A letter of loss and hope (*trigger warning*)

Someone very close to me just let me know that her pregnancy has ended in a miscarriage. Ugh. So feeling for her right now and wishing there was something I could say or do to ease the pain of such a loss. It’s a very sad reminder that pregnancy loss is very much a part of the pregnancy business. It’s not the part you excitedly post about on facebook or the part that gets a party thrown for it. It’s a part that many people don’t want to talk about. And it comes with a landslide of emotions and complicated feelings and can be a very lonely place.

J and I had a loss over a year ago now- a missed miscarriage at around 10 weeks that we found out about around 13 weeks.  It ended up being a long ordeal that I’ll share more about someday, but today my heart just hurts for my loved one and anyone else who is going through the same thing.

Today, I just want to share this. A letter I wrote to myself about 3 months after my miscarriage. It was one of those rough days. I felt so raw, so torn up, so broken. I didn’t know how things would play out but I hoped some future version of myself would find a way through the heartbreak. Overall this is a letter of hope, but I do want to warn you that it was also a dark, complex time for me.

And all I can say is- it DOES get better. 

It’s been almost 3 months since the miscarriage. It feels like a long time ago…. In many ways, I have “recovered”. But it many other ways it still feels like it was yesterday. I can still picture the nurse running the ultrasound, searching, searching, searching for that heartbeat.  Measuring the size of the fetus. Then turning to me and saying “I’m sorry sweetie, but I’m not finding a heartbeat.” And that weight in my heart, so heavy. Because deep inside, I already knew it was over.

Every day I think about that feeling, knowing there was life growing in me. I loved to rest my hand there, to think about what was happening inside.

The plans we’d made while I was pregnant… I’ve now done many of those things post-miscarriage. I’d pictured the Radiohead concert with my 5 months pregnant belly- but I was there post-miscarriage, beer in hand. The preggo in my department who was a month or so ahead of me- she’s due in 2 months. I had imagined the excitement of seeing her have her baby, knowing my own experience was just a couple of months away. Now I can’t even look at her belly without feeling that sinking feeling of pain and desperation. I feel like an empty vessel. 

It’s hard not to feel there is a clock ticking somewhere, a limited span of time in which the variables can align to produce a baby. I know how amazing reproduction is, given all the factors in play. The right time of month, healthy egg and sperm, cells dividing correctly… I know too much not to wonder if this will ever happen for us. And the hormones, I feel them in my chest, in my heart, surging with this need to try to get pregnant again. That I’ve healed enough and it’s time to do this again. That parents are waiting to become grandparents. That the only remaining grandparent is waiting for her great-grandchild. 

Future self, I hope for you the very best. I know you’ll find happiness, even if it comes in ways you weren’t expecting.  I don’t know if you’ll remember how heart-wrenching it feels right now, to be in this place. But I know it gets better for you. And I hope you can live in the moment- that you can be grateful for what you have and hopeful about what tomorrow will bring.  

And if it’s in the cards, and you are pregnant again as you read this, I don’t know if you’ll remember how heart-wrenching it feels right now, to be in this place. Just know just how lucky you are that, against all the odds, you have that life inside you again. And I hope you can live in the moment- that you can be grateful for what you have and hopeful about what tomorrow will bring.  

Hypnobirthing – what does science say?

http://www.hypnotism.co.uk/Cartoons/Self-hypnosis.jpg

In the previous post, I talked about how the year of 2012 has been the year of doing shit I never thought I would do. And signing up for a class called “hypnobirthing” would have been right at the top of the list had I even known such a thing existed pre-pregnancy. I mean,  I once had an anxiety attack DURING a yoga class. And Therapist M has tried to talk me through some meditation exercises a couple of times, but they’ve only made me more anxious. I don’t seem like I’d be the type of person who could achieve deep relaxation during childbirth.

So why bother? As many of my friends say, there’s no prize for having a drug-free labor. But one of my own recent medical experiences revealed to me that unnecessary medical interventions can cause more problems than they solve. In my case, one unnecessary drug created a cascade of issues that resulted in an emotionally and physically traumatic ER trip and what would have been about $10,000 in medical bills, if not for our glorious health insurance. And although I’m all for doing whatever it takes if my baby’s life is at risk, giving birth doesn’t usually involve a medical emergency. I mean, people give birth to perfectly healthy babies in caves, taxis, on airplanes, in fields… yet all kinds of seemingly unnecessary medical “things” come standard during in a hospital birth.

