August 22, 2021, is National Rainbow Baby Day. It is a beautiful observance started in 2018 by What the Fertility, an online site that supports families through fertility struggles. The movement started to “encourage parents to celebrate the life after struggle and to show the world our rainbows.”
Having a rainbow baby is indeed worth celebrating, even though for many women, the process of being pregnant can be emotional and difficult both physically and emotionally. Emotionally, parents-to-be must manage their own feelings of grief and anxiety, but often they have to manage the feelings of those around them. I had people say some interesting things to me when they discovered that I was pregnant with my rainbow baby, and I knew that I was not alone in this.
So, I reached out to some other rainbow moms and asked them to identify the most hurtful thing someone has said to them about their rainbow pregnancy. Please understand that it is not my place to assume the reasons why people may have said these things and I am going to accept that all comments were made out of concern for the mom-to-be even if they failed to show a real understanding of what these women may have been going through and what it takes for a woman to have a rainbow baby.
So here are ten things never to say to a woman experiencing a rainbow pregnancy, according to rainbow moms:
1. “Have they checked you to make sure it’s not a blighted ovum?”
Okay, let’s dive right in. I can imagine that the speaker here was just very concerned that the mom-to-be might have another miscarriage and I appreciate that more than you would ever know. The issue with this statement isn’t that it is hurtful (because I choose to believe that this was said out of concern), but that is it largely unhelpful. After loss moms are have already explored every scenario in their heads and they are doing all they can to stay positive, regardless of the odds so chances are that is something they have already discussed with their health care provider or plan to at the next appointment.
If this is your concern for the mom-to-be, maybe a more helpful question would be: “Would you like me to accompany you to your next appointment for moral support?”
2. “Please take care of yourself this time.”
Again, I can hear the concern in this statement, which makes it even more difficult because it’s the kind of thing people who really love you will say. However, when I read this, I couldn’t move past the “this time,” and as this mom said, “…it implies that my child died because I didn’t take care of myself last time…and I certainly did.” At this point, we can discuss all the reasons why babies pass away, but the real issue here is that even words meant to bring comfort can unintentionally place the blame on the mother. It’s not difficult for a grieving mom to blame herself, so do we really want to add to those feelings of guilt?
Here’s a different approach: “Do you have any special needs or restrictions during this pregnancy and how can I help?”
3. “Are you sure that’s okay/ Is this wise?”
Pregnancy loss can be a result of serious medical illness and there are times when under medical advice it is not recommended. Pregnancy after a loss should be approached under the care of a medical professional who has an understanding of the mom’s history. This is an undisputed fact. The issue with this question is not in whether or not this pregnancy is wise or okay but the effect that it has on the mom-to-be. Following the loss, there are so many doubts and fears experienced by mothers that questions like this serve only to reinforce fears and puts added pressure on the expectant mother/couple (because please remember that there is a mom-to-be/couple who is cautiously excited about their new baby).
So, a reworking of this question may go a little something like: “I know that you are scared, I am too so can you tell me how I can help you?”
4. “Isn’t this too soon?”
Maybe it is, but it is well-documented that most women who experience pregnancy loss or stillbirth conceive again within a year. I don’t exactly know why but it happens. So yes, maybe it is soon but is that the most important question?
I understand that there is a need to know if the mom to be is facing any particular concerns with this pregnancy, but perhaps a more appropriate and supportive question would be something like: “What have you and your doctor discussed in moving forward with this pregnancy and how can I help?”
5. “Are you sure this is what you want after your miscarriage. What if you have another one?”
This one is a little harder to defend, I’ll admit, but again it highlights why awareness is important. Are we sure that we want the experience of carrying a child to full term? Of producing a live off-spring? Of being first-time parents or adding to our family? And isn’t the hope of all this worth trying again?
So maybe a different version, one that is less judgmental could go more like this: “It takes a lot of courage to try again and I am so proud of you, if ever you need me, I am right here!”
6. “At least this baby will make you forget your angel/this baby will ease (or make you forget) your pain.”
Okay, I will go slowly. The problem here (and yes I realized that I have graduated from calling it an issue to a problem) is that rather than being comforting, this statement highlights a lack of understanding of the grief process or even what it means to lose a child. Would marrying a new person make you forget about a spouse that died? Obviously not, and while it may bring wonderful, new experiences into your life you will still remember. Moms can go on to have 10 more children, but the loss will always be remembered and felt. Having another child doesn’t ease the pain, it is time and progression through the grief cycle (which has nothing to do with your rainbow baby) that does.
Instead, try this: “Your experience of motherhood is beautiful and unique and I know you will find a way to love ALL your babies. If you ever need to talk about this, I am here.”
7. “Maybe the last one was gonna have problems so it died so you could have a healthy baby this time.”
So many assumptions are contained in one little statement. Maybe the speaker is a trained medical professional who is making a qualified diagnosis but I doubt it so I’ll unpack them one by one. Firstly, there are countless reasons why babies do not survive, there are babies who have been healthy up until birth when they pass away suddenly and there have been difficult, sickly babies who defeat the odds and go on to live long healthy lives or short, difficult one or ones filled with health challenges…we just don’t know. Doctors don’t always know, science doesn’t always know because life and death belong to God only. But for anyone to proclaim that this was merely an act of practicality seems pretty cold.
And secondly, moms to be already feel torn in two trying to grieve their loss while remaining hopeful about their new baby so for anyone to come along and place their two babies against each other is a pretty hurtful thing to do.
But, I am trying to stay focused on being informative and so even though at this point, literally anything you say would be better than this, I would still suggest something like: “Congratulations on your pregnancy, is there anything I can do to help?”
8. “I told you you should have stopped having kids, what if this one dies too?”
I couldn’t spin this one, but my husband insisted that this is a teachable moment. And I did say that I was going to assume that all statements came out of concern for the mom-to-be.
So, if I were to be objective and assume genuine concern, I would say that maybe a better approach to this would be supportive silence but if you felt moved to say something and could not stay silent, then maybe: “You have a really long road ahead of you, how can I help?”
9. “Make sure and relax and don’t think of what happened last time.”
This may sound like sage advice but have you met a grieving mother ever? Don’t think about what happened? Grief is with us all the time, that is why PAL parents need support. So we can’t just relax and not think about it, our grief is real and very much a part of our new pregnancy.
However, this is salvageable, and can be turned around to be a bit more supportive: “It’s important that you relax, but if ever you need to talk about all that is going on, I am here to help!”
10. “Don’t lift anything heavier than a kettle until you have your baby safe in your arms.”
Okay, so forgive me if I sound hypocritical here because I know I did a whole thing about being gentle with PAL moms and offering them all the help they need but here is the issue with this one. Like before, it shows little understanding of the many reasons why babies die and sort of puts the responsibility back on the mom-to-be. Short of a doctor’s orders, many moms can resume normal pre-pregnancy operations, and suggestions like this one kind of suggest a fragility on the woman’s part that may not be accurate, although it is well-intentioned.
Try this: “What has your doctor said about it and can I help you with anything?”
I know it may seem like I am asking a lot and most people are really trying their best. And maybe it’s going to require more commitment from us than platitudes but according to Dr. Jessica Zucker, Clinical Psychologist, keeping it simple can express empathy and provide real connection. And really isn’t that what everyone needs? How great would it be that while we celebrate the beauty that is a rainbow baby, we remember to show a rainbow mom the kind of support she needs.