(Photo: Getty Images/Kimberly White)
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on Friday announced that they are expecting a baby girl — and the couple is thrilled.
But it has not been an easy journey to joy.
The Facebook founder and CEO opened up about the pair’s painful process to conceive, including three miscarriages. “You feel so hopeful when you learn you’re going to have a child,” he explained in a Facebook post. “You start imagining who they’ll become and dreaming of hopes for their future. You start making plans, and then they’re gone. It’s a lonely experience. Most people don’t discuss miscarriages because you worry your problems will distance you or reflect upon you — as if you’re defective or did something to cause this. So you struggle on your own.”
These feelings of anguish and guilt are common in couples who miscarry, says counselor and psychologist Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, Springfield. “As with any loss, grief is a normal process,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Most individuals will go through the stages of grief and loss, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.”
But mothers, especially, are vulnerable to feelings of depression, guilt, and inadequacy, says Ivankovich. “Miscarriage happens at a time when women are already emotionally vulnerable as a result of the hormonal shifts taking place within the body during pregnancy,” she explains. “Just because there has been a spontaneous termination of the pregnancy, it doesn’t change the significant hormonal shifts. And the postpartum experience can exacerbate these feelings of sadness and grief and, for many, guilt.”
Would-be mothers often turn over how they might have “done something different” to prevent the loss. “This thinking, that the loss could have been controlled, is what results in a sense of guilt,” says Ivankovich. “She might experience anger with herself, as well. How could she let this happen, because a mother’s body is a safe haven for the growing fetus? She may feel that she was unable to protect her child.”
Ivankovich calls this the “mother bear mentality,” which starts the moment a woman learns she’s pregnant. Really, miscarriage can be a perfect storm for women, and it can touch men, as well. Often, both halves of a couple privately wonder if a genetic abnormality on their part is to blame for the loss, if they aren’t able to conceive — but often men and women just need to know they’re not alone in their loss.
It’s easy to internalize a loss as intimate as an unborn child, but Ivankovich says opening up to friends, family, and your significant other helps in the healing process. “Having a strong support structure in place allows the parents to share their feelings of loss, grief, shame, guilt, and talk even about the future,” she explains. “Communicating about the loss allows the couple to feel heard.”
Zuckerberg and Chan found sanctuary in their inner circle. When they told friends about their struggle with miscarriages, the problem was suddenly a universal one — not so individual. “We realized how frequently this happened,” he writes, “that many people we knew had similar issues and that nearly all had healthy children after all.”
Knowing supportive friends and family members who have walked the path, and are now on the other side, can be huge. “In these situations, individuals can offer empathetic support instead of just sympathetic support,” Ivankovich says. “They can guide the person, or a couple, back to a hopeful state. They can help them feel that life will return to a sense of normalcy.”
There is no timeline for dealing with a miscarriage. Ivankovich says some people move rapidly through the stages of grief, others take a few months. But if you’re struggling to cope with the loss, feel disconnected from others, or can’t function normally day to day, seek help. Individual, couple, or family therapy can all be effective, as well as a blend of psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Just don’t isolate. Don’t go it alone. Take it from Zuckerberg. “In today’s open and connected world, discussing these issues doesn’t distance us; it brings us together,” he writes. “It creates understanding and tolerance, and it gives us hope.”
Zuckerberg says Chan is far enough along in her pregnancy that the risk of another miscarriage is quite low, so they are feeling more hopeful than ever. Like many couples who have suffered a previous loss, they’re planning to celebrate the birth of a little girl in just several months’ time.
Even in the wake of past sadness, there’s hope and happiness in what’s ahead.