The Aliens

We have a narrative in our culture about pregnancy and motherhood: The inevitably fertile woman conceives—sometimes effortlessly, sometimes with a little planning, and sometimes with the assistance of medical intervention—and then delivers a live, healthy baby 40 weeks later. She may experience challenges along the way, such as debilitating first trimester nausea, excessive second trimester weight gain, and the general third trimester discomforts that come with carrying a rapidly growing baby, but ultimately her journey is a linear one that results in her leaving the hospital with a living child.

Of course, at the same time we know it isn’t that simple. We implicitly acknowledge that the first trimester of pregnancy is a precarious one, which is why expectant parents are generally advised to keep their news a secret until their 12 week ultrasound scan, at which point the risk of miscarriage drops significantly. But after this milestone is reached, pregnant women are expected to plunge ahead at full-force, decorating a nursery, stocking up on diapers and baby clothes, throwing a celebratory shower, and generally planning every aspect of their lives with the assumption that they will be raising this child into adulthood.

Simply put, despite the facts that 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in a loss and 23,600 babies are stillborn each year in the U.S. alone, we take for granted that expectant mothers who make it past the first trimester will bring a living child home—and if a woman’s personal experience disrupts this narrative, she can keep her grief, her trauma, and her deceased child to herself, thank you very much. One thing I have learned since my daughter’s death is that infant loss makes people very uncomfortable. It defies everything they want to believe about pregnancy, birth, and motherhood—both for their own sake, and for the women in their lives whom they would like to believe are immune to such tragedy.

So what does this mean for those of us in the unfortunate minority who know the unspeakable pain of leaving our children’s cold, lifeless bodies behind at the hospital? In short, our experiences—and, by extension, our deceased children—become anomalous tales to be hidden away from expectant parents and society at large. We become “that one woman” you know whose full-term baby died of sudden, unpreventable complications—but don’t worry, it was just “one of those things” that will never happen to you or the women you care about 

In short, we become aliens, walking around in our unruly bodies, weighed down by our empty arms, all the while surrounded by “normal” people who get pregnant, give birth, and get to watch their children grow up. We become accustomed to the fact that well-meaning but misguided individuals will say hurtful things to us, but we bury our feelings and smile politely in response, because goodness knows they are trying their best. We accept that many people simply don’t feel comfortable acknowledging our deceased children, while others pull away and stop talking to us completely. We quickly realize who our “safe” people are, the ones who bravely walk hand-in-hand with us through our grief journeys without judgement or expectation, and we learn to withhold our difficult truths from those who lack the capacity—or perhaps the willingness—to hold space for us while we navigate the most excruciating type of loss that a human being can experience.

While it may seem counterintuitive, my pregnancy with Leah’s brother has only made me feel more like an alien than I did during the five months I spent as a childless mother. To be sure, grief in and of itself is incredibly alienating, regardless of the type of loss one has experienced. Grief has caused me to feel completely alone in a room full of people whose orderly worlds continue to turn while mine has come to a screeching halt. Grief has ignited foreign flames of rage within me when non-bereaved people offer advice for how I should cope with my loss, subtly suggesting that my emotions are a sign of weakness or pathology. But at the same time, during those early grieving months people generally accepted that it was normal for me to be sad and despondent in the wake of my daughter’s death, at least for a designated period of time.


But things are different now. I am no longer simply a bereaved mother, but a bereaved mother who is privileged enough to have fallen pregnant again without having to endure the crushing pain of secondary infertility. I am a bereaved mother who is well into the second trimester of what has thus far proven to be a complication-free pregnancy. I am a bereaved mother who, if all continues to go well, is on track to bring a healthy son home in three months’ time. Conventional wisdom presumes that I should be bursting at the seams with joy and excitement about the future. Likewise, such wisdom dictates that I should not be fearful, anxious, or quietly wondering if I am too damaged to be as good a mother to this boy as I would have been to Leah.

