Two Years

Tomorrow is Leah’s birthday. And right now, I am sequestered in my bedroom with a lukewarm coffee and a rare opportunity to write, all the while listening to Callum’s whimsical babbling and my husband’s muffled laughter seep in from the other side of the door.

The only problem is that I don’t know where to begin. Maybe this is because my ongoing sleep deprivation makes it difficult to put my scattered thoughts into words. Or perhaps it’s because I don’t feel like I have much to say that hasn’t been shared on this blog already. After all, while the past two years have brought many changes—namely a blue-eyed boy whose presence fills my days with tremendous joy and gratitude—the triggers and manifestations of my grief for Leah remain largely the same.

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I suppose if this time has taught me anything, it’s that grief, in all its agonizing volatility, also brings the comforting familiarity of an old friend whenever it knocks at my door. Not that it ever leaves my side completely, but the bustle of everyday life usually compels me to bury my painful feelings when they arise—and, to be completely honest, most days I’m simply not brave enough to follow grief into the dark places it needs to take me.

This is what I (still) wish more people understood about grief: It is not a task to finish or an obstacle to overcome. Rather, it is both an extension and a reflection of the all-consuming love that I carry for my daughter. And, contrary to our cultural propensity to associate strength with stoicism and sadness with weakness, I can attest to the fact that it takes far more courage to heed grief’s promptings—to purposefully feel every harrowing ounce of sadness, anger, and longing that they bring—than it does to push them aside and carry on as if they don’t exist at all.

These past few weeks of my grieving season have been filled to the brim with such promptings. Sometimes they’re triggered by a song I hear on the radio; sometimes it’s the sight of a dark-haired toddler girl wobbling down the sidewalk; and sometimes it’s simply the feeling I get when a warm, humid breeze touches my face in the morning, transporting me right back to where I was this time two years ago.

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The magnolia tree outside our old apartment window in bloom shortly before Leah’s birth

When this happens, I often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of memories, emotions, questions, and regrets I have to sift through. Likewise, the what if‘s and what could have been‘s that flash through my mind’s eye are devastating as they are vast.

What if, two years ago today, I had gone to the hospital as soon as every cell in my body began screaming that something wasn’t right after Leah missed her usual post-dinner active time? Few memories reduce me to sobs faster than me standing in my old apartment bathroom, frantically shaking my pregnant belly in an attempt to make my baby girl deliver a strong kick, all the while feeling her feebly prodding back at me, as if to say, “I’m still here, Mama. But I need help.” This is the thing with generalized anxiety disorder: over time, you become accustomed to people dismissing your fears as overreactions (because, much of the time, that’s exactly what they are), and you learn to doubt your corporeal fight-or-flight responses. Add to that my desperate hope that faith in God and fervent prayer would protect my daughter from harm, and it would seem that Leah didn’t have a fighting chance against the fetomaternal hemorrhage that ultimately stole her life.

Yet I still find that these traumatic memories don’t hold a candle to the excruciating moments wherein I allow myself to envision what Leah’s unlived life—and my other life—would look like if she was here, healthy and alive. It feels like an exercise in masochism to sit and imagine what could have been, yet on days like today I can’t resist doing so. There are no words to describe the ache I feel when I imagine waking up to my two-year-old daughter crawling into bed next to me, feeling her wrap her little arms around my neck, and hearing her call me “Mommy.” I picture her looking a lot like Callum, but with dark, chin-length hair and her dad’s deep green eyes. I wonder if she would have a special outfit picked out for the day, what sorts of gifts she would open, and what kind of birthday cake she would want. I imagine we would take her for a picnic at the park near our old apartment building and show her the ducks, just like I had envisioned doing so many times throughout the nine months that I carried her.

As it is, I don’t know how I will spend the day tomorrow. Most likely I will still go to the park and look at the ducks, just like my husband and I did on Leah’s birthday last year when I was heavily pregnant with Callum. Maybe I will even make her a cake, even if it’s just a reason to see her name in writing.

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Kiwi and I at the park on Leah’s birthday last year

It’s been two years since I said hello and goodbye to my baby girl. So much has changed in that time, yet so much remains the same: I still love her and miss her with every inch of my mama heart, and no passage of time will ever change that.

My Motherhood

I’ve been trying to write a new blog post for nearly two months now. I can’t count how many times I’ve sat down with a coffee, my laptop, and the best of intentions, only to find myself staring vacantly at the screen in front of me, not knowing where to begin.

I imagine a good chunk of this writer’s block is caused by the inevitable fatigue that comes with parenting an infant. Most days it’s a challenge to cobble together twenty minutes of “me time” at any given point, and when this does happen, it can be difficult to muster the energy to shower, let alone write. I can’t complain about this shift in priorities, however, given how much I resented the endless void of time I had to create this blog after Leah’s death.

But mostly I find myself conflicted over what I should write about. After all, if I focus on my ongoing emotional and mental health struggles, I fear it will detract from the undeniable joy and gratitude I feel each time my son meets my gaze and smiles.

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Likewise, if I write about how fulfilling it is to mother a living child and how privileged I am to have this boy in my life, I am undoubtedly minimizing the very real difficulties that come with parenting after loss.

My current and messy truth is that, while I am loving each and every moment of being Callum’s mother, my days are also shaped by the grief, fear, and trauma that Leah’s death has etched indelibly onto my motherhood.

And so, because it is the very best that I can do for this moment in time, I offer the following glimpses into the thoughts, emotions, and experiences that have comprised the past three months of my journey as a loss mama.

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I gently coax Callum out of his pajamas for another late night diaper change. He begins to fuss and squirm, eager to finish the process and start his next feeding. I chuckle at this theatrics as I reach into a fresh bag of Pampers.

And then, I draw a sharp breath. It’s the same involuntary reaction I have each time I am confronted with a Cookie Monster diaper. The same Pampers print that Leah was wearing when I held her for the first time.

Several tears roll down my cheeks as I proceed with the business at hand.

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It is Callum’s one week check-up. For the past seven days, I have been pleasantly surprised by my lack of debilitating anxiety. I was sure that I would be terrified to bring this boy home from the hospital and away from the medical profession’s meticulous gaze, but I have been reasonably confident in his good health and my ability to take care of him.

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I smile as I watch the doctor examine my dark-haired, blue-eyed newborn while he wriggles around on the cold metal scale. “Everything looks good,” he says as he finishes up. “But I’m concerned that he hasn’t gained any weight. I’d like you to come back next week so we can check on his growth.

And just like that, my confidence is shattered. As is the case with most women I know, these first few days of breastfeeding haven’t exactly been a cakewalk, but I did believe that my hard work was paying off and that my body was providing this boy with the nourishment he needs. My mind is instantly inundated with fear and doubt.

Has he been malnourished this whole time while you’ve been oblivious to his distress? Will this do irreparable damage to his physical and cognitive development? Have you been unknowingly starving your baby?

Serves you right for feeling at ease and believing that everything is okay. Last time you felt this way, you were blissfully unaware that Leah was dying inside your body.

That evening, my husband takes me out to buy a double electric breast pump so I can monitor exactly how much milk Callum is drinking. It will be several weeks before his visible growth eases my fears enough to return to exclusive nursing.

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I dream about Leah for the second time since her death.

Somehow, she and Callum are both home with me, and she is still a newborn. I am breastfeeding Callum, all the while watching Leah cry in her bassinet. I want to feed her too, but I know I can’t; she doesn’t have the reflexes needed to suck and swallow, and the doctors said there was no point in trying to feed her since she is going to die soon anyway. So I continue to sit there, feeding Callum, watching helplessly while my daughter cries from hunger.

