(Advisory warning: This post uses words that may be disturbing to some people - particularly those who have experienced physical trauma or miscarriages)
It is well known that gratitude helps us live a happier life. I distinctly remember hearing this sentence during a psychotherapy workshop I attended when my children were one and three years-old. Shockingly, after the presenter said those words, I hung my head and wept. I could feel the eyes of the room move toward me, but I just couldn’t collect myself: I sat there crying.
The presenter paused and gently said, “Are you having a hard time feeling grateful right now?” I wearily looked up and nodded. She smiled a knowing smile then spoke to me again, “Do you mind if we explore that further?”
She asked about my life, which was mostly hard at the time: my mother had recently died, our business was sucking all our savings away, and one or the other child was waking me up every night. I was exhausted, sad, sleep-deprived, and feeling unsupported. After digging a bit, we ended up talking about my two miscarriages, which is when she said, “Bingo.” I furrowed my eyebrows, not understanding what her a-ha moment could possibly be about. Before I mention what that was, let me take you back.
At age thirty-five, I got pregnant for the first time. This pregnancy meant a lot to me because I knew that my mother only had a few months to live and she wanted so very badly to be a grandmother. I wanted to be able to say to her, “Mom, I’m pregnant.” My wish did come true. I waited for several weeks before telling her—I still remember where I was and how I felt when I made that call. As this was my first pregnancy, I let ten weeks pass before telling anyone. This was welcome information in a time when our whole family was anticipating the loss of my mom.
Every week I’d wake up Sunday morning and go look at my weekly baby-brewing report, as I called, it on the internet. I’d see what fruit or vegetable my little one was being compared to in order to explain its development as each week progressed.
On New Year’s Day, I was feeling some pain and noticed spotting happening. Very concerned, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out to celebrate that night. My husband and I agreed that getting dressed up for a hippies theme party and going to our friend’s New Year’s might help distract me through my anxiety. This is a picture of me from that night. I'd say that's a forced smile.
The next morning, I woke up very early with strong pains in my abdomen. I quietly went downstairs, not wanting to wake my husband, to look at the twelve-week development information. Then I looked up signs of miscarriage. I begged the computer: please, please, tell me everything is okay. The pains grew unbearable and I ran to the washroom, as an urge to empty my bowels happened.
I sat on the toilet in tears, clutching my stomach, as my body emptied itself. I knew what was happening. Shaking, I crawled back in bed with my husband. We cried there together. The next day I somehow summoned the energy to tell my mother that the baby was gone.
My sister gave birth to her first baby three weeks after that, and I flew across the country to be with her during this time. It was incredibly painful to watch my sister and her husband hold their little girl. My sister must have sensed this: she asked me to call our mom with the good news. I did get to say to my mom, “Hello Grandma Dianne,” when she answered the phone. Thankfully my mom was able to visit with her Granddaughter before she passed away.
Four months later, just after my mom passed away, I discovered I was pregnant again. My body was full of intense emotion: there was so much sadness and fear inside of me. Through this, I tried so very hard to be hopeful about this pregnancy and not debilitated by my grief. As before, I looked at the computer on each Sunday morning to learn more about the little life growing inside me.
The day after checking my nine-week development report, while I was in the shower, a wash of intense pain overcame me. I collapsed onto the floor of the shower as a large amount of blood pooled on the tiles around my feet. I yelled, “NO! Not again!” while I watched the red liquid disappear down the drain. I was at home alone so I had to work hard to collect myself and make the difficult call to my husband.
At the time, we lived in the beautiful seaside town of White Rock, British Columbia. To try and lift our spirits, my husband and I went for a walk down to the boardwalk by the ocean. Just after we got down there, I felt swarmed by all the families walking together. There were babies in slings, in strollers, and little ones laughing and running all around me. I could hardly breathe.
As I have heard from other mothers who experience miscarriages, I felt responsible. I asked myself, “What did I do wrong,” and “What is wrong with me?” I lamented over everything I had done, eaten, felt, and said: I was trying to find a logical reason for what had happened. There was no logical reason, which I know now, but that certainly wasn’t sinking in when I was in the midst of this experience. I panicked: was I ever going to be a mother?
The answer to that was, “Yes.” I became a mother almost a year and a half after my first miscarriage and again two years later after that. I quit working to be with my babies, and gave it my all to provide my children with a good start to life. However, it wasn’t going very well: I felt I was sinking more than swimming. I had put an incredible amount of energy into just getting pregnant and staying pregnant, but I wasn’t prepared for the realities of raising a baby. I hadn’t signed up for this.
In that moment of exasperation and exhaustion during the workshop, all I could feel was sadness. I wanted my life back, I wanted my mommy, and I wanted to feel happy again.
The presenter walked over, putting her hand on my shoulder. She said, “Those miscarriages must have been incredibly difficult.” I nodded. She carried on, “I bet you wondered if you were ever going to have children.” She paused while I continued to cry. “Is there any chance that when they yell in the middle of the night, that instead of flipping into a rage that you are woken up, you could stop and feel grateful?”
I said, “You’re crazy.”
Looking deeply into my eyes, she said “I know this is hard, but I bet there’s a part of you that is very, very grateful that you have those two little boys—that you gave birth to two little children who need you.” Something shifted inside of me. I stared at her intently, then said, “I am.”
Her reply was that if I could only be thankful for that one thing, then I should do just that. If for a moment before stomping into their rooms, I could just say, “I’m so grateful I am a mother. I am so grateful to have these little guys waking me up at night,” then that’s where I could start.
I was quite numb for the rest of the workshop but did carefully consider those words. Later than night as I was jolted out of a deep sleep and felt anger boiling up inside of me, I weakly whispered, “Thank you. Thank you that I have this guy to wake me up right now.” I was amazed at the change in my mood. My stomp turned to a walk and my sharp tone turned to a whisper.
I started saying three things I was grateful for at night before going to bed. When one of my children woke me up, I’d try to find one thing, even if it was totally ridiculous, to be grateful for: “I’m grateful I have this nice carpet under my feet.”
It worked. As the days and weeks progressed, I felt better. I had enough energy to learn more about helping my children at night, and what I could try to reduce the tantrums during the day. Everything I studied was so invaluable: I actually changed my career from psychotherapist to parenting educator as a result of seeing my children’s behaviour transform in front of my eyes. Now I’m incredibly grateful for all the challenges because they have given me a career I love today.
Gratitude does improve happiness and our experience with our children. I encourage you to consider what you can feel grateful for today, even if it’s only one little thing. That small action will have big impact as the days pass.