The following post has been submitted by Meagan Maher in collaboration with Jodi Lee Fleming Photography.
It’s hard to piece together everything that’s happened to my husband and I over the course of the last three years. So much has happened and yet, so little has visibly changed on the surface. You wouldn’t know it just by looking at us that our lives have been turned upside down and put on hold more times than anyone could count. It’s impossible to articulate all that we’ve experienced because everything has become jumbled together in one big mess over time and has resulted in me being unable to separate recent years in to neat little standalone piles. My life has been a broken record with the same tragic soundtrack skipping over and over, replaying one lyric in particular. One sentence that is just as painful to hear the echo of now as it was to hear in each moment that it was spoken. A phrase we’ve heard four times too many,
“I’m so sorry, but there’s no heartbeat.”
Becoming an expert at having miscarriages is not something you ever dream of becoming adept at, but it’s precisely what we’ve become. I can now nod solemnly, keep my cool, shed just a few pesky tears and squeak out, “What are the next steps?” with minimal quavering in my voice. I can muster up the presence of mind to make small jokes to the doctor as we’re exiting her office in an immense effort to prove that this hasn’t pushed me over the brink of insanity (as though fertility clinics are a barrel of laughs to begin with). I can pay for the misoprostal medication at the front desk without crumpling on to the floor under the weight of knowing that these four tiny octagonal pills will unjustly separate me and my baby before either of us are ready to part ways. I can walk out of the office and to the elevator, and actually remember to take it UP to the parking level. I have pressed the down button all other 78 times except for on the days when I’ve been told our baby didn’t survive. I can call my boss to say, “I won’t be coming in to work for the next few weeks” in the utmost professional tone. I know that I will probably be off for at least three weeks off because my miscarriages last for months and always end in a D&C surgery. I can pretend that I’m okay when people ask how my appointment went, and can manage to say, “It didn’t go well today” in a well-rehearsed mildly disappointed tone, as though I were referring to a multiple choice test that I just didn’t study hard enough for. I know who I can say what to, who can handle my honesty about how excruciatingly soul destroying this has all been, and who would rather hear me say, “I’ll be okay. We knew this was a possibility from the start”. Because if I don’t, I’ll hear the ole, “You need to stay positive. It will happen for you one day. At least you can get pregnant” spiel, as though getting pregnant is the only issue someone can have, and as though I should be happy that I even got this far. I also know that this is as much as you can possibly be prepared for the impending eviction of your child. The rest is out of our hands. You can plan, prepare and pick out all the names you want but at the end of the day, none of this life and death stuff is within our control.
And then I’m just supposed to carry on like nothing completely life-changing has happened to me. I went to my parents’ Christmas Eve party two days after surgery because that’s just what happens every year. I went back to work a few weeks later and tried to pretend that I wasn’t majorly suffering from baby brain because I didn’t have a kid to show for it. I managed to avoid breaking down in to a sobbing mess whenever someone asked when we’re having kids, or when someone brazenly pointed out that we were running out of time and better get to it. I didn’t outwardly explode over comments on photos with my friends’ babies that were along the lines of, “It’s your turn!” and “Kids look good on you *wink*”. There’s a reason that women are constantly sharing not-so-subtle hints via Facebook posts about not making these kinds of remarks. When I found myself in situations where I did have to mention it, I learned very quickly that people generally do not want to acknowledge your loss or your grief. People are extremely uncomfortable with other people being uncomfortable. They’ll try to minimize your experience and their own discomfort by saying, “Well, at least you didn’t have to deliver”... as though having your baby taken out by a vacuum while unconscious on a table is any easier. Others will say, “it was just cells at 14 weeks”. Except they’re not. We have seen our babies alive and heard their little hearts beating. I have seen my friends’ 12-week ultrasound photos, and those cells look pretty damn-well like a baby to me. It takes everything in my power to stop myself from saying, “Well, your newborn is just cells too, along with the rest of us. Guess it shouldn’t be hard to lose anyone if that’s how you want to put it.”