When I awake, I break into sobs. This dream continues to haunt me for weeks.

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It is the evening before Callum’s two month vaccinations. Ironically, I have been looking forward to this upcoming appointment, hoping that it will ease my fears about his delicate newborn immune system succumbing to life-threatening illnesses and infections.

Wanting to prepare for the side effects that commonly appear after these shots, I decide to consult Dr. Google. Much to my horror, I am bombarded with stories of babies suffering from terrifying symptoms, and even allegedly dying after their vaccines (I swear I don’t actively seek out such fear-inducing accounts; somehow this information always manages to find me). Suddenly I am plunged head-first into the worst anxiety spiral I’ve experienced since the final weeks of my pregnancy.

I try to rationalize my fears away, reminding myself that such extreme side effects are rare, and there is no reason to assume they will happen to Callum. Except that Leah’s fetomaternal hemorrhage was also rare, and there was no reason to assume that an otherwise healthy infant would die at full term. You can tell yourself repeatedly that Callum will be okay, but that will not make it so. You know that faith, prayer, and positive thinking will not protect your children from senseless tragedy.

Overwhelmed by my feelings of fear and helplessness, I clutch my beautiful baby boy to my chest and cry uncontrollably for the next two hours.

I do not feel at ease again until 48 hours have passed after his appointment, with no traces of fever, infection, or other disconcerting symptoms in sight.

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Callum has fallen asleep on the nursing pillow during another feeding. Once again, I take the opportunity to sit back and quietly drink him in: His enviably long eyelashes; his roly-poly cheeks and chin; his long hair that is starting to show hints of auburn.

In this moment, my heart feels as though it could be crushed under the weight of love I feel for this boy.

And then, in the same moment, I see her.

I see her beauty in his face. They really do look like brother and sister.

I see the haunting reminders of her still, silent body. Make sure he’s still breathing. Do his lips look blue, or is it just the lighting? Stroke his cheek to see if it’s warm.

I see the bittersweet hints of the life she never got to live. I wonder if she would have been a comfort nurser like Callum. Would she also smile and coo in her sleep each night? She looked so much like her dad. To me, Callum just looks like her.

I get up and gingerly place my son in the bassinet that was purchased for his sister nearly two years ago. I stroke his head one more time before turning off the bedside lamp and drifting off to sleep, wondering if I will see her again in my dreams tonight.

The Home Stretch

Last Friday after work, I went to the hospital for my weekly nonstress test. At this point, I had probably completed at least ten of these procedures throughout this pregnancy—some of which had been scheduled as part of my third trimester care plan, while others had occurred during impromptu visits to Labour and Delivery to ease my ongoing anxiety. As per usual, I lay strapped to the fetal monitor, heaving sighs of relief as my son’s reassuring kicks rocked my belly.

But then something unexpected happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, the resident OBGYN came to my bed and introduced himself.

Your test strip is showing frequent tightenings,” he said, a hint of concern in his voice. “Are you feeling these contractions at all?

I raised an eyebrow and took a moment to consider the question. “No,” I replied. As was the case during my pregnancy with Leah, I had yet to feel any contractions, Braxton Hicks or otherwise. In fact, when I went to the hospital for my first and only nonstress test with her shortly before she would be delivered by emergency c-section, I felt no discomfort at all, even as the test strip showed a steady pattern of uterine tightenings.

When I told the doctor as much, he said they would continue the test for a while longer to monitor how things progressed, but there was a chance that labour might be starting soon.

There I was, 34 weeks pregnant to the day, being told that I might be heading into preterm labour. I imagine that many women would become utterly distressed by such a development, and rightfully so. No mother wants to watch her child endure an extended stay in the NICU, not to mention the complications that often come with delivering an otherwise healthy baby prematurely.

But you know what I felt in that moment? Hope. Hope that maybe—just maybe—they would take this boy out now, while he’s still alive.

You see, I have the misfortune of knowing that there are far worse things than a newborn spending some time in the NICU before eventually going home. Likewise, I know that a healthy female body is not necessarily the safest place for a baby to spend the final weeks of the third trimester, where fatal complications can strike at any time without warningbe it a massive fetomaternal hemorrhage, an umbilical cord accident, a placental abruption, or an undetected infection.

Much to my disappointment, when the doctor returned to check my test strip half an hour later, the contractions had subsided. I was sent home with the usual comments about how “happy” my active baby was, knowing all the while that having a “happy” baby in that particular moment did not guarantee that he would still be alive that night, the next morning, or even in a few hours.

Still, I left the hospital that evening acutely aware that, for better or for worse, I had officially entered the home stretch of this pregnancy. Unfortunately, I have not been able to draw any comfort from this realization. Simply put, the pregnancy “home stretch” is a completely different experience for women who know the agony of stillbirth and neonatal death. As such, unlike most parents who spend the final weeks of pregnancy confidently anticipating their babies’ arrivals, I have spent this time more fearful than ever for my son’s life.

I still vividly recall having one such moment of overwhelming fear when I was 38 weeks pregnant with Leah. While I was largely immersed in my long-delayed pregnancy bliss at this point, one afternoon I suddenly found myself consumed by a desperate urge to get her out of my body while she was still alive. After enduring eight months of grueling anxiety, it was torturous to know I was so close to the finish line, yet still without a guarantee that she would make it into the world unscathed. I remember sitting on my bed and crying, knowing that I was powerless to protect the girl whom I loved so much. However, after half an hour or so I was able to talk myself out of my anxiety spiral by meditating on the conventional wisdom that had been recited to me over and over again throughout my pregnancy:

We’ve made it this far without any complications. Statistically speaking, if something were to go wrong, it would have happened already. Just enjoy these final days of your pregnancy!

Every day the majority of full-term babies are born healthy and alive, so why should your pregnancy end any differently?

You are young and healthy. Your body knows exactly what it’s doing. Just trust that Leah will come out when she’s ready! 

God loves Leah and wants what’s best for her, so why would He suddenly abandon her when He has been answering your prayers for her protection all along? Have faith that God will provide!

I cannot count how many of these anxiety spirals I have had throughout the past few weeks. The key difference, however, is that I can no longer talk myself into a “reasonable” state, since our culture’s conventional wisdom about pregnancy and childbirth no longer applies to me. I know firsthand that making it to the final weeks of a healthy and complication-free pregnancy does not mean I will get to raise this child into adulthood. Similarly, I can no longer presume that everything is “probably fine” when I suddenly realize I haven’t felt my baby move for any given period of time, be it ten minutes or one hour. Simply put, I know that the pregnancy “home stretch” is not a guaranteed safe zone, and each day I am cognizant of the fact that the people around me may be eagerly anticipating another baby who will never come home.

And herein lies my dilemma: Throughout this pregnancy my guiding mantra has been to take life day by day—and when that proves to be too much, I take it moment by moment: Today I am pregnant. Right now my baby is alive. I don’t know what the future holds, but in this moment everything is okay. As it is, trying to plan beyond the here and now usually leaves me feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. But this mantra proves increasingly difficult to abide by as my c-section date draws nearer.

As it is, the fact that I expel the bulk of my energy each day just getting from one hour to the next means I am not mentally prepared for the possibility of bringing this boy home in three weeks’ time. Likewise, when I try to envision this positive outcome, every cell in my body seems to scream out in protest, reminding me that I’ve been down this road before, and that allowing myself to be optimistic will only make me complacent when I should actually be more vigilant than ever.

