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Having a child after pregnancy loss, stillbirth, or neonatal death can be both exciting and terrifying. A child born after these traumatic events is usually called a rainbow baby. But while this rainbow baby definition is simple, the actual meaning of having a rainbow baby is much more complex.
After suffering from recurrent miscarriage (4 losses before my living son), I was terrified of having a rainbow baby.
In this article, I’m going to do what I do best: get real and honest about what it really means to have a rainbow baby, and address all of the concerns that come with it.
What is a Rainbow Baby FAQ
Before we can really dig into what a rainbow baby means for new parents, it’s important to understand the meaning behind the term and the various questions around it.
A rainbow baby, in fertility terms, refers to a baby born after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. The term can also be fitting for a child born after any fertility or parenting-related heartbreak or trauma, such as the loss of a living child, infertility, or failed adoption.
Many parents who have endured traumatic events (miscarriage, stillbirth, infant loss) consider a living child to be rainbow after a difficult storm. In this way, many people celebrate rainbow babies because of the hope they symbolize.
Just as a rainbow baby is defined as baby born after loss, a sunshine baby is born before loss.
To many parents, rainbow babies are very special because they are the “miracle” that happens after struggling to bring a living child into the world.
The term “rainbow baby” is often one of hope, but for some parents, having a rainbow baby can also incite fear and anxiety.
Why Do They Call It a Rainbow Baby?
The phrase “rainbow baby” is all about symbolism.
It derives from the notion of an actual rainbow–a beautiful construction of nature that appears after the storm.
Add in the folklore about the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, a rainbow baby becomes an invaluable gift to a family after the storm they faced in their lives.
A Symbol of Hope After a Storm
There’s also the Biblical implications of rainbows.
Specifically, the first time a rainbow appears in the Christian Bible is after the great flood in the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.
The rainbow symbolizes God’s promise never to cause such a storm again.
I’ve seen stunning rainbow baby photos and photo shoots shared in miscarriage groups to provide hope to parents who have experienced loss.
And for so many parents, the meaning of a rainbow baby really is hope.
It represents the idea that there’s hope for joy after grief, a living child after loss, a rainbow after the storm.
It allows them to imagine the children they’ve lost, out there somewhere, watching over their rainbow baby, protecting them, loving them.
The notion of a rainbow baby intrinsically connects a baby born healthily to those who have been lost before.
But I have a Problem with the Rainbow Baby Definition
Even while I recognize and use the term, I do have a complicated relationship with the phrase “rainbow baby.”
In a way, it brought such comfort in the connection I imagine between Jack and his lost siblings.
At the same time, I wonder if it’s fair to Jack that I expect him to be connected to his lost siblings at all.
I continue to use the phrase “rainbow baby,” in part because part of me is warmed by it, and in part for simplicity’s sake.
But another part of me is very much bothered by the idea.
What does being a rainbow baby mean for the child?
When I finally announced my pregnancy with Jack at 24 weeks, I posted a photo of a onesie on social media. The letters are rainbow colored, with little angel wings next to the text, “Hand picked for Earth by my siblings in Heaven.”
I stared at this onesie for hours, feeling so grateful for Jack and imagining his 4 siblings, lost due to miscarriage.
I envisioned them out in the universe somewhere, helping to craft the child I would finally give birth to.
But I had mixed emotions about what the meaning of rainbow baby symbolized for my child.
I’m conflicted about the phrase. Part of me loves it.
Jack is my beauty after such a long, awful storm. I was never sure he’d get to shine, so he was the perfect happy surprise, like a rainbow.
I think of him every time I see one.
But I also worry that the term will place expectations upon him that are too much to live up to. I never want him to have to live up to anything.
He is himself, and that will always be enough.
Does the Phrase “Rainbow Baby” Put Pressure on the Child?
I started a site called Undefining Motherhood. Clearly, defining who someone is supposed to be–or what terms they are supposed to use–isn’t my thing.
I fear that defining a child as “joy after grief” could place a lot of pressure on that child. I don’t want that for any child, and I certainly don’t want it for Jack.
In other words, what if Jack doesn’t understand that he brings joy simply through his existence?
What if he feels he’s expected to do something to live up to an expectation?
I hope Jack never thinks he has to live up to some idea of “the one who makes everything beautiful and okay again” because we lost his 4 older siblings. Because he is a rainbow baby.
I want him to know he is always enough. He was born enough. He does not have to compensate for the lives we never got to experience.
What Is a Rainbow Baby if Storms Come and Go?
I also worry about how the inherent idea and definition of a rainbow baby because of its symbolic appearnce of after the storm.
Is there beauty after the storm? YES! But there isn’t always a rainbow.
What, then, by calling children rainbow babies, do we do to parents going through infertility, grief, and loss who never experience that rainbow? How does this phrase impact them?
And even when there is a rainbow after a storm, it fades, and more storms come.
We’re all aware of this, but what I hear from parents about anticipating their rainbow babies, makes me worry they’re forgetting about this fact.
Not to be cliche with our topic, but–well–sometimes you can’t help it. I often hear loss moms talk about their future rainbow babies as if the experience truly will be sunshine and rainbows.
And this sets a dangerous precedent.
Even babies who are so loved and wanted bring hardship, tears, stress, anxiety, sleepless nights, financial complications, medical issues, and the host of other struggles that come with having a child.
