Sunday, March 4, 2012

Recent reading

It's been an interesting week or so for ALI issues in the news. I've run across a number of articles lately that I've wanted to bring to your attention & comment on. Here are a few of them:

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First, "Canada's national newsmagazine," Macleans, published an article by Anne Kingston on its website last week, posing the question, "Are we over-sharing lost pregnancies?"

One of the key points I took away from the article was the suggestion that bereaved parents are being encouraged to share their stories and assert their rights by right-wing anti-choice advocates (in Canada as well as the U.S.) looking to forward their own political agendas -- "Which means that the evolving focus on perinatal death potentially affects far more than bereaved families." (This is the concluding line of the article.)

There may be some truth to this. However, to dismiss my grief and my feelings for my stillborn daughter because they can somehow be tied to Rick Santorum or Michelle Duggar's religious & political beliefs is lumping apples with orange, in my opinion. Borrowing & inverting the logic from the Greek father of the bride at the end of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding, "in the end we're all just fruit" (bereaved parents), even if we come from different trees & believe different things.

I am about as far from the Santorums and Duggars as you can get, politically and religiously speaking. I firmly believe that how, when, whether and why we become parents (or not) is a highly personal choice -- with emphasis on the word choice. I believe birth control and sex education should be widely available. In the memorable and oft-quoted words of one of our former prime ministers, Pierre Trudeau, when he was minister of justice in the 1960s, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation." If only more of our politicians still believed that...!

(An aside: My own sex education sadly consisted of one week covering the human reproductive system toward the end of my Grade 12 biology class, by a red-faced and clearly embarrassed male teacher who seemed to want to get through the material as quickly and with as few questions as possible. Thankfully, I was a voracious reader with a budding feminist sensibility, and that got me through to the point when I finally felt ready, willing and able to take on parenthood.)(Of course, my body then refused to co-operate... but that's another story...)

I believe it's entirely possible to be pro-choice and mourn the loss of your own much-wanted baby. A good book that outlines an alternative approach to "personhood" is "Motherhood Lost: A eminist account of pregnancy loss in America" by Linda L. Layne.

Despite our political/religious differences, my heart still went out to the Duggars and the Santorums when I read of their respective losses, as one bereaved parent to another -- particularly when I heard some of the awful things that were said and written about the ways they handled the loss of their babies.

Moving past the political implications of sharing about pregnancy loss -- I think there is some truth to this assertion in the article:
"Given the obsession with female fecundity—tabloid scrutiny of “baby bumps,” gushing media coverage over the birth of celebrity babies like Beyoncé’s—it’s hardly surprising perinatal death has migrated into the mainstream."
And this:
"The public focus on pregnancy, now routinely announced before the high-risk first trimester via Facebook’s new “Expected: Child” option, can heighten the sense of loss and stoke anger among women whose pregnancies end suddenly, says Purdie. The Web’s virtual nature is a haven for celebrating unborn children, some of whom even have their own Facebook pages. “There’s pregnant people and babies everywhere,” one woman grieving an early-term miscarriage vented on Ling’s website. Purdie notes that returning to work or social circles where women have children or are pregnant can be alienating for those who’ve lost their baby: “Women feel it’s a club they don’t belong to.”
My problem with the article is that, in answering the question "Are we over-sharing?" the evidence presented appears to be heavily slanted in favour of the "yes" side. Advocates for the bereaved parents' point of view are few; voices of bereaved parents themselves are mostly not included. While there are some observations in the article I an agree with (see above), and while the author does provide some "experts" speaking to the experience of bereaved parents and some of the practices that have been adopted in recent years to help them cope, the bulk of the article tends to focus more on the discomfort experienced by others, including the opinion that mourning our babies more openly than previous generations is unhealthy and prolonging our grief.

I will concede that there are a handful of bereaved parents out there who may or may not be grieving in an unhealthy way. In 10 years as a support group facilitator, there were a few -- a very few -- clients whose grief sometimes felt beyond our limited abilities as volunteers (albeit highly sympathetic ones) to handle, who caused us special concern. (On the other hand, the group was sometimes the only place where they felt safe in venting their feelings -- so who was I to judge?) I don't know what's happened to all of them over the years, but I do know that many of them eventually managed to move to a new stage of their post-loss life.

My own opinion is that most of us are NOT "oversharing" -- we're just sharing (if we are sharing much at all). It's just that people are not used to hearing about the topic. We're still highly squeamish as a culture when it comes to death, and the death of a baby is still the most taboo topic of all.

