It’s been a rough week, and yesterday was the first time I’ve lost it and started crying in public (a VERY public place, as it turned out) — almost four months after we lost our daughter. And surprisingly, the two toughest emotional moments this week have involved being a woman in science. Let me explain.
Friday I went out to lunch with a few other young female science faculty. It was great, and I really enjoyed the chance to hang out with other women with similar careers, which doesn’t happen often since I’m the only woman in my department. That said, there was a painful moment. We were just goofing around, trading stories about getting pulled over by the police, when a chemistry professor told a story about getting pulled over when her daughter (her eldest) was only a week old. Her husband had called, she had answered her cell while driving (a no-no in the state we live in), had heard her daughter crying in the background, and immediately “milked” herself through her shirt. Needless to say, she was a mess when the cop walked up to her car. He was reportedly very sympathetic.
This highlights one of the experiences I’ve found so awkward and unsettling after losing my first baby to placental abruption. Women love to talk about pregnancy and childbirth. Before our daughter died, I didn’t have much to contribute to these conversations, although I was generally fascinated since I always knew I wanted to have kids and I was curious to hear the insider perspective. Now… I actually have some stories to add (I was pregnant for 4.5 months and went through labor and delivery, after all!), but for one thing it makes me feel sad to recall them, and for another I’m always afraid that they’d be too sad and/or horrifying for me to reasonably drag into a typically polite and lighthearted conversation, so I don’t.
When the chemistry professor told the story about “milking” herself in front of the police officer, it made me remember how my milk had come in and had leaked for days from my rock-hard, swollen, hot-to-the-touch breasts. In particular, her story reminded me of how, more than a week after I thought my milk had dried up, I had an incredibly vivid dream about my daughter. In my dream, everything happened exactly the way it had happened in real life (going to the prenatal checkup, the midwife being unable to find the heartbeat on doppler or ultrasound, etc.), but instead it was all a terrible mistake, and my daughter was born healthy and happy. My dream was full of love for the bright, cheerful girl I had given birth to. When I woke up, my breasts had leaked and soaked through the front of my pajama shirt. Looking back, I am fascinated by the mind-body connection that caused the intense motherly emotions I felt in my dream to have such tangible physical consequences.
Anyway, I didn’t tell this story at lunch, but it came back to me vividly, and I sat there lost in thought, feeling sad and wistful… and different. It’s such a change from the way I used to feel during pregnancy/birth conversations… before, I felt like a young initiate, getting an early glimpse into the cult of motherhood that I would join in a few years. Now, I feel very much on the outside, totally other from these magical parents with their magical, normally functioning bodies, and uncomfortable even mentioning my strange, otherworldly experiences for fear of making them uncomfortable.
That moment was painful, but it passed, and I was able to recover and rejoin the conversation. But yesterday I finally lost it in public.
This weekend I brought some students from our college to an event for undergraduate women in physics. For lunch, they divided the students up into about a dozen small groups, each of which had lunch with a different female scientist. The lunch leaders introduced themselves to the whole group before everyone split up. I watched as they went down the line, and each talked about her research and… family situation (which I always appreciate as an undergraduate, but which is particularly painful to me now). They pointed out that everyone up there was a mom, which gave me a pang of sadness and guilt — I’ve always wanted to be that female scientist role model, who deftly juggles science and babies and dishes out advice to her students. Last year one of my advisees mused aloud to me that even though I was a great role model in most ways to her, the young male faculty member in my department was in some ways better because he has kids (which stung a little at the time, when I was struggling to get pregnant, but now would probably utterly do me in).
To top it off, two of the women were pregnant. One of the pregnant women was about as far along as I was when my baby died. To hear her blithely mention that she was due in June felt like a stake through my heart. I wanted to shout “God, don’t tell people! Your baby could still die!” although of course I realize that the odds are overwhelmingly in her favor (which went through my head with just a touch of bitterness, since the odds were in my favor as well, and in some strange way I feel like I “took the fall” for all other 4.5-month pregnant women — irrational, yes, but honest). And then, for the kicker, one of the pregnant women works in my field (I have met her a couple of times but don’t know her well), and she announced that she is due a month after my baby would have been born. I looked at her hugely pregnant belly, and all I could think was “that should be me.” As you might imagine, as this panel of introductions proceeded, I started to feel quite fragile.
Then, the other faculty member from my school, who was sitting next to me, started whispering about a change in our policy about bringing kids on campus, and how the stories these women were telling made her realize how important it was, and then my lower lip started shaking. She eventually noticed, and said, “Are you OK?” and that was when I burst into tears. I think I was discreet enough that only she and the student sitting next to me realized that I was sobbing, but I can’t remember EVER losing it like that in public before. I couldn’t stop crying for several minutes. She asked if I wanted to go to the bathroom, but imagining getting up, wading through the row of auditorium seats and walking to the exit while blubbering… it just didn’t seem like a good idea. I didn’t want to make more of a spectacle of myself than I already had. Eventually I got control of myself, but they sorted the audience for lunch by location in the auditorium and we got placed in the group with the hugely pregnant woman in my field, which just felt cosmically awful. I jumped ship and switched to a different group, but even once I slipped into a group with an older woman who I knew wouldn’t be talking about pregnancy I felt myself physically shaking — shivering, like I was cold — for something like the first half hour of the lunch. It was awful.
In the car driving back with the other woman from my institution that evening, we talked about it and she was very sweet. She had known about my baby dying, but didn’t realize that I still had ongoing medical issues (because why would she?!), and hadn’t realized quite how fragile I still was. It felt surprisingly therapeutic to tell someone — anyone — from my work about what was going on. Nobody I work with has checked in about how my husband and I are doing since the first week or two after our loss, and as a result nobody at work knows about any of the complications I’ve experienced, and it feels awfully lonely to be going through so many difficult setbacks without any support at work. So breaking that silence was the silver lining to finally losing it in public.
So, that’s my story for the day. I’m not sure I’ve ever cried in public before — it was awful and embarrassing, but I couldn’t help it. I was very much not in control of my emotions. I’ve tried to think about how I might handle it better in the future, and I don’t know… I think the key is just to learn to remove myself from triggering situations sooner (getting up and excusing myself, and going to the restroom until I feel back in control). But often these things just sneak up on you — I’m not sure I could have predicted that I would react so strongly to seeing these women, particularly the pregnant ones, and hearing their happy family stories. In that case, I think the only takeaway is that while it was embarrassing, my colleague reacted only with empathy, which is likely to be a common response. I never think less of the students who burst into tears in my office (it happens more than you might think!) and am often honored that they’ve chosen to discuss difficult emotional topics with me. My colleague’s sympathetic response reminded me of the good in people, that most of my friends and colleagues really do mean well and want to support me even if they don’t know how. I’d be happy to hear anyone else’s story of losing it in public, how you dealt with it, and how you try to avoid or deal with situations that bring up difficult emotions.