Nevertheless, throughout the past two weeks my inner pragmatist has forged a stake in this ongoing mental battle, reminding me that I must make some basic preparations for my son’s birth—after all, the fact remains that I am statistically more likely to bring a healthy baby home than not. And so, one sunny afternoon, I summoned every ounce of emotional strength that I could muster and finally opened the door to Leah’s brother’s room.

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For the previous four weeks since our move, this room’s contents had been left scattered across the floor and shut away from sight. I simply could not enter this space and confront the painful memories, as well as the fears of the uncertain future, that lurked inside. Just as I had suspected, walking into this room felt like I was plunging headfirst into my grief and trauma. Suddenly I was surrounded by the items that I had excitedly selected, washed, and assembled for Leah only one year prior—and there was nowhere to hide from the anguish they triggered.

As much as I had hoped to simply push these feelings aside and delve into the work that needed to be done, all I could do was sit in the antique rocking chair that had been given to me for Leah—the chair that I had so vividly imagined using to feed her, rock her to sleep, and read her bedtime stories each night—and cry profusely.

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I cried for the daughter whom I love more than life itself, but whose own life was snatched away before it ever truly began.

I cried for the son whom I have grown to love with equal ferocity throughout the past eight months, yet who is not guaranteed a long, healthy life in this world anymore than his sister was.

And finally, I cried for myself—out of the utter helplessness and hopelessness I felt, knowing that I may never get to share my deep reservoir of maternal love with either of my children in this lifetime.

I just want my babies. I just want my babies,” I said over and over again between sobs. “I just want both my babies.”

Eventually, I was able to get out of the chair and wipe away my tears. That afternoon I managed to unpack one bag of gender neutral baby clothes that had once been washed and folded in joyful anticipation of my daughter’s arrival. The following day, I started organizing the closet. Over the course of the next week, I assembled the bassinet, prepared the diaper changing station, and hung up the frames that would have eventually adorned the walls of Leah’s bedroom. And then, several days ago, I finally took the last, most emotionally excruciating step:

I handpicked a few of my favourite gender neutral newborn outfits, all of which had originally been purchased for Leah, and re-packed my hospital bag.

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Contrary to what people may presume, I do not consider this to be a “step forward” toward faith or optimism that things must inevitably turn out differently this time. The brutal truth is that there has been very little joy or excitement in preparing for another baby who may never leave the hospital. Yet in the depths of my fear and uncertainty, there has been love—boundless, heart-bursting, undeniable love. And so, each day I tell myself that Leah’s brother deserves to have a space in our home awaiting his arrival, even if this room proves to be a painful haven where I will go to grieve his unlived life. To some extent, I have accepted that I cannot predict or control what happens in the next three weeks. Instead, all I can do is remain vigilant, take nothing for granted, and cling to any passing glimmer of hope I can muster.

And so, with a wounded heart and weary spirit, I wait.

Faith

Some time ago, I was scrolling aimlessly through my social media newsfeed when I came across this post. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I proceeded to read the article despite gleaning from the click bait title that nothing good would come of it. Long story short, it ended up being one of many posts floating around cyberspace documenting the incredible survival of a “miracle baby” who managed to beat the odds of a grim medical prognosis made during pregnancy.

Obviously, this in and of itself is not problematic. As a mother who knows the despair of watching her newborn baby die in her arms, the last thing I want is for other families to join the tragic child loss club. Instead, it was this excerpt in particular that left me reeling:

The family never gave up on their miracle baby for a second. Maybe it was their unwavering hope that helped [him] develop into a strong, healthy boy.”

There it was—the omnipresent mantra powered by the prosperity gospel paradigm which shaped my Christian faith while growing up: Believe enough, pray enough, hope enough, and God will deliver positive results. Of course, this paradigm is itself a product of the broader New Thought movement that defines our culture in many ways: Choose to have positive thoughts, and positive outcomes will ultimately follow.

It goes without saying why these glib sentiments pour salt in the loss wounds of bereaved parents. I personally know several loss mamas who learned at their second trimester anatomy scans that their babies had a fatal genetic condition, but chose to carry their pregnancies to term anyway, hoping and praying every day that their children would survive. In all these cases, their babies died before or shortly after birth. So does this mean they simply didn’t have enough hope to heal their babies’ bodies?

I also know a number of women who lost their children to sudden complications at the end of an otherwise textbook pregnancy. Like me, some of these mothers had to make the heart wrenching decision to remove their babies’ life supports after learning that they wouldn’t survive—sometimes hours, sometimes days, and sometimes weeks after giving birth. Does this mean we didn’t have enough faith and positivity to overcome our children’s dire conditions?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with clinging to positivity during periods of struggle and uncertainty. But many people don’t realize how hurtful it is for those who have suffered the worst types of hardship to hear our more fortunate peers attribute their positive outcomes to hope and faith. After all, I never took Leah’s safety for granted during my pregnancy, and I prayed every day that God would protect her. Likewise, when I received her devastating prognosis mere hours after her birth, I prayed for a miracle, promising God that I would love her and care for her for the rest of my life, no matter what condition she was in. As it is, hearing other people say that their hope, faith, and prayers are responsible for landing them a new job, healing a loved one of an illness or injury, or keeping their children healthy and safe feels like a callous slap in the face.

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As my due date with Leah’s brother draws nearer, I have been reflecting on how my understanding of faith has evolved since this time last year. To be sure, “faith” was already a complex concept for me during my pregnancy with Leah. As I inched my way through the first and second anxiety-ridden trimesters, I wanted to believe that God loved my daughter enough to protect her from harm, and I always thanked Him for answering my prayers whenever I received reassuring ultrasound or blood test results. But at the same time, I was aware of how frequently pregnancy and infant loss occurred. If God didn’t intervene to save these other babies, despite their mothers’ hopes and prayers, why should I believe that my daughter and I were guaranteed His personal protection?

When I confided in others about my fears of miscarriage and stillbirth, I was frequently told to “have faith.” And by the final weeks of my pregnancy, I finally did. After making it to the third trimester with no cause for concern in sight, I was simply bursting at the seams with faith. I had faith that God had been answering my daily prayers for Leah’s protection, and that He would continue to do so until she was finally out of my womb and safe in my arms. I had faith that my healthy female body, in all its corporeal wisdom, knew how to carry a pregnancy to term and birth a child into the world safely. I had faith that the people around me knew what they were talking about when they told me not to worry, because they were certain that everything would be okay.

It is painful to look back and reflect on how differently things might have turned out if perhaps I hadn’t had so much faith. If I knew then what I know now, I would have gone to the hospital immediately after Leah missed her post-dinner kick session. Instead, I dismissed the encroaching worry and decided to choose faith over fear—after all, God surely wouldn’t forsake us after bringing us this far, plus everyone says that babies start to slow down right before labour. As evening turned to night and her movements didn’t change, it became harder to ignore my anxiety’s alarm bells, yet I still told myself that things must be okay—after all, people constantly assured me throughout my pregnancy that my worst-case scenario fears were unwarranted, and until this point they had been correct.

Needless to say, my understanding of faith during my current pregnancy has been shaken up to the point of incoherence. I still pray for my son’s protection every day, because it is literally all I can do, but this does not come without a list of caveats. If this boy makes it into the world unscathed, it will be difficult to attribute his positive outcome to answered prayer when I prayed just as vigilantly for my daughter’s safety each and every day that I carried her. Simply put, I have a hard time believing that a benevolent and omnipotent God would decide to actively protect one of my precious babies, while allowing the other one to suffer and die.

