After the turmoil and darkness of a storm, when light breaks through the clouds, sometimes we are lucky enough to see a rainbow.
Like the miracle of a rainbow after a storm, many mamas refer to babies born after loss as their rainbow babies. The rainbow doesn’t erase the storm, nor does the arrival of a new baby eclipse the tragedy of previous pregnancy loss.
The rainbow sends a message of beauty, promise and hope to those who see it.
Pregnancy loss and its long lasting emotional effects impacts a huge number of mamas.
- Statistics on miscarriages are more difficult to pin down, but research on the general population of pregnant women suggests that 15-25% of verified pregnancies end in miscarriage. (source)
- Currently, one out of 160 pregnancies in the United States end in stillbirth. (Stillbirth is defined as a death in utero after 20 weeks gestation.) My mother, Alyce, had a stillborn at 6 months– a beautiful baby girl with light blonde hair who weighed in at 2 1/2 pounds.
Significance of a rainbow baby
Pregnancy losses can be devastating, but most women go on to mother again. In doing so, they face the complicated emotional journey of mothering after a miscarriage or stillbirth.
More and more women—sometimes called rainbow mamas—are sharing their birth stories about becoming a mother after loss. In doing so, they are pulling a topic that has long been considered taboo out of the shadows.
With the help of social media, love for rainbow babies and their rainbow mamas has blossomed. This growing awareness is a gift for mamas and papas who may feel misunderstood and lonely in the face of the typical pregnancy narrative, which pushes joy and excitement onto many expecting parents.
“Us loss mommas have a little bit of a different journey and sometimes our experiences are not captured in regular mom circles even though we are regular moms,” explains Trish, a Mama Natural reader who reached out to us to share her story of loss.
Trish lost her baby Joislen at 40 weeks and is now 36 weeks with her rainbow pregnancy.
Understanding the reasons behind pregnancy loss
Following a miscarriage or a stillbirth, most parents are consumed by the search for answers.
What happened? Why did it happen? How can I prevent this in the future?
Growing awareness of miscarriage and stillbirth has opened up a conversation about preventing pregnancy loss, although in many cases the causes aren’t clear.
Some maternal factors are linked to higher rates of miscarriage and stillbirth, including certain illnesses (like diabetes, lupus, and preeclampsia) and certain behaviors (like smoking and drug use).
Women whose BMIs classify them as obese as well as women who are older than 35 are also more likely to experience a stillbirth. (sources and source)
For reasons that are still unknown, black women across all socioeconomic class and age categories are almost twice as likely to experience a stillbirth than white women. Researchers are looking deeper into this statistic, but many questions still remain. In light of this fact, it’s especially important that black women have good prenatal care and work with providers whom they trust and with whom they feel comfortable communicating.
However, more than half of stillbirths have no known cause, and many occur in pregnancies that were otherwise healthy and low-risk.
Additionally, 80% of miscarriages occur before 12 weeks. Many of these first trimester pregnancies showed no other signs of abnormalities. It’s important to work with your doctor or midwife if you have a history of repeat miscarriages to address any underlining issues like hormonal imbalances, genetic conditions, etc.
However, many times, there aren’t concrete reasons for the loss. Because of this, mamas often feel a complicated mix of emotions about becoming pregnant again, wondering what will happen this time around.
Navigating grief and remembering the loss
For many mamas of stillborns, it’s essential to recognize themselves (and be recognized by others) as mamas. “My motherhood was so important to me,” says Trish about the time immediately following Joislen’s death. She felt apprehensive about drying up her breast milk. She didn’t want to erase her identity as a mama even though Joislen wasn’t with her.
Trish, like many parents, chose to spend time with her stillborn baby after birth, cuddling her before saying goodbye. She chose to take photographs of Joislen and carry her outside into the sunlight. Trish also found that creating and cherishing keepsakes from her pregnancy with Joislen eased the grieving process. She now wears a necklace with a pendant that contains Joislen’s ashes and another heart-shaped pendant made from the breast milk her body produced during Joislen’s pregnancy.
As time passes, it’s important for many parents to honor and certain dates associated with pregnancy loss. Due dates, birth dates and death anniversaries are especially poignant. Grief knows no timeline. Many families will choose to acknowledge these dates and the existence of their angel baby long after a loss occurs.
The mom’s grief will not necessarily end with the arrival of a rainbow baby. As Heather Spohr poignantly writes in her letter To the Mother of a Rainbow Baby, “Every day, you will be able to breathe a little bit deeper. Every day, you’ll love your babies — all of them — just a little bit more, until one day, that love overtakes the pain.”
Celebrating your rainbow baby
Many mamas choose to celebrate their rainbow baby pregnancy in a special way, including with maternity photoshoots. One of the most famous of these photoshoots was done by photographer JoAnn Marrero.
This amazing photo captures the joy of mama-to-be Jessica, who suffered six miscarriages before posing for this image with her rainbow baby.
Building community around pregnancy loss
Many mamas find solace and support in sharing their stories of loss and celebrating the rainbow pregnancies that come after. In 2014, following a traumatic miscarriage, Dr. Jessica Zucker, a psychologist specializing in women’s reproductive and maternal mental health, started the #Ihadamiscarriage campaign. She urged women to share their honest miscarriage stories on social media as a way of shedding the stigma and guilt that has long surrounded pregnancy loss.
