Bathrooms are for torture. In these tiny spaces, often the smallest room in a home, I have lost my sense of self. Showers are for sobbing, ugly sobs that shake my body while the steam attempts to unblock my swollen sinuses. Medicine cabinets are for pills, vials, tests, and chemicals to assist my failing body. Red plastic sharps containers live next to a wastebasket filled with negative tests and discarded tampons. Mirrors reflect my naked body, perfectly intact and unremarkable on the outside, vacant and inconceivable on the inside. Toilets are for urinating onto sticks and catching my unborn. Bathrooms are pressure-filled spaces tiled in clots, fluids, blood, despair, and confusion. Once innocuous rooms of function, bathrooms still hold the power to replay my traumas without warning.
Pregnancy and motherhood were central to my identity and my life. As a child, I would sit with my aunt as she breastfed her baby. I mimicked her actions, cradling my Cabbage Patch Doll to my undeveloped chest. I always believed I would have a baby, and that I would give birth to that baby, an innocent confidence born from a fertile family landscape. My dad is one of nine; my mom one of four. Most of their siblings have at least three children. I am the oldest of five. My mother was pregnant for almost half of my first seven years. This family panorama had me so convinced of an effortless conception that I might as well have declared myself pregnant as soon as my husband agreed to remove all prophylactic precautions. At age 26, after only two months of trying, the window on the white stick revealed two pink lines—my belief confirmed.
Two pink lines. I savored the days following. I shared the news with my one and only mom friend and we made plans to get together for dinner at her place. During our visit, I felt a tiny cramp. I had been hyperattentive to my body, but I took this as gas and chose to ignore it. Then, another pulse—a sharp but faint sensation. I excused myself to the bathroom, my bladder to blame.
When I replay this moment today, time stops. All I can hear is my heart thudding in my ears. I am outside of myself, watching a horror film. I want to yell, Don’t go into the bathroom! But I know that won’t make a difference. She can’t hear me. Even if she could, it wouldn’t change things. This is the day that infertility transformed the bathroom, the day I became an unprepared and unwilling character in this malevolent revision of my reproductive story.
What is that? Something ominous washed over me. It must be a fiber pressed into the tissue. I examined soiled toilet paper. The contrast of this miniscule brownish-red speck to the white paper beckoned my fear. I pulled a new sheet and dabbed between my legs. The tissue was clean, no speck of worry. I tried to sequester the concern.
The fear followed me to the couch, where I intended to ignore its company. Unfortunately, my mind was not on board with this plan, especially given the experience of my friend who sat beside me.
Jen’s first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. I am not exactly sure how far along she was, but I remember her sadness. My schema was limited at that time. I did not understand the trauma of pregnancy loss. It seemed more physical than psychological; a falsehood that feeds the intense loneliness understood by many women who live through this experience.
Still, I couldn’t come out with it. The words would make it real, and I wanted to believe that this worry was another side effect of my neurotic personality or obsessive thinking. Instead, I sprinkled a question or two in hopes of easing my stress. “When did you first think that there might be something up with your first pregnancy?” I asked. It was a risky move, letting my anxiety lead. Jen raised her eyes to meet mine, but she didn’t ask why. She is compassionate and open, a true friend who knows when a question needs a simple, direct answer without follow up. “I felt some strange cramping sensations, and then there was a little spotting,” she said.
A squeeze in my heart shot a pulse from my chest and through my arms. I sat on the same couch, yet it felt like a roller coaster drop. I contained my reaction and maintained a calm exterior. Anything else would open the flood gates and sweep my thoughts into negative swirls. Worry is familiar. My mind has been overwhelmed with anxiety since childhood. I categorized this fixation as an irrational, compulsive thought pattern. It was a fiber; there was no spotting on the second wipe. You are fine.
The next morning, I woke filled with dread. What will I see when I wipe? I wanted to relieve myself of this worry, and the only way to do that was to confirm with a clean toilet paper wipe. Urinate, dab, and check. There it was again. I could no longer call it a fiber. That morning it was most definitely a spot.
And I was dropping again, on the coaster. I told myself that a miscarriage was not inevitable and called my OB’s office. The nurse returned my call and explained that while some spotting is okay, I should come in for an appointment and bloodwork to measure my hCG levels. So began my schooling in the language of infertility: ART, IUI, IVF, FSH, EPT, and the worst of them all, hCG. Human Chorionic Gonadotropin is a hormone produced by the body during pregnancy. It is the hormone that brought me joy with two pink lines and despair with confirmations of unviable pregnancies.
