Pregnancy, Miscarriage & Poetry: writing through the changes – an interview with Amanda Mahan Russell

Continuing our effort to spotlight parents who are also pursing creative endeavors, this week we’re talking to Amanda Russell, a poet whose debut chapbook, BARREN YEARS, is coming out in June. Amandais a native East Texan who has been writing poetry for over 15 years. Currently, she lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her husband and two children.

Photo by AprilMay Photography

Congratulations on the upcoming publication of your first chapbook BARREN YEARS from Finishing Line Press. How long did you work on this collection of poetry? 

The earliest poem in this collection is “Sonogram (16 weeks).” It was written in 2010. I started to envision this bundle of poems in 2012 when I wrote the poem “Barren Years.” I have been working on this collection since then, so for six years. 

How are you feeling about seeing it finally in print?

Ecstatic! To be a writer has been my dream as long as I can remember.

What inspired this collection? 

This collection started coming together when I worked in a writing lab as a tutor. I had just graduated, gotten married, worked at Barnes & Noble. I had been struggling to find my path and then my spiritual father challenged me to make it a practice, to write every day. That was the start of what I began calling my “writing experiment.” On the way home from work I would stop at the grocery store – it had a really cool back patio – and I liked the feel of it, so I would stop there and keep my pen moving for 20 minutes. Several things came from that practice, including many of the poems in the book. Sometimes I’d just be writing “I have nothing to say, nothing to say, nothing to say,” and I wasn’t writing with any specific goal other than to write. But sometimes I’d have a topic. I continued it for three years, and then I’ve been off and on with it since my first child was born. And whenever I start writing again after a dry spell, that’s the method I go back to. 

BARREN YEARS covers a span of about five years of my life. The writing started out as just my own personal processing of these events. The most obvious event covered in Barren Years is miscarriage. I was 22, newly married, and pregnant with twins when it happened.  I was completely devastated. I had never felt such a deep sense of grief, guilt, and loss. It caught me by surprise and I had no idea what do with it. I kept thinking I should be able to snap out of it. But I couldn’t.

According to the Mayo Clinic, miscarriage effects up to 20 percent of known pregnancies. That percentage goes up as women age. Common convention that I heard regularly after my miscarriage was that it impacts 1 in 4 women. Had you heard these statistics before your personal experience? What do you think of this information now?

I had no idea about the statistics. I felt so alone, and didn’t even have the words to talk to anyone about what had happened to me. I didn’t know if other people had experienced this same thing, this same guilt. In fact, I came across the same data in a middle of the night internet search after the miscarriage. The first time I read it, I remember being shocked. And since then, I have been friends with many women who have also experienced miscarriage. Now I just wonder, why it is that the topic is not discussed more openly? Why do we isolate ourselves and suffer alone?

How did you feel as you were going through the miscarriage and the time after? What sort of support were you able to draw on to help you through this tough time?

As I was going through the miscarriage, I was drawing immediate support from my husband, as well as other members of my family – especially my mom and mother-in-law. But it was hard because I found myself unable to talk about it. I started sleeping with a Care Bear every night. I often carried it around the house when my husband was at work. I cried a lot. It took me quite some time to realize I was grieving and therefore needed to be patient with myself. I wanted to snap out of it, but couldn’t. I realized I needed something to take care of, so my dear friend, Linda, taught me gardening. Taking care of my plants, together with writing and many long talks with some of my spiritual guides helped me through. It took me a good five years to begin feeling like myself again. 

Many women struggle with feelings of guilt on top of their grief, feeling they must have done something ‘wrong,’ when, in fact, most miscarriages are the result of a chromosomal abnormality that occurs early in the pregnancy and is in no way preventable. The fact that it’s often a taboo topic means, however, that women struggle with these difficult emotions in isolation. What was your experience like? Was guilt a part of it?

The hardest thing for me was the lack of explanation and the helplessness of not being able to reverse it. I also felt a sort of distrust in my own body – how could this have happened without my consent? This was not my intention. 

The guilt was … huge. And for me, at least, it lingered on until over the years I pieced together my innocence and worked through my grief.

Amanda Mahan Russell

During the pregnancy I had a very hard time adjusting to all the changes that occur in the body – low energy levels, suddenly not liking things I’d loved – like apples – the changing shape of my body. I felt judged by people who had advised me to get on birth control before getting married when I desired a more natural approach to life. So, yes – the guilt. Was I not happy enough about being pregnant? Maybe I should’ve taken birth control? Maybe I would not have been a good mother? If only I had done…. 

The guilt was definitely there, and it was huge. And for me, at least, it lingered on until over the years I pieced together my innocence and worked through my grief. 

That is such a powerful phrase “pieced together my innocence.” Can you elaborate on that and tell us how you did it?

I had so much guilt. I had so many questions. Did I do something wrong? And no one had any answers. But over the years, the pieces of information came together really slowly, and finally I was able to see the picture in retrospect and I was able to come to internalize that my intentions were always good and the miscarriage wasn’t my fault. There was not anything inherently bad inside of me. But I had to do a lot of self-work to get to know myself better. I had to do a lot of work to know that the miscarriage was not my fault. 

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