A couple of weeks ago, it was my birthday. I started planning the day a month in advance, and I was really looking forward to it. I was planning to take the entire day off work and only do relaxing and enjoyable things.
The Birthday Plan
In the morning, I’d get a massage. I looove a good massage.
Then, my husband and I would have a relaxed, romantic lunch together.
Afterwards, I’d go to a café, drink some tea, eat some cake, and read my book. By myself!!! Two hours for me with my book. Pure indulgence!
As I mentioned last week, I’m pregnant (now 29 weeks)! We’re very happy about this baby, and we’re hoping everything goes well. Today, I’d like to talk about what it’s been like trying to conceive after a loss.
We have a three-year-old son, and when we decided to start trying for another baby, we experienced two losses: one at 21 weeks in December 2021, and one at 7 weeks in June 2022. The first loss was devastating. The second one happened early in the pregnancy, so it’s very common (unlike the first one), but it was still sad. And since it came after the first loss, it was extra heavy.
After the first loss, everyone said, “Next time will be fine. You’ll see.” And I hoped that would be true, but it wasn’t, and that made things even more scary next time around.
I’m 28 weeks pregnant! (That’s a little over 6 months.) So officially into the third trimester, woohoo!
I’m feeling pretty good about it at this point, and I finally feel ready to share with people that I’m pregnant, although I started showing super early, as usual, so people who see me regularly have known for a while. If anything, when people see my belly, they expect that I’ll be having the baby anytime now. “Nope,” I say. “Another 3 months to go, almost.” “Phew,” they say, “good luck!”
The first trimester was tough for me, as it usually is. It came with the typical nausea, food cravings and aversions, poor blood sugar regulation, and fatigue. This time around, this phase was also a bit longer than usual: from week 5 until week 16. Wow, was I happy when it was finished!
Then, the second trimester came around, I had more energy, and I could eat my usual foods which made me feel good. I had stable energy and generally felt like myself again. What a difference that made!
While I was glad and grateful to be pregnant, this pregnancy was accompanied by many fears. I’ve spoken at length about how we lost our baby at 21 weeks of pregnancy in December 2021, so this fear was real until at least 24 weeks or so. What I haven’t mentioned is that we had another loss in June 2022: at 7 weeks, so much earlier but still sad.
These two losses meant that I went into this pregnancy with apprehension as well as hope. I didn’t know what would happen this time around, but I was also happy to be pregnant.
I still have 3 months to go, and there are no guarantees about how things will go, even though all indications are good. The tricky thing is that now we’re much more informed, and we know about many more things that can happen at any stage of pregnancy or birth. This means that the feeling of security (“Oh, things will go just fine for us”) is no longer there.
But I have a great deal of hope, and I have lots of gratitude. All I can do is wait; in the meantime, I can have hope and appreciate the moments when everything is going well.
I was inspired by Adele’s song Easy on Me. In my case, I need to go easy on myself.
I don’t really like going easy. I’m good at going hard and pushing through until I get results. This approach has worked well for me for a while.
Recently, I had a serious neck problem and frequent headaches, and I’ve been unable to get good sleep, which just made me more tired overall. Therefore, I had to really slow down and rest. It’s not nice, but it had to be done.
The truth is that I don’t like resting very much. It’s boring! What’s so enjoyable about lying there and doing nothing? I want to be doing stuff, to be excited, and to be experiencing new things. I don’t like being bored. (Or maybe I’m just doing resting wrong? Let me know.)
But I’ve heard of countless successful people who pushed too hard, had a burnout, and then had to reinvent their lives. I didn’t want to do that. Burnout may be inevitable sometimes, but I was actually aware of the fact that I needed to slow down before things became fully disastrous. With awareness and knowledge comes responsibility, so I sighed deeply and actually started taking breaks…
Over time, my neck problems and my headaches have begun to subside, but I still need to remember to take it easy. It is too easy to forget and go full speed again, only to hit the same roadblocks again.
Another trick I’m aiming to implement is to allow for transition time between activities. Often I run from one activity to the next, making sure my day is maximally productive and jam-packed. But that means I tend to be stressed about running late and cannot allow myself to take an extra minute or two if needed.
