How I built a family after my marriage imploded

On the cusp of parenthood, my life as I knew it was ripped out from under me. As painful as it was, it might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.

Photo: COURTESY OF SAMANTHA WESTREN

What would you do if your marriage imploded just as you were trying to start a family? How would you react if the thing you wanted most in the world was ripped out from under you? And what if it turned out, in retrospect, that it was the best thing that could have happened?

Six years ago, my life was headed steadily in one direction. I was happy in my career, my husband and I had just moved into a new house, and we were getting ready for the next chapter: parenthood. Or so I thought. A series of events was about to alter everything I thought I knew about my life, my marriage and my future.

My husband, Zack*, and I had just celebrated our third wedding anniversary with a relaxing weekend at my family cottage when we found out I was pregnant. Zack had always been slightly anxious about the idea of parenthood (“What if we can’t handle it?” he’d ask. And “What if you love the baby more than you love me?”). Still, we were both excited. Zack insisted that we take a picture of ourselves with the positive test to record the moment for posterity. I scheduled the first ultrasound on my 35th birthday. “We can go for a celebratory lunch afterwards!” I said. I spent the next month dreaming of baby names and nursery colours.

But at the ultrasound, the technician was unable to detect a heartbeat. I couldn’t even make it back to my car. I called my best friend, who lived around the corner from my doctor’s office. She came right over and sat with us while I sobbed on a street curb. I had never even heard of the term “missed miscarriage” before. I couldn’t stop crying.

Over the next few weeks, I tried to pick up the pieces and move forward, clinging to the fact that many women who experience losses go on to have healthy pregnancies. I couldn’t wait to start trying again.

Zack had the opposite reaction. He took the miscarriage as a sign that we weren’t supposed to be parents—he said he was relieved it had happened. I tried to tell myself that everyone processes grief differently, but we couldn’t even talk about it without him completely shutting down. He no longer wanted to have a family. End of discussion.

I had always thought that we had a loving, supportive partnership, but suddenly he started attacking my character, lashing out in anger and resentment. Zack became increasingly erratic, flip-flopping between reason and aggression. He was aware of his behaviour, even nicknaming himself “Black Zack” during the dark periods. But it didn’t stop him from blaming me for his problems.

As months ticked by, I became more and more anxious about my chances of getting pregnant again. I had my fertility tested, and the results weren’t promising. I was diagnosed with diminished ovarian reserve—if I waited too long, I would be facing the possibility of premature ovarian failure. Zack seemed to have morphed into a completely different person, and I knew it would take months—or even years—to reintroduce the idea of starting a family. It was time I didn’t have. I felt paralyzed by fear and doubt.

The only thing I was 100 percent sure of was my desire to be a parent, and it was becoming clear that wasn’t going to happen if I remained in my marriage. As daunting as it was, the option of trying to have a baby on my own was far more appealing than staying with an unwilling, unreasonable partner.

illustration of potted plant
The anxiety of pregnancy after multiple miscarriages
I told Zack I wanted to separate. On my 36th birthday, he moved out. That night, a few of my closest friends took me out for a birthday drink. They did their best to make me feel better, but at the end of the evening, I slumped home and collapsed on my kitchen floor. I lay there staring at the ceiling for hours.

I felt so powerless. Within 12 months, I’d gone from being married and pregnant to single and alone. In this age of technology and convenience, we’re used to finding relatively quick fixes to most of life’s problems. So what happens when we’re hit with major losses, such as death, divorce or infertility (or, in my case, all three)? There’s no app for that.

Though I was relieved to be away from the toxicity that had marked the last year of my marriage, I also felt an overwhelming sense of loss. Most days, it was a struggle just to get out of bed. As I sat in a bathroom stall at work one day, sobbing quietly into a wad of tissues so that no one could hear me, I realized that I had cried every day for 14 months straight.

Since I had never really had a chance to process the loss of the pregnancy—let alone everything that came after it—I began grief counselling at a local hospital. My therapist gently advised me that I needed to accept the fact that sometimes life doesn’t go as planned and that we don’t always get what we want. It was difficult to hear. Logically, I knew she was right, but I had been brought up thinking that if I just worked hard enough, I could achieve all of my dreams. The alternative to me was unbearable.

I turned my anger inward, blaming myself and wishing things were different. It was only through months of counselling and mindfulness practice that I learned how to make peace with myself. I also worked hard to change the preconceived notions I had of happiness, as well as my traditional ideas about marriage, fertility, pregnancy and parenthood.

I won’t lie: It was a painful process. I had a clear picture of how my life should look, and the fact that my reality didn’t match that ideal made me feel like a failure. To truly heal, I realized I had to work with what exists in the present rather than get caught up in the past or future. It sounds obvious, I know, but it’s easier said than done.

For me, the turning point came when I started looking forward, exploring alternative ways to become a parent, including assisted reproduction, egg and embryo freezing and adoption. “There are many ways to build a family,” my mom would tell me on particularly tough days, citing examples of friends and acquaintances who had used donors or adopted kids. I vowed that, no matter what it took, I would keep trying until I became a mom.

Almost six years have passed since the miscarriage, and I now have two children with my new partner. There were a few bumps along the way (an unsuccessful IVF cycle and another miscarriage), but we kept going and, in the end, we just got lucky—to our surprise, both of our kids were conceived without assistance. Our daughter is currently going through her terrible twos and pitches tantrums almost daily. Yesterday, she got mad because she asked for eggs for dinner and we made them for her. Our eight-month-old son is teething and woke up five times last night shrieking.

But anytime I feel frustrated or exhausted, I remind myself that these are small hardships compared to being the target of someone else’s anger and resentment. My life doesn’t look the way I thought it would, and it likely never will.

Given the choice, I certainly could have done without some of the challenges and heartaches over the past six years. But if anything had happened differently, I wouldn’t have the kids I have now. Being their mom has been the greatest joy of my life, and when I look into their sweet little faces, I wouldn’t change a thing.

*Names have been changed

Read more:
Eulogy to a marriage lost to parenthood
Making it through your divorce

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