One of the more unanticipated side effects that I experienced was being depressed for months. Baby or not, you still have to go through physical changes and that horrendous hormone crash post-pregnancy. Except when you don’t have a living child at the end of it, there is nothing to ease the weight of it all and make it all feel worth it. My body felt so different and I felt like no one believed me when I said my hips were wider and that I needed all new bras thanks to my new chest size. It was like I wasn’t allowed attribute these changes to my pregnancy since I didn’t earn the badge of honour that was a baby or a birth story to prove it. I was never much of a crier (only for The Notebook and the end of Harry Potter), but everything was making me upset. Emotional stability and happiness always felt just beyond my grasp. Nothing anyone said was the right thing. For a long time, the littlest things would set me off. As someone who was always consistently in good spirits and had never even so much as experienced PMS before all this, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it was suddenly necessary to put on a fake smile and muster up every last bit of my energy in order to laugh. I felt so much pressure to be my old self again both internally and externally because I was always considered a strong person and I should have been able to move on more quickly than I was. On the outside, nothing had changed. Life should have carried on as normal because I’d gone 30 years without a baby and I still had no baby, so why was it suddenly impossible to continue living as I did before? But my old self was long gone. She left my body when my baby did. I felt like I was completely losing myself and like I was a massive failure to myself, my family and my friends for not being able to pull myself together and quit being so focused on what I assumed seemed so minuscule from an outside perspective.
I am not sure whether I imagined it or not, but I sensed that people were getting tired of hearing the same old story so I started staying home more and going out less to avoid having to pretend that everything was fine. Because it wasn’t. Not even close. The nature of my miscarriage lead to some questions from my OB and my answers had sparked the need for further inquiry. I was referred to a fertility specialist within two months of my surgery, which was extremely difficult for me to accept. I am a fairly intuitive person and while some of my family tried to reassure me and said the doctors just wanted to rule out problems, I knew something bigger was amiss deep down. People told me to stay positive but intuition is a pesky thing and unfortunately, it doesn’t let you rest easy. And it turns out I was right. My miscarriage snowballed in to the discovery of a much larger issue. We were told that it would extremely difficult to ever carry a child past the first trimester without needing surgical intervention, and even then, surgery was not guaranteed to work and was a high risk. We were instructed to try again and that the procedure would be considered only after further losses occurred. I was completely and utterly devastated. How was I supposed to just be okay with knowing that we were going to lose more babies? How do you muster up the courage to start the process all over again when you know that the outcome will result in the further destruction of your soul?
I wanted to crawl in to a hole and never talk to anyone again. I was convinced it would be impossible to ever feel happy again.
I had no idea how to communicate any of this news and my feelings about it all to people. This kind of heavy news is not exactly something you just drop mid-conversation or send a quick text about. You do whatever you can to protect yourself when you are going through something over the long-haul out of a need to survive. A lot of the time that looks like not sending an open invitation for awkward conversations to happen where you end up having to reassure someone else about something you aren’t sure about yourself, or to receiving more of the same unsolicited and contradictory advice:
Stay positive. Don’t think about it. Don’t give up hope. So and so gave up and only then they finally get pregnant. Go on a vacation, that usually seems to work. The only thing that works is getting back to a normal routine. Forget what the doctor said, babies survive when the time is right. Take the doctor’s advice and do everything she says.
Our heads were constantly spinning and it felt like a lot of the time, people were subconsciously placing the blame on everything I was or wasn’t doing. It felt like every time I brought it up, someone was telling me that I had to simultaneously do more and do less than I was currently doing and if I only took their advice or followed in someone else’s footsteps, that I would have a baby. Except, let’s consider the fact that drug addicts and people in high-stress situations since the beginning of time have managed to successfully have babies. Not to mention the fact that I had never even heard of a uterine septum and neither had 99% of the people I knew, and yet, everyone had tips and tricks for me, all the while completely glazing over the fact that my issue was congenital and not a product of something I was or wasn’t doing. But everyone needs something to place the blame on, and when it’s my body that’s killing my babies, the blame automatically rests with me. And that’s not a nice feeling, even if people didn’t intentionally infer that this was all my fault. Three miscarriages, a failed surgery and a subsequent fourth miscarriage later, I started to feel like we were finally being given permission by others to truly feel the weight of our situation without judgment, finger-pointing or the need to offer up suggestions we didn’t ask for. We were officially beyond comprehension and saving, or so it felt. Those who had previously made me feel as though I wasn’t being positive enough, mentally healthy enough or hopeful enough suddenly seemed to grasp that we were never being dramatic or negative about our situation. We were just contending with the reality of it and all along, this was a heavy cross to bear.