Unfortunately, this means I may be snappy or irritated with my closest people, usually my husband and my son. This isn’t nice for anybody, and I’d rather be more at ease in order to bring a more peaceful energy to our home.
So I’ll try to build in transition time (5 to 10 minutes) between activities as well as underplan my day as a whole. Think I can do these three tasks in an hour? Plan on doing two. Expect this task to take two hours to complete? Plan for two and a half.
As much as I don’t like going easy, that is what I’ll be aiming to do this year. I’ll allow myself time to rest, I’ll underplan my days/weeks/months, and I’ll allow for transition time.
Okay, so I’ve been freaking out a little bit lately.
My PhD defense is coming up in 4.5 weeks. It will be fine. No biggie.
And I started my business where I’d like to coach people on designing their lifestyle, setting priorities, and reaching their goals. Will it go well? No idea.
I’ve been looking forward to these events for years, but they’re scary nevertheless. I spent 8 years at the Donders (2 years for my master’s and 6 years for my PhD), so leaving the institute marks a big transition. Change is exciting and stressful, both at the same time.
My #1 tool
I’ve discovered that the best way to calm myself is by putting things in perspective. It works like a charm, but the key is to really see things in perspective, to really feel it.
I ask myself, “What is my #1 priority?”
Answer: “My family.”
Follow-up question: “Are we all okay right now? Are we all healthy? Is any of us in danger?”
Answer: “Actually, we’re all fine.”
Conclusion: “The most important thing is there. The rest will be fine.”
We’ve been in and out of hospitals during the last year, and we’ve lost several close friends and family members. Life puts things in perspective like nothing else.
This is the most powerful tool for me, but unfortunately, you can’t hack it. I’ve tried to use it in the past, and I just didn’t feel it. I thought, “Yeah, yeah, we’re fine, big deal. I’m still stressed!” But recently, something shifted. I guess it’s gratitude for things being just normal.
My #2 tool
This tool is super simple. It has to do with the present moment.
I’m standing in my kitchen, freaking out about my defense. I ask myself, “Right now, in this moment, am I okay?”
Answer: “Well, yeah, the defense is 4.5 weeks away, so I’m actually okay right now. I don’t have to defend my thesis right now.”
This works in most situations. Even when I’m on the podium during the defense, I can ask myself, “Am I okay right now?”
Most likely the answer will be: “Well, yeah, right now, I’m answering a question kind of alright, so I guess I’m okay.”
Most of the time, our fear is about the future, but in fact in this current moment, we are okay.
My #3 tool
This tool recognizes that there are different parts of me and that I have different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.
For instance, one part of me is scared, and another part of me is excited.
One part of me doubts whether I’ll make it (e.g., the defense, the business, being a good mom, etc.), and another part of me knows it will be fine somehow.
Both parts of me are there. Both things are true.
I find this super calming for some reason. The fear is not any more true than the excitement or the joy. Both are true. (Btw I got this idea from Dr. Becky Kennedy.)
What are your favorite tools for when you’re freaking out, stressed, or anxious? I’d love to hear!
Up until a week ago, I’d never been away from my son William for more than a day. For two years and three months, I’d always woken up in the morning and found him there, either next to me or in the other room, as he got “older.”
This probably wouldn’t have been the case if it weren’t for Covid. William was born four months before Covid started, so his two years of life have been affected by the changes. I’d have gone to several conferences already, but they all got canceled. I didn’t go on any non-family trips, and when we visited Bulgaria (twice for the last two years), William came with me, so we were always together.
Shall we travel to South Africa?
Recently, the restrictions for traveling to and from South Africa were lifted. Jacob is from South Africa and his family lives there, so he was enthusiastic to go there after not having visited them for four years. It would also be a great experience for William to visit his grandma and grandpa, aunt and uncle, and to meet his cousin. Also, it’s summer right now in South Africa, giving him the opportunity to soak up the sun, play in the little pool, and eat exotic (for me) fruit – what a dream!
My heart tightened as I realized I wouldn’t be able to go with them. For visa-related reasons, I wouldn’t be able to travel with them. Could I really let William go so far away from me for ten days? I wanted to let them go in order to have this amazing experience. Yet, I didn’t know if I could bear missing them so much.
