Pride cometh before

Here I go again trying to explain to myself why my annoyance at some Bugaboo-brand pushing women is not all about pain and jealousy. The feelings expressed here aren’t directed just at the anonymous coffee-shop women or random mothers of the world. I don’t talk about many of the more personal slights I experience because this blog is not anonymous enough for that. And because I’m trying to understand that people I know who hurt me are not just evil individuals, they have an entire culture backing up their insensitivity.

I read an article in the New York Times recently where a very accomplished woman called the moment she gave birth to her daughter her “proudest” moment. That statement, and the virtual nods from women around the world, encapsulates why the world has at times seemed a mean and dark place for me since Natan died. I do know the miracles that go into producing children. I do know it’s amazing that anyone is ever born considering the millions of things that need to happen just perfectly for it to have a happy ending. But I know best of all how little we have to do with any of that – despite what the constant mail I get from the March of Dimes tells me are seven simple things I can do to improve my chances for a healthy pregnancy. I know medicine can do a better job and that’s why I’m doing my best to learn about what happened to me, and what I can do to prevent it from happening again.

If pregnancy doesn’t work out or if it’s nearly impossible for you to get pregnant, it likely has little or nothing to with a personal failure. I apparently get pregnant very easily. I have yet to have a cycle in my life where I’ve had “unprotected” sex and not gotten pregnant. We see where that accomplishment has gotten me. I have no pride in that. A friend of mine struggled to get pregnant for years, but she now has a 3-month old baby – from her first cycle of IVF. Should she be proud that she had the money and the ability to get pregnant? Should any woman be proud of that?

No. Not unless you think that women who want and cannot have children ought to feel the opposite of pride, which is of course, shame. Just for fun, here’s what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say about pride:

  1. A high, esp. an excessively high, opinion of one’s own worth or importance which gives rise to a feeling or attitude of superiority over others; inordinate self-esteem.
  2. Personified, esp. as the first of the seven deadly sins.
  3. Arrogant, haughty, or overbearing behaviour, demeanour, or treatment of others, esp. as exhibiting an inordinately high opinion of oneself.
  4. A consciousness of what befits, is due to, or is worthy of oneself or one’s position; self-respect; self-esteem, esp. of a legitimate or healthy kind or degree.
  5. The feeling of satisfaction, pleasure, or elation derived from some action, ability, possession, etc., which one believes does one credit

You get the point. None of the available definitions suggest a miracle, a gift, or thankfulness. I realize I’ve picked a straw woman of sorts here. I’m sure that the woman feels all of those admirable feelings about her daughter. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt that she wouldn’t think infertile women, or women who seem to become pregnant easily but lose it from there, should be ashamed. If she has ever in her life said that an infertile woman needs to just relax and it’ll happen, however, I take my charitable comments back. I nitpick about words (and grammar, and spelling, and style, and historical dates), but only because I realize how casual use of powerful words like “pride” can be damaging. And because I am not so convinced that many of us don’t take an absurd pride in our biological gifts.

I’m proud of many of my accomplishments even as I realize that the ability to achieve them has been a gift. Biology and destiny gave me mental gifts and the background to make a great life for myself, in terms of academic and intellectual achievement. I would never be prideful about my intelligence or the fact that I have two great parents. I didn’t do that. What I’ve done with it matters.

Having a baby that lives would be the happiest moment of my life. I am sure of that. I’ll reserve my pride, however, for later. Of course, healthy children emerge from the womb partially because the mother has demonstrated that she can take good physical care of a child. But really what does that mean? Am I proud that I didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t eat sprouts, didn’t eat too much junk? Not really, because I didn’t have a problem giving up any of that.

Maybe I am wrong. Maybe I actually am just bitter. I don’t think so. Long before it ever occurred to me that we would lose Natan, I read a passage in a book I used to admire – Christiane Northup’s Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. In the section on miscarriages (unfortunately I cannot quote it since I subsequently got rid of the book), she mentions that in her clinical experience, women who have multiple losses, or late miscarriages, often turn out to have mixed feelings about motherhood and their femininity. You don’t say? I would certainly say that my miscarriage and especially Natan’s death has left me with mixed feelings about fertility. The suggestion her book makes that those feelings pre-existed my loss, and that if I can resolve them I’ll go on to have a “successful” pregnancy makes me feel angry. That’s an understatement – actually it makes me feel enraged. Even before the book was talking about me I understood her description, even if it seems true in her clinical experience, as abusive.

Northup’s books are meant to help women take back control of their physical health from a science that has alienated them from their bodies. It also speaks a lot about psychosomatic illness. Until I read the paragraph about loss, it all seemed so reasonable to me. Yet her idea that women, in any sizeable numbers, cause their losses because of their state of mind comes quite close to subscribing to the historical theory of hysteria. I don’t doubt that our state of mind impacts our pregnancies, but the idea that many women who think they want their children could subconsciously have enough anxiety over their pregnancies as to cause miscarriage or go into pre-term labor simply does not convince me.

