The Postpartum Body Without Baby: Miscarriage and Body Image

Los Angeles-based psychologist Dr. Jessica Zucker and I have been talking a lot about the politics, the pressures, and the misguided expectations surrounding the postpartum body.  As a culture we obsess about “how she got her body back in less than 6 weeks!” as if there is health inherent in this speedy weight loss.  At what cost?  But here’s what we don’t talk about so much: the millions of women mourning miscarriages every year who, at least for a time, experience a postpartum body but without baby.  In her clinical practice, Dr. Zucker works primarily with women desiring to become mothers, pregnant women, and women journeying through motherhood.  Her articles and insights about women’s health have been featured on PBS’ This Emotional Life, Huffington Post, GOOP, and Every Mother Counts .  I am honored to tackle this vital and often taboo topic together. Here are some of our thoughts on the postpartum body… without baby.

The Reflection in the Mirror

Your sagging heart might understandably color your vision as you glance in the mirror at your no longer pregnant body.  No matter how far along you were in the pregnancy, the body has changed- maybe subtly or even majorly.  Recent research indicates that eating disorders and body image concerns are quite robust during the prenatal phase.  The ever-changing body in pregnancy has the potential to stir a panoply of uneasy feelings, with or without a history of eating disordered behavior.  When you look in the mirror, what do you see?  What do you feel?  If you are prone to hurl harsh comments at yourself, I invite you to take a moment to pause.  If your (actual or possible) child were to look in the mirror and begin flinging critical remarks all over the place, what might you do?  How would you feel?  Treating ourselves as tenderly as we would treat our offspring might help mute the meanness and soften the way we interact with our bodies after such unfortunate catastrophes. – Dr. Jessica Zucker

Your Body Is Not a Lemon: Experiences of Female “Failure”

A miscarriage is a sign that the pregnancy was not working. Your body cleverly recognizes this and does something about it. This feeling that your body “knows what to do” can be affirming. But miscarriage can also make you feel like your body is failing you. This is understandable and it can be cathartic to get pissed off about it. But since women in our culture are given such a steady stream of reasons to feel terrible about their bodies– there are always flaws, always things to fix or erase–normal feelings of anger or disappointment can become amplified. The next thing you know all your grief has been re-routed into feeling like your body is a dud. It can be helpful at these low moments to remember that the image of a perfect, glowing life-giving goddess is a fantasy. The reality of reproduction is way, way messier and much more interesting than that. As individuals and a culture, we need to do more to normalize that mess and allow ourselves to be curious about it– this is true during the reproductive years, but all other phases of woman’s life, from adolescence to menopause and beyond.– Ceridwen Morris

Mourning What Once Was

What is the orderly mind supposed to do when life simply doesn’t seem to make sense? Pregnant one moment and not the next. Why?!

Striving to make meaning or find answers in a wellspring of dizzying disappointment might be a dangerous road to travel down.  Making meaning when there is no meaning—searching high and low to connect elusive dots, or harboring self-blame during a time of raw intensity—unfortunately won’t bring the baby back.  Our culture privileges rationality over emotionality, so it makes perfect sense that women search inside and out for the root cause of the loss, the dubious reason for this tragedy.  By scurrying around chasing various lines of circuitous thinking we are unconsciously hoping to bypass the pain.  After a miscarriage, women often want to return to their previous selves in mind and body. They frequently talk about feeling like complete and utter “failures”, and often ruminate on self-doubting thoughts blaming themselves for something they think they did or did not do in their lives they imagine may have contributed to this devastating lens-changer.  Women are grieving what once was a world that maybe seemed to make a little more sense.

People mourn the loss of the fetus, the loss of the hoped for child, and the family life imagined. But as a society we fail to acknowledge the fact that miscarriage can wreak havoc on women’s bodies their image of themselves, what they see and say to themselves in the mirror, how they internally narrate the miscarriage story, and how they share with others about feeling fat or betrayed or in a different skin altogether.  Suspended between feeling pregnant and not being pregnant, women can experience bewildering body-based alienation.  We need to make room for women to share all facets of the piercing pain- a pain that doesn’t necessarily have a defined end point in mind or in body.- Dr. Jessica Zucker

Befuddling Feedback, Foibles, & Feelings

Here’s a sampling of the inundating comments flying around women worldwide: “Oh, you’re pregnant?!  You look adorable, how far along are you?”, “I had a miscarriage but ultimately got my healthy two babies.  You’ll get there.  It’ll be fine.”, “You look so great for having just had a baby.  When was he born?”, “It was probably for the best because something must have been wrong with the baby.  Will you try again soon?”  In the face of traumatic loss, people often don’t know what to say or how to say it.  A placard with the slogan, “Think Before You Speak” might be a welcome signpost to pull out on a moments notice.  People don’t mean to be mean, they just don’t get it.  Sometimes even the women who have journeyed through this horrendous life-altering experience don’t really get how to talk about it either.  Culture sequesters conversations surrounding death and, as a result, we are not armed to adequately honor the complexities that surface after these unanticipated losses. Can we endeavor to compare, contrast, minimize and maximize less?

Many women express feeling a planet of pain as they traverse the rocky months following the miscarriage, for the loss itself of course but also because of how misunderstood they feel by family, friends, and passersby.   Comments about the body, particularly during this highly sensitive period, can force women deeper into despair.  Even an utterance that for a moment feels like a compliment can make its way into something else quite quickly.  For example, “you look great!”  might make a woman feel relieved to “look good” but simultaneously sad or angry that she no longer looks—or is– pregnant. – Dr. Jessica Zucker

It’s Not Over When the Baby Comes Out

The world may not see your body as having changed much after a miscarriage, but inside you can feel profoundly altered: you’re bleeding considerably, you may have very sore breasts and even a tiny bit of milk coming in; your uterus can cramp as it involutes to a non-pregnant shape. Pregnancy hormones that show up very early on, are now dropping (sometimes dramatically) back to non-pregnant levels. These shifts are necessary and the hormones are not “bad” or “crazy-making” in and of themselves. But whenever we have grand hormonal shifts, we feel out of sorts, awkward. Every book tells us that after a baby is born, 80% of mothers get the “baby blues,” a totally normal, understandable and temporary state of jumbled, overwhelming emotions. After a pregnancy ends via miscarriage, there’s no vocabulary for our changing emotional-physical state. Maybe we should coin it the “No Baby Blues?”– Ceridwen Morris

Dr. Jessica Zucker is a clinical psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health.  She writes, speaks, and consults globally on projects related to women’s health and maternal well-being. Follow her on Twitter.

Ceridwen Morris is the co-author of the pregnancy and birth guide From the Hips. Follow her on Facebook

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