Over the next two days I remained on that rollercoaster. Dropping: “Your levels are lower than they should be, but we won’t know anything until we see the results of a second blood test to see if your hCG is rising.” Twisting: “Your levels are rising, but at an abnormally slow rate. We will need you to come in for an ultrasound to get more information.” Climbing: “Your levels are low, but your baby has a heartbeat. That is a good sign. We’ll have to wait and see.” Dropping: “Your numbers are falling. You are having a miscarriage.”
Having been told that it may take some time for my body to miscarry, I didn’t know what to expect or when to expect it. I felt helpless and unprotected. The drop continued for days as the bleeding increased. My stomach relocated to my throat. After a week, the first contraction hit me in my bed. Only, I didn’t want to succumb or push my baby from my womb. The mental anguish roared over the physical. The cramping intensified and forced me to the bathroom. I didn’t have to push. I sat on the toilet, grabbed some toilet paper and held it between my legs. I imagined she was a girl. She landed in my hand. I named her Emily.
One week later, I sat and listened as my OBGYN slid pamphlets across the massive walnut desk in his office. He shared statistics about miscarriage, a flood of facts and percentages intended to assuage. He explained that miscarriage is not uncommon, and most women go on to have successful pregnancies on their next try. My reproductive signposts suggested no cause for concern at this point. “You can try again after one regular menstrual cycle.” His tone was confident, believable, conveying a sense of normalcy. “I will see you in my exam room very soon for your first prenatal visit.” And he sent me on my way. There were no referrals for counseling, no real conversations about how I was feeling beyond the physical, or follow-ups on my mental wellbeing. Nothing about this loss was treated as such. Instead, this miscarriage was presented as a simple hurdle with a high probability that I would stick the landing and keep running on the other side. In hindsight, the lack of mental health support was alarming, almost unethical. At the time, I latched onto the hopeful prognosis, reminding myself of my family’s fertility—but that story was not to be my own.
I read voraciously, seeking any information to confirm what my doctor had told me. My teary, bloodshot eyes scanned countless pages, aggregating supporting facts. Every article seemed to end with the encouraging news that one miscarriage is common and not indicative of future infertility. Pregnancy loss is common, but it is also traumatic and that is not normal.
Common is numbers. It is mathematical statistics about the female reproductive system. Common comes from research and informs medical treatment. Common and normal are not interchangeable here. Yet too often, we behave as if they are one and the same. We treat miscarriage as normal when we choose to talk about the silver lining instead of having real conversations. Normal stems from a lack of mental health support that implies I should not need the help. It is harmful when see common and normal as synonyms in the context of pregnancy loss. My doctors did this, my family did this, and I did this to myself. Treating miscarriage as normal nullified my loss. Normal sets the stage for disenfranchised grief.
As friends and family heard the news, some reached out to share their own experiences with miscarriage. All of these women, albeit a small sample, had gone on to have successful pregnancies. Conversations were few and mostly promoted a future where I would surely give birth. They fed me a desirable script, and I was starving for this truth.
Talking about my miscarriage made my baby real, but these sugar-coated discussions with happy endings felt like a pat on the head when I needed a bear hug. The emotional tremors continued in aftershocks; vibrations only magnified with each negative pregnancy test as days, weeks, and months clicked past. One of my closest friends had become pregnant at the same time as our first. My friend and I were excited to imagine our children of the same age, destined to be best buddies. When I miscarried, their joy became a reminder of my sorrow. The cruelty of my loss blinded me. As her belly extended with life, my hope shriveled with failed conceptions.
In the months that followed, I hoarded the ugliness inside. Each time I attended a baby shower I took in more jealousy. Each time I watched the children napping at the day care where I worked, I packed more hopelessness. When my teenage brother shared that his girlfriend was pregnant and then asked me to help him tell our parents, I absorbed more anger. When my sister told me that her boyfriend got her pregnant, I accrued more resentment. When I held my niece for the first time and watched my mom stroke my sister’s hair as she lay in her hospital bed, spent from giving birth, I stockpiled intense shame. It is amazing what the human heart can hold in its tiny footprint.
