Several years ago my mom’s friend recommended I read “The Untethered Soul: A Journey Beyond Yourself.” It’s a beautiful book about the relationship between your thoughts and emotions and your true self. I read it after each of my last three losses, and it helped me experience my grief without being consumed by it. I pulled it out again this week, because the Covid-19 crisis has challenged my sense my control and triggered old anxieties. One of my first notations in the book was this line: In the name of attempting to hold the world together, you’re really just trying to hold yourself together. It brilliantly explains the mental gymnastics I often perform to rationalize uncomfortable or inexplicable situations.
Nowhere was this futile exercise so evident than in my fertility journey. After every pregnancy I meticulously retraced my actions, desperately seeking a reason for the loss. If I had a reason, then there was something I could do, something I could change in the future. I had done everything my doctors told me, yet they could offer no clear explanations, so the only thing I could come back to was myself. I mentally flogged myself for past misbehavior: “I should have ordered decaf;” “I shouldn’t have taken that hike;” “I should have switched to glass water bottles instead of plastic.”
I felt responsible for the outcome of my pregnancies. Because everything had happened inside of me they were so personal. Every pill swallowed by my throat. Every shot absorbed by my skin. Every cramp experienced by my muscles. Every bleed seen by my eyes and exited through my womb. Childbearing is something a woman’s body is built to do, so my inability to procreate made me feel like something essential was amiss. I felt broken and I felt culpable.
Often people told me “it will happen when it’s meant to be.” But rather than allaying my pain, this instead resulted in me stuck in a philosophical and theological quagmire, stewing over questions like: “Did I do something to deserve this?” or “Does God not want me to be a mother?” I hadn’t realized that my Christian upbringing had cultivated a guilty conscience that lived in the recesses of my sanity; and I’m not even Catholic! But there it was, this terrible fear that I somehow deserved to miscarry. Because without clear answers to turn to, my guilt turned to shame and a pervasive feeling of unworthiness. At least it was an explanation.
As repentance, I tried harder. I scoured the internet for information about healthy pregnancies and modified my diet and lifestyle accordingly. I cut out dairy, gluten and sugar and considered how every bite of food I put into my mouth would impact my blood sugar and inflammation levels. I took a plethora of vitamins and herbs and even used essential oils. I tried experimental medical treatments and integrated medicine. There was little I wouldn’t consider in my efforts to get and stay pregnant. But nothing worked. I couldn’t fix it.
Slowly, I started to accept that I had little to no influence over my ability to have a baby. Even more slowly, I started to recognize that it wasn’t a personal failing. Ironically, it was a rather poignant “let go and let God” transformation realizing that I couldn’t orchestrate my life the way I wanted. It was also the breakthrough I needed to begin dismantling my guilt and process my grief.
The Untethered Soul says that every experience of our body is an expenditure of energy. The energy “first tries to release by manifesting through the mind,” as it had done during my frantic search for answers, “then tries to release through the heart [which] is what creates all the emotional activity,” as it had done by wearing a mantle of shame and unworthiness. The challenge is to allow the energy to flow rather than trying to block it or being swept away by it. I imagine a swimmer in a river who rather than fighting against the current or riding it downstream, paddles to bank where she can wade calmly and watch the water flow.
At this point I (mostly) accept that I did nothing to cause my miscarriages and I (usually) can quiet the voice that questions my worthiness of being a mother. But I still often wish I knew why. Why did I lose so many pregnancies? Why couldn’t medicine figure it out? Another line I noted in the book says: The truth is that most of life will unfold in accordance with forces far outside your control, regardless of what your mind says about it … there is no reason to constantly attempt to figure everything out. With that in mind, the only thing I can do is continue to sit with this discomfort, and not let it keep me from moving forward.