We bought their plane tickets one week before their departure date (crazy!), and we packed their bags. The anticipation was the worst part for me. I was wondering how the flight would go and how William would adjust to being there. At the same time, I know he’s crazy about his dad (in fact, papa is currently the preferred parent, and mama is taken for granted a bit, but I’m okay with that and I’m taking it as a sign of secure attachment), so he’d be happy to be with his dad all day for ten days. And Jacob’s family in South Africa would be overjoyed to have William there and would take care of him all the time. Thus, I wasn’t too worried about them.
Saying goodbye was tough. I drove with them to the airport and went with them to the check-in desk to help with William and with the luggage. When they were ready to head to the gate, we said goodbye, and that was the hardest moment for me. William didn’t quite understand why I was saying bye bye to him, and he had a confused look on his face as they walked away, Jacob holding him in his arms. He didn’t cry, but he just kept looking at me over his father’s shoulder until they disappeared from view into the crowd.
I walked back to where we had parked the car. It was strange, almost eerie. I was now a single woman walking down the airport hallways, just as I had been ten years ago traveling back and forth to the US two-three times per year. Almost every time I traveled to or from Bulgaria to the US, I flew via Amsterdam, so I knew Schiphol airport so well. It was a weird throwback to be walking here again now first with my husband and son and then without them. Ten years ago, I had been a young woman walking down those corridors full of ambition, enthusiasm, and a desire to prove myself, while also full of fear. Today, I was there again, more confident and secure in myself, my husband, and my son, but also felt sad to have let them go and felt emptiness in the place of enthusiasm.
Fun, but strange
The first few days were tough. I missed them terribly–there’s no other way to put it. But I was also really excited about having time for myself! It had been forever since I had ten days for myself, and I was going to make the most out of them. I allowed myself to be sad when I felt sad, but I also did lots of fun things.
During that first weekend by myself, I went out to dinner with a friend, I did a tutorial for no-heat overnight curls (totally didn’t work for me, my hair was straight again within 2 hours), went for a hike in the sunny forest, and even went to the sauna (spa center) for a day! How cool is that?! I was supposed to go with a friend, but she got ill the night before (so unfortunate!). I still ended up having an amazing time! I spent eight hours going into saunas and swimming pools, attending meditation “classes” in the sauna, having an amazing dinner there, and reading my book in the relax area. I have to say it was a little bit lonely because Jacob and I used to go to saunas together and I missed him, but it was still wonderful.
As nice as my fun experiences were, I felt a bit lost. I felt like I was constantly forgetting something important, or that something was not quite right. I think it was an adjustment, and I needed some time to get used to the new situation.
Weekdays by myself
Monday came along, and I focused on work. Now that we’re allowed to physically go to work, I used the opportunity to be there in person. I got myself to get up on time, promptly get ready, and be at work by 9:00. This gave me a good three hours of focused work where I read papers and wrote parts of my PhD thesis. Frankly, I was amazed at the progress I was able to make in a week.
I realized why I was able to make this happen. When William is around, I get him dressed, give him breakfast, and bring him to daycare. As much as I love my time with him, this simply takes time: time that I was now able to use to write. Simple, but I’m glad I was able to harness this to make the most out of my time by myself.
Then, I had lunch with colleagues every workday. I’d forgotten how much fun that was! When working from home, I’d just keep reading papers or answering emails while I ate lunch. Now, I actually went down to the canteen and talked to people. Ah, the perks of ordinary life!
After some more work in the afternoon, I’d go home and exercise or cook–whatever was on the schedule for that day. Then, at the time when I’d usually pick up William from daycare, I went for a walk to the Goffert park. Luckily, the weather was gorgeous this past week, so these walks were lovely. I did feel a pang of sadness when I saw parents pushing their children in a stroller, but at that moment I was doing my own thing and enjoying it.
In the evenings, I’d have dinner, watch a TV series (how decadent!), shower, and read. Watching an episode of a series felt super luxurious to me because I don’t often do that. It was just something fun I did because I wanted to. I usually spend time with William in the evenings, playing with his cars, building puzzles, reading to him, and putting him to bed. I will be happy when he’s back and we can do those things together, but I also enjoyed the me-time I had now.