The trauma also found me in my sleep. I am nine months pregnant, due any day now, but I look down to find no visible sign of pregnancy. No skin stretched tight around an extended middle. No swollen breasts, preparing to nourish. No movement from within. My mind races to confirm that the baby is there; everything is fine. Suddenly, I am in my bed, gripping sweaty sheets as I wake to the vacancy in my uterus. As I transition from dream to reality, my arms move through the nothingness and collapse to my chest. Much like trying to hug a gust of wind, hope disappears. I wring myself tightly, attempting to maintain the presence in my core and will myself back into the dream where, despite the confusion, there is assurance and comfort in my denial. I don’t want to be awake, present in a life where I cannot deny my emptiness.
The recurring nightmares began immediately after my first miscarriage and continued for six-and-a-half years. In my sleep, I relived losses countless times. Some dreams were tragic replays of my miscarriages. Others were more insidious, teasing me with storylines where I was healthy and pregnant, at full-term, or even caring for my newborn child. These were the dreams that evaporated my will to live. The dreams that made me never want to wake.
Swallowed by unresolved grief, I began to free fall in a bottomless pit until almost one year later when a test revealed two pink lines, a brief respite. I believed, with cautious optimism, that the timing was significant. I injected purpose as a signpost of good things to come. I was finally pregnant, almost one year to the day of my first miscarriage. I felt overjoyed, relieved, and blessed until awareness slapped me: pregnancy doesn’t guarantee childbirth. The reality stung.
I hesitated as if I were covering my eyes while peering through the cracks between my fingers. I had shared the news of my first pregnancy openly from the moment of the double line result. This time, with distrust in my body, I kept the news to my immediate family.
The doctor ordered early bloodwork to confirm the pregnancy’s health. It seemed a miscarriage combined with a year of unsuccessful attempts to conceive put me in a bracket with higher chance for complications. I was an outlier, no longer tucked into the average statistical curve, and this pregnancy was at risk from the moment of conception. I entered the blood lab in a haze of worry and desire. The technician asked a few questions to confirm my identity, and I met her gaze with a silent plea, Tell me that everything is going to be okay. As she tied the tourniquet, I choked back tears, embarrassed to lose control in front of strangers. She smiled, poked my vein, and told me to relax my fist. Seconds later, she separated the vile from the needle and placed my sample on the pink Formica countertop. A container of no more than a couple of ounces held the potential to restore or break my heart.
The call came later that day. Despite my cautioned stance, I was flattened by the news—my levels indicated another miscarriage was likely. I collapsed, shivering in pain. My muscles twitched from the internal burning. What began as denial, moved to bargaining in an instant. I pleaded with the universe, first to make this untrue, then to take me from my body. I managed to call my husband and parents, who immediately came to my side. Despite their physical proximity, they could not see the profound internal shift or the darkness that dampened my mind.
That darkness seeped like smoke into every crease of my being as I waited for the inevitable. I detached to survive. I presented myself as okay by doing the usual – showering, eating, cleaning, food shopping, talking with family – because I felt I had no choice. Who would catch me if I fell apart over this? All the while, I continued to hoard my pain. More than a week later, I was still waiting. The annual family Fourth of July cookout offered a temptation of distraction. I accepted.
Changes began within an hour of my arrival. The summer air was thick with humidity. My body felt fatigued and exceedingly heavy. The chore of conversation grated on my nerves. Could this be regret? Is it the heat? In search of an empty chair, I sensed a mild cramping and an intense rush that caused my hands to tremble. With tunnel vision, I moved to the bathroom.
The smell of grilled meat and chlorine wafted through the open window as I sat on the toilet. Tears slipped through my thighs and disappeared on the ceramic tiles below, echoing my wish to vanish. Still, there was no escape from the familiar and unwelcome wrenching of my defective reproductive organs.
Each pinch escalated in crescendo with the conversation and laughter coming from the yard. Less than a foot of sheetrock and shingles separated my raw ugliness from the family festivities. The radiating anguish felt powerful enough to penetrate walls and suck all available oxygen from the air, yet someone just cannonballed into the pool. Anchored to the toilet seat, I leaned my upper body to the side and sandwiched head to forearm on the vanity. My eyes traced the filmy patterns and frosted glass texture of the shower doors.
