Coping With Your Feelings About the Septuplets

As I write this in early December (1997), dewy-eyed media attention continues to swirl around the two-week-old McCaughey septuplets. While it seems that the world is rejoicing, those of you experienced with infertility, multiple gestation, selective fetal reduction, prematurity and/or perinatal death know the some of the emotional, physical, logistical, medical and ethical truths. And while it is natural to congratulate these parents and to wish them well, it is also natural to have feelings of guilt, failure, anger and envy when you compare your experiences to theirs. You may also be fed up with cheery media reports about the parents’ unbridled joy and the healthy, herculean babies.

While it is happy news that all seven babies may survive, it is okay to feel upset about the situation too. Here are some of the painful feelings you may be grappling with, and some suggestions for coping.

Failure: Whether you carried two or more, if your babies were delivered prematurely, you may wonder, “If this mother could carry 7 babies past 30 weeks, surely I should have been able to carry fewer babies longer, perhaps to term!” If you opted to selectively reduce your pregnancy, you may wonder why YOUR body couldn’t carry more babies. In light of the fact that one or more or all of your babies died, you may feel particularly inadequate in the face of surviving septuplets. But the reality is, your physical situation was very different from this mom’s. There were probably a number of factors beyond your control that stacked the deck against you and your babies, but for her and her babies. Reassure yourself that you did the best you could with the cards you were dealt.

Guilt: Particularly if you chose to do a fetal reduction, you may be wracked with self-doubt. You were told that the risks were too high for you and all your babies. But Bobbi McCaughey was told the same thing, and she proved the naysayers wrong. “Maybe I could have too,” you may wonder. Particularly if you were carrying fewer than 7 and chose to reduce to one, twins or triplets, you may feel very foolish or cheated. If your remaining babies died following reduction, you may agonize “what if”. But it is important for you to remember that Ms. McCaughey’s experience was unprecedented. She beat terrible odds, and she followed her personal religious beliefs, NOT the statistics, medical facts, ethical reasoning or YOUR intuitive sense of what was best FOR YOUR BABIES. No doubt she had high hopes, but her undertaking held monumental risks. Remember, her decision and her babies’ survival does not even remotely indicate that your decision was wrong. Also remember that feeling guilty is NOT the same as being guilty.

Confusion/Embarrassment: With media coverage reporting how “joyful” the parents are, and how “healthy” the babies are, this may undermine your sense of reality. If you delivered prematurely, you may feel inadequate for feeling grief, fear and longing while your baby(s) struggled in the NICU. If any of your babies survived and thrived, you may wonder if you were being neurotic, worrying about your baby(s) being listed in serious, fair, or good condition. After all, nobody seems worried about these babies. Headlines shout “Baby’s return to ventilator not serious.” Excuse me? There is not a preemie parent alive who wouldn’t freak out at that kind of setback. Do take heart, that while the media paint a pretty picture, you know the truth that fear is a predominant part of the landscape, and that it’s heartbreaking to have a tiny, vulnerable baby in the NICU, cradled by machines instead of a warm parental embrace. The McCaugheys know this firsthand too.

Anxiety/Fear: The idea of 7 little preemies may rake up feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. You know how precious each of those babies is, you know how Bobbi’s and Kenny’s sorrow would know no bounds if one died. You also know that if, heaven forbid, one (or more) should die, they would get very little public support. “Be thankful you still have quintuplets!” would be the hue and cry of the masses. How awful that would be for them. You may feel on pins and needles until all those babies are home for a while, safe and sound. It may help you to adopt this mantra, “It’s not me, it’s not my babies, I’m safe now, my babies are safe now (wherever they may be), we aren’t in danger, it’s not me, it’s not us.”

Envy: If you delivered at 30 weeks’ gestation or earlier, you may feel envious that another mother carried an unprecedented number of babies longer. If your babies weighed less than any of the septuplets, you may feel similarly begrudging. Because one or more or all of your babies died, you may be beside yourself with envy. How could one woman carry seven babies more than 30+ weeks, and have babies between 2 pounds 5 ounces and 3 pounds 4 ounces, and all of them surviving? It’s just not fair! Take this opportunity to let feelings of sadness, anger and regret flow through you.

Anger: You may find this the most challenging emotion. After all, how could any decent person begrudge the McCaugheys’ good fortune or their religious faith? But in spite of possibly feeling ashamed at this reaction, you are not a bad person – you are completely entitled to feel angry. In fact, your anger may have many facets:

Anger at the McCaugheys With the odds so NOT in their favor, one could argue that their decision to carry all 7 babies was foolish. Fortunately for them, all 7 have survived delivery and look like they might all eventually be going home. But whenever fools go where angels fear to tread, and then emerge unscathed, their luck can feel like a slap in the face. You may feel particularly angry if you took a more conservative route or if you took similar gambles and paid a high price. Anger at the state of infertility treatment It is also natural to feel angry at infertility treatments that put parents in a position to carry multiple babies. Multiple gestation vastly increases the risks to mother and babies, not to mention the position parents are put in to choose whether to try to carry them all or to abort some. To those who hold the McCaugheys at fault for not reducing the pregnancy, I’d like to point out that it is infertility treatment that is at fault here. I consider it absolutely irresponsible and unethical for the infertility industry to create conditions where women are becoming pregnant with multiples, and then to expect the mother to take very high risks with all, or choose death for some of her babies. It is a choice between terrible and horrible. This is not a position in which parents should be placed.

Anger at the unfairness of the situation for the whole family Even though the McCaugheys are happy that they beat the odds and that it looks like all the babies will go home, originally all they wanted was a second baby. Every baby needs and deserves to be nurtured and enjoyed. But with septuplets, there will be precious little opportunity for the parents to feel like they can do that, personally, for all 7. How do other families with 7 children do it? THEY DON’T HAVE THEM ALL AT ONCE! The incessant demands, the financial strain, the guilt of not being able to nurture each baby, the fear of depriving these kids, not to mention the older baby girl they already have at home. And what about the doctor visits and follow-up assessments and therapy appointments for 7 preemies who are at risk for chronic illness and developmental delays? This is NOT the kind of family life that they wished for. In spite of media glorification of multiple babies, mega-multiples are not what prospective parents are wishing for.

Anger about your own situation You may feel particularly aggravated if you have yet to hold a healthy baby in your arms, or if you are aching for another baby. It is natural for you to be pained to hear about the septuplets when you are missing the chance to raise together your baby twins, triplets, quads, quints or more. You may feel angry that technology, luck, fate, God and/or Mother Nature came together and gave these parents 7 bundles of joy, but did not spare your babies.

If you feel angry, get MAD. You may find it helpful to write about your feelings, to write a letter to the docs, the McCaugheys, your uterus, God, to whomever or whatever you feel like aiming your wrath. You don’t have to send it, but you sure can benefit from writing it! Expressing your anger can help you to let it go, and can be a first step toward forgiveness.

In spite of the media-fest, you are not alone in your situation, your decisions, and your feelings. And do remember, that the McCaugheys are now preemie parents. They are beginning to understand the big picture too. Perhaps someday, they will use their position as media darlings to speak openly about their experiences with infertility treatment, high-risk pregnancy, parenting in the NICU and about the joys and pains of raising so many.

adapted from an article that originally appeared in the PAILS Newsletter, January/February, 1998. She is a psychologist who writes extensively on pregnancy, prematurity, parenting and loss issues, and is the author of Empty Cradle, Broken Heart: Surviving the Death of Your Baby (Fulcrum, 1991; 1996). Reprinted by permission.