Anyhow, hypnobirthing came highly recommended by our midwives. The idea is that there is a culture of fear surrounding birth and that this contributes to a stressful environment during labor. Movies, TV shows, and even birth horror stories from strangers on the street all make childbirth seem scary and painful. Then all the standard poking and prodding laboring women experience further diminishes any hope for relaxation. And all this stressful input causes our fight or flight response to kick in during labor, which causes the cervix to clamp down (making the pain of contractions a hell of a lot worse) and the whole birth process to stretch out into eternity. So hypnobirthing uses principles of hypnosis (essentially, meditation) to promote relaxation and a calm environment to prevent stress, thus encouraging the body to open up and give birth on its own.

All this intuitively makes sense to me. From an evolutionary perspective,  it seems beneficial that our bodies would have a mechanism to stall labor in the event of a real or perceived life-threatening situation (like being chased by a rabid animal). And as J and I continue to practice hypnobirthing techniques, I do find myself able to be more and more relaxed each time. So whether or not hypnobirthing works for birthing, it has definitely helped minimize the take over of My Anxious Self in everyday life. But I’m still feeling skeptical. Will hypnobirthing actually help when shit hits the fan during labor? And here I’m looking for cold hard facts- do women who use hypnobirthing during labor have shorter, less painful, and simply easier labors then women who don’t use it? 

So lately I’ve been delving into the research- is there actually compelling scientific evidence that hypnobirthing works? Perhaps not surprisingly, I haven’t found loads of peer-reviewed studies about hypnobirthing. Here I’ll present the first study that popped up in google scholar and review some others next time. If you have a compelling study to recommend, let me know!

This first study is out of Australia (1) and sounds extremely promising from the abstract… they claim to have found shorter labor times, less drug-taking, and fewer c-sections in  hypnobirthing moms (based on surveys) compared to the general population. However, there are serious limitations to the study (most of which the author discloses herself). The sample size is small- around 80 for most of the stats. And instead of a proper control group (ideally, a similar subset of women who were not in the hypnobirthing program but took the same survey), they compare their results to stats from the general population. And one can think of all kinds of problems with this comparison. For example, the study suggests that hypnobirthing can play a role in minimizing c-sections: 22% of individuals in the study had c-sections compared to a general public rate of 38.4%. But what role does the actual hypnobirthing play here? Hypnobirthers are probably less likely to have a c-section even if the techniques themselves are useless. For example, a woman who already knows she’ll get a c-section (for whatever reason) probably wouldn’t bother signing up for a hypnobirthing class in the first place.

In general, this study contains a LOT of qualitative statements about the benefits of hypnobirthing but not a lot of numbers to back up the claims. And because there’s no control group, much of the information collected in the survey seems compelling but it’s hard to know what to make of it. For example, women were asked to address their discomfort level during labor and the author finds an average of 5.8 out of 10. This seems pretty good… except without a comparison to a non-hypnobirthing group, how can we know? And participants who opted for an epidural are excluded from this average.  I imagine their pre-epidural discomfort would increase this average substantially.

In the end, I didn’t find any rigorous scientific evidence in this study that women who use hypnobirthing during labor have shorter, less painful, and simply easier labors than women who don’t use it.

But… that doesn’t mean it’s not out there. And I’m willing to give it a go, sample size = 1.  

(1) Phillips-Moore, J. (2012). Birthing outcomes from an Australian Hypnobirthing Prgramme. British Journal of Midwifery, Vol. 20, Iss. 8, pp 558 – 564.

Some of the best of 2012

Indeed. Especially when half caffeinated.    (Image: zazzle.com)

It’s nearly the end of 2012, and it’s definitely been a year of ups and downs. This morning, I have been reflecting on some of the positives of 2012:

I officially became a PhD candidate

I had a blast vacationing/conferencing in the UK over the summer

I turned the big 30

I have experienced all the fun of Little V so far, and have been pregnant for nearly 2/3 of 2012

It’s been an eventful year! And it’s been a year dominated by, of course, science and babies. Pregnancy has resulted in some serious lifestyle changes. Some are predictable, like no booze. And yes, when you are a grad student (or a someone surrounded by other someones who just love the stuff), not drinking is an adjustment. But others were a complete surprise to me. And I have definitely changed in ways I never would have predicted.