Why did I come here today? My gut twisted. How could I have been so shortsighted? I knew that this could happen at any time. I bit my cheek to prevent myself from screaming. Contractions continued, and my head spun with the impossible task of reconciling the present with the unknown. What if this miscarriage is different from the last? Will the pain be worse? Could I pass out? How long until this is over? While I knew the heartbeat had ceased, once again I bargained with my body and the universe. I clenched my Kegels and willed my cervix closed to contain the remains until I could get home. These efforts in vain, my awareness moved to the slippery release from my vaginal opening, a tiny sack that looked like a large, opaque clot.
And just like that, I was no longer carrying my child. I didn’t name this one. I didn’t catch this one either. Flooded with panic, I refused to flush. Peering out the window, I searched the yard for a lifeline. My mom was sitting within earshot. I called to her, mustering composure and courage while convincing myself that, for all anyone knew, I needed a tampon.
She arrived with a knock, and I opened the door just enough to allow her to slide sideways into hell. With the door closed, she surveyed the scene. There was a potent mix of urgency and fear behind her eyes. “I just lost the baby!” I sobbed. Eager to stop my ache and in search of a salve, she asked, “What can I do?” I explained that I did not catch it this time; the embryo was in the toilet.
Without hesitation, my mom plunged her bare hand into the toilet. She scooped out the sac and cradled it in her hand. “Is this it?” she asked with innocent desperation. She didn’t know what to expect, having never miscarried. Still, I couldn’t help but worry if she was judging me for being attached to a glob. “Yes,” I quivered and leaned on the sink, identifying the amorphous mass as my unborn child. I felt raw as she wrapped what should have been my baby in a cotton quilt of toilet paper. All I wanted was to fold into my mother like the embryo folded in the tissue she held in her hands.
Loneliness magnifies the despair of miscarriage. Shame festers in silence and isolation. Standing in the canyon, I released cries for help, only returned by echoes of my voice, screams in my mind’s chasms. The Cabbage Patch doll ripped from my girlish chest; I lost my innocence. My reproductive story was fiction, after all. I was paralyzed, ashamed of my body, needing help but unable to ask for it. My urgent desire to be pregnant was at odds with my need to grieve as if I was laying fresh lumber on ashes still smoldering from a recent house fire.
So, I learned to tolerate walking on hot coals and contacted an infertility clinic. My firewalk continued for another year. The embers grew hotter:
Every time I stuck myself with a needle to assist my failing body.
Every time a nurse tied the tourniquet for another blood test.
Every time I put my feet in the stirrups.
Every time I missed a cycle because my husband was traveling.
No one talked with me about the depth of this trauma. Two miscarriages and several failed intra uterine inseminations and not one referral for counseling. No psychologist following my case. I look back and see this as negligence on the part of my medical team. But I also often wonder what prevented those closest to me from trying to connect with me in my struggle. Was my façade that convincing? Was it a lack of awareness? Maybe it was fear of saying the wrong thing? Were they evading the uncomfortable? Such avoidance is another hallmark of disenfranchised grief.
When people did talk, I found they often filled the space with words that unintentionally minimized my losses. I coined these as sympathy-cloaked silencers. Smothering my bereavement with two words that I have come to despise: at least.
“At least it was early in your first trimester.”
“At least you know you can get pregnant.”
“At least you have good health insurance.”
“At least you didn’t need a D & C.”
“At least you’re still young.”
Comparison has no place in the grieving process.
They didn’t understand that what I needed most was to have them acknowledge the pain and hold me while it burned. As time went on, leaving my house meant donning heavy mental armor. I did my best to avoid triggering settings, characters, and plots, but it was an impossible challenge. I found reminders of my loss everywhere—pregnant colleagues, family, and friends, babies, aisles stocked with infant products, commercials, movie plots, the mirror, the bathroom, my bed—all reinforced my disconnect and stoked feelings of inadequacy. My shame intensified in female social circles. Whenever women congregated, it seemed that there was a gravitational pull on the conversation towards stories of pregnancy and childbirth. The magic of the female body celebrated as a magnetic connection, a rite of passage, a source of rapport, and resonance, and I didn’t belong. In my mind, I wore a scarlet letter.
And so, became my life post-miscarriage and living with unexplained infertility. I was fractured by a deep sense of self-loathing and also an intense longing to embrace myself and say, “It is not your fault. You still matter.” I had become my abuser and my consoler. I played both roles for months, but the self-loathing was more powerful.
