When I first meet a client who is pregnant I am prepared to hear about their discomfort, nausea, fears about labor, and worries about the baby’s development. When I meet a client who is newly pregnant after a loss, I am also prepared to hear about guilt.
There is often guilt about having wanted to be pregnant again or guilt about a growing attachment to a new baby. No mother I know has betrayed the baby who died by becoming pregnant again. And yet…it can feel that way.
Guilt may manifest as a striving to do everything “right” in a subsequent pregnancy such as eating healthy foods, exercising, and reading up on every possible thing that could go wrong. As if pregnancy itself isn’t taxing enough, many mothers heap additional tasks on themselves (and their partners) in an attempt to have a different outcome this time.
The women I meet are experiencing a lot of guilt. And the guilt prevents them from more fully enjoying the present. One of the reasons I believe there is so much guilt surrounding pregnancy and new motherhood in general is the perpetuation of myths of the blissful pregnancy and blissful motherhood, the falsehoods that women are supposed to enjoy pregnancy and motherhood 100% of the time or else they are deficient in some very basic way. These ideas are not only unrealistic, but dangerous, and can contribute to postpartum mood disorders.
Why do cultural myths of blissful pregnancy (and motherhood) persist?
Social media plays a role as do cultural ideas about mothers who should be able to “have it all” or feel nothing but joy about the daily tasks of new motherhood. These cultural myths are reinforced institutionally in workplaces with inadequate or inflexible leave policies and discrimination against women and mothers, in general. When women feel as if they have failed to live up to the “ideal,” and find they are having difficulty managing work and family, feelings of inadequacy arise which often lead to feelings of guilt or sometimes, shame.
Guilt and shame are hard feelings to talk about. Furthermore, when there has been a prior loss, these feelings are compounded by ongoing grief despite a new pregnancy. Getting through a new pregnancy after a loss while trying to manage grief, fear, and guilt is no small task!
Are there ways to reduce feelings of guilt?
A more macro level solution lies in finding ways to open up the dialogue about the reality of pregnancy and infant loss to shift the burden away from women who are acutely grieving a recent loss. The clients I see who are hardest hit by guilt are those who must return to work soon after their loss and are having trouble managing their emotions while also having to perform at work. To anyone who has had a pregnancy or neonatal loss, this seems obvious. Sometimes, it is not a leave policy issue that has a woman returning to work too soon but pressure she puts on herself to be “okay” when in fact, she is not okay at all.
I have heard from women who feel guilty because they are not back at work following a loss. I have heard about guilt that stems from not knowing how to grieve their loss “the right way.” And I have heard about the guilt that comes from not attending as fully as possible to a living child during the acute grief phase.
The mothers I know are all doing the best they can.
When grief has no roadmap, one is forced to forge her own path. The guilt compounds the grief. Rarely does guilt help move a woman from a place of darkness and despair to one of healing and light. (If it does, I have yet to see it.) It’s helpful to name the guilt and explore its roots for the individual mother. Identifying the myths to which she may subscribe can go a long way in helping her develop more self-compassion and ultimately reach out for help from others who can assist her both logistically, emotionally, and spiritually.
And finally, let us all speak out whenever possible to debunk the myths of blissful pregnancy and motherhood. It’s okay to sometimes find these phases of life tedious, frustrating, and downright painful. And for those who are pregnant again after a loss or parenting after a loss, the same rules apply. Verbalizing what is hard about pregnancy and motherhood is a natural response to stress and does not mean you are ungrateful for what you have.