It was also nice to take uninterrupted showers. Usually, William comes in five times while I’m showering because he can open and close the door now, and he loves doing it. Then, we end up playing peek-a-boo since he thinks I’m hiding behind the shower curtain. That’s adorable, and I miss his little face! But it is also meditative to be able to take a shower uninterrupted, all by myself.
I should also say that I spoke to the men several times every day. They were doing excellent, and it was great to see how much fun they were having. I didn’t have to worry about them at all, and my mind was at ease.
It’s funny that this combination of simple routine and decadent me-time (watching Netflix) worked so well for me. A weekend packed with fun and relaxation was nice, but it was so out of the ordinary that I didn’t feel grounded and felt like I was forgetting something important the entire time. While on the days when I combined work, fun, and self-care, I felt the best. This just goes to say that we don’t need our days to be extraordinary; we just need them to contain the right ingredients to create the lives that we want to live according to our own design.
The last few days
I have my last weekend alone now (the men are coming back on Sunday morning). I have four social activities planned in three days, and I’m very much looking forward to them! At the same time, I’m looking forward to the arrival of my men. I can’t wait to drive to the airport on Sunday morning and pick them up! I’ll enjoy my me-time now, and then I’ll enjoy being with them when they’re here. And then I’ll get interrupted the whole time by “mama, mama, mama,” but that’s quite alright.
It’s been eight weeks now since my pregnancy ended and we lost our baby, but it feels as though it’s been much longer. A lot has happened in these eight weeks, and at the same time not much has changed – in a sense, it’s as though life returned to what it was like pre-pregnancy. At the same time, we did go through more than half a pregnancy, so it’s not like things can just go back to the way they were before.
Taking time off
I was on sick leave for 6 weeks after the delivery in order to recover. It was like maternity leave, on the one hand, because it was after a delivery, but I didn’t have a baby to take care of, so it really didn’t feel like maternity leave. At first, I was surprised at my obstetrician’s suggestion to take sick leave (because the law doesn’t allow maternity leave until 24 weeks of gestation, and my pregnancy ended at 21 weeks). “Do I even need sick leave?” I asked. “Yes,” she insisted. “No work for 6-8 weeks.”
“Wow,” I thought, “Okay, apparently, this is a big deal.” And I’m glad I took time off. I was so exhausted those first two weeks, physically and emotionally. I look at my calendar for those days, and what do I see? “December 30 (2 days after delivery): Buy groceries.” Jacob, William, and I went and bought groceries together, and it was my first time out of the house (except for going to the hospital) in more than two weeks. It felt like such an event, and at the same time I was in a haze because of fatigue, shock, grief, etc. What a big deal it is sometimes to go out and buy groceries!
During those first weeks, I did simple things such as do some gentle movement, go for a short walk (started with 15 minutes), take a nap, talk to a friend. When I cooked a meal, I lay on the couch to rest afterwards. I also did things on my laptop such as making the annual family photo album (every year, I make an album with our favorite pictures for that year, and it’s super fun!) and the yearly review. The point is that it helped me to keep myself somewhat busy with pleasant activities and taking care of William, but I also took lots of time to take care of myself and to rest.
Beginning to work a tiny bit
After 3 weeks off, I felt I wanted to do a little bit of work again. I knew I didn’t have to, but I wanted to be making progress towards my PhD. I was still relatively tired, but I had more energy and was able to concentrate better. So I blocked out 2 hours per day (10:00-12:00) 4x per week to work on the chapter I had been writing. It seems like a very small amount of time (8 hours per week), but I was able to make some progress.
Most importantly, writing my chapter gave me the feeling that I was accomplishing something, and that’s what really mattered to me at that point. In a situation where I could control almost nothing, this was one area where I could actively focus my efforts, and that felt good.
I also made sure to do all the other things: do gentle movement, walk, nap, meditate, cook, and take care of the family. And sleep. Lots of sleep.
Returning to work
Two weeks ago, on February 14, I returned to work. It felt exciting! I had 3 months to finish my PhD, so I was (and still am) in go go go mode. Not feeling stressed, to be honest, but more in a “Let’s do this!” mindset.
Interestingly, my daily schedule remains similar to what it was before: I work (mostly write) in the mornings 4x week and avoid distractions at that time. Then, I have lunch and do some admin and tasks that require less focus. Afterwards, I cook or exercise, followed by a little walk on the way to picking up William from daycare. The self-care is still there, although I rarely take a nap anymore.