Here’s the thing with pregnancy after loss: Each and every day, I am living inside my trauma. Each morning I wake up wondering if my baby will still be alive when I go to bed at night, and each evening—after obsessively completing a day’s worth of kick counts—I heave a sigh of relief knowing that he and I have both made it through another day. Simply put, I know what it is to have a perfectly healthy full-term daughter kicking away at my ribs one morning, and to feel her slowly dying in my womb by the end of the same day. This sort of embodied trauma cannot be repressed or forgotten. As profoundly grateful as I am for Leah’s brother, and as hopeful as I am that he will come home to stay, each day my trauma ignites a chaotic clamor of thoughts and emotions that most people simply don’t want to confront.

And so these people tell the aliens not to worry, because they “just know” that everything will be okay. Never mind that the exact same thing was said to me repeatedly when I was anxious during my pregnancy with my daughter, and we all know how that turned out. They ask us if we understand that negative energy isn’t good for our babies, so shouldn’t we decide to choose peace over fear? Right, because what I need right now is a reason to have anxiety about my anxiety, reminding me of yet another thing that could harm my baby which I have no control over. They advise us that these new babies deserve to be loved and celebrated just as much as their deceased siblings, so don’t we owe it to them to excitedly plan for their arrivals? Of course, thank you for implying that the grief I carry for my daughter each day must mean that I am a terrible mother who doesn’t love my son as much as I should.   

I understand that this is not the sort of pregnancy after loss post that most people want to read. It contradicts the expectation that this time should be filled with optimism, excitement, and rainbows. Luckily, this post is not written for most people. Instead, it is written for the other aliens who are too sad, exhausted, and traumatized to feel all the things that other people believe we should be feeling. It is for those who become frustrated when people proclaim positive outcomes over our pregnancies, as if hope, faith, and the power of positive thinking will magically do for these new babies what they couldn’t do for our deceased children. It is for those who cannot bring themselves to decorate a nursery or stock up on baby clothes, remembering too well how harrowing it was to come home from the hospital with empty arms. It is for those who feel isolated while listening to people talk nonchalantly about “normal” pregnancy and birth stories, mistakenly assuming that we are “normal” too now that we are pregnant again.

To these other aliens, know that you aren’t alone. Pregnancy after loss is complicated, and there is no “correct” way to navigate its messy terrain. You have the right to feel every ounce of fear, joy, anger, hope, devastation, and love that grief and trauma throw your way during this bittersweet journey. Every morning you continue to rise from the ashes of despair and do the very best you can to get through the day. And, despite what other people may tell you, your best—whatever it happens to be at this particular moment—is more than enough.

The Closet

For me, one of the benefits of living in a snug apartment is that I didn’t have to confront an entire nursery when I returned home from the hospital without my baby girl. When we moved here last April, it was a rushed process after we learned that the house we had been renting for the previous two years was going up for sale. I was already six months pregnant at the time, so I was eager to settle on a reasonably comfortable two-bedroom apartment as quickly as possible. Since we did not envision ourselves staying here beyond our initial one-year lease, and I knew my anxiety would demand that Leah sleep close to me during that time, we agreed to set up a “nook” for her in our bedroom, where we would keep her bassinet and books, and use the other room as a home office. In the meantime, we would store her clothes, diapers, and other items in the second bedroom’s closet.

This made it relatively easy for my husband to haphazardly stuff most of our baby items away from my sight before I came back from the hospital last June. Nevertheless, I was not able to put these hidden clothes, toys, and books out of my mind. During my raw grieving moments, I would habitually open the closet and stare at the broken dreams inside. On these occasions I would spend hours purposefully sifting through Leah’s belongings with great ceremony, sobbing her name over and over.

In the weeks and months that followed, I knew I would eventually have to do something with my daughter’s things. I have never been a procrastinator, yet I could not bring myself to do anything with these items beyond returning them to their original place in the closet, as if they were still waiting to be used by a baby girl who never made it home. I hadn’t even unpacked my hospital bag, which I would continuously empty, one item at a time, only to place everything right back inside.

