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.

DSC_1086

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.

___

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.

monster

___

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.

DSC_0644

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.

___

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.

Processed with VSCO with f2 preset

___

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.

bear

___

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 Absence

For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to start a series of posts that delves into my experiences as a loss mama with a living child. In one respect, finding the time to write has been challenging when I can barely cobble together the time to eat and shower each day. But with so many thoughts, emotions, and questions running through my mind at any given time, it has been equally challenging to know exactly where to begin.

Then, in the midst of another beautifully chaotic morning filled with crying, cooing, and cluster feedings, I took this photo:

_20170926_082351

I had placed Callum down on the bed for a moment while taking a sip of my morning coffee (which also serves as my “breakfast” these days more often than I would care to admit). My husband came into the bedroom and started playfully prodding at our boy with his usual cheery candor. My heart swelled as I saw them smiling at each other, and I quickly reached for my phone to capture the tender moment unfolding before me.

Hours later, I found myself laughing joyfully at the photo, overcome with love for my little family. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, my entire train of thought changed. I was suddenly inundated with the image of a dark-haired toddler girl, giggling away with her daddy and brother in the upper-left corner of the photo. In the blink of an eye, my laughter turned to tears.

I had long expected that Leah’s absence would be felt during notable family occasions such as birthdays, Halloween nights, and Christmas mornings. But more often than not, I am finding that it also confronts me unexpectedly in the otherwise unremarkable bustle of day-to-day life.

Indeed, it seems that I am continuously haunted by the other life that I would be leading if Leah was here, whether she had been one of the lucky babies to survive and thrive after her fetomaternal hemorrhage, or if I had somehow gone into labour closer to my due date, before any complications began at all.

These reflections often take me down two distinct trajectories. Since it is unlikely (although not impossible) that Leah and Callum would have come to exist at the same time in the same universe, I most often envision myself as the mother of a fifteen-month-old girl in a completed family of three. Not knowing the trauma of child loss, each day I share photos and videos of Leah on social media with carefree abandon, unaware that such images may be painfully triggering for others who are less fortunate than I. I am also still blissfully ignorant enough to believe that God’s personal protection guaranteed Leah’s safe arrival into the world, despite the fact that thousands of other children are lost needlessly to miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant death each year. All in all, there is an innocence and insularity to this other life, wherein I happily pass from one day to the next with my growing daughter in tow.

In the other imagined trajectory, the one that makes my heart ache with indescribable longing, most of these factors remain—except that, somehow, Callum and Leah are both here with me. Of course, this cosmic arrangement would have required an unplanned pregnancy at five months postpartum, which would have undoubtedly brought with it a host of mental, physical, and financial stresses. But since it is not completely beyond the realm of possibility, I occasionally allow myself to indulge in this glorious alternate universe, wherein I am able to hold, kiss, and care for both of the children who shared my body for nine months.

I often feel compelled to talk myself down from these imaginings, which is what I did today. In these moments I rationalize that there is no way Callum would be here if Leah was alive, so what good is it to pine for what could never be? But at the same time, I know that nothing can change the fact that I am now a mother of two and part of a family of four. Unlikely as it is that my son and daughter would have ever appeared in a photo together, Leah’s absence must always be felt in a family that will always be incomplete.

Another Year

Yesterday I turned 31. As has become the custom in recent years, I spent my birthday in the most enjoyable way possible for an introvert like myself: A laid back day filled with good food, sunny walks, and laughter-filled conversations with my husband. Of course, this birthday was unlike any other I had experienced before, as it was also filled with diaper changes, cluster feedings, and intermittent cries from my four-week-old son.

In short, it was the best birthday I could have asked for, having accepted that Leah’s absence will be felt on such occasions, both now and in the years to come.

Inevitably, I spent much of yesterday thinking back to this time last year. Still in the throes of fresh, raw grief, my 30th birthday was anything but “happy,” despite the celebratory wishes offered by well-meaning family and friends. It still pains me to think about those excruciatingly bleak summer days, and how I struggled to fill the aimless hours that should have been spent caring for my firstborn daughter. Somehow this past year has passed me by in a flash, yet also at a snail’s pace, completely disrupting my previously-held worldview in the process.