(Fun fact: It’s difficult for me to fall asleep for a nap, so I tricked myself into napping by listening to a meditation while lying in bed and falling asleep in this way. I did it every day for 50 days!!! Seriously! I got a 50-day streak in my meditation app, but since I don’t nap anymore, I’ve lost my streak… 😦 )
I’m also feeling more social again, meeting up with friends and looking forward to chatting with colleagues as well. And I’m really into watching movies!! I’m re-watching all the Harry Potter movies, then all the Matrix movies and all the X-Men movies since Jacob loves those as well. (Tangent: Maybe I’ll re-watch the Lord of the Ring movies as well because I really don’t remember what happened there. My recollection is the following: hobbits partying, Gandalf shows up, they meet some elves and some dwarves, they walk a lot, then they go fight some other people, oh, and Smeagol shows up at some point, then there’s a massive fight with lots of people, and then Frodo is standing near some fire and looking at the ring… Yeah, I think there’s more to this classic epic, and I need to discover it properly.)
Grief as a part of everyday life
What I’ve been saying so far is that life appears to have returned to normal rather quickly for me, almost too quickly. There’s fun and joy in my days, there’s purpose in my work and taking care of William, and there’s also everyday, routine stuff that need to get done. But I’d be lying if I said that was all of it.
Take this example: I’m walking down the sidewalk, and I see a pregnant woman with a big belly. I look away. Good for her, I think. I do the mental math in my head: at this point, I should have been in the 7th month, and I would have had a big belly like her. But I don’t. Keep walking. Just keep walking.
A couple of friends and I got pregnant around the same time. My due date was May 9, and theirs are in May or June. I can’t imagine what it will be like to visit them and their babies once they are born. I try not to think about that. I also try not to distance myself from those friends. They are dear friends that I care about, so I try to stay open and meet up with them. I am happy for them and their babies, and I am sad for myself and my baby. The two feelings can co-exist.
I went to the dentist for a dental clean yesterday. I noticed the dental hygienist was a bit confused, looking at my belly. “It says here you are pregnant at 29 weeks…?” “Oh,” I say, “We lost the baby at 21 weeks.” She says she is very sorry and how hard it must be. “Yes, it is very hard,” I say. “But I’m glad we already have one child, otherwise it would have been even harder.” “That’s true,” she says. “But it’s still a very big loss, and it’s very sad.” I only nod. I am grateful that she acknowledged how sad it is and that I didn’t in fact need to soften the situation or make it more comfortable for her. We just allowed it to be sad.
Last Tuesday, on the famous Twos-Day (22-2-22), we had the cremation ceremony for our baby boy. It was done together with other babies who passed away before 24 weeks of pregnancy. We, the parents, got together and walked to a beautiful place next to the crematorium and spread their ashes. There were three rocks with lovely butterflies on them to symbolize the children who didn’t make it. We got to stay there for a bit and think about our babies who would never join us in this world, whom we’d never get to watch grow up, and whose personalities we’d never get to know.
This experience hit me harder than I had anticipated. It uncovered more sadness than I knew was there. It was the last time we had contact, in some way, with our baby boy, and now he really was gone, forever.
Moving between everyday life and grief
My therapist, Linda Lansink, gave me this wonderful analogy. Imagine the infinity sign, the number eight lying on its side. Sometimes you’re living in one circle, which is everyday life, joy, fun, etc., and sometimes you’re in the other circle, which is your grief. It is healthy to be transitioning smoothly between the two circles, so normal life and grief become integrated. It can become an issue if you get stuck in one of the circles: either you are only living normal life, denying the painful experience the space it needs, or you become stuck in the grief, unable to live and enjoy life.
Life feels like the infinity sign right now, transitioning between sadness and joy, between the normalcy of life and the exceptionality of our loss. It’s strange how something as jarring as the loss of a tiny baby becomes part of life, integrated with the narratives of our lives. But that’s how it is.
For those first ten days or so after we lost our baby halfway through the pregnancy, I was in a phase I called ‘brain rewiring.’ A huge change had taken place in our lives, and my mind was struggling to get used to it.
