I clamped my hands over my ears as the obstetrician cranked up the volume on the ultrasound machine. After three pregnancy losses, I was convinced that we’d be met only with static.
“I think you’re going to want to hear this,” the doctor said. And there was the unmistakable drumming of my son’s heart.
At that moment, I promised myself that I would always be grateful for this baby, and for my body that found a way to grow with him. And yet, when it’s 4:58 a.m. and I’m awakened by him bellowing for potato chips and cartoons, parenting can feel tedious, lonely and exhausting.
I often find myself asking: How can parents like me, who have struggled with infertility or pregnancy loss, reconcile gratitude for having a child at all with the everyday frustrations of parenthood?
When I had a video call with Loree Johnson, a therapist based in Hermosa Beach, Calif., who specializes in infertility and loss, to begin unpacking that question, she was draped in a rainbow-themed nursing cover and was holding the serene yet alert infant she delivered after three miscarriages and one pregnancy terminated for medical reasons. Though we were strangers, we spoke with the intimacy of mothers who had just crawled out of a foxhole together.
Dr. Johnson observed that many of her patients with living children preface darker comments about parenting with the phrase: “I’m really grateful but …”
Parents can find themselves jumping through verbal hoops to avoid seeming insensitive to those who have been through the same sad journey. “When you are part of a community bound by loss and its heaviness, there is some concern for what your experience is like for others,” Dr. Johnson said.
Everyone needs someone to commiserate with about the tougher moments of child rearing, she added. It’s important to seek out friends who provide that mental safe space. “Those are people that know you’re grateful, and that talking about challenging feelings doesn’t mean that you’re not,” she said.
Jay Tansey of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, found that being a sounding board for others helped him process the loss of his full-term daughter Bella in 2017. Mr. Tansey’s best friend also lost a baby. “We formed an informal group my friend dubbed the Sad Dads Club, an ever-growing network of guys who’ve lost children,” he said. The men know one another’s stories and provide comfort on the birthdays of the children they lost.
Mr. Tansey and his wife, Elly Pepper, paid out of pocket for therapy sessions soon after Bella died — a financial burden for them at the time. He credits therapy with helping him to separate the loss of Bella from his more lighthearted, hope-filled experience of parenting their three living children.
“When we lost Bella, one of the least helpful comments made was how I should be happy with what we had — a healthy, wonderful 2-year-old,” Ms. Pepper said. The remark threw her into a shame-spiral, she added, making her question whether her grief and desire to have more children were negatively affecting her parenting.
Now her perspective has shifted: “I can be grateful for my kids, and it can be hard,” she said. “I can treasure the children I have but wish Bella were here.”
Dr. Pooja Lakshmin, a psychiatrist based in Austin, Texas, and the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform focused on women’s mental health, said that “it is 100 percent normal to feel conflicted about parenthood even if you went through hell to become a parent.”
“The gratitude can be there buried inside of you,” she added, “even when the most prominent feeling you have at this moment is sheer rage because your toddler is driving you insane.”
Heather Camarillo, who lives with her family in Southern California, documents the highs and lows of parenthood on Instagram. Many of her followers are dealing with infertility or child loss. She and her wife, Jess Camarillo, welcomed their son Bowie in March after enduring multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization and ultimately adopting three embryos.
But Heather has never posted online about the postpartum depression she experienced after bringing Bowie home from the hospital. “The only person I even told was my wife,” she said. “I just felt I should not be feeling this way. After everything we’ve been through, why should I have any kind of depression?”
In addition to steady support from Jess, Heather found healing in social media posts and comments from other mothers, some of whom also struggled to become parents. “Reading those stories really helped me, because I knew at that point I was not alone.”
Kristin Jones from Wayne, Pa., felt alone for a long time, too. Already the mother of a toddler son, she was 39 weeks pregnant with her second child, Kalliope. While filling out a baby book in anticipation, she realized she hadn’t felt any movement in her belly that day. She rushed to the hospital the next morning. “We went in and found out that the baby was dead,” she said. “There hadn’t been any red flags, so it was really shocking.”
She miscarried another baby before delivering a daughter, who had significant digestive issues and was constantly crying. An avid runner, Ms. Jones craved the release of exercise but felt too guilty to work out. “You can’t strap a screaming child into a jogger and go out without feeling like people are staring at you and judging,” she said.
Nowadays, when a fun excursion with her son isn’t going smoothly, she says she wonders: “Should I be doing something different so that I’m maximizing my time with him? I’m so lucky to have him.” She’s found relief in repeating an affirmation to herself: “Parenting is hard and not every moment of being a parent is going to be worth savoring.”
I’ve recently found comfort in expressing similar thoughts out loud and in confiding in a mom friend who also stumbled through infertility. We huddle on my lawn, complaining about the impossibility of juggling work, elementary school and tantrums while gushing about our kids. Our contradictory feelings are as mismatched as a sock drawer.
I can hold it all — the jagged grief that never really went away after a fourth miscarriage, the amazement of watching my son climb to the top of the jungle gym that first time, and the cheerlessness of rushing to the morning school bus in the November frost.
Danna Lorch is a freelance writer and mother of one.