Moms, Babies and Science

In the weeks since Henry first let out his strange little squawk from behind the curtain in the O.R., I’ve spent countless hours stroking his fingers, watching his chest roll as he sleeps, worrying about his health, wondering what his hair might look like when he’s toddling at two-years-old and when he’ll drop his full, round baby cheeks for the more carved features of a young man.

And yet on the morning of his birth, before I even saw his pastel skin or touched his tacky hair, I immediately thought of the babies I had lost. That precious moment as air rushed his tiny lungs, should have been mine and his… exclusively, but it was not.

At first it didn’t feel like something I could write about on this blog. How could I accurately explain this clash of emotions? But then a friend shared an article with me that made it all clear.

The article cited research proving that during pregnancy fetal cells cross the placenta and forever alter the DNA of mothers. These powerful cells live on, whether a woman carries a baby full-term or suffers a loss. They can even support a woman’s immune system and aid in the warding off of diseases. And just as these cells become part of mothers, subsequent siblings carry traces within their DNA as well.

And so it all makes sense. Of course, as I welcomed my beautiful Henry into a circle of love and longing as wide as it was warm, the babies who came before him took their places in the ring.

And instead of feeling guilt that in Henry’s first minutes, days and weeks, I still daydreamed about the others, I feel relief and gratefulness. It was scary to imagine that Henry, even in all his marvelousness, could take their place in my heart, fill in holes they left, and “make it all okay,” as many would have suggested. Just as Benjamin and Henry will spend their entire lives sharing one mother, part of me will always be reserved for the babies I lost. And that’s perfectly natural.

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The View from 30 Weeks

Illustration by Ben depicting our family in the hospital after his baby brother is born.

Illustration by Ben depicting our family in the hospital after his baby brother is born.

Tonight I followed a beam of light in the hall to the baby’s room, where I found Phil just looking around, one hand on Benjamin’s reassembled crib. I choked back tears. Those who know Phil, and I mean really know him, know that he is driven by a strong sense of reason and fairness. What has happened to our family over these last 16 months has defied both. It’s easy to overlook how difficult this has been for him. Easier still when you couple his private nature with my almost exhibitionist style of grieving.

That encounter, while brief, reaffirmed for me that we’ve hit a significant milestone. (My husband would probably be surprised to know how much I trust his cues.) Our baby boy is now just weeks away from delivery. An ultrasound on Monday revealed that he’s big and strong. His movements have become smooth and purposeful. We can watch my belly lift in waves as he readjusts. The very same body that’s been a tomb to three babies is now brimming with life.

And it’s significant for me that we cross this milestone on the week of Thanksgiving. Counting my blessings has become somewhat of a mantra and a way of uncovering grace in the midst of grief. These last sixteen months have allowed me to redefine my relationships and forced me see myself through the eyes of the countless people who care for me. I’ve been rebuilt a few times since I delivered my stillborn baby girl sixteen months ago. She, along with the son and the twin I lost, have changed me in a most permanent way. They’ve changed Phil too. But I’ve learned that while the weight of memory is a constant in our lives, it also fluctuates. Some days it’s so heavy and dense we can hardly walk through it. Other days it lifts itself to reveal an impressive map of how far we’ve come.

Chapter Three

Despite the struggles I may have had with my faith over the years, its hard not to fall back into the senseless serenity of such things when life becomes otherwise unexplainable. As angry as I’d be when people suggested that God had a plan for me, I quietly believed that maybe it was true. I had so many different theories: maybe I was meant to have one child, or maybe life was about to reveal some greater challenge right around the corner, maybe I needed to be a better mother to my son and prove myself worthy of another child. None of these ever quite rang true, but I entertained them often when a reason seemed like the only remedy to a mounting pain and disappointment so great it might consume me.

When the spiritual realm failed to offer meaning, I searched the physical. I sought the best doctor I could find, one who’s made national television appearances and defied the odds to bring babies to couples who’d almost given up. I went through testing, waited for results and ruled out any known medical issues preventing me from carrying a full-term, healthy baby. And, at the end of it all, my doctor said, “It’s like being struck by lightening. Sometimes shit happens. In your case, it happened twice.”