The hashtag evolved into a celebration of the triumph and courage of rainbow pregnancies. The campaign’s visibility has only grown in the years since. Dr. Zucker now makes sympathy cards for mamas experiencing pregnancy loss and celebratory cards specifically for rainbow mamas on their journeys.
Thanks, in part, to the #Ihadamiscarriage campaign we can now find mamas on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram sporting rainbow tee shirts to acknowledge their pregnancy losses while building solidarity with a struggling community. There’s even a tiny rainbow baby onesie and a tee shirt for rainbow dads as well!
Parenting after loss
What can mamas expect during a rainbow pregnancy and beyond? Each journey to motherhood after loss is different, but many rainbow mamas have spoken out with common descriptions of the emotional experience.
“A baby after loss is scary. There’s no such thing as a normal pregnancy pain after you’ve miscarried, no such thing as a normal sneeze after your baby has died,” writes Heather Spohr in her letter To the Mother of a Rainbow Baby.
Like Heather, many mamas have shared about feeling anxious and hyperaware following a pregnancy or infant loss. They may be happy about their rainbow pregnancy, but they’ve learned in the most difficult way to temper their expectations. As a result, allowing excitement and joy into their hearts might simply feel too scary.
There’s also a complicated mix of emotions that comes with the discovery of a rainbow pregnancy: Will this baby make it? Will this baby erase the memory of the angel baby that was lost? Loss mamas might find themselves longing for the baby that did not survive rather than only looking forward to meeting the new life growing inside them.
The experience of mothering after loss is never simple, and there is no one way for mothers to navigate the grief and joy of a rainbow baby. If you’re in this position, know that your complicated feelings are normal. Reach out to others on the same path for support. Take gentle care of yourself. Seek counseling if need be. Continue to honor yourself as a mother in grief no matter how long ago your loss may have happened.
For friends and family supporting a mama of loss
If you’re helping a mother through pregnancy loss or on her journey to becoming a rainbow mama, consider these ways to help.
- Offer unconditional support – Listen without offering advice or suggesting that she feel any one way about her loss or her rainbow pregnancy.
- Honor her as a mother – Remember that she feels like a mother even though her baby is no longer here. Embracing her motherhood may be important and healing for her. Even for mamas who miscarry early in pregnancy, their identity as a mother cannot be erased after loss.
- Encourage her to connect with others and share her story if she feels comfortable – March of Dimes has an online community for women to support each other during and after stillbirth. Pregnancy After Loss Support (PALS) is a community support resource for “women experiencing the confusing and conflicting emotions of grief mixed with joy during the journey through pregnancy after loss.” Searching social media for #Ihadamiscarriage reveals countless stories of the sorrows and joys of parenting after loss.
- Know that grief is an ongoing, lifelong process – Don’t expect mamas to stop grieving a pregnancy loss once a rainbow baby arrives. Resist saying things like “you’ll get pregnant again” or “you’ll have another baby” to comfort her.
Understanding kick counts
Trish reached out to MamaNatural with her story of loss, in part to raise awareness about kick counts during pregnancy. We encourage all mothers (not just those considered high risk) to use this as a way to bond with your baby while also protecting them from the risk of stillbirth. Here’s what you should know:
- Most mamas begin to feel fetal movements between 16 and 24 weeks of pregnancy. Begin by taking note (literally! A journal can be very handy here) of your baby’s movements.
- Take 30 minutes to an hour to notice how frequently your baby moves. This is a wonderful time to practice mindful connection with your baby. Count the number of flutters or kicks that you feel during this time.
- Once you know what normal is for your baby. Take note of your baby’s kicks as your pregnancy progresses. You’ll likely begin to notice the time(s) of day that your baby is most active. Become familiar with your baby’s individual movement pattern.
- Around 28 weeks, begin to count kicks daily. Choose a time of day when your baby is typically active. Lie down on your left side. (This is the best way to keep ample blood flow to the baby in utero.). Then, record how long it takes for your baby to make 10 kicks. If you prefer something more high tech than a pen and paper, there is even an app to keep a daily record of fetal kicks.
- While previous advice on counting kicks recommended that mamas feel for at least 10 kicks in an hour, new guidelines emphasize that you should first understand what’s normal for your baby. Act if you notice any change from that baseline of normal. (After all, babies can have anywhere from 4 to 100 fetal movements in an hour. A very active baby could be in distress and still communicate with10 kicks within an hour.)
- A decrease in fetal activity is the most common way babies in utero communicate distress. Know your baby’s movements in order to recognize warning signs. Don’t wait to call your midwife or doctor if you notice a change.
Quick recap on rainbow babies
- Pregnancy loss is more common than many people think
- Like a rainbow after a storm, many mamas refer to babies born after loss as rainbow babies
- The causes of pregnancy loss are still mostly unknown
- Rainbow babies can bring great joy, but may not erase the grief of a previous loss
- Mamas are banding together to raise awareness of pregnancy loss
- Kick counts during pregnancy can help counteract the risk of stillbirth
Have you experienced a pregnancy loss? Are you a rainbow mama? Share your story in the comments below. What helped you in your journey? What do you wish others knew about parenting after loss and supporting a rainbow mama?