My family did not know the magnitude of my mental erosion. I was a skilled imposter, but an internal prisoner, surrounded by bars welded from casualties: friends, the richness of relationships, my feminine birthright, trust in medicine, my faith, a sense of belonging to the female community, a desire to make eye contact, my self-worth, a sense of purpose, my internal compass. I could not forgive my body for this betrayal, and so my mental abuse escalated until I loathed my every pore and disgust was all I could taste.
I had been begging the universe to do it for me. I believed I was too cowardly to take my own life. But the abuser eventually convinced me otherwise. First, I chose a date when my husband was traveling. Then, I made a plan. Next came the letters. I could barely see through my tears as I wrote—one for my parents, one for each of my siblings, and one for my husband. When the day arrived, I waited until afternoon. I poured some water into a thick blue glass. I can still feel the weight of it in my hand. I sat on my couch and opened the bottles. I can still hear the ting of the pills as they spilled onto the table. I didn’t want to, but also, I did want to. The same old duel; I was tired of the fight. The pills stuck to my sweaty palm as I scooped them from the table. Then, I made one last plea to the universe: Send me a sign if I shouldn’t do this. Something unmistakable. You have one minute.
My chest felt like it was squeezed in a blood pressure cuff. My head threatened to explode from the strain. Then, the phone rang. I needed to give the universe a fair chance, so I shook the pills from my hand and answered the call. It was my sister. She wanted to invite me to come for dinner and a visit with her and my niece. I took me almost fifteen years to tell her that she saved my life.
I received a sign and I believed it authentic. I didn’t take my life, but I didn’t get help either. I went back to the smoldering pile of ash and began pouring concrete, determined to become a mom and bury this pain once and for all. As long as I kept my eyes on the target and ignored the periphery, I was functional. There are many ways to make a family. I was comforted by a novel and naïve assurance in turning to adoption. We were two healthy, loving parents, financially stable, and surrounded by a loving extended family. My body couldn’t take this baby from me. How could anything go wrong?
Much like the cycles of infertility treatments, the adoption journey left me little time to process. Every document, appointment, and email put me one step closer to holding my child. Gathering, sending, calling – these were within my control. I expedited whenever possible. Still, the decisions and benchmarks belonged to government officials in a foreign country, including the decision to halt all international adoption, which happened two days after my baby shower. Several weeks passed and no word on when or if they would resume the process. I was losing another baby that I never met. The struggles that plagued me through infertility had followed me into my adoption journey. Instead of urine sticks and blood tests, I checked my email hundreds of times a day. I bargained with the universe just like I had during my two miscarriages and every IUI attempt. I held my breath every time I passed the nursery that I had just finished decorating. And as randomly as the adoptions had stopped, they resumed. My bargaining worked this time. Adoptions reopened after a month.
I didn’t see it then, but I was straining—always. I lived under a microscope while seeking out stamps of approval through countless examinations to verify my parental fitness as determined by strangers who assessed my mental and physical health. In November 2008, my husband and I were invited to meet the child whom these strangers considered our match. When they placed her in my arms for the first time, there was no one else in the world but the three of us. Until now, I lived in emotional isolation, bottled up inside of myself, where my unborn babies had once been attached. The infertility diagnosis was mine; my husband was capable of creating life. In my mind, the losses belonged to me. The problem belonged to me. While he had been physically present during my miscarriages, I could not feel him there at the time. When I replay those memories – crying in my bed as the contractions escalated, finding my way to the bathroom at my aunt’s house, sticking myself with needle after needle – I still do not remember him there. But in the baby house, at that moment, we saw her, held her, and fell in love with her, together. For the first time, he was there with me. My heart felt like it would explode in my chest.
We lived abroad for two months, bonding with our daughter through daily visits. During this time, she began to crawl. She got her first teeth. And she smiled—a lot. Still, the birth parents could change their minds at any time. I scanned every face with a singular fear: Could that be her birth mother? Very few people spoke English, and so I tuned into the rhythm of the conversations, listening for her name. Adrenaline surged with every parting exchange as she moved from my arms and returned to the caregivers. But she lit up when we returned each day, greeting us with bounces and coos. We were her parents.