During the months that I carried Leah, I assumed that her presence in my life would bring with it a newfound sense of permanence. Since I didn’t envision myself having more than one child, I expected that my family would be complete after welcoming her into the world. Likewise, I anticipated that having her at my side would solidify my new identity as “mother,” forever changing my self-conception and providing me with a new sense of purpose. As I understood it, Leah would be a central part of my world as I grew old and grey, and I would pass on from this life knowing that my love’s legacy would live on through her.

It’s difficult to explain how outliving your child can completely shatter these conventional expectations. Leah’s death has taught me that the only thing knowable about this life is its impermanence. I think about this each day as I look at the people whose love makes my life worth living: My husband, my family, my friends, and now, my son—none of whom are guaranteed to be here tomorrow, next week, or a year from now.

Each time I hold this beautiful boy to my chest and gently rock him to sleep at night, I can’t help but think how the time I have with him is both precious and fleeting. While these first days, weeks, and years of his life will undoubtedly be among my most treasured memories when I draw my final breaths, he will go through his own life with little to no recollection of the time we now spend together. Indeed, if he lives the long, full life that I hope he does, and if my husband and I do our jobs well, our family dynamic must inevitably change, seeing us become less central to his existence with each passing year. Simply put, every day I am cognizant of the fact that there is nothing permanent about this boy’s presence in my life. Yet as heart-wrenching as this is, it draws no comparison to the alternative that I know too well: Being the parent of a child who will never grow up and venture out into the world on their own, because they never got the chance to.

In this sense, it is perversely ironic that some of my initial assumptions about Leah’s permanence in my life turned out to be true. While Callum will continue to grow and change before my eyes each day, creating new memories along the way, I will spend year after year looking through the same photos of Leah, feeling the same ache in my heart, and pondering the same questions about who she would have been. As it is, I will always be the mother of a dark-haired, porcelain-skinned baby girl, because my daughter never got the chance to be more than that.

Still, as I plunge ahead into another year, I remain grateful for the brief but life-changing moment in time that my daughter was here. Likewise, I am equally determined to cherish every moment with my son that time allows.

Joyful Grief

On Friday, July 28, my life changed profoundly for the second time in thirteen months.

Leah’s brother, Callum, came into the world healthy, strong, and screaming by repeat cesarean section at 38 weeks gestation.

_20170730_092049

Much to my amazement, all of the best case scenarios that I hadn’t dared hope for unfolded in a matter of hours: He cried heartily as my OBGYN removed him from my body. He received a score of 9 on his Apgar tests. I was able to hold him skin-to-skin while still being stitched up on the operating table. And, just as I had secretly hoped, he was born with the same glorious crown of full, dark hair that his sister had.

DSC_0445

Now, we are home, and my heart is so full. 

It is full of gratitude each time he wakes me up in the middle of the night to be fed or changed, as it reminds me how privileged I am to have a healthy, growing child.

It is full of awe each time he curls up on my chest after a feeding, as it reminds me how miraculous it is that my body created this delicate, beautiful life.

It is full of joy each time he opens his eyes and glances in my general direction, as it reminds me of all the cuddles, kisses, and “I love you’s” that I hope to share with him in the coming years.

DSC_0473

But my heart is also full of grief and sadness. It was beyond surreal to be back in the same hospital where I spent 33 precious hours with my firstborn daughter under profoundly different circumstances. It reminded me of the moments I spent holding her skin-to-skin, hearing her newborn cries, and marveling at her beauty—all the while knowing that her life was slowly slipping away, and that there was nothing I could do to save her.

Now that Callum and I are home, each moment of joy I experience with him is also a bittersweet reminder of what I missed out on with his sister. It seems that laughter and tears come to me in equal measure these days, often at the same time.

DSC_0557

With each passing day I am reminded that nothing is easy about mothering after loss. It is a tumultuous journey wherein life’s most beautiful moments are also filled with heartache and longing for what will never be. But it is my journey, and for now I am beyond thankful for the two beautiful children it has given me along the way.

 

 

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.

DSC_0389

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.