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Leah’s brother at 28 weeks gestation

And yet it isn’t quite that simple. There are days when I am so desperate to believe that this boy will be born healthy—and so adamant that there must be order in the chaos—that I indulge in the same epistemological hoop-jumping that causes me to roll my eyes at other Christians: Maybe Leah was destined for Heaven this whole time, and God made me her mother because He knew I would love her fiercely during her brief life and after her death. Maybe she belongs with God and this boy is the child I’m supposed to raise on earth. Maybe God allowed this to happen because He knew I would be strong enough to use my suffering to help other mothers whose children have died.  

For me, faith now means accepting that I will never have the answers to these theological ruminations. As it is, I simply don’t want to believe that a benevolent God with the capacity to answer prayer would actively “bless” a privileged minority with comfortable lives and healthy families, while leaving many others to endure the worst kinds of suffering. As comforting as it is to believe that God is an omnipotent micromanager who is perpetually on-call to answer our prayers, it seems far more likely that the beautiful and devastating things that happen in our lives are all part and parcel of the broken world we live in—a world whose ongoing chaos just happens to benefit some people more than others. And yet, if God is real, it is not for me to define His nature or His role in the universe. The truth is that I simply don’t know.

But one thing I do know is that, while my grief for Leah has brought me to the darkest emotional places imaginable, it has not left me without faith. When I began writing this post, I had intended to discuss an article that I encountered about a month after Leah’s death. Like the post mentioned above, this viral story documented a family whose baby girl, Jocelyn, had been born alive and seemingly healthy after prenatal testing delivered a fatal medical prognosis. Christian media platforms and social media users naturally clung to this story like a barnacle, praising God for rewarding the family’s unwavering faith with His miraculous healing. I remember how this ignited visceral rage within me while my grief was still so fresh and raw—how dare these people give glory to God for healing this baby after He stood by and allowed my daughter to suffer and die.

As it turns out, while she had initially beaten the odds by making it into the world alive, baby Jocelyn died suddenly of continued complications at three months old—despite her family’s continued hope, faith, and prayers. When I read this update (which, unsurprisingly, did not spread across the Christian corners of the internet like wildfire), I broke down and cried. I cried for Jocelyn’s mother, who was walking the same devastating path as me and the other loss mamas I know. I also spent some time looking at photos of her beautiful baby girl, who was still so loved and cherished by her family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, it hit me: If there is a God, and if there is a Heaven, Jocelyn is there with my own much-loved daughter right now, along with all the other children whose unjust deaths have left gaping wounds on their parents’ hearts.

Do I know this for sure? No, of course not.

Do I hope this is true? Yes, with every fiber of my being.

You see, my current understanding of faith is that it isn’t synonymous with certainty. For some Christians, this may not qualify as “true” faith at all. But for now it is the best that my shattered heart and broken spirit can muster. And, despite what other people may theologize, I believe it is enough.          

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.

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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.

Fear

After Leah’s death, the crippling agony of my grief was immediately accompanied by another all-consuming emotion: Fear. It is difficult to imagine that any parent who has lost their first and only child will not be plagued by worrisome questions as they peer ahead into the uncertain future: What if subsequent pregnancies end the same way? What if I never have a living child to bring home and care for? And, in my case specifically: Will I ever be able to conceive again?

You see, throughout the entire nine months that I carried Leah, I had been quietly wondering if this pregnancy was a complete biological fluke. This is because, months before she was conceived, I had become attuned to the fact that my menstrual cycles seemed to show the classic signs of a luteal phase defect. In a nutshell, the luteal phase is the time between ovulation and the beginning of menstruation. Most medical professionals seem to agree that a 12-16 day luteal phase is “normal,” with anything less than that potentially inhibiting fertility since it may not provide enough time for a fertilized egg to properly implant in the uterus.

I am not sure why it took me so long to notice that my monthly luteal phases were disconcertingly short at 10 days—and sometimes less. As mentioned previously, I had been using the Fertility Awareness Method as natural birth control for about three years. While most women who have read Toni Weschler’s classic text, Taking Charge of Your Fertility, do so in their quest for pregnancy achievement, I had been diligently charting my basal body temperatures and cervical mucus each day in my efforts to delay motherhood. In any case, as soon as I noticed this anomaly in my monthly cycles, I began to wonder what complications it might pose when I did eventually want to conceive. While I didn’t see myself becoming a mother for a few more years, I did some research on the issue and decided to start taking a Vitamin B6 supplement each day for good measure.

This is likely why I had grown relaxed in my charting habits shortly before Leah was conceived, believing that I couldn’t become pregnant even if I did have intercourse during my fertile window. This is also why I was equally relieved as I was surprised when I discovered I was pregnant. This relief would continue throughout the next nine months as my pregnancy progressed perfectly, all the while wondering if this would be my only shot at motherhood without the aid of costly fertility medications and procedures. I had never envisioned myself with a house full of children, so if Leah ended up being the only child I was able to conceive without medical intervention, I would have proceeded through life content with my family of three. Needless to say, when she died unexpectedly at the tail end of my complication-free pregnancy, my anxiety wasted no time before shouting its concerns from the depths of my mind, reminding me that I might never fall pregnant again so easily, if at all.

Admittedly, this anxiety was more consuming at the beginning of my grief journey, when my chaotic postpartum hormones, unable to make sense of my baby’s absence, were urging me to become pregnant again as soon as possible. But this instinctive urge faded as the weeks and months wore on, and I finally accepted that having another baby would not be a magical cure for my grief. Throughout this time, my husband and I devised a plan: We would wait until December, six months after Leah’s birth, before trying to conceive again, with the understanding that it was unlikely to happen right away. If six months of trying bore no fruit, I would speak to my OBGYN about possible next steps. In the meantime, I continued to take my vitamins and chart my cycles so that I would have tangible proof of my short luteal phases to present to my doctor when the time came. I also tried my best not to fall apart each time my period showed up ten days after my ovulatory temperature spike.

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My first charted post-pregnancy cycle, with a crushingly short luteal phase of eight days

With nowhere to go but forward, I trudged ahead on emotional autopilot, adapting to a new routine, a new job, and a new life as a bereaved mother. During this time I settled into a strangely comfortable state of apathy, not feeling much of anything beyond the ever-present ache for my daughter. At least, that was the case—until two pregnancy announcements and one birth announcement, all unleashed within the course of a week, reignited my raw grieving emotions with the force of a thousand suns.

Maybe a stronger loss mama could have handled it. I wanted to believe that I could handle it. After all, I did not want these babies, nor was I even sure if I was emotionally ready to be pregnant again. Nevertheless, it all crashed over me with the devastating impact of a tidal wave—the visceral reminders of what I had, what I lost, and what I may never have again. Not since June had my hormones and emotions run so hopelessly amok: For an entire week I hurled pillows against walls, surrendered to uncontrollable sob fests in the washroom at work, and launched more f-bombs into the atmosphere than I had in the previous 30 years of my life combined.

In short, I was a mess. And I was so consumed by this tornado of emotions that I hadn’t even noticed day eleven of my luteal phase come and go, with no sign of my period in sight.

When this realization finally hit me, the fog lifted and I immediately snapped out of my funk. Eleven days! No, it wasn’t perfect, but it was something. It was hope. Maybe next month I could make it to twelve days, which would finally bring my cycle lengths to the lower end of “normal.”

And then day twelve passed me by, still with no indication that my period was on its way.

