Full Term Baby Loss: A How-To Guide For Mothers (Guest Post)

Last year, I had the privilege of reviewing Interrogating Pregnancy Loss, a groundbreaking collection of scholarly and creative nonfiction essays that explores pregnancy and infant loss in all its complexity and heartbreak. While this book features a number of deeply affecting chapters, there is one in particular that captured me from the very first read—not only because it is a poignant and beautiful piece of writing, but also because the author’s disarmingly honest account of losing her firstborn child so closely reflects my own experience.

I can still vividly recall my first time perusing the book’s review manuscript on a sunny Saturday afternoon, all the while feeling a tiny baby boy kick against my pregnant belly. Initially, I had been reluctant to serve as a reviewer, knowing how triggering the subject matter would be as I continued to grieve for Leah, while also navigating my ongoing fears of losing another baby. But at the same time, immersing myself in other women’s stories of loss continued to be a cathartic form of therapy, not only because it helped me feel like less of an alien in a culture that prefers to ignore experiences of stillbirth and infant death, but also because, oftentimes, my peers are able to articulate aspects of my grief and trauma that I haven’t been able to put into words.

This is one such story. When I read Rachel’s chapter for the first time, I had to stop halfway through. Every candid thought and emotion she expressed was so eerily similar to what I had experienced with Leah, it felt like I was reading my autobiography. When I finally finished the chapter, I broke into sobs. And then I read it again. And again. And again—each time crying heartily and thinking: “If I could pick one piece of writing that would help people better understand what my experience with infant loss has been like, this would be it.”

As such, it is truly an honour to share the following guest post by Rachel O’Donnell, reprinted with permission from Demeter Press.

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Rachel O’Donnell is a writer and teacher who lives in Rochester, New York, with her husband and two living children, and the memory of her daughter, Corrina. She can be reached at racheltodonnell@gmail.com.

Full Term Baby Loss: A How-To Guide For Mothers

Beginnings

When you find out you are pregnant, call your best friend. Say: “I thought I was, but the first blood test came back negative!” Think: they really spring it on you, this whole pregnancy thing. Say to her, with a mild groan: “I am already eight weeks along.” She laughs, because she has had her baby for two years now.

“Don’t worry,” she says, “This is why babies take nine months to cook. You have plenty of time to get used to the idea.”

So you try. Walk up and down the street, a belly proudly displayed in front of you, a womanly being with thick hair and clear skin who responds to questions with motherly charm. The questions are easy: “When are you due?” and “Is this your first?” and “Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?” Answer each with a toothy smile. Become a lover of small clothing, doula cooperatives, and wooden baby toys. Walk confidently like a grown-up and a mother, someone who is responsible for someone else.

Order decaffeinated coffee, swear off soft cheese and heat all your food until the boiling point. Throw up in the mornings and sometimes in the afternoons. Make kale salads and take your daily tablets of DHA with acceptable herbal teas. Refuse to use the microwave. Pick out a house with multiple bedrooms and on moving day, do not lift any heavy boxes. Research front baby carriers, back baby carriers, jogging strollers and nursing bras. Interview pediatricians. Go to the baby store and register for important things: a set of cloth diapers and wipes, an organic changing pad cover. Ask questions and take notes: what is that thing that fits snuggly over the car seat and why do you need it? Do you go to La Leche meetings before or after the baby comes? You are given a car seat and a bassinet. These are the things you will need.

When a classmate pours you a beer to celebrate your successful qualifying exams, turn it down. Order sparkling water instead. Think: everyone noticed you did not drink it, and with your obvious weight gain and disappearing waist, everyone knows. Later, on the subway, say to them all: “I am pregnant.”

They turn to you and smile. “Good for you!” they say, but what they really mean is: how in the world will you have a baby and finish your dissertation? Start sweating. You yourself do not know the answer.

On Saturdays, go to yard sales and pick out gender-neutral clothes: a yellow footie pajama set printed with ducks, a white fuzzy zipper suit for the cold.

At the midwife’s office, drink a sugary substance and flip through parenting magazines as you wait for two hours to pass. Lie down and listen to the heartbeat through the fetoscope. Watch the spinning centrifuge determine your iron levels.