Finally, our date in court arrived, adoption day, family day, a day of celebration—my delivery room. By all accounts from those with experience, this was a joyful formality. Not in my case. There would be no joyful delivery on this day, another page torn from my revised reproductive story. My husband and I were put on the stand and prosecuted. Questioned aggressively by a new, young female prosecutor with a distrust of Americans.
Our adoption day was like an actual trial. Our motivation for becoming parents and our character were under suspicion, and we were guilty until proven innocent. The room was hard, cold, and dark, despite the light flooding in through the windows. The trial was not conducted in English. Every word had to be translated, so I tried to find warmth or compassion in the expressions of the judge and prosecutor as they talked; but their faces mirrored the harsh surroundings. I watched from the gallery when it was my husband’s turn on the stand. The prosecutor fired off questions about our finances and assets. She was annoyed when he looked at me as he answered. Her face distorted, turning inhuman as she scolded him. Then, she dropped an accusation: “How do I know that you aren’t adopting this child so you can harvest her organs?” With that, she sucked the oxygen from the room and watched us suffocate. I wanted to stand and scream, but I couldn’t breathe. He was dismissed from the stand. He locked his wide-eyed gaze to mine, a frightened boy looking for help, as he approached and sat beside me in the gallery. Moments later, the judge stated that she could not sanction the adoption without further consideration. The court process would be continued into the next day. Anguish ripped through me like a tornado as I left the courtroom sobbing. “I will not leave this country without her,” I said to my husband. “I would rather die.”
The next 24 hours felt like waterboarding; I fought the urge to give in and drown. But I screamed. And I shuddered. And I sobbed for 24 hours, ravaged by relentless, unforgiving pain. My husband held me, and we burned together. Then, I found an eerie calm in remembering that I could end my life. I still had my letters and my plan. I would go back to that plan if they decided against us.
The following day, we sat in front of the same judge. I gripped the bench, ready to fight. Though we prepared a letter, we were not allowed to speak. After a five-minute court session, the translator put her hand on my knee and whispered, “Your adoption request was accepted.” They did not explain how or why they changed their mind, but they did make us smile for pictures with the judge and that prosecutor—a callus formality.
Finally, I was “Mama” to a beautiful baby girl. I could breathe again, but still it was not over. Next, came the required waiting period, where they posted the adoption publicly to give any concerned parties a chance to respond. When we brought our daughter to the in-country rental where we lived for the last two months, I was stiff with worry. But when we shut and locked the reinforced steel door to our apartment; all I could see was us. We were finally alone together. I sat on the couch and prepared to give her a bottle for the first time. I had longed for this moment since I held my Cabbage Patch as a girl, and I relished it with all of my senses. I cradled her warm body to my chest. I studied the specks in her big brown eyes and the dimples on her chubby little hands. I sniffed her head, kissed her cheeks, and savored the sweet buzzing sound as she suckled.
When the plane left the runway ten days later, my body was coated in sweat, and my daughter was on my chest. I had delivered my baby. When we landed in the United States, I was ready to see my family. She is here. She is beautiful. And she is mine.
We arrived home in February, greeted by a warm rush of visits from family and friends. It was time to settle into the gloriously mundane: the diaper changes, bath times, bottles, and sleep-deprived soothes. There were no more documents to certify or deadlines to meet, no more wondering if she was sleeping, crying, or wanting for me. My voice was the last she heard each night, and my face the first she saw each morning. Fear melted on the surface. My recurring nightmares stopped. Nonetheless, the tension of years lingered below, like permafrost. The extreme co-existence of happiness and despair confused me.
Becoming a parent didn’t erase my miscarriages or my infertility. Despite my eventual safe landing, the echoes followed me into motherhood, reverberating in part because I didn’t allow myself to grieve along the way. Imagine trying to grieve while in labor. For more than six years, I focused on survival and delivery. You could say I was successful because I have my beautiful daughter. You might even expect me to say that it was all worth it—maybe it was for the best. But you would be wrong on both counts. This type of thinking plots my losses as necessary and my journey to motherhood as a linear narrative.
Infertility isn’t linear. It is rife with flashbacks and flash-forwards. Grief isn’t linear, especially when the loss is complicated or disenfranchised. I can’t heal from trauma if I say it was for the best. I tried. I failed and suffered as a result. Telling myself the end justified the means stifled my grief by denying the truth. It has been a year since I started therapy. In that time, I have learned that incredible love and inconceivable pain can coexist. But one doesn’t negate the other; they both deserve my attention.