Integrating two narratives
On the one hand, I could remember in vivid detail how I’d given birth to our tiny baby and then we’d had to say goodbye. On the other hand, I kept forgetting that I was no longer pregnant.
At one moment, I was having an intense conversation with a friend about the current state of the pandemic, totally engulfed in big thoughts about the state of the world and no thought about my personal experience. A couple of hours later, I felt such pain and grief that I threw myself on the couch and cried, all thoughts of the global pandemic forgotten.
I kept having thoughts such as, “Since I am no longer pregnant, I can drink wine again,” but they only brought me sadness. I didn’t want to be able to drink wine; I just wanted to be pregnant again.
In fact, I didn’t want to be pregnant anew, but rather I wanted to still be pregnant. I wanted to go back in time and make it as though the events of the past two weeks hadn’t happened. And then I was faced with the stone-heavy realization that that wasn’t possible. In that moment, my heart fell through the floor.
During those nights, I dreamed about a baby and a pregnancy and all sorts of related (or unrelated) things. In the dreams, I carried the sadness of losing our baby, but upon waking, for the first second or so, I thought, “Oh, it was just a dream, thank God! My baby is still here…” And then I’d remember that he wasn’t here and that it was in fact all true. That fact hit me like a train, crushing me. It felt impossible to accept or bear that truth.
Slowly, my brain started integrating the new truth about our life. At the beginning of the process, there was our life on the one side and this terrible, tragic thing that happened to us on the other side. At the end of the process, this tragic event was integrated into the narrative of our life, our world. It had become a part of us.
What is “brain rewiring” anyway?
I first coined the term “brain rewiring” during a heavy break-up way back in college. The change was so painful and difficult that, once again, I was struggling to integrate the world I had known with the world I lived in now. It took a few weeks before the knowledge of the break-up and how that affected all aspects of my life was integrated within me and no longer shocked me with its harshness.
By calling it “brain rewiring,” I took the subjective aspect out of it. It wasn’t that “I couldn’t accept the break-up yet,” but rather “my brain needed time to create new neural pathways to reflect the change.” As you may have guessed, I was a psychology and neuroscience major in college back then. Who would have guessed I’d do a PhD in neuroscience after that?!
The “brain rewiring” stage has been the most painful one for me (so far) during this grieving process. I believe that’s because I was constantly being faced with the shock of what happened and the magnitude of the loss. Beyond that shock, there is pain and sadness that’s about the actual loss and about our baby boy, but the shock makes it impossible to find acceptance for those emotions.
Once I moved through the “brain rewiring” stage, I felt sadness, but it wasn’t anymore the raw pain that hits you head-on. It became more of a quiet sadness rather than a train crushing me. I’m not saying that quiet sadness is good, but it felt more bearable to me.
Thank you, brain
There is something amazing about the “brain rewiring” stage: it seems to me that the brain must be working overtime then. It must take so much work to update so many beliefs, expectations, and memories and to integrate this colossal event into my sense of self. For that, I feel a sense of gratitude towards my brain. Thank you, dear brain, for working so hard to make sense of this, to accept it, and to weave it into the narrative of who we are. I know it’s hard, and I thank you for all you do. (Yes, I speak to my brain. It speaks back sometimes. You can make what you want out of this.)
Photo: Prints of our baby’s hands and feet. They are tiny.
This is a sticky issue. I’ve been avoiding it for a while, but after several people asked me, “How did you get back in shape so fast after having a baby?” I thought I’d share my thoughts.
First of all, I think it’s insane how much pressure is placed on women to “get back in shape” after having a baby. New mothers feel like a part of their self-worth depends on how quickly they “bounce back” and get their “pre-baby body back.” (Which is a ridiculous idea if you think about it: you had a baby, so your body is forever post-baby! You’re never getting your pre-baby body back, and that’s the whole point!)
A year ago was the first time Jacob, William, and I spent Christmas and New Year’s together. William was a little more than 1 month old at the time, so things were a bit crazy. It was fun for sure but crazy nonetheless.
Jacob and I thought long and hard about which family traditions we’d like to emphasize as a family. As we live in the Netherlands, we are surrounded by traditions that are not really ours but some of which we like, so we could consciously choose which ones we want to celebrate family. We also thought about what other traditions we’d like to add, whether from our own cultures, upbringing, or ideas.