On day thirteen, I tried my best to stay grounded and suppress the flicker of wonder that had ignited within me: Was it possible? My husband and I were not actively trying to conceive yet, but we hadn’t been actively preventing it, either. I told myself to wait at least a week before jumping to any conclusions. After all, a twelve day luteal phase was nothing to sneeze at, and I would likely subject myself to unnecessary disappointment by taking a home pregnancy test so soon.

Yet I couldn’t shake the deep, consuming question that continued to echo in my brain all day at work: What if? After much internal debate, my curiosity ultimately trumped my caution. I stopped at a drugstore on my way home and didn’t tell my husband about my excursion. I was even able to wait until after dinner before retreating to the washroom to carry out my covert plan.

So many thoughts and emotions flashed through my mind while I waited for the results. I could vividly see myself, fourteen months prior, smiling as two pink lines confirmed my pregnancy with Leah. And then, almost as if I had stepped back in time, they slowly appeared once again.

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December 2, 2016

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I wish I could say that this reassuring result filled me with joy and excitement, but this simply wasn’t the case. Instead, I shed silent tears for the daughter whom I seemed to miss more than ever in that moment. I instantly thought about all the things that this new baby would get to see and experience if it managed to beat the odds and make it home—all the things I dreamed of doing with Leah, but never got the chance to. However, I also shed tears for myself, thinking about the nine months of emotional turmoil I was about to experience if this pregnancy progressed normally (which would be the best case scenario), as well as the utter devastation that I would feel if it were to result in another loss.

Was I thankful to see that my fears about secondary infertility were apparently unfounded? Yes, profoundly so. At this point I had interacted with too many loss mamas who had faced (and were still facing) fertility struggles to dismiss this glimmer of hope completely. But the brutal truth is that my grief and fear trumped my ability to feel the same joy and excitement that I did when I first discovered I was pregnant just over a year ago.

As I write this, I am 18 weeks pregnant with Leah’s sibling. To say that the past four months have been an emotional roller coaster would be an understatement. First, there are the flashbacks. Goodness, the flashbacks. Within the first eight weeks I made two visits to the emergency room for reassurance scans, and each time I felt like I had been transported back to June. I was bombarded with visions of myself wandering into the same lobby and telling the triage nurse that I had noticed a reduction in my baby’s movements; being directed to the Labour and Delivery unit, where I broke down crying at the intake desk, trying to explain that I had come to the hospital in a moment of panic, and no I had not called my midwife yet; watching a team of doctors remove my daughter from my body and whisk her away, not knowing what was going on or where they were taking her; holding my beautiful girl to my chest while her body seized and convulsed against my skin, and crying out in agony as she breathed her last laboured breath in my arms. I continue to experience these intrusive flashbacks on a daily basis, and I imagine their frequency and intensity will only increase as I move closer to my due date.

Second, there’s the anxiety. I held out okay until week 6 arrived, at which point the dreaded brown spotting started. Now, brown spotting can be totally normal if it is merely old blood being shed from the uterus during the early weeks of pregnancy—but of course, sometimes it can also be an early sign of miscarriage. I count myself fortunate that it was harmless in this case, but I was still overcome by a wave of panic each time it re-surfaced over the course of the next two weeks. I was also fortunate enough to have far more pronounced first trimester symptoms than I did with Leah, including debilitating fatigue and nausea. I was thankful for these corporeal reminders that my body was seemingly reacting to this pregnancy as it should—until I experienced the occasional day where these symptoms seemed to disappear completely. Of course, this can also be a totally normal response to fluctuating pregnancy hormones—but sometimes it can signify that a missed miscarriage has occurred.

I did not experience a reprieve from my anxiety until I reached week 10. Against the recommendations of the medical community at large, I decided to rent a medical grade Doppler so I could listen to the baby’s heartbeat at home. I can honestly say it is the best decision I have made for myself and my self-care during this pregnancy. It arrived by week 11, and after two practice runs I became quite proficient at finding the baby’s heartbeat during each subsequent use. I now use it twice a day: In the morning before I leave for work, and in the evening when I return home. Not only do these daily sessions allow me to feel connected to the life that is growing inside me, but they also give me reason to pause, smile, and find assurance in knowing that, at least for the present moment, my baby is alive and well.

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Leah’s sibling at 12 weeks gestation

Even so, I cannot speak or think about my future with this child in definitive terms. While I wish I could say that this pregnancy marks a happy ending of sorts for me and my family, the reality of being a loss mama is far more complicated than that. However, this does not mean that I do not love this baby tremendously. To the contrary—rather than plan ahead for things that may or may not happen, I spend each day acutely aware that this could be the only time I get to spend with this child, and I do not take a single heartbeat, flutter, or kick for granted.

As grateful as I am for this pregnancy, and despite being well into the mythical “safe zone” that comes after 14 weeks gestation, there are no guarantees that I will get to bring this baby home. As much as I am hoping for the best, I also know how suddenly and unexpectedly a complication-free pregnancy can careen towards the worst. Moreover, even if I do get to bring this baby home, doing so cannot suture the loss wound that Leah has left on my heart. Don’t get me wrong: Having a living child will certainly restore some of the joy and hope that disappeared from my life when Leah died. But I will continue to ache for my firstborn daughter each and every day, just as I do now.

I also understand that this development will inevitably change the nature of this blog. As a friend and fellow loss mama said to me not too long ago, the only thing harder than being pregnant after loss is not being pregnant after loss (assuming that the woman in question desires to have another child). I know firsthand the difference between being a pregnant loss mama and being a childless mother, and I can say without a doubt that the latter experience is far more difficult. While this pregnancy—like all pregnancies—may result in a heartbreaking loss, the imminent possibility that I may bring a living child home makes all the difference in the world. I thus recognize that sharing my pregnancy experience means this blog may become one more trauma trigger for loss mamas without living children, and especially for readers who know the pain of infertility and secondary infertility. For this reason, I cannot say that I am blessed to have fallen pregnant again so soon, when so many women struggle for years to conceive, and many others never do so at all. There is no way around the fact that this is devastatingly and infuriatingly unfair, yet it is the reality that many loss mamas are forced to live day in and day out.

In the meantime, all I can do is continue to write about what I am living, which for now is a chaotic mixture of grief, anxiety, fear, and—dare I say it—hope. Despite my aching loss wound and my trepidation about the uncertain future, I do count myself fortunate to awake each day with a heart that is filled to the brim with love for my two children—the one whose hand I hope to hold throughout the years to come, and the one whose hand I hope to hold again someday.

Chasing Rainbows

I’ve always been an anxious person. Even as a young child I habitually anticipated the worst possible outcomes that could result from innocuous daily events. For instance, in kindergarten I purposefully missed the bus on field trip days because I was convinced that I would somehow get lost and never see my family again. Similarly, I lived in a state of perpetual terror that my mother was going to die each time she left the house to run errands, and I would haul my infamous blue stool to the living room window and wait for hours on end for her to return. I hated going on boats and refused to venture into the deep end of any swimming pool due to the possibility of drowning. At age 30 I still don’t have a driver’s license because of my fears about the carnage that may ensue each time I get behind the wheel.

Despite these early catastrophizing tendencies, somehow I managed to get through the bulk of my childhood and young adult years without my anxiety interfering with my daily quality of life. That is, until I began embarking on my doctoral studies at the ripe of twenty-four. It has been aptly argued that the hyper-competitive nature of graduate school, in conjunction with the precarious job prospects that await doctoral candidates in an increasingly neoliberal academe, creates the perfect storm for otherwise dormant mental health issues to ignite with unprecedented fervor. While I had always been prone to anxiety and worst-case scenario thinking, never before did these tendencies take such an excruciating toll on my physical and mental well-being.