Take afternoon naps and learn to sleep on your side. Buy more pillows. Go to prenatal yoga classes and lean back gently on the bolster, interlacing your fingers and placing them on your belly with your eyes closed and the lights dimmed. When the instructor tells you to imagine the life growing inside of you, feel the life hiccup and kick your hand.

Endings

Your first maternity clothes are a borrowed pair of jeans with an elastic band, and you are wearing them again, at the end, when your water breaks in the mall and soaks you to your feet. That day, the midwife comes and listens again to the heartbeat. You rest again on your side, wait for contractions to get stronger, and wash the soaked jeans.

Soon, the midwife returns and cannot find the heartbeat. Where did it go? It was just there. Watch her listen again. And again. She takes the fetoscope out of her ears one side at a time. Watch her mouth moving. Something about going to the hospital, should be able to find it, going to double check. Say: “I want the baby.” The midwife looks at you with a sad face. “I know,” she says.

Get in the car and fasten your seat belt. Look over at your husband and say: “There is a dead baby inside me.” You don’t know how you manage to say this to your husband so matter-of-factly and later, you will remember this as a moment in which you did not yet understand. You somehow thought the baby would still appear.

You are cold in the car in your pajamas. Park on the roof of the hospital and walk from the snowy parking lot through a heavy door. This is all you will remember later. How long was the trip to the hospital? Did you talk to your husband and the midwife on the way? What would you have said?

Walk down some stairs and into a brightly lit corridor and through some special door with a buzzer. Everyone in blue oversized jackets stares as you lie down on the table. Watch as they put gel on your giant belly and start the ultrasound, the wand moving over and over and over.

Stare up at the lights and then turn your head to the left, where there is a large window. It is still snowing. A new doctor comes in and presses harder with the probe. You stare to the left without blinking until he says your name. He asked the midwife what it is and that is how he knows. Again he says your name. Again he says it. You cannot look at him because you know what he will say and then finally you turn your head and see his head covered in a paper cap and his blue scrubs and his kind face says it: “I cannot find a heartbeat.” He says your name again because you have looked away from his face and back up to the lights.

Say quietly and disgraced: “Why did the baby die?”

Hear the pity in his voice before he speaks. “I don’t know.”

After that, after the news has been revealed and you are assumed to understand it, there is a lot of quick movement and noise. Hear words like IVs and morphine drips. People move in and out of the room and there is discussion of the changing of shifts.

You wait and wait and wait for it to end. There is only that one kind doctor and every time someone appears that you have not seen before, ask what time the nice one will be back. Think: why did he leave without letting you know?

At night, you sleep on your side and your husband sleeps in the folding chair next to you and holds your hand. When you get up to use the bathroom, do not look in the mirror.

When the midwife comes back into the room and reports that she has called your parents like you asked her to, realize that this is the first time you cry. You have always been a disappointment to them. Here you go again, producing a dead baby instead of a living one.

Someone puts a long needle in your back and tells you it will help ease the pain, but it does not.

Finally, you tell them you have decided on the c-section because the baby has been dead for days and you cannot get her out. See that you have failed many times at this whole motherhood thing: you can neither produce a living child nor deliver her properly.

They wheel you down the hall. You ask them to give you a strong sedative for the surgery and they do, but still you can see the blank faces of the doctors, the bright lights and tubes tied to your arms, and feel the pulling when they get her out. They seem to hand her to a nurse, who quickly leaves with a large blanket. You don’t know where they have taken her.

When you are in a new room and the surgery is over, you are so happy the belly has gone that you breathe a sigh of relief. Think: “It is over!” For many years, regret this thought. You have wished for an ‘over,’ but there is no ‘over.’ Rather, there is a before and after. There is so much of a before and after that some days you can no longer stand the sight of your smiling wedding photographs, before you knew what was to be soon after. Or not be.

Your parents come to the hospital and talk briefly and seriously. They remember a friend whose baby died during her pregnancy forty years ago, who had to wait months to deliver. “Before Pitocin,” they say.

“Oh,” you say, “that is sad.”

They place a salmon-colored mug with an attached spoon and some white carnations on the windowsill of your room. Later, when they are gone, open the small envelope attached to it and read what they wrote: “Get well soon.”

Funny, you think. You did not know you were sick.