I spent many hours considering the stories I’d heard of women who could never conceive, women who lost dozens of babies before succeeding, and women who went to great lengths just to have the opportunity to be a mother and to spend the rest of their lives in sacrifice to a child.

I could try again. Getting pregnant had never been our issue.

And so on mother’s day, Phil and I conceived for the fourth time. What happened next was nothing short of a miracle.

At my six week ultrasound, the technician looked at us and said, “Hmm. Did you know there are two?”

The moments that followed are the kind of moments in life that we wish we could step out of to watch, and step back into time and time again to relive. There’ve been pockets in this past nightmare of a year when joy and hope and love have completely consumed me. That pocket was easily the greatest of them all.

Suddenly it seemed the universe had righted itself. I felt in that moment like a little kid at the shopping mall trying to fumble my way onto an escalator. I’m nervously holding the rail, tapping the edge of each step as it rises from the belt, before planting both feet and taking off.

Clearly, this was God’s plan. Two babies, conceived naturally, with no family history. It took my breath away.

The weeks that followed were amazing. We watched them grow, forming heads and little buds for arms and legs, then knees and elbows, noses and eyes. At each weekly ultrasound my heart would bang inside my chest. I’m certain I’ll never experience anything quite like that again in my life.

8-week ultrasound

8-week ultrasound

We knew we’d never afford them easily. We knew that it would mean a more difficult pregnancy (I started giving myself daily injections of a blood thinner in an effort to thwart another miscarriage). I would need to be monitored closely. There could be all kinds of complications if I didn’t make it to term. But none of this really mattered. They felt protected by the same force in the universe that had brought them to us. And as scared as I was, I felt a sense of calm when I focused on what a miracle they were.

But lightning struck again. Shit happened and just this week we discovered that Baby B had died.

I found myself again, for the third time in 12 months watching the black and white horror movie play out on the ultrasound screen. I watched my tranquil baby lying there inside its sac, only moving with the doctors prods, like a puppet. I desperately wanted him to cut the screen. I knew what had happened.

I’m told that Baby B will likely remain inside my womb, lying next to his or her brother or sister. I may even see fragments of Baby B’s body at delivery, if Baby A proves strong enough to make it there. A thick membrane separates their sacs. I’m told this is a good thing, but I can’t help but wonder if they were still too small to have ever felt each others’ movements. They were supposed to be inseparable. I imagined them one in each of my arms in the delivery room, curled together in the same bassinet in the nursery, side by side in strollers. I wonder if I’ll ever know if Baby B, now my third lost baby, was a girl or a boy. And I wonder most of all what happened to the “plan” I believed in. What is all of this supposed to mean now?

Baby B, 12.5 weeks

Baby B, 12.5 weeks

Mother’s Day

 

Benjamin finally  arrivesIMG_2626photo-7 Mother’s Day will be a significant mile marker for me. It’s approach signals the close of a year spent planning, anticipating, mourning, healing… then repeating.

While I didn’t yet know I was pregnant last mother’s day, our daughter’s tiny cells were surely spinning inside my womb. So much has happened in the 12 months between then and now.

So much has not happened.

This Mother’s Day I’ll wake up the mother of three. My first child will greet me with a handwritten, homemade card–maybe flowers–surely lots of adoring hugs and kisses. He’ll likely hand me a present, and when I fuss about how nice it was for him to get me something, he’ll look back at his father with a knowing look, before smiling his big, proud smile. I’ll scoop him up and soak in that fantastic feeling of utter acceptance and unconditional love.

I’ll spend time with my other two children only inside the limits of my own imagination. In Sunday’s pre-dawn hours I’ll think of the moments we never shared, like I have so many times before, until daylight crawls its way through our blinds, across our bed sheets, forcing me back to reality. I’ll conjure the same fantasies.

 Like the one where our daughter is born, except this time, miraculously, we hear her cries. I’m flat on my back in an overly-lit hospital room, squeezing my husband’s hand as relief and joy sweep across our faces and prickle down our spines. 

 Or the one where I’m spooning sloppy rice cereal or runny green beans into our son’s small, perched mouth. I’m laughing at the way his tongue searches as I mop his chin with the spoon. He bangs his unfurled fists in excitement.