So, with these big changes in mind, here are a few things that babies and science could NOT have lived without this year:

1. THE HALF CAFF/HALF DECAF COFFEE

I know, I know. Many pregnant women swear off coffee their entire pregnancy. But here I made a compromise- after reading some of the studies tentatively linking caffeine to miscarriage, I did drastically cut down to about 1.5-2 caffeinated cups a day. One thing that did help tremendously was that I realized that the routine of consumption was just as important as the little boost of caffeine itself. I simply love getting up in the morning and enjoying a couple of cups of coffee or meeting a friend for a latte in the afternoon. So rather than ration out the volume, I made an executive decision to trick my mind (and J’s). I switched to making half caff/half decaf in the morning. And honestly, I can hardly tell the difference. And because I only have about a cup of caffeine in the morning, I had no guilt about enjoying the occasional single shot latte in the afternoon.

2. THE BODY PILLOW

This one is a little more recent but was definitely a game changer. As an avid stomach sleeper, pregnancy made sleep difficult for me. You basically have to sleep on your side, and preferably your left side. For a month or so I used an assortment of pillows for between my knees, below my hips and my head. This definitely helped but I struggled to sleep for more than a couple of hours at a time and I could rarely get in more than 6 hours a night.  Because I was getting up at strange hours to study for my general exam, these bad nights of sleep were crushing. And my usual solution to tiredness was now severely limited (refer to #1). After a particularly rough night, I was having a nice little Saturday at BB&B and I remembered my sister’s praises of the body pillow for pregnancy. It was the best $20 I’ve ever spent. Other than getting up to pee several times in the night, I am in a dead sleep while bear-hugging that thing. I call it my boyfriend and J knows better than to get between us.

3. THE ELECTRONIC LAB NOTEBOOK

I honestly don’t know- does anyone still use a paper lab notebook? A couple years ago I made the switch from paper to having a new word document for every month. Having all my lab notebooks accessible at any time from home has really freed me up to do some work from home. And this kind of flexibility has been awesome as I get fatter and lazier by the day.

4. THE GOOD BLENDER

Until Taco Time and cupcakes start counting as health food, I have never been very good at eating healthy and this makes you feel really guilty when you are pregnant. When my midwife told me to steer clear of the salad bar at work, my fresh fruit/veggie consumption pretty much tapered off to the occasional apple and a few cherry tomatoes. Then I learned that I could combine all these gross healthy veggies (like kale and spinach) into a blender with delicious fruit (strawberries, raspberries, peaches) along with other healthy stuff (like flax seed, nuts, plain yogurt) into a blender and I would get a drink that tastes pretty much like strawberries. I now make a couple of these a day. The trick is a good blender- I splurged on a NutriBullet but any blender that can actually crush up frozen fruit will do. I feel awesome after drinking one of these things. I also get the satisfaction of being, for the first time in my life, one of those people who actually consumes the proper amount of fresh fruits and vegetables (humble brag!).

That’s all for now. Happy New Year!

35 weeks… but who’s counting?

Happy holidays!

It was absolute bliss to take 5 straight days off of work! J and I also had a pre-Christmas “treat yo-self” weekend at a lodge not far from the city. I enjoyed a pregnancy massage (wowza!) and ate several bags of peanut brittle. The beauty of being not far from home was that we felt zero pressure to go explore the outside world. We were like 2 little bears, holed up for winter in our room.

Our little vacation was perfectly timed since last week My Anxious Self was on high alert. The past few months, Therapist M has been pointing out that I may have some trouble setting attainable goals for myself and being realistic, which provides some pretty fertile soil for anxiety. Perfect example- time. If I have a 9am meeting, for example, I completely underestimate the time that it takes to wake, shower, get ready, get the bus, and arrive at on time. My first instinct is to give myself an hour because an hour feels like a long time. What actually happens is I am barely out the door at 8:50 am. I’m drenched in stress sweats and hoping that this one time the 15 minute bus ride will only take 5 minutes.

I have set some similarly ambitious goals for myself about wrapping up lab work before little V comes. And reality has started to sink in- within the next 5 weeks, I’ll  (probably) be having this baby. I’d been hoping to find a really clean stopping place for my 2 projects before leaving. Actually, let’s be honest, I’ve been hoping to make incredible progress- to nearly finish one project (maybe I can write a manuscript on maternity leave!) and make a few months worth of headway on the other project in the next few weeks. And what’s that phrase again- crazy people do the same thing over and over and expect different results?

Setting lofty goals comes from a good place, I think. I want to push myself (and impress my advisor, sure). But the result is that most days I feel like a failure. And with each failure, it’s almost as if I can see the time it will take to get my PhD extending before my eyes- I will still be here in 8 years if this PCR fails again! Not logical, but all the same, it feels so real.