It’s fair, sweet, and wonderful for parents to see beautiful, symbolic meaning in their rainbow babies, but I also hope they’re prepared for the reality of parenthood.
I Always Fear the Storm
Even with all the beauty that comes with a rainbow baby, anxious as I am, I always fear a storm.
The reality, no matter how much I don’t like to think about it, is that something could happen to my rainbow baby. And dear God, what if it does? Can a storm happen to a rainbow?
Atmospherically, I don’t know, but in life, absolutely.
And that’s an issue for me.
This anxiety also takes me back to the rainbow in the story of Noah’s Ark.
Noah received a promise that mankind would never endure such a storm again.
But I have not received this promise with my “rainbow.” In my family, storms will continue to come; this is a fact of life.
I think the phrase “rainbow baby” is sweet, in theory, but it also makes me nervous.
I can’t fully attach myself to any idea that doesn’t acknowledge the storms that will come later.
What To Expect When Pregnant With a Rainbow Baby
My pregnancy with Jack exemplifies the mixed emotions of rainbow pregnancies.
What I loved most about the rainbow onesie during my pregnancy was the way in which it made me feel warm and protected.
If I believed that the children I’d never gotten to meet were out there somewhere, helping to build Jack into the perfect child he is, then how could I not feel comfort?
And yet, my experience taught me that things could go wrong at any moment. Just because Jack was healthy one moment didn’t mean he’d be healthy the next.
And so I worried. I worried throughout pregnancy, when he was full term, when he was born, and now that he’s a preschooler.
I will always worry. And while all parents worry, and I’m especially prone to it, I do think it’s worse because of the losses I experienced before Jack.
Maybe we need a rainbow parents anxiety support group.
Rainbow Babies are Exciting, but Also Terrifying
What complicated the matter further is how much excitement people expected me to feel about my rainbow baby.
People constantly exclaimed, “You must be so excited!”
Sometimes I was, but at other times, I was terrified, and at others, completely numb.
It was tough to navigate that terrain. My mixed feelings, combined with other people’s single-sighted expectations about my emotions, caused constant conflict.
It’s actually from that conflict that I derived my 5 tips for coping pregnancy after miscarriage. I wanted new parents to know that it’s okay to find a rainbow baby pregnancy to be quite a scary experience.
Bringing Home a Rainbow Baby: What I Wish I’d Known
What I wish I’d realized is that these clashing expectations about emotions would continue, and that they would be even stronger once Jack was born.
After Jack was born, the expectations shifted. Not only did everyone else think I should be excited, but I thought so, too.
After all, I FINALLY had my rainbow baby!
And yet, I was terrified.
I broke down in sobs daily.
I was dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety, which were absolutely crippling.
I couldn’t take proper care of myself or Jack.
And I struggled so much with feelings of guilt because everyone else expected me to be “so excited” after finally birthing my rainbow baby.
The definition of rainbow baby suggests they should bring even more joy than other births.
But what about the times when they’re ushered into the world, bringing with them postpartum mental health problems, or even typical “baby blues”?
Postpartum Can Be Harder with a Rainbow Baby
As we all know, the postpartum period is freakin’ hard.
Moms regularly report feeling guilty about how much they don’t love the postpartum period. This is especially true for moms of rainbow babies.
Sure, some moms experience the glowing joy they’re expected to feel, and that’s amazing. Good for you, mama! I’m proud, in awe, and honestly, jealous.
But when new moms don’t feel that overwhelming joy, they often feel parenting guilt.
And when you’ve worked so hard for a baby–experiencing infertility and miscarriage–and you finally birth a rainbow baby, you feel especially guilty.
You know how many women are dying for the experience you’re having, but they don’t have it yet.
And in feeling bad for those women, you begin to doubt yourself.
Did I really deserve this gift?
When I experienced crippling postpartum anxiety with Jack, I felt inadequate.
I had struggled for so long trying to have this baby–why couldn’t I be happy with him? What was wrong with me?
I felt unworthy, ungrateful, and a tremendous sense of self-loathing.
Here’s what you really need to know.
Statistically, new moms with a history of trauma (reproductive or not) are more likely to experience postpartum mental health issues like like postpartum depression or anxiety.
PPD and PPA can complicate the “joyful” emotions we are socially (and internally) pressured to feel after the birth of a rainbow baby.
Be Careful Deciding What a Rainbow Baby Means to You
I’m not suggesting we abandon this term, as it truly does so many families a lot of good. But we should be careful with it.
But we should know that a rainbow does not guarantee sunshine.
Further, we need to be open in our understanding of who qualifies as a rainbow baby.
Obviously, a baby born after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss is a rainbow baby. But I think the trauma extends much further.
Can an adopted baby be a rainbow baby? Absolutely.
What about a baby born following infertility? Hell yes! Infertility is a serious storm!
Babies born via surrogate after infertility or loss? Of course! Their parents clearly have gone through the ringer getting there.
There are so many kinds of rainbow babies born to parents who have struggled in so many ways. Inclusivity in this category is a must.
A More Nuanced “Rainbow Baby” Definition
While we keep our definitions open, let’s also remember the conflicting emotions that often come with bringing home a rainbow baby.
Let’s work to stop placing those expectations onto parents and their children born or adopted after loss and trauma.
But if they feel scared, or anxious, or depressed–that’s okay too. It’s actually normal. Please understand, love them, help them, and comfort them through it.
If you have a rainbow baby, what do you think of the phrase? Chat with us in the comments!
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Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.