Sarah Sullivan (34), Josie (18 months)
Flint, MI | Phoenix, AZ
Sarah shares -
“I had a miscarriage at 12 weeks in 2016. I was really unprepared for the emotional fallout that came along with it. I had a missed miscarriage so it actually happened sometime earlier, probably around 8 weeks but I didn’t bleed or anything and I didn’t know anything was wrong until my second ultrasound. I still felt pregnant. And when it happened I was totally blindsided that something like this could happen in my body and I could have no idea. That was a huge part of the grief and fear I had to work through, this idea that my body let me down, not only by not being able to sustain and support this life, but by not being able to send the right messages afterwards. It was really challenging for me to learn how to trust my body again.
I really didn’t know anything about miscarriage and I wasn’t really able to process my options in the moment. I chose to do a medically induced miscarriage because being at home seemed a little less terrible, and I left the office with a prescription for misoprostal. And it was really awful. It was a long process - I bled for weeks and the actual embryo didn’t pass until four days after the medication. I was sitting at my desk and I felt this sudden rush of liquid. I went to the bathroom at work and reached down and the embryo just sort of fell out into my hand. So then I was just sitting alone in a bathroom stall, holding this tiny, bloody lump that I thought was going to be my child. I was crying and shaking. I sat there for thirty minutes, not knowing what to do. Flushing it down the toilet seemed horrifying, but so did carrying it back through the office to my desk. And then what would I do with it? So finally I whispered an apology and placed it in the bowl and flushed. And then I just had to go back to work, like nothing had happened.”
How has parenthood impacted your body image?
“I have an eating disorder history and my miscarriage triggered a major anorexia relapse. I felt such a lack of control around my body and my eating disorder just slipped in fast and aggressively. It got pretty scary for awhile. I was angry and I didn’t know who to be angry at. I was grieving someone that I had no memories to tie to and guilty over a failure that I didn’t know how to fix, and I took it out on my body because that just seemed like the safest way to deal with it.
But then what came out of all that is that I started a treatment program with a therapist and a dietitian and got real help with my food and body image issues for the first time in my life. And it has changed everything. I started learning about intuitive eating and trusting myself and my body, and I worked with my therapist to deal with a lot of things I’d been masking with my eating disorder.
When I got pregnant with Josie though, it was shocking. My periods had stopped because of restricting and I was in the process of restoring weight but it hadn’t restarted yet. So I didn’t think I could get pregnant and I didn’t think I was emotionally ready to anyway. But it really energized my need to do my own healing work around my body, because I knew that my experience was not what I wanted to pass down to my child.
I look at her now and she takes so much joy in her body. Like when she gets really excited about something she’ll just grab her tummy and jiggle it in delight. She likes to look in the mirror and name all the different parts of her body, and mine. I want her to keep that joy and I want her to see me experiencing that joy in her body and in my own, so she knows it’s not something she has to give up when she gets older. And not just our physical bodies - I want to model healthy ways of processing emotions and dealing with hard things so that she doesn’t need to use unhealthy coping mechanisms in the future.
It’s a complicated thing because I know that I am a better parent because of the healing I’ve done in the last three years. Which means I’m a better parent to Josie than I would have been to the child I lost. Which I feel a lot of complicated feelings about, and sometimes I feel guilty, like I had to sacrifice that child in order to be the parent I am now to my girl. But mostly I’m grateful. Grateful for the body that I have and the person that I have become and for this beautiful little person that I get to know and watch grow up.
I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason and I still think about and grieve my loss. But I am also in a place where I don’t want anything in my life to be different. So I’ve gotten myself to a place where I can live with those dualities.”
What was your postpartum experience?
“I had a really great birth experience. I felt strong and powerful and connected, and I was lucky in that things really went the way I hoped they would with no complications. The nurses at the hospital, both in the delivery room and in recovery were amazing and so generous with their knowledge and support. My husband and I both work with teenagers but had absolutely no experience with babies. I don’t think I had ever even held a baby younger than 6 months old until I had one! And as much reading and research I did ahead of time, nothing can really prepare you for what that’s like. But the nurses were so kind to us - they walked me through every question I had and never made me feel stupid about anything. I do wish I had known more about the physical recovery process. I think I had thought that because I had a vaginal delivery and everything went well that recovery would be really easy. And it’s not! It’s still a huge thing that your body does and needs to recover from.
Because of my mental health history I had put a lot of checks in place for myself during the first 3 months. I was really transparent with my doctor during my pregnancy and I made a plan with my therapist for support. I brought Josie to my appointments the whole time I was on maternity leave which was great. But I was actually surprised by how good I felt during that early time. I was exhausted and emotional of course and it was hard - but overall I felt calm and centered.
It kind of took me by surprise then when I started experiencing some major postpartum anxiety and OCD symptoms when my daughter was about 5 months old. Being back at work was tougher for me than I expected and the 4 month sleep regression hit hard and stayed that way, so I was up 5 or more times every night. I have a really supportive partner but breastfeeding was the only effective way to get her to sleep so I was up every time. I started getting panic attacks where I would imagine something bad happened to her, usually imagining some devastating mistake I made. When it got hotter outside I started fixating on the idea of leaving her in the car. I live in Arizona so heat is real. I would get into the car at the end of the day, feel the warmth on my face and be taken over by the overwhelming image of finding my daughter’s body in her car seat, as if it was really happening. It got to the point where I was walking out to my car just to check multiple times a day at work, even though I knew she was safe at daycare. And it was compounded by the fact that nobody really told me that this kind of stuff could happen 6 months in. I had already mentally checked off the PPD box, seen it as something that didn’t affect me. And when I finally talked to my therapist about it, and decided I needed medication support, my OB’s office couldn’t see me about it because I was already 8 months postpartum. I finally found an amazing general practitioner and started taking Zoloft, and it made a huge difference. Honestly I wish I had done it so many years ago. And we sleep trained, and it actually worked, so we finally started sleeping again. By the time Josie turned one I was actually feeling like myself again. And it was another really joyful experience, in the months after her first birthday, to finally feel a sense of being settled into my life and identity as a parent.”
What is your truth?
“Having a miscarriage and having a baby both changed my body. But they also changed my relationship to my body. After a lifetime of controlling, punishing, and resenting it, I feel at home in my own body for the first time in my life. Like I’m really living in it for the first time. My body grew a baby and brought her into the world. It can feed her, nourish her, hold her, and protect her. Its flaws are nothing compared to its power. And now that I am a mother to a daughter, this perfect, beautiful, joyful baby girl, I can’t wait to show her the awesome power of her own body. I’m going to teacher that it’s magic, and so is she. I’m letting her teach me the same thing. And that’s what I would want to tell my former self, or another new parent - your body is good enough. Your body knows what it’s doing. And you and your body are a team. Building trust together is essential. “
Why did you choose to participate in this movement and share your story?
”When I was pregnant a friend shared the instagram account with me and I was so drawn to it. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for these stories, for these images. I had never seen birth imagery, real postpartum bodies, had never heard other people talk so candidly about birth and loss and all the things I had felt and wondered about feeling. I followed this and other birth/postpartum accounts ravenously because it was the only place I felt like I was getting a real sense of what was going to happen to me. So I feel really grateful for the work that you all do and for the people who have shared their stories already. It’s a huge honor to be part of it, and it feels very powerful to be connected to so many others with different versions of my experience.
In many ways it feels similar, and energetically aligned with the work I do as a theatre artist. It’s about storytelling, connection, and being able to both see versions of your own experiences and have emotional resonance with very different experiences. It’s about sharing so many different versions of what’s true that there is space for everyone’s story. We all get to feel seen. We all get to learn something new.”