As Layne observes in her book, part of the problem is there are no common or "approved" cultural scripts we can all rely on when it comes to perinatal loss. It's only in recent years that perinatally bereaved parents have been validated in their feelings and provided with choices when it comes to the loss of their babies -- to see and hold them after delivery (or not), to hold a funeral or memorial (or not), etc. Even 20 or 30 years ago, it was common practice in most hospitals to whisk away stillborn or miscarried babies immediately after delivery, to be buried in common (mass), unmarked graves, or disposed of along with other hospital "waste." Parents were not consulted about their wishes in these matters and, stunned by what had happened, they mostly accepted and did whatever the hospital decreed.

The key to the article, I think lies in these lines:
Couples were once expected to “deal with it” and “move on.” The newer message is that the loss will never disappear but will shift with time.
One gets the sense from this article that the first sentence is the preferable situation. The discomfort that the fortunate non-bereaved still feel when confronted with the reality of grief is highly evident. And is proof, I think, that we need to do a heck of a lot more talking and sharing to ensure that our voices are not only heard but listened to and empathized with -- if not entirely understood.

As you might expect, the comments can get quite heated at times, on both sides of the debate. Read with caution.

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The New York Times' Motherlode column recently ran a guest post with the provocative headline "Why I Won't Adopt." The author and her husband have their own personal reasons for taking adoption off the table, including some I could relate to and others I could not. I found myself nodding when I read this passage:
"...occasionally, it feels like in these forums, too, there’s an unspoken hierarchy of who’s willing to go the furthest to be a mother. Who’s open to donor eggs, sperm or embryos? Who will pursue adoption after one failed I.U.I.? One friend found something similar in the adoption community: are you willing to adopt an older child? Another ethnicity? A special-needs kid? What does it say about you if you’re not?"
Surprisingly, perhaps, most of the comments were fairly civilized. (One commenter said the post was "so incredibly offensive to me in so many ways.") I did find it somewhat amusing that several offered up questions along the lines of "Have you thought of using donated eggs? Surrogacy??" A fair number of commenters were adoptive parents asserting that they could not imagine life without their children, and while some urged the writer to "open her heart" & reconsider her decision, most commended her and her husband for knowing their hearts and their limits.

One of my favourite comments (among the first):
No one "just adopts."

As a parent of two adopted children, I completely understand your perspective about not wanting to go down the adoption road.

Adoption is a wonderful way to build a family, but it has its own issues. It's not a perfect solution that is the right choice for everyone. And there are a lot of myths about adoption that people (including the adoption biz and adoptive families) don't like to talk about. And I say this with 18 years of experience in two successful open adoptions.

It takes a lot of effort to adopt, so if your heart is not fully committed, if your husband has reservations, don't get on the adoption train.

Don't feel guilty, either about how you choose.

And if it happens that you don't have a baby with your husband, you will make another kind of life that will be different than the one you expected. I can say in my heart that I am sorry that my husband and I never conceived a child--that would have been a wonderful miracle ...It's a road I didn't take...But the life I have has grown around that loss.

All the best to you.

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Speaking of adoption, the Toronto Star had a fascinating article in its Insight section this weekend about identical twin girls adopted from China at the same time by separate families who quickly realized the relationship (denied by the orphanage but later confirmed by DNA testing) and have been working to ensure that, despite living with separate families in different towns several hours' drive apart, the girls grow up as sisters.

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And speaking of Motherlode, the most recent column asks for reader wisdom in this "Parental Quandary: I'm Pregnant; My Friend is Struggling with Infertility." Comments are still open, if you want to share.

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Finally, this article from The Guardian in Britain, written by Jody Day, founder of Gateway Women: "I may not be a mother -- but I'm still a person." Like Jody, and like many of you, I'm sure, I've often felt like an outsider in the middle of a group of mommies talking about their kids -- although it's gotten slightly better as the kids have gotten older. (Now it's starting to be the GRANDKIDS...!) Day points out that 20% of women now reach menopause without having had children. That's a sizeable chunk of the population, yet we continue to feel shut out, abnormal.

Thankfully, more & more of us are speaking out about our experiences. As Day writes:
Too often, women who are child-free by circumstance are left with the sense of not having a proper life. And many women who are childfree by choice find themselves vilified as heartless, selfish types lacking some vital quality that would make them "real" women.

We women without children need to become a more cohesive bunch if we're to survive in the Mumsnet era. We want to show how much we have to offer and that we have meaning in our lives – it's just that this meaning is something other than our offspring. I'm going to use the energy that would have gone into raising my family to speak up for childfree women like me. Our tribe is expanding – and it's time we had a voice.


  1. Thanks for sharing not only links to these posts but also your thoughts on them - very insightful, as always. And thank you for sharing that book, I was wondering how I'd never heard of it before, as I'd scoured Amazon for pregnancy loss books after I lost my first pregnancy, but when I checked the American Amazon site today I found it was only available for $135! Luckily I can have it sent from Canada for a grand total of $22 with shipping. I can't wait to read it and thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. @Esperanza: $135??!!??!! That's ridiculous!! Glad you were able to find it elsewhere at a decent price. I think I ordered mine from Amazon(.ca) as well. I've had my copy for quite a few years now. It's a bit academic, but thought provoking.

