For me, it happened at work.
Many years ago, when I was a much younger me, I was finishing up my morning shift at the coffee shop, helping the people I saw every day get their caffeine or pastry fix. We were the cool, hip, local cafe in town– the kind of place where the same people came and went like clockwork, that housed a community of creative minds who used the space for meetings and collaborations. It was a comfortable place, a safe place, with lots of familiar faces.
On that day, one of those faces approached the counter, a friend of mine (who I will call B) that I had met at the very spot I was standing. I served her favorite green tea on an almost daily basis, we took the same weekly yoga class, and we always chatted after open mic night– she’d lounge on the couch, joking with me while I wiped off tables and closed up shop. While I wouldn’t call us the best of chums, I could always count on her to be a helping hand, a friendly face, and a positive energy.
B was expecting a baby, and I was so happy for her! Most of the friends I had wouldn’t start having children for years to come, so this was one of my first chances to see someone’s pregnancy first-hand since childhood. She had confided in me that it had been a surprise, but a serendipitous one. She seemed excited to jump in head first into the adventure of parenthood and was always sharing the next step of her journey. Choosing a name, buying clothes and toys, setting up the nursery… Every time she came to the register, I knew there would be something new to gush over.
It was getting close to her due date– really close. In just a few short months, she would be bringing her son with her to meet everyone at the shop who had been cheering her on. She had grabbed my hand so many times to place it on her tummy as she ecstatically proclaimed, “He’s kicking! Feel!” I couldn’t wait for her to walk up with her frequent-customer-punch card in one hand, and a healthy, happy baby in the other.
On that day way back when, I noticed that there was something different about B. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but I smiled and greeted her as usual. “Good morning! Good to see you! How are you and the baby?”
At the end of my question, I could see from the way B’s face fell that I had said something wrong, or had made some kind of mistake. Her cheery smile dropped into a blank expression I couldn’t read. Her eyes plummeted to the floor, and I could see them quickly filling up with tears.
Her voice quivered as she tried to recover a semblance of her previous grin, even in the smallest way. “Of course you haven’t heard, have you?”
I was taken aback, even worried. “Heard what, B?”
B placed her usual order in a flat tone and explained that she would have to talk to me later. She waved goodbye, grabbed her tea the second it hit the counter, and seemed to flee the coffee shop. I was so confused and feared the worst; I had never seen her anything less than her normal, cheery self.
Later that day, she sent me a message. “I lost the baby. I had to give birth knowing that he was already gone.”
My heart broke. I couldn’t believe it. Up until that point, I had never heard of someone I knew having any problems with pregnancy, much less a stillbirth. I had no clue what to do or say to comfort her, and part of me knew that there was not much I could do to begin with. I told her I cared about her, that I was sorry and that I was there if she needed me. Her pain weighed heavy on my heart for a long time. I ached for her and her loss.
My first encounter with stillbirth would continue to slap me in the face for the rest of the day. I told my mother about what had happened, and was surprised to see her nod her head solemnly and reply with, “Well, it happens.”
It happens? It happens? Why? How often? I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that this was something you could be so blasé about. In my experience up until that point, pregnancy meant baby. It was as simple as that.
My mother explained to me that having a baby wasn’t as simple as I had thought. Getting pregnant wasn’t always easy, and staying pregnant could be even harder. I looked up the facts and found that what my mom said to be true: one in eight women have difficulty conceiving, and one in four women have had a miscarriage.
Just as sad as what had happened to B was the fact that I probably had several friends who had undergone the painful process of infertility or pregnancy loss– B was just the first person to be upfront with me about it. I felt foolish and naive like I had been blissfully unaware of some dark secret. Then, I felt angry. If it was so common to encounter difficulties when trying to have a baby, why wasn’t it talked about? Why did my friends and family feel they had to suffer in silence when they were so obviously going through one of the most heart-wrenching times of their lives?
Up until that day, my experience with pregnancy had been rose-tinted, to say the least. My last direct interaction had been when my mother had been pregnant with my little sister over 13 years prior– even if something (heaven forbid) had gone wrong, maybe I would have been too young to fully understand the gravity of it. Perhaps because I was never exposed to the idea that something could go wrong, it never occurred to me to think outside of that mind frame.
On the other hand, it feels strange and even a little embarrassing to admit how closeted and unaware I had been. Because I had never experienced it first-hand, I never thought about it. Because I had never heard or seen anything other than the picture-perfect version of pregnancy shown on Facebook, Instagram, and television, I had no other frame of reference.
It’s been years since that day, and thankfully, a lot has changed. There countless resources for those struggling with infertility and pregnancy loss, and a huge online community (TTC) for those supporting one another through the thick of it. I’ve had other friends confide in me about the challenges and obstacles they’ve faced while trying to have a child, and while none of the confessions came easily, I feel more equipped and informed to help. I’ve found that sometimes, the only thing you can do is just do your best to be informed and be a listening ear.
This week marks the end of National Infertility Awareness Week, first founded in 1989 to provide information and assistance to those struggling to conceive. While there are leaps and bounds to go, I feel like there have been great strides in the right direction towards a better understanding of infertility and its unique challenges.
As for B, her story is far from over. She fulfilled a lifelong dream and moved across the country to live a self-sustaining lifestyle and graduate in a field she loves. When I reached out to her to ask what was next, she said that she couldn’t see the future, but she knew that it was bright.