DSC_0400

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.

DSC_0406

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.

One Year

Dear Leah,

It is June 21, 2017. Today you would be one year old. It seems impossible that an entire year has passed since I experienced the best and worst 33 hours of my life. Contrary to my fear that the passage of time would dull my memories of your brief life, I can still vividly recall every beautiful and excruciating detail of the day you came into the world.

I remember breaking into sobs while poking and shaking my belly in the early midnight hours, trying desperately to get you to move before finally deciding to go to the hospital.

I remember hearing my midwife say that I still had a “happy baby,” but you wouldn’t be happy for long, so it was a good thing that I came in when I did. I remember thanking God for protecting you as the nurses prepped me for my emergency c-section. It pains me to recall these final moments in which I still believed that I would get to bring you home.

I remember seeing you for the first time in the NICU after the doctors told me they would have to send you to a special children’s hospital for further treatment. I asked them if I could touch you, and a nurse opened your bassinet so I could stroke your hair. It was heartbreaking to see you hooked up to so many machines, struggling to cling to life in that cold hospital.

I remember the visceral shock that enveloped my body when they told me your condition was far worse than any of us could have anticipated, and that you were unlikely to survive the intensive interventions that would be undertaken if they sent you away.

I remember the sense of awe I felt when they brought you to me for palliative care and placed you in my arms for the first time. To this day, I still have not seen anyone or anything so beautiful. I remember holding you against my skin and kissing your head over and over again, caught in the throes of absolute joy and utter devastation.

I remember crying in the evening as your initial dosage of medication began to wear off, and I started to see and feel the effects of the seizures that were continuously ravaging your body. Were you in pain? Were you afraid? Did you somehow know that you were with your mother, and that I would have gladly traded my own life for yours if given the choice?      

Instead of celebrating one year of cuddles, kisses, and laughter with you, today marks one year of tears, heartache, and longing. It is agonizing to imagine what you would look like, sound like, and be like if you were here, growing into the beautiful girl I know you would be. Instead of crying over still photographs and combing through your mementos, today I would be creating and capturing new memories to cherish. I would be dressing you up in some frilly monstrosity and watching you smash into your first birthday cake. Later on, I would hold you on my lap and read you a bedtime story before kissing you goodnight. 

I wish I could say that I have found some celebratory way to honour your memory today, but any attempt I make to shroud your unlived life in positivity ultimately feels hollow. As grateful and proud as I am to be your mother, you should have lived long enough to be more than my precious baby. Today I am haunted by the reminders of what will never be: You will never smile; you will never laugh; you will never experience any of the light and joy that this life has to offer. It is crushing to think that your legacy will ultimately live and die with me, and that you never got the chance to leave a broader mark on this world in your own right.        

People often say that you are still with me and that your spirit lives on. Even if this is true, it cannot quell the crushing pain of a mother’s empty arms. I want so badly to do the things that non-bereaved parents are able to do each day. I want to rock you back to sleep in the middle of the night, comfort you after you’ve taken a tumble, and feel you wrap your arms around my neck while I hold you. More than anything, I want to know for certain that you understand how deeply loved you are.

It has been one year of a lifetime in which I will continue to wonder who you would have been. No matter what the future holds, you will always be the irreplaceable daughter who first made me a mother.

I miss you, baby girl. 

All my love and a kiss,

Your Mama

_MG_4221

Moving

Last week my husband and I moved to a new apartment. Needless to say, my transition to June has been a tiring blur of packing, cleaning, and unpacking, intermingled with the usual onslaught of busy workdays and prenatal appointments. With Leah’s birthday fast approaching and her brother’s due date following soon after, I’ve been spending much time thinking about what this move means for this particular moment in my ongoing grief journey.

As I sit in my new bedroom on this sweltering spring day, it is surreal to think how different my life looks in comparison to what it was one year ago. In many ways, it is almost unrecognizable. This time last year, Leah’s due date was less than one week away. I can still vividly recall every mundane detail of how I spent those final blissful days of my pregnancy: Walking to the neighbourhood grocery store with my husband on humid evenings to appease my unrelenting watermelon cravings. Going for purposeful strolls to the park every morning in the hopes of jump starting my labour, all the while imagining a sweet baby girl strapped to my chest in the ergonomic carrier I had purchased. Crafting a generous batch of homemade pierogies the weekend before Leah’s birthday, and eating the leftovers for dinner mere hours before going to the hospital and learning that the hopes and dreams I had for my daughter’s life would never come to pass.

