By Lexi Walters Wright
It is 3:18 a.m.. My newborn son Arlo snuffles in his crib, and in a comically small twin bed across the room from him, I sigh with boundless relief. If he is making noise, he is breathing. If he is breathing, he is alive.
A nightlight slices across his dark nursery. But that isn't what keeps sleep from dragging me under. I lay there willing my nervous system to power down for what feels like an hour, two, four. Suddenly I jerk awake, moist with panic and milk, and bolt to the crib. I lean my face next to my son's, aching to feel a puff of his sour breath on my cheek. A greasy lock of my hair falls from behind my ear, tickling his forehead. He roots and begins to mewl, and I lift him to my chest.
It is 3:50 a.m.. This is the longest stretch of sleep I've had in four days.
The morning is marked solely by sunshine, not any remote sense of rest. As my husband leaves for work, I feel a surging panic: I cannot do this. Please, please, don't leave me to do this alone. I know rationally that he does need to go, that he can't solve what I've come to think of as the problem:
I have wanted this baby for so long, and now here he is.
I'm supposed to be treasuring this time. But this is so much harder than I'd anticipated.
I thought my miscarriages would make me a better mom than this.
"This" is pierced by postpartum anxiety. Jumpy when I move more than a couple feet from my baby. Unwilling to put him down even to sleep, in fear that I'd miss a cue and he'd... be gone. As in, he'd disappear, cease to exist. Be only a phantom experience.
Because I was no stranger to that watery feeling of, "This has happened, right?" That's what my two miscarriages had been in the years prior: Profound, harrowing, self-altering events that no one around me knew of, therefore no one recognized.
My first miscarriage, at the end of my first trimester, precipitated months of physical depletion and lingering depression. My husband and I had told barely anyone that we were pregnant, so we found ourselves in an awkward limbo: Not knowing how to ask for support of people who couldn't possibly know we needed it. But did I ever need it. I returned to work 14 hours after that loss, because I literally didn't know how to tell my boss otherwise. I turned explanations and excuses over in my head -- "I delivered a three-inch baby at home this weekend. I'm fine, just a marginal head case" -- and finally just trudged into the office, grateful for the distraction.
As that first due date approached, my grief over losing our baby seemed to intensify. Could no one see how different I was now? How much my life had changed, even though outwardly it looked the same? Simultaneously, I questioned my sadness: How warranted was this anguish, really? I hadn't known our baby, but I had already begun to dream of a full, delicious life together. Was it normal to mourn that? Was it crazy? I didn't know, and that self-doubt fueled my grief further.
Broken, I found a local group, Empty Arms Bereavement Support. And I sat a little taller as the facilitator -- a sage, benevolent woman who had lost her first daughter at birth, whose story you can read here -- recited the organization's manifest at the start of my first meeting:
We believe that speaking the truth about the heartbreaking journey of losing a baby is essential. Healing comes through understanding what we have been through and what may lie ahead. By speaking about our experiences they can become integrated into who we are and allow us to move along. We celebrate breaking the silence that bereaved parents have been historically subjected to.
I'd found my people.
People who valued sharing honest, messy accounts of the losses they'd experienced because maybe, just maybe, it could propel them -- or someone else in the room -- forward. I could say aloud in the group the refrain I couldn't silence in my head: "I cannot believe this happened. I just can't believe this happened." I could look around the room at these brave, changed women and their partners, who had survived miscarriages and stillbirths and infant loss, whose eyes and nods said, "We know."
So I was in good hands when I had my second miscarriage six months later. Now my sadness was ringed in shame: Shouldn't I have felt this coming? Growing a baby was so... normal, easy for most people. What kind of body would so let me down twice?
"We know," said the faces around my support group. "We hear you. You are not alone. And you are not crazy."
I didn't know it then, but through Empty Arms, I'd also found MotherWoman, the organization that had created the stunning discussion model we used at our monthly bereavement support groups. And MotherWoman was where I turned again three years later, haggard and spent, when I finally had the baby I'd so longed for, but now felt like I was failing at the job of caring for him.
In my weekly MotherWoman postpartum support group, I got to purge those ugly, irrational thoughts about parenting, without interruption: "I think I'm supposed to be liking this more." "I've wanted this baby for so long. But right now, I just want my old self, my old life." "I've never been so bored or so lonely in my life."
And incredibly, no one chastised me the way I silently berated myself day and night: "Just be glad you have a healthy baby, you ingrate."
I talked about our sleep issues ad nauseum, and no one diminished them. Outside group, I'd gotten used to feeling trodden by advice when I admitted we were having disastrous nights well into Arlo's first year. How hadn't I sleep-trained him yet? Why wasn't he sleeping in his own room? The same anxiety that plagued our nights shrouded even discussions about sleep with well-meaning parents during the day. I couldn't wait for my two-hour support group each week, where I was never subjected to a barrage of unwanted counsel, never judged.
Most helpfully, the facilitators -- moms themselves who had been through the thorough MotherWoman postpartum support training -- validated my fears, and the fears of the other moms in the group. They nodded in solidarity as we described our anxiety. They took turns holding our babies so we could hug our own knees, giving our bodies a few minutes' rest between bouncing and feeding sessions. They fed us muffins, and we gratefully ravaged them with two free hands.
I felt both lighter and more grounded as I drove home after each group. Parenting was harder than all of us moms had expected, no matter what happened before we each arrived on the job, but that didn't mean that we loved our babies any less or were any less deserving of them.
MotherWoman helped me believe -- to internalize, finally -- that there actually was no "better" way I could or should be parenting. I am exactly the right mom for my son.
Lexi Walters Wright is an editor, writer, and sometime librarian in Florence, Massachusetts. She now facilitates a monthly Empty Arms Miscarriage Support Group based on the MotherWoman principles.