I finally made a bargain with myself: I would either wait until we moved to a different apartment, or until I was pregnant again—whichever came first—before undertaking the daunting task of sorting through Leah’s things. At the time, I assumed the former would be the case. As mentioned previously, my short monthly cycles had me convinced that a subsequent pregnancy would not be part of my imminent future. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, it suddenly was.

22 weeks

Leah’s brother and I at 22 weeks gestation

This initially presented a dilemma: At what point would I feel comfortable packing up the closet, thereby making the same space for this new life in my home that I had already made for it in my heart? While I was hopeful that Leah’s sibling would make it into the world safely, I also knew too well how suddenly and tragically an otherwise perfectly healthy pregnancy can end. In response, the pragmatist within me reasoned that it would make the most sense to undertake this task after the second trimester anatomy scan.

My mama instincts felt early on that Leah’s sibling was a boy, so I was not at all surprised when the technician confirmed at our ultrasound that the kicks I had been feeling for the previous two weeks were indeed coming from my son. In some ways, receiving this news was comforting. While we would have been equally relieved to learn that we were expecting a healthy daughter, part of me wanted this baby to be as separate and distinct from Leah as possible, with a different gender, different clothes, and different dreams. Even now, I take comfort in talking about “my daughter” and “my son” in definitive terms, knowing there is no chance of conflation or confusion.

At the same time, this news officially meant there was no utility in hanging onto the pink blankets and frilly dresses that filled Leah’s closet. While there were a few special items that I wanted to keep specifically for her, as well as some gender neutral items that I would keep for her brother, I knew it was finally time to let go of everything else.

I count myself fortunate to have stumbled across a silver lining while making this decision. In the fall of 2016 my husband and I attended a local infant loss support group that was facilitated by Bereaved Families of Ontario. During this time we forged invaluable friendships with the other loss parents who attended, and we have remained in close contact ever since. In the weeks leading up to and following my ultrasound, I learned that two of the women from my group, both of whom were grieving the deaths of their beautiful full-term sons, were now each pregnant with a girl. I knew immediately that I wanted their daughters to use the items that my own daughter was never able to, and I drew immense comfort from having a sense of purpose in packing up Leah’s things. I would eventually learn that these two loss mamas had also planned on giving me some of their sons’ unused belongings. As bittersweet as these exchanges have been, I remain awed by the unexpected ways that love, beauty, and generosity can blossom from the ashes of despair.

Still, I was unsure if I would be able to face this difficult task alone, so I asked one of my dearest friends and closest confidants to help me. With two daughters of her own, she and I had shared many dreams of our girls growing up knowing and loving each other, and she was one of the precious few people who saw and held Leah while she was alive. When the big day finally arrived, I was so thankful to have her with me. And so, amidst our shared pain and tears—and, surprisingly, the occasional bout of subdued laughter—we proceeded to sort the closet’s contents into three piles: One pile of gender neutral items to keep for my son; one pile of “girl” items to give to my loss mama friends; and a small pile of special items to keep for Leah.


The trove of dreams that I will always keep for Leah

It was surreal to pack up all the hopes and dreams I had for my daughter’s life into a solitary bin, yet at the same time it was comforting to know her most treasured mementos now had a permanent home. I have spent hours immersed in the exquisitely painful yet immensely sweet memories they hold, and I have shed countless tears imagining how different my life would be if Leah was here, lighting up my days in all her bumbling, nine-month-old glory.

It’s true that the life I now lead could not be more different from what I had envisioned this time last year. Yet at the same time, I cannot ignore the glimmer of hope that beckons me forward with each kick and prod that fills my swollen belly. This grief journey is a delicate one, knowing that the son I now carry would likely not be here at all if Leah was alive. I cannot say that there is a cosmic purpose behind the bittersweet fork in the road I have been presented with. Instead, my life simply is what it is, and all I can do is spend each day of it caring for the son whose life I hope to share, and honouring the daughter whose life ended far too soon.