What I Learned From My Pregnancy After The Loss Of My Son

by Carly Sheaffer

Trigger warning: pregnancy/child loss

Being pregnant after a loss is simply different – physically, emotionally, mentally. As someone who takes great comfort in being prepared but also has been raised to believe in optimism, those two sometimes felt at odds with each other. After we lost our son when I was 22 weeks pregnant, we didn’t know if we’d be able to have another baby, especially as we dealt with multiple early miscarriages.

When we found out we were pregnant again, this time with a viable little embryo and a strong medical plan of care that would keep him growing, I found there was a learning curve the entire pregnancy, a constant balance between bracing yourself and letting hope in.

Some observations of what felt different:

1. Planning

I realized I was putting off small, specific tasks, to-do’s or “official” plans. Before our losses, a positive pregnancy test was a total green light. I would write ahead in the calendar how far along I’d be each week all the way to the due date. Something in my Type A mama brain loved to see it all laid out and reaching the next milestone week after week.

When we lost our baby, Abram, I remember seeing what week he should have been the many weeks after. Each number naively written in the top squares of the calendar before we found out something was wrong, before we delivered and held him, before we had to say goodbye when we had barely said hello.

Writing things down felt scary this time. I wouldn’t even sign up for the usual weekly updates online that I had done with the others until several weeks in, because I was afraid of having to un-sign-up again. None of these little things made our grief that much worse after; they were just specific small reminders of what would not be, an unexpected stinging in a raw heart, and I didn’t want them to blindside me again.

It took me until Week 28 to write down the remaining weeks in my planner this year, and after that seemingly “big” act, I had this flood of planning, writing lists for each month, creating a little registry of items we needed, picturing ‘normal’ life and routine with a baby, actually worrying about how we’d handle three children in our home. It felt so good to hope unabashedly. Holding back isn’t exactly my nature, and I don’t think I realized how much I had been holding in a breath, waiting until “the next ultrasound” just in case, month after month.

2. Big Sister Prep

Our daughters were a great reminder of perspective. We told them there’s a baby in Mama’s tummy early on, but even with them, it took several months before they moved past “Is the baby’s heart still beating?” or “Is the baby growing?” I found myself wanting to finish every statement of hope with one of caution, and every statement of caution with one of hope. I didn’t want them to be worried; I didn’t want them to be blindsided.

We tried to just let them lead, answering the questions they asked. They also have a less hesitant hope that I find myself so grateful for. When they talked about what they wanted and imagined, we were right there with them saying “Us too!” I don’t know if there’s a right way to navigate these conversations with kiddos, but I think there being conversations is the main thing.

3. Due date

After several months, people began stopping me in public to ask about my due date. Typically, I was chasing after the kids or concentrating on them not acting like hellions in public, so it always took me a second to figure what the heck this stranger was asking me (during which a brief flash of panic crossed their face wondering if, in fact, the large watermelon-like shape on the front of me was a baby).

Once I realized they were asking me when the baby was coming, I normally stuttered for a few seconds before saying, “Hopefully end of September-ish.” The grocery store with a total stranger is usually not the time to get into the fact that the entire pregnancy, the due date seemed very, very, very far away and something I was afraid to attach myself to, and week after week, we were just trying to get to a viable baby that had a chance of living.

4. Baby’s sex

We truly did not care if this baby was a boy or a girl. When we said we just wanted a healthy baby, we meant it 100 percent. I imagined both with love. Our daughter did tell us, “I hope it’s a brother. Because we had a brother, but I also want a real baby I can hold that is a brother, that we can play with.” Leave it to a 5-year-old to name exactly how you feel. There was a hole where the idea of a little brother gaped, what it would have been like to have a little boy in our house … part of me certainly hoped we would get a second chance. Not to fill the hole, but to change its shape a bit.

