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Emotions About Pregnancy and
Loss of First Child

QUESTION: My husband and I had a child 10 years ago. She died shortly after birth. We were not married at the time and this was a source of great embarrassment to my parents. I am now pregnant and we are still grieving over the loss of our first child. It is disturbing when people assume this is our first baby. Generally I don't comment, because it gets too complicated to explain. This makes me feel guilty, as if I am denying our daughters brief existence and dishonoring her. We don't want to be morbid about the whole situation, but this is NOT our first child.

It is natural for you to want to keep a place in your hearts for your first child, despite the difficulties surrounding the birth. Anytime a child is lost there is sorrow over the promise of what might have been. It is important that you take some time to mourn your child again, even though you may have done so at the time she died. By making space for this process, you will create opportunity for working through some of the grief and pain that inevitably comes up the next time you are pregnant. Burning a candle, writing your lost child a letter or visiting her grave may all be ways to say "good-bye" again. It is necessary to say "good-bye" before saying "hello" to your new child who also deserves your love and bonding. It is fortunate that the two of you have one another to share the past grief, even as you make way for your present child under new and happier circumstances.

Many pregnant mothers feel disloyal to a baby that has died when they are on the threshold of bonding to a new child. This is natural. Let your feelings come up, including any old resentments towards other people that may surface. For example, talking with your family about any unresolved feelings from the past may be useful now. Otherwise, it is possible that buried resentments may flare postpartum when you are bonding to your new baby and grandma or grandpa wants to see him or her! This could disrupt your family relationships at a crucial and sensitive period of time. If it is difficult to talk about this period of your life, you may want to write letters about your past experience and the shame you felt was hoisted upon you at a time that was already fraught with difficulty for you. This will help you separate from past shame or guilt projected from others which could be reawakened by the present pregnancy.

In your case what did survive was your couples' relationship which deepened and flowered in the midst of pain. This tremendous depth of life experience forged your connection rather than disconnection as is so often the case for teenage mothers and fathers in similar circumstances. Your first baby made headway for this present child, as she perhaps catalyzed your relationship to a more enduring level. This experience, no doubt, readies you for parenthood now. Your readiness to have a baby 10 years later is a tribute to your love and ability to create family. And your experience with your first baby is a part of that.

Perhaps when people ask about the pregnancy you could say that you had lost a child much earlier and that you are looking forward to the birth of this child very soon. Following your ritual in honoring your first baby you may find that it is easier to state the fact, placing the emphasis on your joyful anticipation of this baby now, and its rightful place in your family life cycle. If not, perhaps saying as you have that this is your first baby will be less difficult if you have honored the fact of your first child privately. See what works best for you. But make a place for your grief, and a place for your joy and welcome of your second child. You might discover that what is most difficult for you is the shame that surrounded the first pregnancy and not the fact of the pregnancy itself. Perhaps you are presented with the opportunity to separate your shame from your grief, and proceed to happiness based upon the fact that you gave birth to a deep and committed relationship that can now sustain the life you are prepared to nurture.

Your first child's brief time on this earth did help facilitate the birth of your relationship. And now you are giving birth to this child who can enjoy the connection and love the two of you have forged together through your life experiences. Perhaps your baby could be smiling and happy for the contribution she has made to your family in the short life she lived. And perhaps the timing is right, now, to proceed to imagining what your new baby looks like on the inside, getting ready to be in Mommy's arms, in Daddy's arms ... and benefiting from all that went before ... including the richness this present baby enjoys because of what has come before ... to create the deep and committed bond you have forged as parents.

Brief Visualization Exercise for Bonding to Your Baby-to-Be:

Take time to relax and bond to this child, too. Breathing deeply into the womb, imagining what your baby looks like inside ... little handprints and footprints all its own, like no other that has ever come before or will touch the earth again ... totally unique and individual...take your time to get to know this little one inside. And Dad can push on the baby, who will respond by pushing back. The baby already knows your voices, will respond to them at birth ... and taking yourself into the future, one year from the due date..baby will be one year old! ... teaching him or her to blow the first candle out..learning how to do that ... and future Mom and Dad already learned how to parent a one year old ... reaching back to lend you the strength you need for labor, for birth..to help you adjust and adapt to this pregnancy now...sensing your baby inside, getting ready for that journey, knowing full well the way how to be born, to be in your arms...

If you like you can read the above brief visualization into a tape recorder and use it to help you relax and take time to bond to this baby, now. You can also refer to my book, "An Easier Childbirth" and the information on ParentsPlace for further information on my model of body-centered hypnosis, prenatal counseling and preparation for childbirth. Further visualizations and workbook exercises are available in the book for working through feelings that come up around the birth of this child.

Talk together about how you want to prepare for this childbirth. Identify what is important to you as this is a very significant time for bonding and making family together. Accept any feelings that come up about the past childbirth. Meet these feelings, accept the past and make way for meeting and greeting this new child on your continuing family life cycle!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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