I will never know with certainty if my experiences in graduate school were the catalyst for my ongoing battle with generalized anxiety disorder. All I know is that my anxiety spiked to unprecedented heights during the final year of my PhD when I discovered I was pregnant. Don’t get me wrong, there were days when I was quite confident that Leah would be born healthy, and I was able to imagine the bright, love-filled life that we would share together. But there were other days when the possibility of my daughter making it into the world unscathed seemed too fantastical to be true, and imagining a positive outcome for my pregnancy made me feel like I was chasing rainbows.

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Image credit via QuickMeme

Still, during the months that I carried Leah I always had contingency comforts to fall back on. I could often talk myself out of my recurring anxiety spirals by reasoning that there was no life precedent or statistical reason why my baby would die. When science did not offer sufficient comfort, I could seek solace in my faith that God loved my daughter and would protect her from harm. And if I still couldn’t muster belief that Leah would come into the world safely, I drew consolation from the steadfast confidence offered by the people around me that everything would be fine. I reasoned that they must have all known something that my anxiety prevented me from seeing, and their certainty was enough to keep me going when I teetered on the brink of hopelessness.

Which brings me to my current situation. With four grueling months of grief behind me, I now find myself looking toward the future with unsurprising trepidation. While I have begrudgingly accepted that my life will simply never be what it could have been had Leah survived, I still ache to have a living child to love and care for. Yet I cannot look too far ahead without being besieged by the fear that I will never have a living child. Simply put, I have already landed on the wrong side of the statistics once before, and my anxiety will not be placated by fact-based arguments or faith-based platitudes.

When I now confide in my loved ones about my fears of future losses and secondary infertility, they all remain unwaveringly confident that I will have a living child in the near future. I don’t exactly resent their optimism; after all, I can’t fault them for not wanting to believe that I may spend the rest of my life as a childless mother. But as the people around me offer their unsubstantiated certainties and then continue on with their lives, I have no choice but to confront the unpalatable realities: My “young and healthy” body, in conjunction with all my planning, precautions, and excellent prenatal care, did not bring Leah into the world safely. Similarly, despite my faith and heartfelt prayers, God did not protect my child. Since science and faith both failed me the first time around, there is literally no foundation to support any hope that future pregnancies will reap different outcomes.

Indeed, it seems that I am the only person in the universe who questions whether I will end up with a much-coveted rainbow baby and all that it symbolizes. For those who are not part of the loss community, a rainbow baby refers to a child that is born after miscarriage, stillbirth, or infant loss. More importantly, the term denotes the calm and beauty that a new baby brings after the tumultuous storm that loss leaves in its wake. For many loss mamas, the hope for a rainbow baby holds the promise of future joy and peace in the midst of soul-crushing grief, so it stands to reason why this term holds so much significance in the loss community.

Yet like some other loss mamas that I’ve connected with throughout the past four months, I remain ambivalent about this term. While I can certainly appreciate why so many parents take comfort in the “rainbow” terminology and its connotations, it simply does not resonate with me at this time. I do not foresee myself referring to any future children I may have as rainbow babies, and I have two key reasons for this.

First, I am cognizant of the unfortunate but sobering reality that not all loss mamas get a rainbow baby. Just as one pregnancy does not guarantee future fertility, and just as every pregnancy carries risks of complications, there is no mystical promise that loss parents will go on to have a living child. The truth is that many mamas endure the agony of multiple losses, and many others live their lives as childless mothers. To that end, loss mamas with no living children often find themselves further marginalized by the loss community’s sweeping preoccupation with rainbow babies, and I do not want to deepen their sense of isolation.

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Image credit via MemeGenerator

Second, I know myself too well to naively believe that bringing a future baby home will instill any sense of calm in my life. The ever-raging storms that are my anxiety and my grief for Leah will not simply dissipate if I am fortunate enough to have a living child. In my life, death is no longer an abstraction that only happens to other people’s children. If death can strike my physically healthy 7 pound baby at the tail end of a complication-free, full-term pregnancy, it can also strike any future children I have long after they have left the womb. Rather than relishing in the calm after the storm, I know that I will spend the bulk of my waking and dreaming moments anticipating the innumerable tragic events that could befall my future children at any given time.

Similarly, while I do not discount that having a living child will bring new joy and love to my life, a “rainbow baby” will not bring a peaceful resolution to my grief. My firstborn daughter is dead, and I will grieve for her and the life she never got to live until my dying day. For every moment of sunshine and laughter that I may share with future children, I will reflect on all the beautiful moments that Leah never got to experience. For every milestone that her siblings surpass, I will think about all the steps that Leah never took and the words she never spoke. With each passing year wherein my future children grow, change, and emerge as individuated adults, I will think about the person that Leah might have been, but whom I never got to know.

Perhaps these resolutions seem self-pitying and defeatist, but in reality they are simply self-reflexive and honest. While my grief may be exacerbated by my ongoing mental health battles, I imagine that any parent who has felt their child’s body go limp and cold in their arms knows that nothing can ease that depth of agony or rectify the injustice of their child’s unlived life. At the end of the day, nothing will change the fact that my daughter was deprived of a lifetime’s worth of birthdays, Christmas mornings, and more love from her mama than I ever thought possible. In the meantime, I continue to search high and low for fertile ground that might sustain the hopes and dreams I have for the future. Despite my tireless efforts, however, I still don’t know where to plant them. Somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?

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Where Was God? Part 2: Positivity and Purpose

I am going to go out on a limb and speculate that anyone who has said “everything happens for a reason” has never brought their baby girl home in an urn.

I am also going to hedge a guess that anyone who advises the bereaved to “focus on the positive” has never watched their firstborn child seize and convulse before dying in their arms.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As mentioned previously, my faith in God throughout my childhood and young adult years was shaped by evangelical prosperity theology which, in a nutshell, stipulates that God has a divine plan for my life that is full of blessings. For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this “gospel” is that many people who denounce its principles in theory actually subscribe to them in practice. It’s easy to express our disdain for the spectacle-laden sermons delivered by charismatic televangelists as they assure viewers that massive financial donations to their ministries will result in abundant wealth and endless rewards. However, it takes a more nuanced and enquiring Christian mind to critically reflect on the subtle ways that prosperity theology seeps into our daily prayers, beliefs, and words. I should know, because I’ve lived it. I also wrote an entire doctoral dissertation exploring how this theology informs evangelical purity culture.

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Image credit via tumblr

While doing my research, I read books like this one and this one to analyze how evangelical authors conceptualize and propagate premarital “sexual purity.” Unlike other writers who have critiqued this purity culture from a secular standpoint, I was interested in examining the theological perspectives that inform “purity” discourses from a Christian perspective. I argued that prosperity theology is intricately woven throughout each page of these texts, but it can essentially be broken down into the following formula:

  1. God has a special life plan for every individual Christian man and woman, and this plan only includes blessings that will benefit them and bring them closer to Him (So in the case of these texts, God wants every Christian woman to marry a Christian man and remain sexually pure until He brings a husband into her life).
  2. In order for these good things to happen, Christians must allow God to bless them by obeying His commandments, praying fervently, being patient, and believing without a shadow of a doubt that their blessings will come in accordance with God’s timing (So in the case of these texts, a Christian woman must be completely pure, dedicated to God, and trust that He will fulfill His promises, at which point He can bring a Christian husband into her life).

So therefore:

  1. If you have received the blessings you seek, you have obeyed, prayed, and believed enough.
  2. If you have not received the blessings you seek, you are not allowing God to fulfill the plan He has for you because you have unresolved sin, inadequate faith, or lack of belief.