The midwife comes in and tells you they took pictures. You are surprised at this news: surely there was nothing to take pictures of. You cannot even imagine it. When she tells you that the baby had a beautiful face, whimper softly because when they told you she was dead, you had thought she was a monster. Try to picture the baby with a body and a face, but you cannot.

A nurse who seems flighty and overworked but not necessarily unkind reveals to you that the dead child you produced was a girl, even though you have asked not to be told the sex. A daughter. This is all you have ever wanted. You were waiting all this time for that girl, that beautifully gendered baby girl.

For two days, you do not want to see her. Finally, on the third day, you say it is okay when they ask and you wait. A different nurse opens the door and comes in with a small bundle wrapped in a white crocheted blanket. Later, they will give you this blanket to take home, when it is empty. She places the bundle in your arms and it has a tiny knit hat so all you can see is the face. The nurse tells you not to take her hat off because of the autopsy, it is resewn. Think: “Frankenstein’s monster.” Look carefully at her face. Think about touching the dark hair sticking out from under the hat, but you do not do it because you are afraid. Her face is perfect, with a tiny nose between some light bruises and above bright red lips. When you touch her forehead with your finger, you are surprised it is cold. She is tiny but heavy so you give her away quickly. See, in the corner of your eye, your husband crying and kissing her face again and again. You can only kiss it once before you hand her back because it is very, very cold.

Years later, your biggest regret is this: giving her back so quickly. Now, though, it seems like enough and you are frightened and just want to go home. List the things no one tells you about pregnancy: the swollen ankles, the difficulty breathing when you walk upstairs quickly, the questions from strangers, and that you only get to take your baby home if you have produced a living one.

Also, later, when she is gone, you wish you had thought to look at her feet.

Refrain

At home, at first, it is better. You can take the sleeping pills they prescribed for you and sleep in your own bed, even though you cannot lie on your side from the pain and you must wear a sports bra at all times. Once, when you take it off to shower, look carefully at your nipple and see the white liquid you produced for her leaking out.

When you wake in the morning, feel fine, refreshed, the sleeping pills must help! Then: remember it. Remember it all.

Look in the mirror at what you have: a bereaved body living in two times at once. Your pregnant body was two bodies, but now you are less than one.

Later, when you are out of sleeping pills and still in bed, you cannot sleep. And you are very, very alone: there is no person in your belly and no baby on the outside. Where did she go? Oh, right: you lost her. Look quickly behind you like a woman who is losing her mind.

At night, when you try to fall asleep again, hear a baby crying. Try to shut this off. Instead, get up and look around for the baby, even in the basement. Check the washing machine. Say: “Just in case.” Remember: when you were in the hospital trying to force your uterus to contract and deliver your dead baby, you heard living babies crying too.

You have a dream that you are giving birth in the hospital, pushing hard, and they place a tiny white kitten on your chest. They tell you the kitten will die. When you wake up, think: “Oh, thank god! It was only a kitten!”

Send your husband back to the hospital for the baby’s things. There is a tiny handmade box with her pictures and the white blanket inside it. In the photographs, she is long, stretched out. This bothers you. In them she is lifeless, with red lips, darkness around her eyes, and a bruised body. You can see how she should have been moving. Seven pounds, three ounces. Say: “Perfect.” Touch the picture of her face and put it away.

The next day, look through what you have left: a couple of photographs, some black footprints, a small teddy bear the nurse placed between her hands in the pictures, a pink hat, and a cast of your big belly you took on one of the last days.

The baby room door is closed. Behind the door, there is a lamp in the shape of a rabbit. There is a hand-me-down crib, a dresser, a sketch of a bunny and a dragonfly you bought and framed.

When the midwife comes later, beg her for specifics because you cannot remember. Do you remember the doctor putting a probe into you to find out if you were contracting during those days you spent trying to get her out? “No,” you say, you do not remember. You do remember the midwife rubbing your feet. You remember asking her if you would have to push. You remember that when she told you your milk would come in, you covered your chest with one arm and sobbed. When you were pregnant with a living baby, this was the only way you could imagine her: nursing at your breast, a tiny hand in your hand, a sweet smelling head on your chest.

Ask the midwife about that smell. The lock of hair they taped to her footprints smells like a baby. Say: “What is that? I always thought it was baby powder.”