  3. I found that I really couldn't respond to that oversharing article, but you said it perfectly with this: "the bulk of the article tends to focus more on the discomfort experienced by others, including the opinion that mourning our babies more openly than previous generations is unhealthy and prolonging our grief."

    Yes, there are always outliers who find that what helps others brings out something unhelpful in themselves, but I didn't like the judgment that is inherent in the word "overshare." Because when we say "TMI" we are speaking about the point-of-view of the listener. And in this case, I didn't like the implication of "please don't make the listener uncomfortable."

  4. Thanks for sharing the summaries and your comments. I don't feel up to reading the whole articles today, but now I have the links for future reference! And I admire you for airing political issues on your blog.

    I just want to emphasize how much I dislike a political slant on pregnancy loss. I'm a bereaved mother of a stillborn daughter who is pro-choice. Even I recognize there are complications to the extent to which I grieve the daughter I never got to know, and the fact that I support a woman's right to choose to abort her unborn child, but I resent these separate ideas getting lumped together as one political issue. I don't think it's fair to say that because many woman experience extreme grief due to pregnancy loss or miscarriage, all women should not have reproductive choices.

    It seems to me that the opportunity to become a parent is a precious choice--and it should exactly that, for all of us. The saddest and most frustrating of circumstances are those that occur when our choice is taken away from us via unwanted pregnancy or infertility.

  5. I just tweeted this post. Incredible analysis, as always. I think you are completely right that the emphasis on how we "used to handle" things by "dealing with them" and "moving on" is what the author would prefer. I was kind of heartened that a number of the comments were unfavorable of the article. A lot of people seemed to think she was out of line.

    I am reading Esperanza's copy after she finishes :)

  6. This talk about the "militancy" of perinatal loss is just more political rhetoric. Apparently everything is political, even death. No one likes to talk about death, it's not a comfortable topic and in our Christian-Judeo society, it's assumed that all things death related should be relegated to mystery. Ironically, once upon a time it was quite fashionable to take pictures of dead people, including dead children. It shouldn't be surprising that parents want pictures of their stillborn children or even display them. When life is not realized, it is not simply the human form that dies, but all the dreams, hopes and wishes of the parents that die as well. People might find it creepy or morbid, until it happens to them and when they are left with empty arms, they want to hold on to SOMETHING tangible. If people were allowed to express their grief in whatever form they chose (and so many people write about it because it's a QUIET way to do it) then perhaps there would be less shame attached to it. .

  7. Went back to look at the more recent comments on teh article & found a link to this great post about the article:

    LOVED the commenter who says:

    "Yes, because the very first thing you think of when you lose a child should be the feelings of others. *rolls eyes* Utterly ridiculous."


  8. The subtitle of that article - "parents reach out in sometimes disturbingly public ways" - infuriates me. "The cultural acceptance that grief trumps others' discomfort ..." is such a selfish comment, I'm blown away. The lack of empathy of this writer is astounding. I'd hate to be her friend and have a) cancer, b) a divorce, c) lose a parent, d) lose my house in an earthquake, etc etc. Because clearly I would not be allowed to grieve any of this, just in case she felt uncomfortable.

    Loribeth - the subsequent blogpost was excellent.

  9. I really enjoy your blog and all the information that you are able to share with us. This post had my mind going in so many directions!

    The article on "oversharing" infuriates me, even though I have never been pregnant and suffered the type of loss they are talking about. Even in my private family losses such as these were recognized and even the children’s questions were given the time to be answered. It is very insensitive to say that sharing this type of information that has a HUGE impact on a person’s life should be censored in order to not make someone else a little uncomfortable.

  10. Wow. This is such an awesome post! So much information. I agree it sounds like that article on over-sharing is slanted toward the "yes we are over-sharing" but I think we are opening up important dialogues about topics we typically avoid discussing. I think it is a positive thing.

    I was worried when I started writing about cancer and infertility that people would be like "Enough" But instead I get a ton of positive feedback, compliments and I feel I have helped people. People talk to me about their problems and I have had people tell me I've helped them to talk about their infertility etc. So, I only have a small blog - I think sharing loss is so important, if you want to do that and if this is happening in little microcosms, a lot of people are finding healing and help in other peoples' words.

    Beyond that, I found the adoption part of this post really interesting - I get the "just adopt" comment SO much. I appreciate reading people saying how it takes a lot of effort and you have to be really into it. I always feel people who can have children naturally disregard the hurdles that can exist in adoption.

    Anyway, thank you for this amazing and deeply encompassing post. Love reading your blog!

  11. I love what the father in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" said. Such a poignant comment from a character that is not otherwise too deep.