Needless to say, the experience of infertility is an incredibly lonely and isolating one. It’s one of those things that you genuinely cannot fathom or understand until you have gone through it yourself and at the heart of it all, it’s an extended grieving period. You go through the motions of doctor’s appointments, bloodwork, ultrasounds, and surgeries, all the while trying to stay positive but also coming to terms with the fact that you may genuinely never get to experience parenthood. The research shows that women who struggle with infertility suffer from depression and psychological side effects that are in line with those who suffer from long-term medical conditions such as cancer. I can see how that would be true because you grieve not only for the little lives lost, but also for the life you thought you’d live yourself. I found myself getting more and more bitter and afraid every time that I did get pregnant because I felt completely robbed of what should be a joyful occasion and instead, I wondered every day if this would be the last that I would be with my baby. As the years went by and the loss of both babies and hope piled up, I finally reached a breaking point in my grief where I knew I needed to make a change. I became tired of justifying my unhappiness and I just didn’t want to continue feeling miserable every day. It was becoming more exhausting to be sad than it ever was to be happy before all this happened. I also didn’t like how some of my interactions with others were making me feel. Sometimes I’d walk away from conversations feeling like I was taking it all too hard, or that I was a disappointment because I wasn’t acting in a way that coincided with that person’s own narrative of who I was supposed to be based on who I had been in the past. I knew that in order to get through this without completely losing myself and my relationships, it was going to take a lot of difficult work and that I needed to get a handle on this space we were living in.
I began seeking out information about how to cope by listening to self-care books about dealing with grief and vulnerability, reading blogs by people going through similar situations, and listening to podcasts with stories of women who not only overcame huge hurdles in their lives but came out the other side of them thriving. I first heard about the liminal space in a podcast called The Feel Good Effect around this time last year and it was like the universe was saying, “Welcome back to life. Here’s a good place to start”. The liminal space, or liminality, is described by anthropologist Victor Turner as a space characterized by uncertainty (check), ambiguity (check), disorientation (check) and isolation (double check). It is a place of crossing over. A place where you’ve left something behind but have yet to become something else. A place between the ‘was’ and the ‘next’. If there was ever a light bulb moment in my life, this was it. The place where I was dwelling had a name and people who had lived there before had coping strategies that were Google-able. For the first time in a long while, I felt like I had found some footing, a place to rest instead of hanging on for dear life on the side of a cliff. I may have been clinging on to a very jagged, very high cliff, but if I could make small movements upward..then I’d at least have something to focus on within my day-to-day that would help lift me out of this deep, sorrowful valley I could not seem to escape.
I started by creating boundaries little by little. I had always been a completely open book about my life up until this point, but it was clear that sharing everything was not going to work for me anymore. We had no choice but to talk about our first loss due to the fact that it occurred after the 12-week mark - and while it helped to lean on our loved ones and connect with others who had gone through something similar, it also opened up a lot of room for opinions, questions we didn’t have any answers to, and giving up what little control we had over having conversations about this deeply personal experience. I have never done well with getting numerous opinions from others because I find it clouds my own intuition and gut feelings. So, I decided it was time to make my husband and I the primary characters in our story, and to stop feeling like I owed the secondary characters a place in the main plot. This was an extremely hard habit to break and I held a lot of guilt over keeping things to ourselves but I reminded myself that this was not anyone else’s life- it’s mine and it’s Eoin’s and no one else’s. Others were only entitled to know what we chose to divulge. I was surprised at how quickly this worked in giving us some breathing room. It is incredibly humbling to have family and friends gather around you and hold you up during hard times, but there is something to be said for getting through entire days without having to talk about it or being given false reassurance. Creating some distance improved my sanity immensely and it meant not having to live in that dark place day in and day out at the mercy of others who, while well-intentioned and caring, often caught us off guard.
Seemingly completely contradictory, I also gave myself permission to be more open about what we were going through with those that we did choose to share our story with. Talking to women who were experiencing infertility, who were on the other side of it, or who were even just willing to listen opened up a whole other level of relationships with some incredible ladies who I credit for getting me through a lot of my days. Hearing different perspectives from those who had walked a similar road was more healing than I could have ever imagined. While everyone was reassuring me that it would all be okay and that we’d have a baby some day, my Granny who lost her baby boy in child birth was the first person to say to me,
“You can have a very full and happy life without children too, you know. You are a complete person as you are and you don’t need a baby to be whole”.
It had never even crossed my mind amidst the countless appointments and prayers being lifted up by others that maybe the alternative wouldn’t actually be the end of the world, that I could survive this and be happy again. I started to consider that maybe I am enough just as I am in my current state and I didn’t need to kill myself trying to become something more. We do love Hawaii, having lots of quiet alone time and eating popcorn for dinner...all things that I know we won’t see much of once kids come along.