“No,” she says and shakes her head, “babies smell sweet.” This makes the tears run down your face without stopping, thinking about the sweet smell of babies. Your baby.

Get up and check the mailbox. For ten days in a row, you get one sympathy card or more in the mail before they end and you don’t need to check the mail anymore. Your mother’s sister writes in her card that her cat Gizzy died. Crumble the card and throw it into the trash.

When spring comes, try to go for a walk. See the overabundance of mothers with living babies walking them in strollers. Then, getting on the school bus, there are little girls. They have pretty dresses and barrettes in their hair. Soon you cannot even go to the corner pharmacy. Try the supermarket instead. There, when you are in a long line behind a mother and a small baby, abandon a cart full of groceries and walk quickly to your car in the parking lot.

Tell yourself you will one day again cook dinner or play the piano, but today is not that day. You cannot read or listen to music: these are the things you and she used to do together.

Go to the baby store to buy a baby book during your one moment of hope that someday there will be a living baby in your house. On the shelf, you see a machine to listen to your baby’s heartbeat. Pick it up and read the outside of the box, the long paragraph that describes how it can be used to prevent stillbirth. It ends with an exclamation point! Place your chin to your chest. Why, why did you not get that machine?

On a good day, you feel like it will be okay, that someday you will be a mother. On a bad day it is not even close.

Imagine yourself dead. Imagine yourself pregnant. Decide you want both, or perhaps neither. Think hard about how you will answer the question, “How many children do you have?”

Keep a list of things people should and should not say to a mom like you. Under ‘OK,’ write: “We miss her too,” and “I’m so sorry.” Under ’Not OK,’ write: “I can’t believe you missed my birthday, “ and “You are not the same person.” These are the most painful ones, written in the letters you get later on from the people who were supposed to be your friends. One of the worst ones ends with, “This is not the you I know.” Remember: you no longer know yourself.

Shut up, you say to the letter. Shut up, shut up. Soon phone calls from these people make you throw up violently and without warning, like you did when you were first pregnant. Unplug the phone.

Think about death. Wish for your own. Wish to go back to the moment of hers. You were there, after all, watching her slip quietly away.

List things that are difficult: peeing next to the baby changer attached to the wall in the department store bathroom. Ordering coffee next to the woman in line fussing over a baby picture. Walking by the baby clothes in the superstore. Tiny shoes of any color. “Mommy!” called by a small child.

Try not to wince when people show off their pregnant bellies.

Years later, still notice the gap: the family portraits, the number of grandchildren, the order of the cousins, the preschool class, the bus for school children that passes your house, the father-daughter party that no one has invited your husband to attend. This will continue for years to come, but you do not yet know this, and it is somehow better.

Keep your list of ‘OK’ and ‘Not OK’ in case you need to add to it later, which of course you do.

Sustained

There is a support group for people like you. When you go, you hear the term ‘babyloss mama’ for the first time. Think: you do not want to be here. You do not want to be one of them. Baby loss mama. The word mama is there but with some horrible identifier in front of it.

“I always feel like some kind of dead baby mama freak bag,” says one. Say: “Oh, you too?”

Another one says, “When I held her in the hospital, I cried and cried all over her because I wanted my tears to go with her when they took her away.”

“Oh,” you say, “that was a good idea.” Curse yourself for not thinking of that.

The one with the unwashed hair says, “When people ask me why she died, I don’t know what to say because I probably killed her.”

“How do you think you killed her?” you ask. She gulps and coughs and wipes the tears off her cheek. She says, “I drank a cup of coffee and that was probably it.” You try not to laugh. This is ridiculous. This is trying to get the maternal body to behave responsibly. Coffee is at fault for none of this.

After the meeting, think: you yourself almost certainly killed your baby by not paying enough attention. Or maybe it was that soft cheese. Another miscalculating mother at fault.

You start seeing a therapist. She starts many sentences with “other parents who have lost children tell me,” but often you cannot make out the rest because you sob loudly. You are glad for this phrasing, though, especially the “other parents” part. You don’t know them, but you imagine them in their big suburban houses with their other children running in the yard. Funny, they are dead baby freak bags too.

