Michelle Tolfrey had a stillborn girl, Orla, at full term and Esme, born 11 months later. Michelle talks about the mental toll of pregnancy after a stillbirth and the difficulty of preparing for after the birth.
‘Well at least you have this beautiful baby now’
And with those few innocent and well intended words from my Health Visitor, my fears were confirmed. I was a terrible person for finding this really hard and I should never speak of anxiety or worry to anyone again.
Bringing home a live baby after the loss of another is an experience like no other. You are full to the brim with love, gratitude, relief and joy, and yet you are also depleted both physically and mentally.
After the toll of trauma and grief of your loss, and then running the emotional nine month gauntlet of pregnancy after loss, this is the moment you (and everyone around you) has been waiting for - the safe arrival of your baby.
But you hadn’t actually allowed yourself to believe that it would happen.
You didn’t believe you would ever have a breathing baby in your arms.
Once you know the devastation of baby loss, any other outcome becomes so fragile, so out of reach, that you don’t allow yourself to go there through fear that losing this would break you again.
The focus of pregnancy after loss is overwhelmingly on getting a baby here alive. Before, each trimester was the big milestone, but this time the milestone is each day. And sometimes each minute.
‘Today I am pregnant’ was my mantra, but there were times where I wasn’t sure I could even believe that.
Waking in the night and not feeling the baby move would make my blood run cold. I would get vivid images of our worst case scenario. I made calls to the midwife and urgent trips to the Maternity Assessment Unit. I lived for those moments of reassurance whilst also knowing that just minutes later I would question them all over again.
Thinking about after the birth isn't a priority
With pregnancy taking such a mental toll it’s not surprising that thinking about after the birth isn’t a priority - for us or the midwives taking care of us.
Thinking about after the birth is tempting faith. So, we don’t do it.
If I thought about it at all, I thought that once my baby was here live and well, all my worries would disappear. My anxiety would float away and I would be in a bubble of newborn loveliness.
I would never complain of sleepless nights because I knew what it was like to cry myself to sleep and not want to wake again. I would be patient, grateful and treasure every single moment.
The reality of parenting
Then I had my baby. And the reality of parenting set in: the sleep deprivation, the struggles with breastfeeding, the never ending reflux.
And with it came guilt and shame for not enjoying every minute. It floored me. I tried to make up for it by doing more. And more.
Because how could I possibly admit to the world that this was so much harder than I had ever anticipated and the truth was that I was not enjoying every moment. In fact, there were some moments I really wanted to escape.
As a psychologist, I thought I could fix myself. In pregnancy I distracted myself; I did a mindfulness course and practised as much as I could; I went to yoga; I worked.
I tried desperately to make this as ‘normal’ a pregnancy as possible and I tried even harder to be the mum I hoped to be.
In reality, I was running away from the guilt and shame that I couldn’t save my first baby. I was hiding from the shadows of fear that I was not deserving of the baby I now had and that I was not enough for them.
It takes a village
I needed other people to recognise and validate this. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and I would say that it takes even more of a village to help you navigate the terror and pain that comes with pregnancy and parenting after loss.
It requires real conversations, a willingness to listen without judgement and resisting the urge to offer platitudes about having gratitude for what you now have in your arms.
That’s why I support the Tommy’s Your Baby’s Mum campaign. Having tools like the Pregnancy and Post-birth Wellbeing Plan can help other mums to have the confidence to find the support they need and deserve as early as possible. Women who are pregnant after a loss can use it to think about after the birth, and the support they might need then too.
Dr Michelle Tolfrey is a Clinical Psychologist. She blogs about her own experiences of pregnancy and parenting after loss at From the Other Chair and runs her own psychology practice in London, Talking Heads.
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