My relationship with my husband strengthened beyond anything I imagined it could have. It has never been better as a result of everything we have been through. One brief glance between us can communicate a thousand words in the span of a second. We now know and respect how the other grieves and copes with hard situations. We sense when the other needs some breathing room and also when we need to just be together to get through tough stretches of time. I used to joke that I hated when people called their spouse their best friend because I already had a handful of amazing women to call my own but now I totally, 100% get it. Losing four little people that were made from both of your souls (like little horcruxes, if you will) can bring you closer together or tear you apart, and I am thankful every day that these last three years have solidified our marriage in ways that some may not ever get to level up to over the course of their lifetime.
I also made a point of taking time for myself very seriously by doing things that required me to not take myself too seriously. I thought a lot about what I would do with my life should kids not be in the cards, or at the very least, what I would like to accomplish for myself before the responsibility for another human life became my reality. So I started purchasing online courses to learn new skills. I took up a more modern style of scrapbooking as a way to house my many, many happy memories. I started knitting like a fiend and watched all the TV shows. I got seriously back in to yoga, which is something I’ve always loved (Yoga With Adriene is my jam). In a conversation with one of the aforementioned ladies who has been a hugely positive force in my life, she mentioned that she was taking photography lessons with a woman in Toronto and was learning a lot. Photography was always something I was truly passionate about and despite having taken classes with another amazing photographer years prior, I had gotten a little rusty in my skills. I signed up as a way to focus my attention elsewhere and it did more for my self-esteem and wellbeing than I ever thought could be possible. I had found a hobby that I loved, that occupied as much time as I needed it to, and that was coming naturally to me, something I didn’t have to fight with to be good at. The first 8-week beginner course lead to another 8-week intermediate course and then one day, I found myself purchasing my own website for a photography side-hustle. For some strange reason, people liked my photos and I somehow booked over 30 sessions in 6 months. I had something to do for me that I was well aware I couldn’t have done had my first pregnancy been successful, and this made everything a little more easy to bear. I started believing again that maybe, just maybe, everything does actually happen for a reason and in due course. I had to pull back this year thanks to miscarriage number four and surgery number four, but I know that it will be available for me to dive back in to when I am in the clear and that has made all the difference with my ability to continue living a happy life in the liminal space. While hobbies and free time are no substitute for the survival of our babies, sharing my gifts and investing extra time in both myself and my marriage has proven to be immeasurable in value. I am proud of myself for reframing life as it was happening instead of letting it completely pass me by and having regrets down the road. I feel an overwhelming sense of peace that I am doing enough with the situation I was handed. And I’ve proven to myself that in the end, if this is all there is, I will be okay. I will persevere. I will be happy. I will have purpose.
I wish I could wrap all this up in a pretty little bow and say, “surprise, I’m pregnant!”. But I can’t. I have no idea if the future has more babies in store for us. And the truth is… that’s okay. I’m learning to accept this because the reality for everyone is that none of us can ever know what lays ahead. Life has a funny way of forcing us on complete detours from the path we intended to take. In the moment, it can feel incredibly hopeless because you’re constantly swimming against the current but if we just learn how to ride the waves, the time we spend in those liminal spaces during the course of our lives can teach us that the universe really does have our best interests at heart and a destination in mind. If we take the time to appreciate all the good things that we presently have in our lives and to recognize an opportunity for growth when it’s upon us, we can leverage our time in the in-between places to discover who we are as individuals, to shape ourselves in to the people that we always imagined becoming, and to show ourselves just how much we are capable of. Through it all, you might just find that you end up on a path you quite enjoy the scenery of in spite of its dicey bits.
I am Meagan, and I am enough.
I receive emails from the Universe on a daily basis. They hold amazing little nuggets of truth and really help to reframe the way that I see life as it unfolds before me. I received this one back on August 15, 2013 and have held on to it ever since. I have it hanging on my wall as a reminder that good things always lay ahead, even if it might not feel like it in the moment. I wanted to share it here in the hopes that it might help to inspire someone else reading this.
Date: Thu, 15 Aug 2013
Subject: A Note from the Universe
Usually, the best way to find theyellowbrickroadof your life, Meagan, is to start out on the dusty, dirt one.
And then let yourself become so preoccupied in making the best of it, having fun, and challenging yourself that you actually stop paying attention to the path.
Until, one day, not so long from now, with a new best friend, wearing cool clothes, feeling awesome, a teeny tiny bit taller, fresh from a WOW vacation, looking for the path you just left, you'll notice that it's 24 carats... baby.
And you'll wonder for a long, long time, sipping on some exotic fruit drink, when the transformation actually took place...