I could just dismiss her, if only she wasn’t so popular. If only her ideas weren’t shared by so many other sources in our culture. If only they weren’t used by the self-righteous to justify judgments of people who struggle with their health, mental and physical.

Pride sums up what I mean when I talk about the discourse around parenthood. It’s the idea that children, simply because they physically exist, provide some sort of entitlement for their parents — an entitlement to look upon the childless as somehow childlike; an entitlement to give unsolicited advice; an entitlement to pretend that non-parents who get to go to bed at 9pm if they want to are lucky; an entitlement to believe parents have more invested in the world than non-parents.

When and if I have living children, they will become the center of my world. But I’ll do my best to understand it doesn’t make us the center of the world. I won’t let them keep me from reaching out to other women who have lost. I am speaking here of the women from the pregnancy yoga class. I actually don’t think any of them saw me, because none of them actually ever had occasion to see my face. I saw them from the backs and the side and only realized who they were, probably, because of the group feature. So I don’t blame them for not coming up to me.

I am going to go out on a limb though, and say that it would be wrong to avoid me because of my loss. Was our connection broken because my son died? Weren’t we in the class together because we were pregnant? Didn’t I have a baby? Didn’t I labor and deliver? Is my experience no longer part of the experience of childbirth and parenting because it had a bad ending? I wouldn’t join their mommy and baby group, and no I wasn’t the best friend of any of them, but what would be so wrong of me to say hello? To take a moment to congratulate them on their babies? What would be so wrong with one of them walking up to me? I wouldn’t suggest ogling over their babies in front of me, but their identities haven’t been subsumed. They should still be capable of speaking to another woman without lapsing into baby talk so it should be possible to relate to me.

I am not a pariah now, and while it might upset me to see parents with their children, if I were truly unable to handle the encounters, I would stay in. As I’ve mentioned, seeing babies does hurt, but the only thing that has made my loss bearable has been the compassion of other people. The fact that their children lived doesn’t make my loss more acute – I miss my son, not theirs. Part of what makes being in public so difficult is the feeling that I don’t belong there – that my experience is unpleasant and frightening for others. A compassionate word, heartfelt, would have made me more comfortable in the long run, even if I had cried in the short. Would that really be so terrible? If I cried in public? If everyone in the coffee shop had to hear it?

As I’ve said in other posts, Natan’s death wasn’t the first trauma of my life. It has been the worst, which surprises me very much to realize. It’s the only thing I really and truly regret–the only bad thing which I don’t think will ultimately result in anything good. It hasn’t shaken my faith as the others did, which is either a testament to that faith or to the fact that I couldn’t have managed this without it. So even as I mourn Natan, I go about my life very aware of myself, my wants, my needs, what I understand, what I don’t. I don’t want to avoid the emotions and feelings I have about his death, and about my future chances for having living children. I would rather face every baby born in the world than be treated, or have my grief treated, like an elephant in the room. Sure, as I said in the last post, I don’t want to spend multiple Mondays listening to the babies cooing in the coffee shop – but that’s as much about preserving my ability to work as shielding my pain. And avoiding the discomfort of causing them discomfort, if by chance one of them does catch my eye.


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13 responses to “Pride cometh before

  1. I hope you always feel comfortable expressing your feelings regardless of in public or private. Some may be uncomfortable with crying in public, but I view that has a very human expression. I, for one, do not view you as any less a woman for having lost a child or never having any additional children if that should happen. In fact, I feel a quiet strength in your words and your actions.

  2. I’m sorry if using the phrase “the connection is broken” was upsetting. I don’t know how well you know the people from your yoga class, so I was talking out of ignorance. I was thinking of other pregnant women I met while I was pregnant. Mostly they were in our childbirth class.

    Even though ours was a Bradley class about a million hours long, except for one couple we lost track of everyone after the birth stories went out to the list. If someone had posted a story of loss I would have written back and found where to send food, but I don’t know that I would have taken it past that. (Of course, in the hypothetical situation I imagined I would not have avoided them in a cafe.)

    I was contrasting that hypothetical with A.’s friends who actually lost their baby. We kept reaching out even when they retreated because that connection wasn’t all about babies. Their shared history had years of richness, not just a few months of having wanted something together that only one family got. Our having a baby and their not having one wasn’t the defining thing in our relationship to them (I’m using the past tense only because they now have a child).

    I agree so much with your critique of Northrup. It seems to me that she’s taking diverse stories of medicine and biology and forcing them into a single explanation based on new age non-logic. It’s not just blaming the victim, but blaming the woman for turning herself into her own victim. The only person it helps is the practitioner who wants to wash her hands of anything unpleasant.

  3. women who have multiple losses, or late miscarriages, often turn out to have mixed feelings about motherhood and their femininity.