5. Symptoms

Every pregnancy symptom that is cause for complaint is actually a cause for thankfulness. Hurray puke! Hurray sore feet! Hurray huge awkward belly! Hurray Things They Don’t Tell You About Pregnancy! While throwing up every time I made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich wasn’t pleasant, it meant my hormones were doing what they were supposed to, and I was thankful.

6. Preparing

The “nursery” was a very unsure, in-between space for over a year after our youngest moved to her sister’s room. Once we felt more sure that we’d be coming home with a baby who needed a nursery, I felt torn between being afraid to jinx it and wanting to celebrate. Luckily, we had great family and friends, several of whom have lost babies too, who simply said, embrace hope. Go for it. Plan the nursery. Look at the baby clothes; sort those sizes while you “aww” over the little outfits. Make a list of things you need. Decorate for your little boy. After a while, I’ve realized it’s not like I hadn’t started hoping and imagining anyway. There’s a certain relief in the permission and act of letting it in. Sometimes a small trickle of hope, sometimes huge waves of excitement.

7. Check-ups

Our OB practice handled the complex emotions beautifully. They explained when we needed extra explaining; they reassured when we needed extra reassuring. They understood worry and joined in celebrating good news and never made us feel crazy for coming in for a heartbeat check. An environment like this makes such a difference.

The ultrasounds often made me think of our son we lost. That’s where we got to see him moving, wiggling, sucking his thumb, turning, kicking. I will also never forget seeing him on the screen that day he died, as our ultrasound tech and midwife cried with us, confirming what we already knew. He was so still. It wasn’t a surprise that morning, but it was the day our hearts broke in ways we’d never imagined. That screen is how we knew our baby was gone.

Fast forward to our following pregnancy, also a boy. The day of the glucose test, I hadn’t eaten much at all, thus he was moving much less than usual. I can’t tell you how fast fear flashed through every bone in my body until the tech showed the heartbeat and got him wiggling again. The surges of relief are huge — every heartbeat, every ultrasound. Even on ordinary days, I wouldn’t realize I was worried until I felt that kick or movement and let out a sigh of relief. I’d flashback to when Abram stopped moving, even for his beloved Ben and Jerry’s, the night my husband and I sat in bed and knew he may have gone. There are continual flashbacks one has to talk oneself through.

Our third baby, Abram, was stillborn at 22 weeks and was only 8 ounces. He was even smaller than his gestational age due to intrauterine growth restriction. Because we learned so much from his pregnancy, our care team of physicians and midwives knew the route of care that would make our next baby healthy. Which meant he was big; he was healthy. He was viable. There were many emotions with this. Mainly: Joy. Joy. Joy.

Our baby was okay. I also noticed that sadness and guilt snuck in when we were relieved and happy for such different news, like we were betraying Abram for being happy. Sometimes, one forgets that grief still hits. One day it hit me right after we sorted some items in the nursery, and the tears just started pouring. I didn’t realize I could be so thankful for the baby growing in my belly and so heartbroken to have lost Abram in all the same moment. Sometimes joy and sorrow lean on each other, sharing a space, and an understanding that this story has many threads woven into it that all matter.

We had our fourth baby, a healthy little boy who is now almost four months, who has currently discovered his toes, refuses to go to sleep until midnight, and grins every time his sisters play patty-cake. He is his own person, but he also carries part of his brother with him, I know. We all do.

It’s work to process while you’re pregnant after a loss. There are many times to be patient and kind to yourself while you learn to heal and celebrate at the same time. You have to sort through the anxiety regularly. But there is this river of hope, if you can find it, ready to wrap its waters of good around you. Because there is good in every thread of our stories. And I suppose that’s what I’ve learned the most.

From the beauty in Abram’s story, from our girls’ beautiful perspectives and funny ways, from the rolling flips of a growing baby, from my husband’s quiet strength, from my own love for all of them, from our village that holds us…. I have learned that at the end of the day to let hope in. Let hope in.

Just let it in, and the rest will unfold.