During this time, I had accepted that the months and years ahead would be challenging for my husband and I as we prepared to care for Leah in a minuscule apartment with our meager academic teaching incomes. The future that I anticipated would undoubtedly be filled with stress and uncertainty—yet I was not afraid. Soon I would finally get to meet, hold, and kiss the girl who had shared my body for the previous nine months, and I was excited for my family of three to venture ahead through the slew of sleepless nights and mountains of dirty diapers that awaited us.

Yet here I am, nearly one year later, leading a very different sort of life. In one respect, my family’s financial future is more secure, thanks to the private sector job I started last fall. In addition to qualifying for the paid parental leave that I would not have had with Leah, this change has allowed us to move to a new space that is nearly twice the size of our old apartment. It means the son I now carry will have his own room waiting for him should we be fortunate enough to bring him home from the hospital, even though I cannot bring myself to unpack or assemble the plethora of baby items that remain haphazardly strewn across the floor.

moving 1

Leah’s brother and I at 30 weeks gestation

As I sit back and reflect on my life as it is now, I know that I have much to be thankful for. I know that I am fortunate to have good physical health, a loving marriage, and supportive family and friends. I know how privileged I am to have a secure roof over my head, fresh food in my refrigerator, and a job that allows me to utilize my education and hone my professional skills. Similarly, I know that many women who struggle with infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss would give so much to be in the third trimester of what has thus far proven to be a healthy and complication-free pregnancy.

And yet…

I begrudge the fact that—rightly or wrongly—I feel compelled to continually remind people that I am both cognizant of and thankful for my good fortunes, despite the injustice of my daughter’s death. Perhaps this is because of our cultural discomfort with the messy emotions that accompany child loss, as if sadness, longing, and anger are pathological symptoms of grieving an unlived life. Or perhaps it is because, as time continues to pass and my pregnant belly continues to swell, the world hastens to remind me that it is time to “move on” and “move forward” in my grief, as if Leah was a momentary blip in my life narrative that I must ultimately leave behind, and as if my son being born healthy and alive can somehow give my daughter her life back.

It’s a curious place to be, standing at the junctures of hope, hopelessness, gratitude, and despair. After all, if I say that life is shit because my daughter is dead, it means I lack the introspection to recognize and appreciate all the good things I have in my life. If I say that I long to be back in my old apartment, chasing after a bright-eyed and bumbling one-year-old girl each day, it means I don’t love my son as much as I should, since he would not have been conceived at all if Leah was alive. If I say that I want to be among those people who are both privileged and naive enough to assume that a pregnancy will ultimately result in a healthy baby coming home, it means I am selfish enough to wish I was ignorant of the life-changing pain that accompanies child loss, even though so many parents are forced to carry this burden day after day.

These past few weeks, people have been quick to suggest that moving will be a “fresh start” and a “positive step forward” for me and my family. Admittedly, when we decided to start searching for a new place earlier this year, part of me hoped that moving would alleviate some of the grief triggers that lingered in the space where Leah would have spent the first years of her life. Yet as I finished packing the last of our belongings and surveyed the empty apartment that once held the promise of so much joy, I was overcome with a deep, visceral ache that has yet to abate. I have brought this pain with me to my new place, and have spent much time weeping violently for all the memories that did and didn’t happen in what I thought would be Leah’s first home.

moving 2

Kiwi and I doing a final sweep in our old apartment

While some people may believe it is a sign of weakness or stagnation, I am not ashamed to say that I do not miss Leah any less than I did nearly one year ago when I stroked her hair and kissed her cheek for the last time. If this past year has taught me anything, it’s that there are some types of love and loss from which we aren’t meant to move on and move forward. I know that every ounce of pain I continue to carry in my heart is a direct reflection of the love I carry for my daughter. Simply put, it is a love that I have no intention of leaving behind, despite the tears it brings with each passing day.

