Michelle Bilodeau wasn’t even sure she wanted to have kids, but after meeting her now-husband, she realized she was open to trying.
“I started seeing myself as a mother, likely because I had found a person who I could see myself going through parenthood with,” Bilodeau, 40, told Global News.
When the Toronto resident discovered she was pregnant in October 2015 — a little more than a year after the couple had gotten married — she was both nervous and excited.
Days after she found out, Bilodeau had to take a five-day work trip to British Columbia. She returned home with some back pain but brushed it off as a symptom of flying for several hours.
She woke up the next morning and spot bleeding. She looked it up online and found some spotting is relatively normal during the early stages of pregnancy — she tried not to worry. But by the time she got into work, there was a lot more blood.
Bilodeau went to see her doctor, who confirmed the grim news: she was having a miscarriage.
She had only been pregnant for around six weeks and had only known about it for a few days, but it was still extremely traumatizing.
“It was really early, obviously, but you get really attached to the idea,” Bilodeau said. After returning home from the doctor’s office, she stayed in bed for 24 hours straight.
“It really was pretty devastating.”
But Bilodeau returned to work the next day in an effort to “push away” her negative feelings about it.
“I didn’t want to reflect too hard on what had happened,” she said.
She worried that she had done something — perhaps the travel, the work, drinking alcohol before she knew she was pregnant — to trigger the miscarriage.
“I also thought that because I didn’t really know if I had wanted a child, that maybe I’d willed it in some way,” she said.
“Even after talking to my GP, who said that miscarriages are generally biological and not caused by one particular thing, I still felt like I maybe contributed to it.”
Roughly 15 to 20 per cent of Canadian pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada (SOGC).
And like Bilodeau, most women who experience pregnancy loss have feelings of grief, guilt and remorse.
A 2013 study found that after a miscarriage, 30 to 50 per cent of women experience anxiety and 10 to 15 per cent experience depression, typically lasting up to four months.
In her work, Dr. Kim Garbedian, a doctor at the Hannam Fertility Centre in Toronto, has seen how miscarriages can affect a person. She’s constantly trying to evolve the way victims of pregnancy loss are cared for, both physically and mentally.
“The important thing for patients to realize is there’s two parts to healing from the miscarriage,” she said.
“The bleeding is gone and the cramping is gone, but the emotional symptoms are still there — and that’s OK.”
In her work, Garbedian encourages patients to “take a step back after and focus a little bit more on themselves.” Since everyone is different, healing will look different for everyone.
“Some patients want to dive right back into work because that’s how they cope best, but other people actually need a week off to just take a minute,” she said.
“I think both strategies are OK, and that’s our job — to help the patients figure out what’s best for them.”
Stigma can make the experience even more isolating
There’s a stigma around miscarriages and other forms of pregnancy loss, and it can further damage people who have lost pregnancies. Bilodeau experienced this first-hand.
After her miscarriage, Bilodeau was ashamed and racked with guilt. At first, she only told her boss and two of her closest friends, but that was it.
“A few months before I miscarried, I had met up with a work colleague for coffee and she told me about having a miscarriage, and we discussed how women didn’t talk about miscarriages,” she said. “We thought that it was an awful thing for women to go through in silence.”
“Because miscarriages are generally hidden from society, I feel like it was hard for me to open up.”
“Once I was a few months away from it, I remembered that conversation with my colleague and I knew that telling my story could potentially help other women so I became much more vocal about it.”
Bilodeau started going to therapy earlier this year, and it’s something she discusses with her therapist as well.
For Garbedian, talking about pregnancy loss and educating people is the first step to ending the stigma.
The different kinds of pregnancy loss
According to the SOGC, there are two main types of pregnancy loss: miscarriage and stillbirth.
Most miscarriages happen in the first eight weeks, while stillbirths typically happen after 20 weeks of gestational age.
“The most common reason for a first-trimester miscarriage (before 13 weeks) would be abnormal chromosomes,” said Garbedian. “Probably about 70 per cent of all early pregnancy loss is due to abnormal chromosomes — meaning that the parents both have completely normal genetics, but either the wrong sperm or egg is chosen.”
She says that while pregnancy loss is still devastating, abnormal chromosomes is the “answer we want” because “it means, most likely, everything else is OK and it was just a spontaneous event.”
“That really is the bulk of abnormal pregnancies in the first trimester,” she said. The risk of miscarriage increases in women older than 40.
Miscarriage in the second trimester (after 13 weeks) would require more investigation and testing, said Garbedian.
A stillbirth is typically more traumatizing because it happens “after the patient has known they’re pregnant for several weeks,” Garbedian said.
After about five months of pregnancy, a loss can be extremely difficult to process.
Getting pregnant again
It took Bilodeau awhile before she was ready to try to get pregnant again.
According to Garbedian, being nervous or scared is completely normal. The most important thing is that a person’s doctor is doing everything they can to reassure them that it’s OK to try again.
“Reassure them that it’s normal and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their uterus or … their eggs or their sperm,” she said.
Being able to say “we did all the tests to rule out anything that could reoccur in other pregnancies” is Garbedian’s goal in her work.
“The important part … for us is to always treat patients as individuals. Some people need no reassurance whatsoever and they’re really quickly ready to go into another pregnancy, and other patients actually just need to take a break,” she said. “I think both are OK.”
It took Bilodeau about five months to be ready to try again, and when she did, she got pregnant almost immediately. She and her husband were really excited, but she was also more nervous because of what happened the first time.
“My miscarriage definitely influenced my pregnancy. I was very nervous the entire time,” she said. “Anytime there was like a cramp or a little pain or something, I would worry that there was something wrong.”
As she was dealing with this unique mix of emotions, people around Bilodeau began to call her second pregnancy a “rainbow baby.”
The term was coined to describe the baby you have after a pregnancy loss, and it’s supposed to symbolize feelings of hope and renewal — but for Bilodeau, it didn’t sit right.
“It kind of trivialized things for me,” she said. “I’ve never referred to my daughter as a rainbow baby.”
However, she understands how it could help other women be more open and honest with their experience.
“I know it’s a way for women to talk about miscarriage because … it’s so hard for women to talk about,” she said. “But I think women should be open enough to say they had a miscarriage and call it what it is — which is a miscarriage.
“We should be allowed to talk about it. We should talk about it, especially with each other, because it happens so frequently.”