So my goal for today is to set some REALISTIC goals for myself for the next few weeks. First trick is coming to understand what “realistic” means- can I accurately estimate how long things might take? And the second trick is to make these goals very flexible. If the baby comes early or my ankles swell to the size of tree trunks and I can’t walk, I do not want to be obsessing over plasmid transformations. I want to put dissertation baby in the corner- just for a little while- and enjoy this crazy adventure of having a baby.

 

Pregnancy dreams- and my possible sexism.

Oh, the 80’s.

Before I was even pregnant, I would have a recurring dream that went something like this- I would suddenly realize I had a baby (or several). I would be excited yet terrified. I would then find myself somewhere away from said baby(ies) and panic would set in as I realized that I had forgotten about baby(ies) and that they were alone and probably hungry, scared, etc. Panic stricken, I would spend the rest of the dream trying to get home and/or properly dial a phone to reach someone that could help me. (Why is it so hard to operate a phone in a dream?!?!). Of course, I would wake up having never reached home after many frustrating attempts to get there.

My dreams have gotten incredibly vivid as I get closer and closer to meeting little V and just last night I had a replay of “The baby dream”. Except, for the first time ever, I actually got myself to the hospital, gave birth (hypnobirthing worked great I’m happy to report!), and even successfully breast fed the little bugger. Then I left the hospital ALONE and suddenly, I was at a conference in Minnesota with my advisor, frantically trying to call J to get an update on our hours-old infant. Then a long procession of frustrating things happened, as usual- I get ahold of the neighbor who tells me our baby cries all the time. This makes me feel so sad. I get ahold of J who is out and about without the baby, seemingly unaware that babies cannot be left alone in the house. I am screaming into the phone at him about this, and adding other advice like “make sure he sleeps on his back!” and “he has to eat every 3 hours!”. And the whole time I am also trying to operate a computer to buy a plane ticket home because, what the hell am I doing at a conference when I just had a baby? And, I wake.

I feel like “The baby dreams: versions 1 and 2” must be about my anxiety over balancing baby life with the other life compartments (Venn Diagrams!). And it’s hard to disregard this fear- it’s pretty legit. It will be hard. I worry that I’ll feel guilty that one baby or the other (little V or dissertation) are suffering from a lack of attention. Both babies and grad school are more than full-time gigs. I’ll have to make sacrifices.

But “The baby dream: Version 2” also reveals something a little more disturbing- that I seem to regard myself as the only capable parent. In reality, I have an incredible husband and we plan on splitting up parental duties 50/50. In my dream, I have to reprimand J about leaving the baby home alone. Wow. Really psyche? In my dream, I seem to be the only one with any parenting common sense and J is useless.

I’m now trying to figure out if there are parts of me that really, genuinely, feel like I know best when it comes to looking after little V.  I’m used to being around families where the duties are largely defined by gender: mom stays home and takes care of babies/house, dad works. Both J and I grew up in families where things operated this way. So probably some gender biases have seeped into my subconscious. I’m also a child of the 80’s where there were no shortage of TV shows/films about the hilarious consequences of men *trying* to take care of babies. Does a part of me doubt that a man can be just as wonderful a nurturer as a lady?

The Venn Diagram.

Sometimes it is so satisfying to compartmentalize. How do I define myself and what I am about? Where do these things overlap and where are they distinct? And as a grad student in science with a baby on the way, this particular Venn diagram probably comprises 90% of my head space.

Little V has been cooking for almost 34 weeks now (!) and I’m both excited and terrified to discover how this baby changes, well, everything? In addition to being a science grad, I’m a wife of almost 5 years to husband J, lover of big city living, and at times, casually creative (an enthuastic but range-limited karaoke singer and recent owner of a sewing machine). I can trend a tad anxious/obsessive- a character I’ll play occasionally to frequently that Therapist M and I affectionately refer to as “my anxious self” (MAS). I hear many new parents discover they have an “anxious self” as well, so I figure I’m already a step ahead in that area.

I feel like being a scientist has, in some ways, prepared me for this baby. I think this is where these 2 compartments interesect. I already know my way around strange sleep schedules. And no scientist is a stranger to the maddening frustration when NOTHING seems to be working (your baby just won’t sleep/poop/eat/behave the way you envision). Then there are those rare “Champagne time!” moments when experiments come together or grants come through and you are in awe of how your dissertation/project/experiment (baby) has advanced to the next level. But science, thankfully, has little tolerance for subjectivity and emotion in its method. It demands cold-hard data and rigorous controls. And the whole parenting thing, where instinct and hormones rule, seems so very disparate from the scientific way of thinking. I can’t wait to see how these two worlds blend- and don’t- in the next year ahead.