One can see how the following formula may be easily applied to any number of “blessings” we seek in our day to day lives. Yet we also know from our lived realities that there are flaws in this formula. Reality reveals that “pure” Christian women do not always find husbands, faithful believers do not always receive miraculous healing, and committed Christians struggle with poverty and unemployment. But when these things happen, there is always this convenient theological detour waiting in the wings:

“This simply wasn’t part of God’s plan for you. God has something better in mind. God has closed a door, but He will open a window. He is presenting you with this trial so you will learn and grow in Him.”

In this way, prosperity theology reflects the innately human desire to believe that there is always order in the chaos. It is the religious equivalent of what social scientists call the just world hypothesis, the belief that the world is a predictable place where people are somehow deserving of the good things, as well as the terrible things, that happen to them. For Christians, this desire manifests in the belief that God is in control of everything: If good things happen, they are blessings from God. If bad things happen, they are trials that God is allowing to occur. We may not understand why God chooses to bless some Christians with full, comfortable lives and healthy, happy families while others are plagued by poverty, illness, and violence, but rest assured that it is always part of God’s plan.

Yet, as Kate Bowler notes in her book, Blessed, non-religious people and those from other religious traditions also cling hard and fast to this belief. Outside of Christianity, it manifests in the law of attraction, also called the New Thought movement, wherein it is argued that positive thoughts will yield positive outcomes, and vise versa. Just as prosperity theology stipulates that Christians can reap their desired life outcomes by believing, obeying, and proclaiming our victories in Jesus, so too does The Secret promise that we can obtain the possessions, opportunities, and relationships of our dreams if we believe that they are already ours and welcome them into our lives with positive thoughts. Whether we are allowing God or the universe to bring these good things into our lives, ultimately the onus is on us to do, think, believe, and say the right things to make it happen. Within this framework, those of us who are prospering must be doing something right to deserve our blessings, and those who have not reaped positive outcomes need to alter their thought, belief, and behavioural patterns in order to change their destinies.

And why wouldn’t we cling to such beliefs? Without them, we live in a world where each one of us is equally vulnerable to senseless tragedy, no matter how faithful or positive we are. Without them, those of us who get our desired “blessings” cannot justify why we are able to enjoy healthy, comfortable, and happy lives while our neighbours are suffering. Without them, it means that we could lose every good thing in our lives in the twinkling of an eye, and there would be no rhyme or reason for it. And this possibility is downright terrifying.

Case in point: As much as I have vocally denounced prosperity theology and the law of attraction throughout the years, my conceptions of God and life have never escaped their tenets. This all became exceedingly clear during my pregnancy with Leah. The fact that her presence in my life was unexpected made me ripe for new age philosophizing and prosperity theologizing. In an effort to find peace during my recurring bouts of anxiety, I would often turn to my latent beliefs in God’s divine plan for my life, supplemented with a healthy dose of positive mental mapping. My daily inner dialogue often looked something like this:

Anxiety: At any given moment, your baby could die from unpreventable circumstances that you have no control over.

Me: “God won’t let that happen! God loves me and He loves my baby. God gave me this baby; I didn’t ask for her. The pregnancy was unplanned, but He set up the perfect circumstances for it: It is the final year of my PhD and I will graduate before my due date; I even got an extra teaching appointment this year so I can put money aside to stay home and take care of her after she’s born. God anticipated my needs even before I asked for His provisions! Why would God allow all of this to happen if He didn’t have a plan in place for Leah’s life?”

Anxiety: Hundreds of thousands of babies die every year from miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant loss. Are you saying that God loves Leah more than those other babies?

Me: “No…but maybe those babies died from things their mothers did. Maybe their mothers smoke, drink alcohol, and do drugs. Maybe their mothers are older. Maybe their mothers live in war-torn, impoverished countries and are affected by violence, poverty, and malnutrition. Maybe their mothers don’t pray every day for their babies’ protection like I do.”

Anxiety: You’re kidding yourself. You have absolutely no control over this.

Me: “I have no control over this, but God does! I know He wants me to have this baby. I know He won’t let my baby suffer needlessly. Why would God give me this gift and knit Leah together in my womb if He didn’t want her to live? I am going to have this baby. My baby is going to live!”

I clung to these beliefs in God’s divine plan right until the very end. Even as I lay in a hospital bed, looking at Leah’s still image on the ultrasound screen while nurses prepped me for an emergency cesarean section, I managed to find positivity and purpose in what was happening:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “No! My baby is going to be fine. God made me aware of her reduced movements so that I would go to the hospital. My midwife said that if I had waited until the morning to come in, Leah would have been stillborn. Obviously I came in at the right time! Thank you God! Thank you so much! My baby is going to live!”

This happened again nearly 24 hours later, after Leah’s life supports were removed and a team of specialists had given me their grim prognosis. In the wee hours of the morning I sat in my dark hospital room, holding Leah while her body seized continuously in my arms:

Anxiety: Your baby is dying.

Me: “Maybe God still has a plan in all of this! Maybe God will perform a miracle and keep her alive. She has already lived for much longer than any of the doctors thought she would. Maybe God knows that I have the strength and love to be a good mother to her in any condition, and He will keep her alive. I have given it over to God and asked for a miracle. Why would He bring her this far only to let her die?”

My experiences reveal that, in the face of tragedy and uncertainty, many Christians like myself find peace in seeking purpose. We tell the bereaved and ourselves that God is somehow behind everything, closing doors and opening windows, making a way when there seems to be no way, and creating beauty out of desolation. Others may not seek purpose in tragedy, but instead advise the bereaved to look for the positive: Pick up your boot straps and look on the bright side! Change your frame of mind to see how the glass is half-full, and everything will get better!

Unfortunately, there is no purpose or positivity in Leah’s death, just as there are no supernatural “windows” that God is waiting to open up because He has something “better” in store. Can I grow and change as a person from this? Of course. Can I honour Leah’s life by striving to become a more empathetic, compassionate, and gracious person? Absolutely. Can I hope to be an extra-loving, extra-patient, and extra-thankful parent to any children I have in the future? Certainly. But that is not why Leah died. Leah’s death is not about me.

There is no purpose in a newborn baby being afflicted with desultory and unpreventable suffering. There are no positives to be gleaned from an unlived life.

The world we inhabit is filled to the brim with injustice, tragedy, oppression, suffering, and death. And this is precisely why I cling to my belief in a loving God who wanted nothing more than for my daughter to live an endlessly love-filled life with me. That was the plan He desired for both of us from the very beginning.

Unfortunately, that perfect plan is not compatible with the imperfect world I live in.   

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Summer’s End

Even though it will be several weeks before the first day of autumn is officially upon us, for me the experiences and expectations that encapsulate summertime conclude when students and educators alike prepare to head back to school. While this transition is sometimes bittersweet, more often than not I find myself looking ahead with anticipation during this time, rather than dwelling on what I’m leaving behind. I’ve never minded trading summer barbecue fare for spice-laden soups, floral-print dresses for comfy sweaters, or blazing heat for cool, crisp breezes. Likewise, after several months of relative freedom in my academic pursuits, I often look forward to preparing weekly lessons and meeting new groups of students as another semester commences each September.

This year I feel quite differently about it all. I imagine it would still be this way if Leah was here with me. I know it would have been difficult to return to a fall work routine after savoring these first two months with her, even if I would only have to venture away from home to teach once a week. But now I suddenly fear leaving summer behind for entirely different reasons.

