The Myth of Rainbow Babies

After miscarriage and infant loss, we hear about rainbow babies. In the midst of grief and death and loss, most people are uncomfortable, so they talk. You’ll have another. You’ll have your rainbow baby.

I recently sent a copy of my book about my newborn’s death and subsequent miscarriages to a pregnant doula with a fatal diagnosis for her baby. You yearn for another baby, she wrote. You need your rainbow baby. There is no rainbow baby, I replied. She persisted, and it hurt.

What is a rainbow baby? A rainbow baby is the living baby that comes after pregnancy and infant loss. The myth says that after a loss, women and men are rewarded with magical, healthy babies. As if another pregnancy and baby are not subject to the random and karmic losses and illnesses around us. As if a mindset of positive thinking can change all our limitations and fate. And I must say one more time, that this implies that death and illness are our fault because of our thoughts, and I don’t accept blaming women who are suffering already in their grief. We are not causing miscarriages, infertility, fatal illnesses or stillbirth in our babies.

I believe in miracles, and have experienced many life-altering situations that felt like pure magic. But when it comes to fertility, not everyone gets the miracle that they want. I do not share the myth of rainbow babies because I do not want to hurt anyone who is grieving already. Instead I sit with people in their current situation, whatever that might be. Some women do not birth biological children. Many women experience multiple losses. I accept each of us as we are. Our culture encourages fertility treatment as a solution when the costs are astronomical and sometimes do not yield the results people want. I know a few families who have been through in vitro several times without the desired results. They are dejected, depressed and traumatized from the treatments and the loss of their expectations. One friend told me that the clinic where her sister went boasts photos of beautiful, healthy babies on their walls, but their actual success rate is about 33%. The numbers are in the single digits for women who are my age.

But, I have friends who have beautiful healthy children through fertility treatments, you say. So do I. However, I know more disappointed families, and as a woman in my mid-forties, it is not my path. People who tell me to seek fertility treatment to grow my family are not accepting me as I am.

My friend who had a miscarriage and a stillborn has no living children, and is perfectly intact. She is a mother still. For those who are infertile, we must take into consideration the pollution on our planet. We cannot control the effects of toxins and radiation on our fertility. No one is to blame when there is no “rainbow baby.” Instead of striving for this magical, perfect creature, I believe in opening our hearts to all possibilities while living in reality.

I am a member of a spiritual Facebook page that encourages fertility. What do I do in the midst of discussions of rainbow babies and unicorn mamas? I take a sip of my tea, take a deeper breath, notice the golden leaves dropping from their trees (and wonder what a unicorn mama is exactly).

Am I infertile, or do I function as a woman who is changing and growing and birthing? Should I focus on bringing another child into my family, or should I accept that if another child is meant to be mine, she will find me?

Reader, I don’t believe in myths because I believe in reality. The only reality I know is love. Love grows and blooms. Love is my fertility. And to the mother who has multiple living children and insists that I have a rainbow baby: I don’t deserve a rainbow. I deserve respect, and to respect me is to honor me as I am with all of my losses.

Rainbows do not appear only to those with pregnancy and infant losses. They surprise and brighten the skies of all who pause to see them. In our fractured sisterhood, may we embrace each other regardless of the path or the loss or the manifestation of fertility. May we accept our unique paths as they are, without imposing a solution to grief. No child can replace a child who has died. And death is not infertility. It is a new life in spirit, and I bless that life again and again and again.


Thanksgiving, Gratitude, Grief & a Book Review

free-clipart-thanksgiving-jixEMo9iEIn Sunday’s New York Times, Arthur C. Brooks’ op-ed “Choose to be Grateful. It Will Make You Happier” cites research about gratitude and “greater life satisfaction.”  Gratitude stimulates the brain. He writes “Choosing to focus on good things makes you feel better than focusing on bad things.” This is something that most Americans agree with, but where do grieving mothers fit in? Is remembering our children who are no longer here a sign of ingratitude? Last night I read Angela Miller’s post “Grateful and Grieving” from her blog A Bed for My Heart. She eloquently discusses her grief and how grieving is not a sign that we are not grateful.  Miller writes “It’s not one or the other. Yes I’m still grieving because I love and miss my son with every molecule in my body, but that doesn’t mean I’m not also deeply thankful for my blessings.”

