I almost deleted this photo the first time I laid eyes on it.
From the outset, it wasn’t a bad photo. Nice scenery. My ponytail didn’t look like that of a colonial soldier, for once. Did my husband just take an Instagram-worthy shot, no filter necessary, on the first try? For the first time ever?
Then, I made the fatal decision to zoom in. You ladies know what I’m talking about. We nitpick ourselves to death. Sure, it looked good from a distance, but did it pass the ultimate test? This one did not. My facial expression in the photo said it all, so I decided to bury the picture deep in the recesses of my iPhone photo library. This would never see the social media light-of-day. Too painful. Even if it was Dublin, Ireland.
One year ago when the photo was taken, my life felt very different. It didn’t look much different to the outside observer, I’m sure. I was married, lived in the same house, held the same job. I laughed just as hard, cracked jokes with friends, traveled when I could, tried to sing on-key yet absurdly loudly in the car/shower, and bestowed an obsessive amount of affection onto my dogs. It’s like anyone who’s been through a tough season: sometimes, you don’t even notice they’re going through it.
But if you looked at me really, microscopically close, just like in this photo, you could see it in my eyes. It was evident in my only-slightly furrowed brow that held so much thought and sorrow which was then a permanent part of my expression. You could see it in the way I stared off during conversations where my attention used to be focused.
To be honest, it wasn’t always apparent even to me. It had been several months since my miscarriage, and I assumed I had really DEALT with things. After all, how long do you REALLY need after tragedy strikes you? Society will tell you to shower after a day or two and get moving. I got moving, but I never really felt like I was in motion. This photo was a reminder to me that I was still suffering.
Since I lost my first pregnancy in late June of last year, I thought returning to work and the start of a new school year in the fall would heal me. It actually made it worse. I thought vacations across the pond would salvage me, but instead they intensified what I was missing when I returned. Church services, talks with friends, eating sugar, eating healthy, exercising, naps, binging Netflix – I tried a lot of avenues to feel like “myself” again and then silently chastised myself when none of it worked.
The truth is, the girl in that Ireland photograph from a year ago is a very different me than just a few months prior, and a very different me than the girl who writes this now. As anyone who has experienced loss can attest, it changes you. My heart physically ached sometimes, and other times I felt nothing at all. I think, looking back at this photo, that this was a “nothing” time, which also makes your heart ache. I was smack dab in the middle of Dublin, gazing out at the Ha’Penny bridge (a place I’ve dreamt of visiting for most of my life), and I felt… not a whole lot of anything. I remember being so upset with myself. I was so ungrateful. I was so weak. I was missing this moment! I was letting time slip away while I suffered.
To be fair, I still ate fish and chips from Leo Burdocks. Twice.
It’s what we do, though – we beat ourselves up (not eat deep fried fish and chips… or maybe it’s both). We’re so hard on ourselves when we don’t immediately bounce back from a tough fall. Looking back now, it’s in the “no bouncing zone” – in my stagnation – where I really experienced healing. At first, I tried to push through it, tough it out, show up and smile. Then, around the time this photo was taken, I just started letting myself feel how I felt, no matter how it came across in potential Instagram photos.
A year later, as I look back at this photograph of me, I recognize how much has changed. From the outside, again, not much. Sure, my baby bump belly has grown exponentially and my nails are growing CRAZY long – almost to a creepy level, really (thanks, prenatal vitamins). My hair has gotten a little darker (thanks for keeping me fly even during pregnancy, Sarah). I also waddle a little when I walk – hellooooo third trimester! On the inside, though, so much has changed. A new little life inside of me promises to join us in January. In the photograph, that girl never thought she’d see a belly emerge or ever have a baby in January. My first January baby was taken from me before I ever really got to enjoy him/her. It’s still painful to have to type “him/her” without ever knowing the designation. Now, I’m putting together cribs and high chairs (okay, let’s be honest, I’m making my husband do that while I eat cookies and watch). I’m planning a baby shower with my mom. I’m checking my baby registries – obsessively, I might add. I’m getting to do all of the things that the girl in that photograph was afraid she might not get to do. Just one year ago, it all felt completely out of reach.
Today, I am wholly different. I was blessed then, and I am blessed now, but in two drastically opposing realms. I learned more about myself at this time last year than I ever had before. I was in a valley, and now I’m in a peak. Isn’t that how life goes?
It’s hard to describe yourself in a “valley” when you’re in Dublin, Ireland or in the British Virgin Islands a few months later, even when you find yourself sobbing over another failed pregnancy test and sabotaging essentially an entire day of your beautiful vacation so you can grieve and feel sorry for yourself. Sunshine doesn’t keep the bad days away… even BVI sunshine. I’d like to tell you I handled those times with more grace, more poise. Sometimes I did and sometimes (ask my husband), I just didn’t. Either way, I was growing. I was learning. I was being stretched, pushed, and pulled. I am a tougher, stronger person. It will make me a better mother.
I’ll never get over what I lost last year. It’s not something you ever forget. I do know, however, that I am that much more appreciative of my peak seasons. I’ll be that much more aware during times of abundance. I’ll be more focused on being the type of mom who teaches her daughter that valleys and peaks are equally important. I want to teach her that life isn’t designed for avoiding pain. It’s designed for growth. Change. Challenge. Overcoming.
I’ll become an earthly mom this January, and there isn’t one day where I don’t pray a prayer of sheer thankfulness when the baby kicks my uterus with the force of what I can only assume means she will grow to be a sheer ass-kicker once she’s out of the womb. She is destined to have a full life. She was destined to be here.
She might visit the Ha’Penny bridge someday, where her mom once stood suffering from the loss of a child. I hope she never feels that pain, but I know she will feel some. I know she’ll have valleys, peaks, and moments of nothing. I hope she appreciates each one for what it is and lets herself really be IN it, no matter what that looks like to the outside observer. And, as a mom’s rite of passage, I hope and pray that she’ll have SO many more peaks than she’ll have valleys.
I’m not naive to the fact that on my worst day, life was still a rose garden compared to others. Sometimes, the valleys last a lot longer than mine did. I know this because I’ve connected with so many other women who have experienced years of loss, heartache, infertility, and other horrors that human beings should never have to endure but have to anyway. I am fully aware that I am now one of the lucky ones. The point is never to compare, but to empathize.
Peaks and valleys, they don’t last forever. This photo of me (with serious RBF, I might add. I meeeeean, even a lot more than I normally have) will forever remind me of a time when I was in the waiting for a miracle. I’m glad I didn’t delete it. Somebody other than just me needs to see it and know that their season of waiting, for whatever it might be, won’t last forever. What’s meant for us will not pass us, whether we are trudging through a valley, or celebrating in joy at the top of a peak after a grueling climb.
Save your valley photos, too. You don’t have to Instagram them – not even a year later, if you don’t want to. Even if your ponytail DOES happen to resemble that of our first president George Washington, even if your expression isn’t one that’s easy for you to look back at… save it. In “the cloud”, or on your phone, or anywhere you can retrieve it when your season has changed.
Be willing to pull it out of the depths of obscurity, because there will be somebody, somewhere, who NEEDS to see your valley photo someday, and it just might be you.
In recognition of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day, October 15th.