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.

DSC00011

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.

28 weeks

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.          

Mother’s Day

Next Sunday is Mother’s Day for those in Canada, the United States, and a number of other countries. It is fair to say that I have been reflecting far more on this upcoming occasion than I would be if Leah was alive. While growing up, my family never commemorated Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day, for that matter) with memorable traditions, so it is unlikely that I would have given much thought to it this year if I was a normal mother whose daily existence was not defined by the anguish of infant loss.

In many ways, it is wholly appropriate that I write this post on International Bereaved Mother’s Day. Since 2010, this day has been set aside to honour the many women whose mothering journeys are shaped by the unique grief that accompanies child loss, and it is especially significant for mothers without living children. Even so, it is important for non-bereaved people to purposefully include loss mamas and their deceased children in Mother’s Day traditions, thereby validating the complex emotions and experiences that shape their day to day lives. Unfortunately, as I and the many mothers who have walked this devastating path before me know too well, this is not the reality of the culture we live in.

Leah mothers day

A special thank you to Danielle at Jensen Grey for creating this Mother’s Day wreath for Leah

As Mother’s Day draws nearer, I have also been reflecting on how it will shape my first grief season as a bereaved mother. You see, my baby showers were held on Mother’s Day weekend, just over a month before my June 17 due date. It is ironic that, this time last year, Mother’s Day marked the beginning of the end of my hopes and dreams for Leah’s life. After eight months of grueling anxiety, I was finally confident enough to let go of my fear and plunge into the pregnancy bliss that I hadn’t yet allowed myself to feel. After eight months of cautious optimism and speaking about Leah in terms of “if” rather than “when,” I allowed myself to envision every aspect of my life with the daughter whom I had fallen head-over-heels in love with. And, after eight months of unyielding prayer that God would protect my baby from harm, I allowed myself to believe that He had personally escorted both of us to the finish line, and that He would continue to answer my daily pleas for her safety until I could finally wrap her in my loving arms.

My heart has never been so full of joy and gratitude as it was during those precious weeks between my Mother’s Day showers and Leah’s birthday. With my PhD dissertation defended and my teaching obligations for the year completed, my sunny spring days were filled with purposeful walks, thankful prayers, and unbridled anticipation. I was so ready to finally meet, hold, and kiss the girl who would complete my family. As I laundered her clothes, assembled her bassinet, and installed her car seat, I experienced happiness like I had never known before—a pure, untethered sort of happiness that grief will never allow me to feel again.

shower

May 7, 2016

Needless to say, my current mothering journey could not be more different from what I had envisioned this time last year. For me, being a mother now means shedding tears each day for a dark-haired girl whose death has left an unfillable void in my life. It means never being able to simply enjoy occasions like Mother’s Day, Christmas, or birthdays without grieving for my firstborn daughter, whose absence will always be felt. It means living with PTSD that can be triggered by things that non-bereaved people may deem unreasonable, such as attending baby showers, hearing newborn cries in the street, or being inundated with photos of happy, intact families on social media. It means hesitating each time someone asks me how many children I have, knowing that my painful truth is probably not the answer they want to hear. It means lacking the emotional capacity to feel true joy during my current pregnancy, understanding that the son I now carry is not guaranteed a long, healthy life on this earth anymore than Leah was.

In my life, being a mother ultimately means claiming whatever space I can for myself and my daughter by speaking her name and sharing her story, even when it makes other people uncomfortable. Since bereaved parents do not enjoy the privilege of watching our children grow and change before our eyes each day, we care for them by continually reminding the world that they were here, that they are loved, and that their lives matter. To be sure, keeping our children’s memories alive cannot compensate us for the lifetime of memories we have been robbed of, but each day we seize these opportunities with every ounce of love that our broken hearts hold, because it is literally all we can do.

And so, to my fellow loss mamas, I wish you a gentle Bereaved Mother’s Day. To everyone else, I ask that you hold space for these parents and their much-missed children today, next Sunday, and on each bittersweet Mother’s Day the future brings.

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.

DSC00045

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.