    This is the statement of someone who has deep issues with the concept of cause and effect.

  4. Hmm. It seems my comments vanish sometimes from my own blog.

    Sheila – Thank you. “It’s not just blaming the victim, but blaming the woman for turning herself into her own victim.” That’s a perfect summation of my feelings about Northup.

    Leroy, Thanks. That was very sweet of you.

  5. It still seems like pregnancy and childbirth are still so mysterious and that so much can still go wrong that it makes people feel better to just blame the woman when something does go wrong. Perhaps it’s part of our society’s tendency to blame everything on the mother.

  6. I haven’t read this Northrup woman but i totally agree with yours & niobe’s comments on these things. What you have said about her book reminds me of this Oprah-style positive thinking/karma thing that everybody is talking about…and i heard recently that Oprah had some woman on her show who had decided that positive thinking was so powerful she was going to cure her cancer with it…and Oprah was concerned and attempted to convince her otherwise? I don’t pay attention to this stuff, so take that with a grain of salt, it’s just what i heard.

    With respect to pride, i have some difficulty also with the word being used this way. I think, though, that it is perhaps a problem with the language rather than the underlying concept. When my first child was born (living), what i felt was not pride at all but a sense of awe and wonder. For Nicolas there was (and is) overwhelming grief, but i still think of the beautiful newborn in my arms with awe and wonder.

    When Chloe was born, someone sent us one of these
    for her, which i love. You will note it says ‘proud parents’. I immediately ordered matching blocks for the other two kids, even though it kind of bothered me that Nicolas’ block would say ‘proud parents’ when i really didn’t feel proud of him — i mean, how can you be proud of someone who is dead and never took a breath? But then i realized that i didn’t feel proud of my living children just for the ‘accomplishment’ of being born alive, either…it’s just a thing people say, for lack of a better word. (By the way they have loss blocks too, they are just not on the website — they say ‘loving parents’. The lady who makes them lost a baby to SIDS.)

  7. I think pride is a weak word to describe bringing a child in the world. In fact, it’s a horrible description. I’m definitely with you on that one.

  8. On the issue of pride, I completely agree with you. I’ve never understood people who take “pride” in some immutable characteristic — for example, being tall or red-haired (well, that’s not completely immutable, but you get the idea).

    And, of course, those other women should have at least said hello to you (if they saw you, which it sounds like they didn’t).

    It sounds like you’re very empathic, in that you seem to almost be internalizing the discomfort others might feel when seeing you (though I could be totally off base here). While, generally, being concerned about others’ feelings is a good trait, here I wonder if worrying about their feelings is preventing you from doing things that you might otherwise do, that might make you feel better, or at least more “normal.”

  9. I think you’re right on with your feelings on pride. Pride is not a way I feel about the births of any of my children, living or lost. As you said, things with pregnancy are such a crapshoot – we can (and do) do everything “right” and “safe” and “healthy” and still the outcome can be loss. Speaking about childbirth in terms of pride is such an odd phenomenon.

    I’m sorry you had such a painful experience at the coffee shop. I find it hard to believe that the other women never saw you (but then, I tend to be naturally cynical). If they did, they certainly should have acknowledged you.

  10. Thank you for your comment and support on my blog. I have read the story of your son and I am so sorry.

  11. Sara-
    Loss, and I think particularly the loss of a child, makes you feel so set apart from the rest of the world. At least that is how I felt for a very long time, and still feel that way on occasion.

    There are a lot of strange words and views put out there to describe motherhood and parenthood these days. There are so many messages that essentially say if we just do everything “right” then nothing can go wrong. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. But it seems we are living in a generation that wants and seeks out certainty. Our generation wants a recipe book for everything. Tell me how to conceive and I’ll do it! Tell me how to have a successful pregnancy and I’ll follow every rule! Tell me how to have a baby who sleeps through the night and never cries, and I’ll howl at the moon if you say so! And there are plenty of these recipes out there. And so… when things don’t turn out “right” for someone else, well… I guess she just must not have followed the recipe.

    It’s a sad, shallow way of seeing life. And I fear we are surrounded by way too many of these people following recipes, and assuming that’s all you have to do.

    I’m so sorry you have had some hurtful experiences recently…

  12. I know exactly what you mean. Our culture is really lacking in how we deal with emotions, especially grief. It was like that when my mom passed away last year. After our baby was stillborn, I could only take 10 days off of work. The secretary at work asked me, “Do you really need more time off?” She didn’t have a mean tone when she said it, but there was that implication. When I did get back to work, it was amazing how few people came up to talk to me.

    I still get really angry when I think about certain people that I work with. As if saying anything about it would burst their perfect world or the superficial comfort level. People suck.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  13. Northrup also tells me that I had a 31 week IUGR preemie on purpose because I was worried about gaining weight and didn’t like being pregnant. I threw her book away too.

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