Recently my mother went to a family gathering and an aunt asked her “Is Dianna still sad?” The answer is yes. Dianna is still sad. Others offer my mother advice for me. “It is time for Dianna to find closure.” “She needs to move on.” “She has a son.” One woman told me that I have to look at what I do have, not at what I don’t have. I have a living son and a daughter on the other side of the veils.

Two years ago I was newly pregnant at Thanksgiving feeling first-trimester sick. I was not thinking too much about the abstraction of who my baby would be. But I did think This is my second pregnancy. I’m done child-bearing after this. I imagined that I would birth a healthy child. I imagined that all would be fine. Now two years later that assumption no longer exists. This year I prepare for the Thanksgiving holiday with a gluten-free America’s Test Kitchen pie crust recipe, and my heart still hurts.

Brooks’ op-ed made me smile because I am so grateful for so many things like this cold New York evening and red leaves almost gone from their tree. I am grateful for my family and for my friends. I am grateful for my readers and this blog and the publisher who is waiting for my completed manuscript. I am grateful for Mary Rose, but can I also be grateful for trisomy 18? Can I be grateful that she had the life that she was given by God to fulfill her mission in this life and the next? Her 42 weeks inside me, and one hour outside.

I was recently asked “How old would she have been?” at my MOPS meeting. My eyes opened wide because I stopped my brain from thinking those thoughts. I do not let myself think about how many months Mary Rose would be or what she would have been doing. In August my husband said “She would have been walking.” And I turned to him and replied “But she would not have been walking.”  I cannot separate my daughter’s body from trisomy 18. But I quickly did some math in my head that Wednesday morning and answered with tear-filled eyes, “She would have been 15 months old.” My friend Terry came for a visit on her daughter’s birthday last week. We spoke about grief and life and anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder and our children. “Heather would have been 46 today” she said. Angela Miller writes about the empty chair “where my seven year old should be sitting…” And here we are living in this world of juxtapositions and paradoxes. Of reality and imagination. Of our children, who are still our children even though they are now ageless.

In Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, she writes about her first son who was born still at 41 and a half weeks. Her pregnancy was a happy time.  There were no complications until he died in utero. McCracken stays on the practical, tangible side of her grief. She does not believe in God, which does not bother me per se, but when she speaks of her dead son, it is difficult for me to process death without the spiritual dimensions.  However, this book is valuable as an academic’s journey through grief. The writing is good and it is not a sad book. McCracken is honest and talks about her travels, her pregnancy and her expectations for her son. Some of her insights are so true and important, though I cannot relate to her decision not to take a photo of her son, or not to have her husband present at the delivery, or how instead of giving the boy one of the names that they picked out and were considering, they put Pudding on the death certificate, which was his nickname through the pregnancy. I chose a different path, but there is value to McCracken’s book even if she walked her child’s death differently. In truth we each walk this path the best way that we know in the moments of our grief.

In discussing her grief and other people’s sympathy, McCracken writes that “grief lasts longer than sympathy, which is one of the tragedies of the grieving” (80). Is that what this is? I think. The world moves so quickly around me and people want me to stop talking about my daughter who died even though she is still my daughter while I listen to them speak of their many living children. What negates my own daughter’s existence? And yes, my heart is still tender and raw and I do seek comfort. I want to make sense out of this trauma and grief and I cannot do it alone. McCracken speaks about the social aspect of the grieving parent after mentioning her pregnancy or her stillborn son to others. She writes “People changed the subject. They smiled uncomfortably…They didn’t mention it. They did not say, I am so sorry or How are you?” She goes on to discuss how surprised she was when people didn’t mention her son or pregnancy (92).  When I saw my uncle for the first time in over a year he did not mention my pregnancy or my daughter. Chit chat. Small talk. When someone asks how many children I have, I always mention Mary Rose. The person then looks at me in horror. A dead child! How could I speak it?

Later on McCracken beautiful and honestly writes

I’ve done it myself, when meeting the grief-struck…To mention it by name is to conjure it up, not the grief but the experience itself: The mother’s suicide, the brother’s overdose, the multiple miscarriages. The sadder the news, the less likely people are to mention it. The moment I lost my innocence about such things, I saw how careless I’d been myself.

