a lovely way to spend 20 minutes (with a sleeping baby next to me) to reflect.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I am so sorry for your loss! My little baby should have been 1 May 2021! My heart is so raw! I’m new to Blogging, part of me hopes it helps me heal! Im currently campaigning for a Dedicated Miscarriage Unit so women like myself do not have to deliver there Sleeping Babies in the healthy Labour Ward! I would love your support! Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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