Your husband, who is both an atheist and a physicist, takes you to where they have put her ashes. It is behind a big gate and full of plants and trees. He insists that her molecules are with us. He can calculate this. “See,” he says, scratching some numbers on a wrinkled yellow page from a legal pad, “there she is.” He grins proudly and circles the dots on the page.

Later, when you are alone, throw some dirt in the air. Watch it fall down, get into your hair, and leave dust on your face. Whisper: “I miss you.” Say it out loud: “I miss you, baby girl.”

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Finding Christmas

In five days’ time, Christmas will be here in all its holly, jolly glory. Meanwhile, tomorrow officially marks one and a half years since my daughter’s birth.

In retrospect, it really shouldn’t surprise me that navigating the holiday season this year has been more challenging than I expected it to be. Each new day brings with it a flurry of emotions, with highs that take me soaring up to the heavens, and lows that threaten to undo me at the seams.

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To be sure, Christmas now finds me in a starkly different place from where I was this time last year. Still in the throes of fresh, raw grief, my husband and I made the executive decision to skip what would have been our first Christmas without Leah. Even though I had recently discovered that I was pregnant once again, my fear of losing another much-loved child made it impossible for me to look ahead to the future with anything resembling hope or optimism.

I can still recall the thoughts that ran through my head during our scenic road trip to Montreal that weekend, where we would spend Christmas day in a pet-friendly hotel with our dog, some of our favourite DVDs, and a number of overpriced room service meals. I remember telling myself that if this current pregnancy somehow resulted in the birth of a living child, I would not take a single moment of my first holiday season with them for granted. As painful as it would be to face another Christmas without my daughter, I resolved to choose gratitude over grief if I was fortunate enough to bring Leah’s sibling home.

Yet as the first December snowflakes fell several weeks ago and Christmas lights began to adorn my street, I found myself increasingly haunted by Leah’s absence—and equally frustrated by my lack of holiday cheer. After all, I was now living every loss parent’s best case scenario, and each time I glanced at my beautiful family with our tree twinkling in the background, I was reminded of just how much I have to be thankful for.

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In theory, I should be ecstatic to celebrate the holidays with Callum, and I certainly do have many moments where I look at him and feel sheer awe that he is here, healthy and alive for his first Christmas. But this does not negate the tears that inevitably come each time I look at a photo of Leah and wonder what my life would look like now, 18 months later, if she was here for her second.

In this way, learning to honour my grief this holiday season has been an ongoing process. While I know in my heart that Callum’s presence cannot replace what was lost when Leah drew her final breaths, my inner pragmatist admonishes me each time I am unable to push my sadness aside and simply focus on the positive. And so, as I begin to seek out new traditions that incorporate Leah into my family’s Christmas season, I have to remind myself that it is both healthy and necessary to allow myself to feel the full range of emotions that come my way.

Accepting an invitation from Bereaved Families of Ontario to share Leah’s story at their annual Tree of Bright Stars service was helpful in this regard. It was incredibly healing to usher in the holiday season with a supportive community that understands how difficult this time of year can be for those who are grieving. As I hung Leah’s star on one of the memorial trees during the ceremony, I was similarly heartened by the thought of bringing Callum to this event each year as a way to honour the space that his sister will always hold in our family.

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A glimpse of the 2017 Tree of Bright Stars memorial event

Likewise, surrounding myself with family and friends who continue to walk hand-in-hand with me through my grief journey has proven to be especially helpful. It never ceases to amaze me how even the simplest of gestures can set my heart aglow, reminding me that I am not the only one who loves and misses my precious girl. Hearing others mention her in casual conversation, seeing her name included in a family greeting, or catching a glance of her photo in someone’s home—all of these things carry that much more weight this holiday season, as do the moments where loved ones take pause from their own festive joy to be present for me in my pain, even for a little while.

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A beautiful handmade Christmas gift from my talented older sister

Simply put, I have come to accept that the holiday season will be as bittersweet as my mothering journey so far, just as I am learning to extend kindness and patience to myself as I navigate the whirlwind of thoughts and feelings that it brings. In the meantime, I will continue to search for a version of Christmas that reflects my family’s messy yet beautiful reality—and, as always, I expect to find it somewhere between the peripheries of grief and gratitude.

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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 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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.