I don’t even know what I would have wanted someone to say. Not: It will be better. Not: You don’t think you’ll live through this, but you will. Maybe: Tomorrow you will spontaneously combust. Tomorrow, finally your misery will turn to wax and heat and you will burn and melt till nothing is left in your chair but a greasy, childless smudge. That might have comforted me (94).

I was speaking to my friend Jenn about this very thing this summer. She says she doesn’t want to bring up the dead baby at work because she does not want to upset the mother. But the mother is never going to forget the baby. We remember our children living and dead, and for Jenn to tell her co-worker that she is thinking of her child is to acknowledge the child’s existence which is all we want.  We don’t get the milestones, the parties, the graduations, the holidays, so can our world give us that one acknowledgement of the existence of our children? This Thanksgiving, can we open our hearts to be grateful for the living and the dead? Can we make space around our tables for the memories of our children and other loved ones who have passed away? We remember the grandparents and parents and aunts, but when it comes to the children we do not want to speak their names. As McCracken says “The dead don’t need anything. The rest of us could use some company” (138).

There is one more thing that McCracken says that strikes a chord with me this holiday season. She speaks of her pregnancy to her second son, Gus, and says “there was nothing in my life that was not bittersweet. Every piece of hope was tinged with sadness; every moment of relief was lit on the edges with worry…. Of course [Gus] does not erase his older brother’s death” (183). So when we gather this holiday season, please don’t chastise a grieving mother or father or sibling for not “getting over it.” Please don’t insist that living children should fill the empty space of where the other child used to be. Let’s offer a smile and some kind words instead. There is no getting over the death of a child. Or anyone else for that matter. As Lucie Brock-Broido writes in her poem “Pyrrhic Victory,” “Some grief is larger than my body is.” Certainly this grief is larger than a month or a year, even when we are so grateful for so much.

The Truth About Positive Thinking

IMG_9937for Adele Ryan McDowell

I read a book by Doreen Virtue after I found out about Mary Rose’s trisomy 18 “diagnosis” and was taken back when Virtue said that she believed that all illness stems from negative thought. This includes any cold a child might get or a cancer. According to Virtue, someone in the house has a negative thought and it takes hold in a child’s body causing sickness. I do believe that we attract much through our energy and thought patterns, but Mary Rose’s trisomy 18 was a genetic illness, and I neither attracted nor created it. It troubles me that we blame each other for our children’s illnesses (and our own) whether through negative thoughts or lack of faith.

Years ago I was married to a man who was mentally ill and unable to keep a job. I reached a low point when my friends and family were having babies and going on vacation, while I could not afford groceries or gas for my car. My idea of the good life was being able to afford children and vacation. I read Elizabeth Harper’s book Wishing: How to Fulfill Your Heart’s Desire in the winter of 2009 and decided that I wanted a different life. I prayed and wished for a nurturing and loving partner (I called him my Wish Husband), children, a safe and peaceful home and abundance. I tucked my wishes away on my altar that sat on a piece of turquoise velvet fabric on the floor of my unfurnished bedroom and waited. I started practicing qigong. I studied with Pat Bolger and took a Level 1 training for Emei Qigong. I meditated and prayed, and worked on my thought process. I was tired of coming home to the telephone or electricity being shut off, or tax notices on my door.

It took another 18 months, but I found the courage to walk away from the marriage after nearly 19 years with this broken man whom I had met when I was 18. I discovered many debts in my name after I left. But the wishes worked. I found an amazing lawyer, Debra Marino, dedicated to helping her clients. She fought until the condo was in my name and the equity covered the debts. I went to visit my sister and her family in Switzerland. When I came back the divorce papers were signed and I went to a wedding of some friends soon after dressed in orange and purple and gold. I was free from debt and the burden of an unhappy marriage and decided that I was okay being single and childless. I walked into St. Paul’s Cathedral in Hempstead, New York and there was one other person in the church. I am married to him now, and we have two children. Wishes do come true. But I cannot believe that all of our suffering comes from negative thoughts. My positive thinking may have been a catalyst in shifting my grim situation, but there has still been tragedy since then.

