Elizabeth Anonni sketched a rainbow on the chalkboard wall of her Farmington home, printing, “After every storm there is a rainbow of hope,” and adding “March, 2016.”
She posed with the rainbow in a photo, standing at an angle to better show off the slight protuberance in her midsection.
When she posted the picture on Facebook, she wrote, “Nick and I could NOT be any happier that we have been blessed after a rough year filled with many tears and too much heartache! Thanking GOD daily for our rainbow baby!”
After two miscarriages, Anonni, 31, the mother of a 3-year-old boy, is allowing herself to feel optimistic about delivering next year.
“I’m super-anxious and super-excited,” she said. “We’re not finding out if it’s a boy or a girl; this baby is so welcome we don’t care. Calling it a rainbow baby is a way to show that my husband and I have been through something.”
The rainbow, the Old Testament symbol of renewed life that follows tragedy, has been appropriated by some families who have experienced miscarriage, stillbirth and infant loss. Starting during the subsequent pregnancy, they call the developing fetuses they carry “rainbow babies.”
It’s a term that’s found widespread appeal. Social media sites carry pictures of rainbow pregnancies and newborns; Pinterest and Etsy are filled with rainbow baby wear and gear. There are shower decorations and invitations for rainbow baby gatherings, rainbow baby birth announcements, maternity clothes that identify that a rainbow baby is on board, and onesies for an infant to wear once he or she arrives.
“I think the rainbow baby term is a fitting one,” said Kelly McDyre, executive director of Faith’s Lodge. The Twin Cities nonprofit operates a lodge in Wisconsin’s North Woods as a therapeutic getaway for families who have suffered the loss of a child.
“What bereaved parents want most is to talk about the child they lost. They don’t get the opportunity to do that because it makes other people uncomfortable,” she said. “When they’re awaiting the birth of another child, these parents learn how grief and joy coexist in the same space.”
She thinks that’s why some parents tag their babies-to-be with the rainbow association.
“You say you’re having a rainbow baby and someone says, ‘What does that mean?’ It gives you a chance to mention the baby who isn’t here. A rainbow is something you can’t touch but you can see. It’s a perfect representation of what a parent is trying to convey.”
Not so silent grief
Losing a pregnancy is not a rare event. Statistically, 20 to 25 percent of conceptions do not result in live births, due to miscarriage or stillbirth. It’s been called a silent grief, because it’s often not acknowledged.
Women who conceive following a wrenching outcome experience pregnancy differently, according to Deborah Rich, a reproductive health psychologist. Her practice at the Shoshana Center in St. Paul is exclusively devoted to women and families who’ve experienced pregnancy and infant loss and mothers who struggle with depression and anxiety during and after pregnancy.
“The ‘rainbow baby’ term can signal to people outside the family to remember that the new baby isn’t pure joy,” Rich said, because it comes after a loss. “Often it’s the first great loss that a couple experiences,” she said. “The life story, the narrative for the family, has changed.”
Rich said the rainbow baby concept is new enough that there’s not yet been research on it to know if families continue to identify the new baby with the term after a successful delivery.
Not everyone cares for the term. Some are put off by its biblical connotation. On websites favored by mothers and mothers-to-be, even the concept finds critics.
“I personally don’t like the expression,” read a post on the topic on BabyCenter.com. “My son is not a rainbow baby; he is not defined in any way by my previous miscarriages.”
A CafeMom confessions board carried a lively discussion of the term, with a number of nameless posters chiming in.
“I hate the term rainbow baby,” one wrote. “I don’t know why it gets under my skin so much.” Another added, “If someone was describing their newborn with that term, I would find it creepy.”
The clinical name for what’s now identified a rainbow baby is “subsequent pregnancy after loss.”
Lindsey Henke, 32, a therapist from Bloomington, started and now runs a website devoted to the unique issues facing these mothers.
“We use the rainbow term, but sparingly. It doesn’t work for everyone but it does strike a nerve with the community of bereaved mothers,” said Henke. “It’s a form of shorthand that allows people to make connections. It’s helpful to the healing to find someone else who is grieving like you are.”
Henke founded PALS, (pregnancyafterlosssupport.com) after her first child, Nora, was stillborn. Henke’s pregnancy had been normal right up until the end, when an infection caused the baby to die. Henke said she experienced a jumbled mix of fear and hope while she carried her second daughter, who is now a toddler.
“My subsequent pregnancy was so associated with the loss. There are so many reminders,” she said. “You’re living in this body where this happened and so you relive the trauma. You have to heal this relationship with your body. I was in therapy; I am a therapist, and I recommend that.”
Henke’s website offers online support for women who’ve experienced different aspects of pregnancy loss. There are specific groups for parents trying to conceive, women who experienced first, second or third trimester miscarriage and women who do not expect to carry another pregnancy.
The website also features a section called “Rainbow Birth Stories,” which allows users of the site to post their own narratives and photos.
“All of those women had to walk that tightrope,” Henke said. “They had their expectations shattered or altered in some way, then lived through a scary pregnancy. They’re celebrating while honoring their loss.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a newscaster at BringMeTheNews.com.