My journey to motherhood began with the first draft of my reproductive story. Infertility stripped the authenticity with ruthless edits until what remained felt unreal. My experience disoriented me such that I could not trust anyone or anything, least myself. An outcome most profound in carving the internal and external landscapes of my current world. A loss worthy of respect, but I had denied myself that worth.
After eighteen years of suffering in silence, a diagnosis of PTSD made sense of the patterns, avoidance, self-loathing, and anger. At first, this was hard to accept. Saying I have anxiety or depression felt easier somehow. Many women miscarry and face infertility. PTSD is reserved for survivors of what I considered “real trauma” – like abuse or rape. And therein lies an echo of disenfranchised grief. I still carry the fear that society, friends, and even family will judge my response as inappropriate, self-serving, or weak, as something I should have recovered from by now. Social norms don’t validate the complicated grief of miscarriage and infertility. While I grieve two miscarriages, I also grieve for a piece of myself.
I am now peri-menopausal. Despite my infertility, I have always had a consistent, predictable menstrual cycle—another reason behind the shock of it all. I have come to consider my period a cruel reminder. My body continues in an unremarkable nature to herald the change, as I will soon turn 45. My periods and my hormones are in flux. It is like puberty all over again, as expected. Female infertility, unspecified; Menopause is a billboard on a long, desolate road.
It took me almost two decades to stare my infertility square in the face. Not by choice. Not because I thought I might still get pregnant, but because I never mourned. But the approach of menopause brings two surprising side effects: a return of my pregnancy dreams and a readiness to grieve out loud.
The substance of my current pregnancy dreams is similar to those that haunted me before I adopted my daughter. Only this time, the ache has shifted to focus on pregnancy versus mothering. Today, I am a parent. I am grateful for my incredible daughter. What I have come to understand is that parenting and giving birth are separate things. I can do one without the other. I can be awestruck and thankful while feeling dumbstruck and bitter. I can be overjoyed when my daughter calls me “Mama” and overwhelmed when I realize that I will die without giving birth. You can’t become a mother without pain. Even with an easy conception and an exquisite pregnancy, comes labor and delivery. Even with adoption, comes, financial, legal, or otherwise distressing hurdles. It is that simple—first pain, then motherhood. My labor began with my first miscarriage and continued for six-and-a-half years until I landed safely in the United States with my daughter.
Those years in labor changed me. That is expected. A series of experiences followed by consequences and changes, that is life. But how those years changed me was unexpected, undue, and unfortunate. What if my first miscarriage led to a referral for a counselor? What if I had a safe place to release my honest and ugly thoughts without feeling guilty? What if someone told me that these thoughts and feelings didn’t make me a bad person? What if someone validated my losses and told me that I am allowed grieve out loud? And what if I did just that? What if instead of having to scoop my baby from the toilet my mother could have laid next to me in my bed and stroked my hair after I lost my second baby? What if the infertility intake set me up with a therapist who followed my case? What if that therapist helped me acknowledge my load and care for myself? What if that process slowed my trajectory and delayed my decision to adopt?
When I travel down that idealized path of what ifs, I always land at a dead end with a healthier 45-year-old Dawn and an awful truth: What if this means that I would I never have met my daughter? How can I long for something that would erase her from my life? And the shame grows until it drowns me, again. Shame is by far the loudest echo of infertility.
I cannot recover the years lost to stigma and inadequate care. That realization is a gut punch and a call to action: to grieve for Emily and baby number two, to grieve for myself and my dream of giving birth, to seek the help I need so I can be the mother my daughter deserves, and to advocate for others by sharing my experience. My voice is powerful in therapy and beyond. No longer silent, I am healing. What’s more, I am not alone.
Women manage various levels of grief throughout infertility and require individualized plans that treat the whole person. Medical and social support systems for pregnancy loss and infertility, at-large, need revision to prioritize mental health and grief counseling from day one. In sharing my story today, I grieve. I cry. I scream. I laugh. I love. I remember. But most of all, I embrace every woman who is grieving while in labor or living with the echoes of infertility.
Dawn McGrath is an author of social emotional and wellness curriculum and founder of Well Together Now. She is currently writing her memoir based on the Echoes of Infertility. You can find her professional site at welltogethernow.com or her personal blog at trappedinairpocket.com