What’s self-love got to do with pregnancy and stillbirth?

Stillbirth is a difficult subject which can close women off from self-love

What’s self-love got to do with pregnancy and stillbirth?

The image of a baby’s beautiful smile and sparkling eyes is something we all enjoy witnessing. Babies are full of self-love and open to sharing that love with the world. It is indeed something to be treasured and most people effortlessly open up and smile back, regardless of what sort of day they are having.

Our day has been brightened by such a simple interaction. Likewise, when we see a woman going through pregnancy, we tend to be kinder, more courteous and willing to make friendly eye contact and conversation with the mother. However, what I’ve noticed while working as a counsellor with women and their families in the perinatal period (pregnancy and early childhood stages), is that for many women such sights stir up feelings of grief, sadness, stress, depression, anxiety, trauma flashbacks and even guilt, shame and anger due to the wound of having previously experienced a stillbirth.

The definition of a stillbirth does vary slightly from country to country, but in Australia the term applies to ‘the birth of a baby who has died any time from 20 weeks into the pregnancy through to the due date of birth. The baby may have died during pregnancy or during the birth. If the gestational age of the baby is unknown, the birth will be considered a stillbirth if the baby weighs more than 400 grams.’[1]

While I didn’t dwell obsessively on the subject of stillbirth, it was nonetheless always lurking at the back of my mind while I was going through my own pregnancies and preparing for the births. However I was aware there seemed to be an unwritten rule that stillbirth was a closed subject and any fears were to be kept to myself even when speaking with medical professionals. This left me relying on the limited information available in pregnancy and birthing books and other media sources.

That was many years ago, yet my professional experience tells me that little has changed with stillbirth remaining a socially taboo subject unless it’s absolutely unavoidable. It’s as if we pin our trust in the belief that if we don’t mention the subject, we are somehow protecting ourselves from joining the dreaded circle of parents ‘out there’ who have experienced a stillbirth. Unfortunately, by attempting to protect ourselves in this way we set up walls which keep us oblivious to just how common stillbirth is when in fact the chances are high that we know or have met someone who has experienced such a pregnancy loss.

Statistics show that in high income countries one in every 160 births ends in a stillbirth, and in the USA more than 26,000 women experience a stillbirth each year[2][3]. Australian statistics are equally revealing:

  • There are six stillborn babies born each day
  • One in 135 births will be stillborn, yet the cause of many of these deaths will never be known
  • For every baby that dies of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), 35 are stillborn
  • Despite enormous technological and medical advances, the rate of stillborn babies has not declined in two decades
  • Stillbirth is more likely to occur with women under 20 years of age and with women 40 years of age or more
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are twice as likely to have a stillbirth as other women [1][4].

Understandably, in the vast majority of cases it’s a very distressing period for parents, friends and family and also for the medical staff involved around the time of the stillbirth. This is especially so when no one has had time to prepare for this outcome and/ or there is no medical cause found for why the baby has died and, or the mother has done everything right in terms of antenatal health care, but the death has occurred anyway.

Social support is extremely important and makes a big difference in how parents manage the impact of the pregnancy loss. Various support organisations, often run by people who themselves have experienced a stillbirth, offer a great service, but it can take some time, if ever, before people feel ready to access these agencies. Parents usually want to firstly turn to the informal support available through family and friends. Yet, this isn’t always possible, especially if the mother was socially isolated to begin with or the child died earlier in the pregnancy before others may perhaps have even know the woman was pregnant[5].

What I’ve noticed however, is that seeking support can yield very mixed results and in many societies we don’t appear to be able to bear grief and loss – our own or that of another. Couples can struggle as men tend to be reluctant to talk about feelings and emotions, while women have often felt more strongly bonded with the baby due to the pregnancy experience and therefore may relate to the loss at a level their partners can find hard to understand[3][5].

Healthy grieving is further complicated when there are other children in the family to care for and support with their own grieving process; my professional experience has shown me that this role tends to generally fall to the mother as the presumed care-taker of these needs. Then there are those women who don’t have a partner and haven’t told anyone that they were pregnant in the first place …

When women do turn to others, mothers often tell me how isolating and upsetting it is for them when family and friends struggle to know how to act and manage their discomfort by avoiding the mother or couple for a period of time. Alternately, if they do have contact, they carefully sidestep the subject completely. What adds to the problem is the way many people perceive the loss as somehow not really the same as other experiences of death because the baby didn’t live and breathe outside the womb and therefore the parents should quickly get over what’s happened and move on in their lives[5]. What then happens is that mothers are offered sympathy in the form of the following types of statements:

  • ‘it was God’s will’
  • ‘it wasn’t meant to be’
  • ‘there must have been something wrong with it so it’s better that the child has died’
  • ‘at least you have the other children’, or
  • ‘at least you know you can get pregnant’.

