Foreboding Joy

Recently on a podcast, I listened to Dr. Brene Brown, the academic known for her ability to decode complex human behaviours, arguing how foreboding joy is a sure way to never be happy.  She said, “Joy is the most vulnerable emotion we experience…if you cannot tolerate joy…you start dress rehearsing tragedy.” Then she illustrated this idea by describing an imaginary scene in which you’re watching your child sleep. In that peaceful moment, you couldn’t love them more. Then you suddenly imagine losing them and just like that your brain does a 180-degree turn, you go from feeling pure joy to utter terror.  This morbid mental flip is an attempt to pre-empt pain by experiencing it now.

While listening to this I had a total Ah Ha moment, I realized that I’d been dress rehearsing tragedy for the last two and a half years; accidentally engaging in these (effed up) mind-games in the name of preparation. I’d been convincing myself that I was preparing for the worst when I was actually foreboding joy.

My husband and I are 17 weeks pregnant but I have yet to acknowledge this fact. Instead, I wait for weeks to pass and hope that each uterine milestone will bring a new feeling of safety… I’m still waiting. Rather than feeling safer each week, I feel more anxious about when the pregnancy will be declared doomed.

After listening to this podcast I got some clarity into my dysfunctional thinking. I’m terrified to let my guard down and enjoy the moment in case the world comes crashing down. In doing so I stick with denial and fear to avoid the vulnerability that comes with happiness. Like most (if not all) irrational thoughts, this coping strategy is rooted in trauma.

For the past year and a half Husby and I have been trying for a baby through surrogacy. An incredibly amazing woman stepped up to help since personally carrying our embryo wasn’t an option due to my treatment induced infertility. Her generosity and commitment gave us renewed hope. Together, the three of us set out to make a baby using IVF.

After two frozen embryo transfer attempts, she got pregnant with our embryo. For us, it was a huge victory after cancer.

Sadly, our joy was not long lasting, at ten weeks we learned that our little monkey no longer had a heartbeat. Just like that our hopes of rebuilding a life and transitioning into parenthood were gone. The miscarriage destroyed us when we didn’t have much left to destroy. It took a long time accept that miscarriages were a normal but very sad reality of trying for a baby. It took us even longer to process the accompanying pain.

With time we rebounded and eventually worked up the courage to move forward. We found another surrogate and started the exhausting IVF process all over again. Our first frozen embryo transfer took and we were once again pregnant.

This time we felt reassured that our luck had finally changed. We figured we’d been through enough, it must be our time. We cautiously but optimistically started imagining our lives with the baby. We re-arranged the furniture in the hopes that we’d soon be decorating the nursery.

Then through a heartbreaking phone call from our surrogate, we learned we’d miscarried almost exactly a year after the first one. Husby and I escaped work and puddled on the couch. In a trance we ordered a pizza, paid the delivery man but left the box on the counter, too distraught to eat. It was a cruel reminder of how unfair life can be.

As the weeks went by had to let go of the timelines I had unconsciously locked onto. I stopped dreaming of being pregnant alongside my pregnant friends. I closed down my dream nursery Pinterest page. I put our baby hopes on hold.

Even as I began to feel less sad, I still broke down hearing other people’s pregnancy announcements. I declined all baby showers and avoided interacting with pregnant women and babies.

Even though we could barely face the chance of another heartbreak, six months later we tried again. Our fearless surrogate was implanted with another tiny embryo. In contrast to our first transfer, we skipped the celebratory photographs opting instead to go through the motions, emotionless.

The next two weeks we pretended the transfer hadn’t happened. We didn’t talk about it or try to guess the outcome. We kept busy and ignored the worries that were creeping in.

Two weeks later, we learned we were pregnant over Skype. Husby and I cried… tears of fear. We knew too well what would come next.

During week 8 at a visit with my doctor, I told her in a flat affect, “We’re pregnant again.”

With total glee, she replied, “that is the most exciting news I’ve heard all day! Are you excited?”


How could she even ask that, I wondered. Of course I’m not excited. This little miracle will  be gone in two weeks and I’ll be left more broken than ever.

“This is a miracle baby, you need to relax and enjoy this pregnancy. This is something worth celebrating.” She advised in a soothing tone.

“Ya… I know… I’m trying.” I replied while fighting back tears.

I so badly wanted to relax, celebrate, and be happy. I wanted to be curious and inquisitive. I wanted to decorate the nursery and tell all my friends and family our wonderful news. I wanted that delightful naiveté that pregnant women have when they’ve had no troubles.

Instead, I rejected anything to do with pregnancy. I refused to acknowledge it as if my refusal would make the next blow softer. I was doing exactly what Brene Brown advised against, I was dress rehearsing the next tragedy.

Only now that we’re 17 weeks am I starting to loosen up (a bit). I looked into buying some baby gear and shared our news with a select few. I even took out a baby naming guide from the library (it probably says something that I didn’t buy it, only loaned it. Oh well it was a good first  – – a baby step).

I now know that foreboding joy by dress rehearsing tragedy doesn’t dampen the pain of future losses it only serves to rob the present moment. But knowing and practicing are two different things. At least with awareness I can catch myself dress rehearsing. I can remind myself to stay in the moment and to enjoy the process. I guess I’m a work in progress, just like our pregnancy.

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