As an exercise in mindfulness, during the final weeks of my pregnancy I had adamantly resolved to restrict my anxious imaginings by only picturing immediate and positive outcomes. I purposefully decided not to fret about where I would go to pump breast milk on a busy university campus several times a day in the fall, or how I would manage to meet new writing deadlines while caring for a fussy newborn. I did not allow myself to worry about how my husband and I would juggle the logistics of childcare arrangements if we ended up teaching on the same days each week in the winter term, or whether we would find a daycare space at all during that time.

Instead, I forged a psychological contract of sorts between myself and my anxiety, acknowledging that I would eventually concern myself with these future uncertainties, but for now I would simply anticipate and enjoy my sweet girl’s first weeks in the world. I imagined strapping Leah into her carrier and taking her for afternoon walks with my dog each day. I pictured feeding her late at night in bed while my husband slept next to me. I thought about celebrating my 30th birthday at home with a bottle of wine and takeout sushi, welcoming the first of many years that we would spend together as a whole, completed family.

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One of many summer afternoon walks with Matthew and Kiwi

In many ways, I had envisioned summer 2016 as the “summer of Leah.” And this certainly has been the case, although the outcome has been strikingly different from what I had hoped for: This was the summer of Leah’s birth, but also of her death. Rather than spending my days and nights changing Leah’s diapers and holding her close, I have spent this time aching for her presence and grieving for the life she will never get to live. When I take my dog for his afternoon walks, I can actually feel Leah’s absence, and more often than not it causes tears to flow behind my dark sunglasses. When I go to sleep each night I begrudgingly wrap my aching arms around a childhood teddy bear, rather than the beautiful baby I long to hold.

As I awake in the mornings now and feel the cool breeze creeping in through my bedroom window, I am silently reminded that the summer of Leah, and the “official” period of time that I have been able to set aside for mourning her, is coming to a close. If Leah was here, I would be heading back to work in the coming weeks and preparing to balance these responsibilities with my new role as mother. Now that she is gone, I must still venture back into “the real world,” but learn to do so while carrying my grief, rather than the tiny girl who captured my heart less than a year ago.

Likewise, it is often said that the pain of grieving begins to alleviate with each passing day. But this brings little comfort to me when the passage of time also takes me further away from the fleeting hours that I got to spend holding and caring for Leah in the hospital. As each new morning eventually fades into night, I sense my memories of her sweet face, soft skin, and heartbreaking cries growing dimmer. While it may not be rational, I fear that my memory of her all-too-brief life may eventually fade into nonentity as these final summer days grow shorter, colder, and darker.

In this sense, the prospect that grief will remain my constant companion from here on is a strange comfort to me. I may not have allowed myself to vividly envision Leah’s life beyond these initial summer months, but I do anticipate new triggers to emerge with each temporal milestone that passes. Indeed, it is safe to say that I will actively seek out these little reminders of her wherever I can find them. As much as they will provoke feelings of pain and longing, they will also keep me connected to all the latent hopes and dreams that I carried for my daughter’s life during my pregnancy. In the most profound sense, they will keep me connected to her.

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The tree outside our second story window in full bloom several weeks before my due date

 

 

 

 

 

Trying Again

During the earliest days of my grief journey there were moments when I had all but convinced myself that life would be okay again as soon as I had another baby in my arms. I had visions of myself surrounded by family and friends in the same hospital room where I stayed with Leah, only this time there was a purely celebratory atmosphere as we passed the new baby from one pair of loving arms to the next with no thought of saying “goodbye” in sight. I was quite taken aback by how quickly the urge to conceive again overcame me. I physically yearned to feel soft newborn skin against my chest, and my arms literally ached from their crushing emptiness.

I believe this irrepressible urge is biologically instinctive in the most profound sense. I had given birth to Leah and bonded with her. For 33 hours I held her, smelled her, fed her, and took care of her after carrying her for nine months. Suddenly I found myself at home with no baby, and it seemed like my body was not able to comprehend or accept her sudden, unnatural absence. During those early days my need for her was deep and primal; I spent countless hours curled into the fetal position on by bed, clutching my soft postpartum belly and whimpering her name like the wounded animal that I was.

On another level, this urge is also likely motivated by the fact that I am a borderline-obsessive planner, which is common among anxious types like myself. Even though my pregnancy with Leah was a surprise, I maintained my locus of control by planning around her unexpected presence in my life. For the next nine months each decision, whether it be about work and finances or simply what to eat for dinner that day, was made with her in mind. My life was still moving forward with the understanding that Leah would be a fundamental part of my present and my future.

But when she exited my life just as abruptly as she had entered it, my world came to a screeching halt. Despite my anxious propensity to hope for the best but expect the worst during my pregnancy, I could not possibly prepare myself for my daughter’s death. Suddenly I was stagnant; I could not turn back the hands of time and get her back, but I also could not move forward. I had planned for a baby. I had a baby. I had a bedroom full of baby gear and an entire summer ahead of me during which I had no plans beyond caring for my daughter. It didn’t take long for my anxiety to begin shouting its directives from the depths of my mind, desperate to regain some semblance of control:

“Have another baby!

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Image credit via Keep Calm And Posters

Of course! It was a brilliant plan. My OBGYN had given me the go-ahead to conceive as soon as my postpartum bleeding ended. This meant that if my menstrual cycles resumed by the end of the summer, I could theoretically be pregnant again in the fall and be holding Leah’s brother or sister this time next year. Certainly I could hold out for one more year and everything would be back on track. I clung to this assurance for a brief period of time before my anxiety intervened (again) and began generously offering numerous “what if” scenarios to consider:

What if you cannot conceive now that you will be actively trying? What if you experience Unexplained Secondary Infertility? What if you get pregnant but you have a miscarriage? And then another miscarriage? And then another? What if you experience another Fetomaternal Hemorrhage in the second or third trimester? What if your baby is stillborn? What if the baby is born with unanticipated complications and dies in the hospital? What if your baby seems okay in the hospital but dies of SIDS or illness at home?

And on and on it goes. Yet every now and then I am able to put my fear of future losses aside and imagine a positive outcome. I consider the absolute best case scenario that could unfold from here: I get pregnant soon after I start trying. I have a healthy, complication-free pregnancy. I hear a strong cry from Leah’s brother or sister after they are birthed by repeat cesarean section. I find myself at home a year from now, doing everything I imagined I would be doing with Leah, but with a new baby instead.

I allow myself to imagine these positive outcomes from time to time, but inevitably the tears still flow. A more nuanced clarity has emerged since my first days of grieving and I now understand that having another baby will not mend the loss wound that Leah has left in my life. Yes, perhaps I could get pregnant again quickly, but Leah won’t be the one performing acrobatics on the ultrasound screen during my prenatal appointments. Maybe I could have a healthy baby that makes it to the second trimester, but it won’t be Leah’s kicks that I feel against my ribs each day. Perhaps another baby could make it to the end without experiencing FMH or a different complication at the eleventh hour, but it won’t be Leah who is passed from one family member to the next in a hospital room where joy is not mitigated by sadness.

With each passing day I become more painfully aware that there is no simple way forward from here. I know that having another baby will complicate my ongoing grief journey, rather than alleviate it. Having another baby will not give Leah back the life she never got to live, nor will it erase the struggles she endured. Still, these days the most comforting thing I can imagine is sitting with another wee daughter or son and telling them all about their beautiful, strong big sister. It allows me to smile every now and again when I am tempted to shrink away from the bittersweet road that lies before me. It does not take the pain away, but it does allow me to hope.

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