Recently, two of our therapists, Rachael Benjamin and Nora Dankner, who both work with patients on fertility, pregnancy and postpartum-related issues, read the adult graphic novel Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley as a part of a ongoing project to explore books, podcasts, articles, and talks that address fertility, loss, miscarriage, pregnancy, and postpartum in order to thoughtfully examine how these experiences are represented culturally. Afterwards, they got together for a conversation in response to the book:
Nora: Kid Gloves author Lucy Knisley, had two miscarriages before becoming pregnant with her son, and revisited the experience she had, both physically and emotionally. She similarly treats her experience of being pregnant, outlining all the bodily changes that can happen when pregnant which brings into focus how much care a pregnant person needs to cope with what’s happening.
Even though it’s painful and scary, she details what happened with her preeclampsia, emergency C-section, and ICU stay. She was able to do this in a way that connected to the experience and the feelings she had in the immediate aftermath. She didn’t merely report it from a distance, or try to brush over it. Why do we think this attachment to her story was so important?
Rachael: When we talk about miscarriage, birth, pregnancy or postpartum, we revisit these experiences over and over to make sense of what happened because the mom’s experience can get lost. In our culture in general, people under-acknowledge the trauma of these experiences when you have a healthy kid. We tell people because you survived, you are fine. But surviving in my mind, like in Kid Gloves, is not good enough. There is more. There is remembering, redoing, and re-going over the traumatic experience with someone else, with an audience. Working through the grief of this experience is more than just support for moms, it offers concrete logistical help by building a better experience, and incorporating how this experience shaped them and what they build from it or with it.
Nora: I love what you’re saying about the importance of retelling. I find that with my patients when there is a difficult or traumatic story, especially when it comes to maternal health, we go through many versions of that story together, and retell it over and over. First comes the hurdle of getting it out, and being able to just share it at all. At the beginning, the retelling can be really painful. Next, what tends to come is the emotional side of the experience: the ways someone is judging themselves, perceiving how others might judge them or have interacted with them at the time, and the fears of what it means about who they are and what they are capable of. The work with me, then, becomes about joining them in this story and this emotional experience, and figuring out how to understand it differently. How do we understand its impact and reframe it together? How does it become not just something experienced alone, but also held and witnessed by someone else? How does it transform the emotional experience to truly share it (not just retell it)?
In the book, I think had the author not attached to all the ups and downs of her experience, it would have become what I call a “constipated grief,” which I see as a loss, sadness, or trauma we avoid dealing with because the closeness and feelings seem too threatening or overwhelming to go there. But, when we don’t go there, we get blocked (hence, the constipation part of the grief). To process grief in a healthy way is to feel it and then, figure out how to integrate the loss and traumatic experience. If the author hadn’t done this, this constipated grief would have created distance between herself and her son, with her traumatic experience always associated with the child.
Rachael: And yes, in Kid Gloves, she talks about really attaching to the grieving process so well. Although, I think she does show how we train women to hold in their grieving. By isolating it, the grief and the loss of a baby get stuck. Lucy shows this in the way she discusses miscarriage. I think about how many women I’ve talked to have a miscarriage story, but they so often say it’s “not a big deal.” When I think about dilation and curettage that women go through, it’s so, so medicalized. And yet, they’re the person on that table who had that experience.
I think really attaching to the grief means being okay with being really, really freakin’ sad. At least for awhile. Someone may have nightmares about the experience if they had a traumatic birth or ICU experience with birth, or they freak out at blood with their period. Recognizing that this is something to grieve gives the trauma of loss somewhere to go, be, and not live internally.
Attaching to grief, then, allows us to navigate attaching ourselves to parenthood, the child, and the experience. I love, too, that one can be empowered after they grieve to do a healing ritual, piece, or even, with a therapist, say eye-to-eye, “Yes this happened. We know this. We grieved,” as transitional activities after loss. In Kid Gloves, Lucy Knisley says she reenacts the birth her son each time he leaves the bathtub. They have a play they do in which they pretend and connect to birth together. I think that is just lovely. I think that’s what we try to create in different ways with our patients.
Nora: I’ve had a lot of patients who are afraid of the really, really sad part. I think because when grief is involved, it’s often grieving an experience in which something was really out of our control, and there can be fear that feeling the sadness again means a loss of control. I think healthy grieving requires the paradox that to control the grief is to surrender to the vulnerability of the sadness so you can then control the integration/healing/meaning.
Rachael: I agree with what you’re saying about integration/healing/meaning. Giving breathing room to the sadness, space, and then, creating the rest with the patient. Integration/healing/meaning is different for everyone in every experience, and unique to both the person and to the experience or loss. Sometimes, grieving is not about the loss of the baby, but the loss of an idea or experience, like the idea of how pregnancy, birth and newborn-hood was going to go.
Nora: I share with patients all the time that I don’t think “everything happens for a reason” or that fate is a thing, but what I do believe is that we get to choose what kind of meaning we want to make of our experiences, which I think is more empowering than saying your suffering has to be for some greater good. It doesn’t. I think when we process our experiences we get to decide their significance and legacy in our lives. I think it’s when we don’t process our trauma is when the events decide for us what their significance will be.