Well-meaning as these comments are, I’ve never yet heard a woman tell me that they were helpful.

Regardless of which approach is taken, we all know what it feels like when we have something major happen in our lives and those around us minimise, justify or avoid talking about what has occurred. The other person may feel like they have done a good job by offering solutions to ‘getting over’ the death of the baby as quickly as possible, but in reality their good intentions have the opposite effect.

I’ve found women are left feeling they need to harden/toughen up and present a ‘getting on with life and putting what has happened behind me’ façade to the world, despite what they are feeling on the inside. Unfortunately, all this does is bury the grief rather than offer any true healing.

What I have also observed is the high level of self-blame that women usually go into, even if a medical cause for the death can be found. Mothers speak about all the possible ways they feel they may have contributed to the outcome. Guilt, shame, anger and regret then linger like a black cloud over them and the self-questioning is endless, going around and around in circles in their head without resolution. A common thread amongst these mothers is a deep-seated self-loathing and even hatred for their bodies which they feel have let them down during the pregnancy and birth. These harsh thoughts, feelings and emotions set up a divide between themselves and their perceptions of ‘real’ women who apparently fall pregnant and sail through pregnancy and birth without complication. Moreover, women talk about the jealousy, comparison and sadness they feel when they see pregnant women and mothers with their babies as they are reminded of their loss and seeming dismal failure as a woman and a mother. Not surprisingly, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal ideation frequently surface following stillbirth[2][4][6].

Unfortunately, what we are seeing here is the outplay of society’s deeply entrenched pictures around what constitutes womanhood and the way motherhood is placed on a pedestal as essential proof of a woman’s value.

There is still a persistent belief that motherhood is the end-game plan for women, which is conveyed through families intergenerationally, the media, governments, culture, religion and so forth. Subsequently, not only is the woman disempowered by her struggle to cope with and understand what has happened; she is also being held prisoner, usually unknowingly, by all the motherhood beliefs and ideals she has absorbed over time.

"First feel the vibration, not look at the offered picture –
this approach will reveal what is true and what is simply creation."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume III, ed 1, p 65

The answer to easing these sorts of tensions is often seen as falling pregnant again as soon as possible, but research suggests that this actually heightens the risk of increased levels of depression and anxiety[4]. Listening to women’s stories over a number of years, I’ve found that a new pregnancy in itself is a double-edged sword as it creates a new level of anxiety and stress due to fears about having another stillbirth[4]. Medical monitoring is also routinely much higher when mothers have a history of stillbirth and, while it can be reassuring on the one hand, on the other hand it also brings with it the constant reminder of what happened previously and a frequent need for women to keep re-telling their story to various medical professionals, which in turn keeps refreshing the old grief and trauma wounds[4].

Added to the above, I’ve noticed that with the chief focus on biomedical concerns, there is generally little attention paid to the psychosocial side of things antenatally unless the woman’s behaviours become so extreme that people can’t ignore them, e.g. having panic attacks at clinic visits. Similarly, post-natal support isn’t routinely considered, yet this is a time when mothers are often oscillating between wanting to love and give their all to caring for their new baby, while also remembering their lost child. All in all, it can be an overwhelming, confusing, guilt ridden, isolating and disempowering time, with the door wide open for various new or increased physical and/ or mental health problems.

Given all the above, and particularly knowing that many of the coping remedies we turn to don’t work and are in fact harmful – e.g. refusal to leave the home, new/increased drug and alcohol use, binge eating or restricting food intake – the question that naturally arises is, what will support true healing? The various types of medical, pharmaceutical and allied health multidisciplinary services can all assist in their own ways. But not all women have access to these services and furthermore, sole reliance on these facilities can create a perception that women don’t have the capacity to take the lead role with regards to their own health and healing after a pregnancy loss.

The grief is real and there is no quick fix. However, there is always a capacity for self-love inside everyone which can be nurtured through a connection to our bodies.