I’ve been thinking a lot about positive thinking since I carried Mary Rose, my daughter who died an hour after birth. I remember being on the table of a naturopathic physician in New Haven many years ago. She blamed my negative thoughts for my pain and state of health. I remember feeling so small on her table, as I did when I was a child and my mother or teacher criticized me. I have spent over two decades studying various spiritual traditions in an effort to better myself. But lately I’ve been thinking that I don’t have to get better. I can accept that I live in a fallen world and that sometimes the people I love get sick and better or not. I once had a student in my office telling me about how her mother “lost her battle with cancer.” I looked her in the eyes and told her “Your mother got sick and died. She is not a loser. She completed her life on earth.” Why do we beat each other down with our words blaming thoughts for cancer or the flu or any other illness?

The missing piece to the positive thinking conversation is that there is a component of karma or God’s will. Mother Gavrilia, the Greek Orthodox nun, says that whatever happens is because God wills it or God allows it. Either way it is the best thing for your soul. That is difficult, especially when children are chronically or fatally sick. I like the idea that we raised our hands before we came down this lifetime and agreed to certain soul contracts and certain dramas to better our souls. Did I have a soul contract with my first husband? Is he the one who taught me resilience and creativity in a tight corner? What about my daughter who died an hour after birth? Do I have a soul contract with Mary Rose to further open my shattered heart and write this book in service to others? Today my son told me that he wanted to send a deeply pink rose from the Botanical Gardens to his sister in heaven. “I will send it to her and then she will get it,” he said. I turned my face away in tears. Did my son have any thoughts that brought upon his sister’s death and this loneliness we have for the one we love?

Elizabeth Harper’s book is balanced because even though she gives us the means to wish or pray for a better life, she does not blame anyone for illnesses. Harper writes

We are so quick, especially in this New Age society, to think we are to blame for illness. We are not. It may be part of the package deal of this life, or it could be a “contract,” as medical intuitive Caroline Myss likes to call it. Whatever it is, illness is there to show us something about ourselves that can be revealed through that suffering. It may also be the only way for us to bring some part of ourselves to the surface (158).

She continues with a partial list of “deeper motivations behind illness” including the connections that our situation give us with others. After an illness or trauma we are able to help others in a way that we could not before. As Arielle Greenberg writes in Home/Birth: a poemic, co-written with Rachel Zucker, about her stillborn son Day,

I never thought I would be writing this. I never thought this would be my story.

But it is, so I tell people, and hold this space (195).

We can each hold the space for our suffering and for those who suffer around us. We can hold the space for the friend diagnosed with a brain tumor or a mother diagnosed with ALS because these things happen.

I’ve been listening to Krista Tippett’s podcast On Being. Again and again her guests talk about suffering. One Buddhist teacher says that everyone suffers on Earth. “But how do you face your suffering?” she asks. How gracefully do you walk through your parents’ aging, your friend’s suicide, another death? The human condition is preponderant on suffering. We are born in the trauma of labor, born after a long journey from a safe watery place through the canal that brings us to the light of this earth. I see suffering all around me and I want to hold people in my arms and tell them that it is okay. We are in this together. I want people to stop blaming each other when difficulties come. Perhaps it was my fault I lived in poverty with a mentally ill person as long as I did. I stayed, didn’t I? But until that veil was lifted from my eyes I could not see clearly. I could not believe that a husband would lie every day to his wife. I could not believe that someone would pretend to have a job. But I learned a lot there, and now after walking through my daughter’s pregnancy and death, and that sharp grief afterwards, I can say that we each have certain things that we must suffer in this life. I am of Greek descent after all, and we do believe in Fate.

If God allows us some suffering, then He also allows the way through it. I believe in being positive, but I also believe in anger and sadness and rage. And when we harness those “negative” emotions, and lead them to the Light within, they are transmuted into joy and we become stronger. For those writers who continue to preach that 100% of everything that happens to us is born of our thoughts, I think about gardens growing, and abundance, but even the cucumber plant withers after she bears all of her fruit. I am at the point in my life when I am ready to accept my broken humanity. I mean well but fall short of my standards. I bless people and pray. And I am learning to accept my frailties and constitution and life. I hope that my thoughts allow me to be grateful every day of life, as I was on the day my daughter was born and died. When our midwife, Grace, said to Mary Rose, “Open up your eyes Baby Girl, and look at your mama,” she did. She opened up the one eye that she could and looked into my eyes and I saw that they were blue. Not everyone who carries a baby with trisomy 18 gets to look into her child’s eyes. I am blessed. And Mother Gavrilia is right. Mary Rose is so very good for my soul.

Photo by Sindy Strosahl