And in the wee hours of Mother’s Day I vow to also spend some time in grateful reflection about the people in my life who’ve gone out of their way to mother me–all the people who rose up out of their own lives and their own problems to sit and shed tears with me. It was their encouragement, their texts, their homemade soups, their daily phone calls, their thoughtful gifts, and most importantly their reverence for my lost babies, that resurrected me. Thankfulness is my yang, my bright side. Gratitude, I’ve learned, is like praying.

 

 

 

Signs of life

I finally felt ready last weekend to tear do200257136-001-e13340740506141wn the wall of sympathy cards that mounted in the corner of my dining room. The fortress was not as large as back in September, but still it was difficult to dismantle.

Maybe for strangely superstitious reasons, like how I’ve always been afraid to turn the calendar a day too soon. Maybe because of the way I waited for them to arrive; each sentiment on folded card stock was like a tiny soldier in my army, holding me up, reminding me to keep marching.

I feel myself paying attention to the details again. Like today I noticed Ben’s ankles peeking out from under his sweatpants, a sign that he’s in the midst of his typical spring growth spurt.

I even made my way back to the treadmill last week and took a weight class at the gym.

I haven’t thought about doctors or test results in a week, maybe longer.

A few people have commented that I “seem stronger” and “look like myself again.”

It’s even been several days since I had one of those phantom limb moments when for a second I think I’m still pregnant—like finding myself too carefully lifting Benjamin into the car, or starting to tuck my seat belt under my belly.

I’m laughing and cracking jokes. I’m complaining about mundane things.

This is how I track the days now. Not with “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” emails that tell me my baby is the size of a kumquat or a lime. Not in doctor’s appointments or ultrasounds. I’m no longer counting down to anything.

I feel life settling back to normal and I’m letting it happen. I’m crawling out of the foxhole. I’m trying to go with it, and–I admit– I’m doing better than expected. But I wonder when I’ll go from just looking like myself to really, truly feeling like myself again. I wonder if I’ll ever stop feeling that tugging at my shirt saying don’t forget all that’s happenedremember what could have been… and worst of all, what’s next?

The challenge of mourning…again

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It’s been just over three weeks since we lost our second son, our third child. After three consecutive nights of waking in the wee hours only to lie in bed thinking incoherent thoughts, I am finally ready to write again.

Nights are especially hard because I can’t help but imagine the two scenarios that could have been my present:

I could be burning the midnight oil, walking the halls with a fussy newborn baby girl in my arms, swooshing her back and forth to soothe her, navigating the tricky art of breastfeeding and wishing for more hours to sink into the quiet haven of my sheets.

But our daughter is gone.

Or I could be resting safe in my bed as I had for those long 12 weeks, sleeping peacefully in between being tugged awake by my bladder, lulling myself back to sleep with the assurance that sometimes in life we can be made whole again by the promise of a second chance.

But our second son is now gone too.

So instead, the house is silent and I’m awake. Two children gone and I’m left to unpack the last 24 weeks, the sheer joys, the ecstatic moments when we shared the news, the blood tests, the ultrasounds, the quiet dreaming about two lives that never made it past my womb.

And the greatest challenge is to try to mourn our son in the way I mourned our daughter. In my mind I retreat to the painful, but familiar process too near to have forgotten. But this time, it doesn’t fit. It’s impossible to deal only with the loss of our son.  Every time I cry for him, there are still some tears that bear her name.

January 27, 2014

What follows was written a few weeks ago. While pregnant with our “rainbow baby” I was preparing to mark what would have been our daughter’s due date: January 27, 2014. I never could have known as I was writing this that that day would bring such unspeakable sadness. But on January 27, 2014, as we mourned our daughter, we also discovered that baby number 3 (due August 7, 2014) had also passed. I have so much more to write about this second loss, but first, I’m sharing this entry as a memorial to our first lost child…

One hundred and forty something days ago, lying on an exam table thinking the worst thing about pregnancy was heartburn, I allowed the physician’s assistant to squeeze out a blob of gel and search for my daughter’s heartbeat with the doppler.  I was just shy of 19 weeks pregnant with my second child—a girl—and my dreams of having the strong and enduring mother-daughter relationship I’ve enjoyed my whole life continue into the next generation was coming true. But after ten minutes of nervous smiles and silence, I was frantically calling for a doctor. My husband and I looked with hopeful anticipation, as the ultrasound confirmed our daughter had died. Her still, sleeping figure was only a flash in black and white before the technician cut the screen.