"Healing is about discarding what is not love
so that you can feel the fact that you are love."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume I, ed 1, p 617

Connecting inwardly through our bodies asks for honesty, curiosity and a willingness to be self-caring. It’s always a work-in-progress type of venture involving a different process of self-discovery for everyone, yet I’ve witnessed similar transformations amongst women I’ve worked with, irrespective of their background story. Some of the practical ways mothers have built a more loving, caring self-relationship have been through:

  • Ceasing/decreasing tobacco, alcohol and other drug use
  • Opting out of various social media sites to avoid unnecessary emotional drama
  • Claiming a right to have a say with partners and family
  • Seeking advice and/ or leaving an abusive relationship
  • Stopping, even briefly, to have a nutritious meal
  • Asking for and allowing others to help
  • Not always putting others first.

Seriously, there is no end to what can be done when someone feels they actually have both the right and responsibility to value themselves. Our bodies reflect the shifts that occur along the way, as every bit of extra care and attention they receive is registered. Perhaps it’s that we feel lighter and less reactive to things happening around us or maybe there’s an easing of former PMS symptoms or our headaches stop. We may be less bloated, or we find the quality of our sleep improves and subsequently so too does our mood. What has been quite remarkable to observe has been the way women’s self-worth has risen considerably as they realise they actually are the ones who have the ability to find the best way forward to heal their dilemmas, hurts, pain, and especially for those who have experienced a stillbirth – their grief.

Herein lies the answers to true healing, regardless of what has gone on in our lives previously or is currently happening. There are many ups and downs along the way, but our bodies are ever ready and waiting to be at our service whenever we are willing to give them the chance to be our best friend and ally.

If there is any uncertainty about why we would want to take on this level of commitment and responsibility so as to keep growing and learning about ourselves, the following analogy may help. Imagine a rose bud gently unfolding with each passing day, taking it closer and closer towards reaching its glorious full bloom – that is what is on offer for us!

"The natural essence of the flower is to bring itself out in full. So too is our ability to heal.

It is our natural essence to come out in full and be who we truly are."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric & Exoteric Philosophy, ed 1, p 24

From my personal experience I can share that the more I allow in self-love and take time to treat my body with respect and integrity, the easier it has become to implement lasting changes. What I’ve also found is that I can increasingly feel a preciousness and sense of delicacy within, and that there is a real sense of strength and sensitivity that is very empowering and completely different to anything I have been taught previously as representing true womanhood.

From this foundation we have nothing to fear as we are already equipped to deal with all that life presents to us, even when faced with something as major as the loss of a baby through stillbirth.

"Accept that every day can be light, love and grand. And even when it is not,
as it sometimes is the case in human life, it still is, for it’s you in it."

Serge Benhayon Esoteric Teachings & Revelations Volume II, ed 1, p 261


References:

  • [1]

    Stillbirth Foundation Australia. Understanding Stillbirth. Research and Education to Prevent Stillbirth [cited 2020 12/01/20]; Available from: http://stillbirthfoundation.org.au/stillbirth/

  • [2]

    Rouse, S. Understanding Stillbirth. Counseling Today 2019 [cited 2020 12/01/20]; Available from: https://ct.counseling.org/2019/12/understanding-stillbirth/

  • [3]

    Fretts, R.C., The Stillbirth Scandal. O&G Magazine, 2013. 15(4)

  • [4]

    Paull, C. and S. Robson, After Stillbirth, What Next? O&G Magazine, 2013. 15(4)

  • [5]

    Kelleher, R., A Holistic Approach to the Care of Parents Experiencing Perinatal Death. O&G Magazine, 2009. 11(1)

  • [6]

    Daniels, B., Mental Health After Unexpected Birth Outcomes. O&G Magazine, 2016. 18(4)

Filed under

HealingSelf-lovePregnancyMotherhoodBirth

  • By Helen Giles, Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, MMH (Family Therapy), Post Grad Cert Family Therapy & Counselling, M. EPA Recognised

    I love that life is amazing with every relationship offering constant drops of pure gold, whether that be in my work as a perinatal counsellor or through friends, family and others I meet in everyday life.

  • Photography: Dean Whitling, Brisbane based photographer and film maker of 13 years.

    Dean shoots photos and videos for corporate portraits, architecture, products, events, marketing material, advertising & website content. Dean's philosophy - create photos and videos that have magic about them.