What followed was a blur of medical gobbledygook.  We had only two options: a surgical procedure to remove “the fetus” or admission to the labor and delivery floor for a slow, medically induced labor. My husband and I chose the latter, initially only because I couldn’t bear the thought of anesthesia. But what we decided ended up giving us the time we needed to process our loss, to acknowledge that our daughter was more than a “fetus” in need of removing, that we might want to see her, bury or cremate her, memorialize her. The medical staff didn’t really talk about what might happen to her remains until we asked. It was then that we learned she could be sent to a funeral home, cremated free of charge or prepared for a casket, that we could perform an autopsy, or that if we opted to do nothing, the hospital would “dispose of her with medical waste.”

After more than 40 hours of waiting, labor finally arrived. There was squeezing pain that I wished would end, a feeble push, and she arrived. Instantly I longed to put her safely back in my womb. Now she was lost to me forever.

I was her mother for such a short time and in those brief hours I made a decision that I will regret until I take my last breath. I opted to see her, but not to hold her. Just out of surgery and bleary from the meds, I watched a nurse, a woman I barely knew, unfold towels and blankets to reveal her small, reddish body. She held her. I did not. Every part of her was perfectly put together. Her face was sweet, so sweet. Her eyes shut, but not in the way I would have imagined. Eyes shut that had never before opened. Her body seemed liquid-filled. If I had touched her, I imagine she would have felt soft like a barely filled water balloon. Her arms and legs were so long, and thin, but surely strong enough to have swam through the water in my womb and caused those rolling waves I had felt just days before. Her feet would have been more than capable of the knocks I felt from the inside of my belly, however faint they were.

I spent the next couple of hours stuck between sleep and waking. They fed me, offered me a shower. We packed our bags and left the hospital with nothing. Not a birth certificate, not a death certificate. It was as if nothing had just happened.

But, as any mother would, I worried night and day about her until she was returned to me, her ashes inside a small plastic white box, sealed with the label: “Baby Girl Welsh, died August 31, 2013, cremated September 9, 2013.” I felt relief first, then a crushing sadness when the pretty blond lady at the funeral home handed her to me, her eyes showing deep compassion. The long ten days without were over and the fears that she would be misplaced or mishandled in the hospital’s morgue were eased.

Now, all these months later, as I approach what should have been her birthday, my greatest struggle is the feeling that society does not recognize that she was a “birth.” I delivered her the way nature intended. She was born still, a whole baby. And yet because she was a mere week shy of 20 weeks, she is not considered stillborn. She’s not granted the legal recognition of life that she deserved. She was a “fetal demise.”

I felt strange about holding a memorial service. I thought that naming her would be odd, considering we hadn’t yet talked about names. And the doctors acted like opting to see the baby was somewhat unnecessary. I am so blessed to have strong people in my life, people who weren’t afraid to face this loss, acknowledge it and really support me through it despite how uncomfortable it must have been. But even with that support, in my distraught state, I kind of followed society’s lead. I allowed the taboo of pregnancy loss to impact the way I mourned my little girl. And now, as I approach her due date, I want to say something about it.

Women who carry and care for their babies should be given the option to acknowledge their lives no matter what the gestational age at the time of loss. Mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends began to love my baby girl from the minute they learned she existed. She was celebrated with cakes decorated with plastic pink booties, tiny frilly bikinis and hair bows were given as gifts before she was even born, her 3-year-old brother willingly handed down some of his beloved stuffed animals. She was real—and not just to her father and me. But now that she’s gone and we have nothing to show for her except a small container of her ashes, I wonder if I celebrated her short life adequately. I wonder when it will really be okay to talk about the death of a baby that no one ever saw or held.  Maybe if we as a society can talk about it, we can start to study it better. Maybe if we stop brushing these tragedies under the rug because of how painful and wrong they are, we can learn more about why they happen and make strides in preventing them.

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