If you lose your baby, are you still a mom?
October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and I’ve grappled with this question since February: when I was beginning my pregnancy journey, I launched my new business, and COVID-19 was beginning to ravage the United States.
When you’re thinking about starting your own family, usually you’ve heard all the good stories, the ones about healthy moms and babies. Even the books are written to show how your pregnancy should be. What the books and blogs don’t tell you is how pregnancy can go so tragically wrong while the world around you weathers a global pandemic.
The first time I noticed the bleeding was in the middle of the night on vacation. I expected the worst. I’m having a miscarriage. The thing is when you are seven weeks pregnant, there is nothing the doctors can do for your baby, you just have to let nature take its course.
Two days later I found myself sitting back in Minnesota on the ultrasound table, waiting for the dreaded words, “there is no heartbeat.” Instead, I heard the opposite. Sitting in the dark room, my husband and I stared at the screen with our tear-streaked faces, witnessing a tiny human we created.
The next two and a half months were nothing short of a roller-coaster. The initial bleeding I experienced subsided, before starting right back up again. I was reassured time and time again by doctors this was normal.
I went about my daily life, working on my new business I had launched in February, when COVID-19 took the world by storm.
It was March, and my husband and I were living in a studio apartment when the governor of Minnesota issued the first stay-at-home order. Now both working from home, it didn’t take us long to realize this wouldn’t be sustainable. We packed our things and headed to our family cabin.
Re-calibrating to a “new normal” of living at the cabin in isolation while running a new business and having a complicated pregnancy during a global pandemic presented many challenges. Despite those challenges, my mindset through it all was one thing; I had to make it to 12 weeks. All of the books tell you that if you make it that far, your chance of a miscarriage drops to 3% – 4%.
At the end of March, the Saturday before my 12-week appointment, I sat on the toilet and looked down to see a large pool of blood. While I had been bleeding lightly for a few weeks, this was much worse. Two days later, we gathered our things and jumped in the car to drive the two hours to the doctor.
During this point of the pandemic, I was required to leave my husband sitting in the hall outside the clinic. A few minutes later, I once again found myself in that dark room, alone, with the ultrasound device gliding over my belly when I saw it: the flicker of a heartbeat. My baby was alive. I could hardly believe it.
While this news restored my hope, the next six weeks were like navigating through a storm. Another routine ultrasound revealed that I had a large internal subchorionic hemorrhage. More alarmingly, it showed there was essentially no amniotic fluid surrounding my baby, which is critical for their survival.
As the doctor’s visits became weekly, we met nearly every doctor at the clinic. They were on a rotating schedule due to COVID-19, which meant that weekly appointments included varying opinions. Some doctors told us we would have an inevitable miscarriage. Others told us we had reason for hope.
In mid-April, we moved into my mom and step dad’s home, 45 minutes from the hospital. During the next four weeks, we experienced three emergency hospital visits. The first visit provided cautious optimism, the second, hope, and the third proved to be the worst. The kind that nobody talks about.
I was 18 weeks pregnant. At that point, it’s late enough to see a fully-formed baby, but too early for the doctors to medically intervene. On that terrible day in May, my husband and I were presented with the most impossible decision of our lives. While our little girl’s heart was still beating, I was in labor. The fluid was too low for her survival, and the size of my internal bleed had tripled. My hemoglobin had dropped to a dangerous level, requiring a blood transfusion.
I had two choices: I could be put to sleep and our baby could be surgically removed, or I could have an induced vaginal birth where I would be able to meet and hold her. As I sat there in the hospital, filled with fentanyl, morphine, and no sleep, I decided upon the latter. My husband and I needed to meet our baby girl.
For twelve hours I sat in the hospital bed, in my pink gown that’s made for moms with living babies; the gowns with little holes to make it easier for breastfeeding. The nurses came in and out, trying to prepare us for what was to come. There I sat, the most scared I had ever been, doing what nobody talks about in the books.
On May 8, 2020, at 12:05 a.m., I gave birth to our little girl, Sylvia Katherine. Our perfect little girl, born sleeping at 8.1 oz and 9 inches long.
The next two days were the worst of my life, trying to figure out how we could possibly go on. Sitting, staring at the incubator holding our baby who would never wake up, we called our families to meet her and say goodbye; all over FaceTime. This is what happens when you lose a baby during a pandemic.
Our first day home from the hospital was also my first Mother’s Day. It felt like a cruel joke. I sat there in my bed, weak, tired, and broken, wondering, “Am I really even a Mom?”
Two weeks later, we gathered outside with our families and had a service to remember our baby. We buried her with her namesake, my grandma Sylvia, so she would never be alone. We did everything we could on that warm day in June to celebrate the time we did share with her.
We are living through extraordinary times, and I need people to know that their pregnancy journeys matter. Bringing awareness to pregnancy and infant loss remains critically important; maybe even more now as we navigate through the uncertainties of COVID-19. While I expected my first pregnancy to be more by-the-book, that wasn’t the case. And now, we need to write new books. So here I am — a new member of the bereaved parents’ club — trying to balance the joys and pains of the present with the expectations from the past and hopes for the future.
My baby should have been born on October 8, 2020. I should be able to hold her in my arms, hear her cry, and see her first smile; and while this isn’t the case, I can see her in butterflies and rainbows. I can acknowledge that I did everything I could to make sure she was safe while she was growing, and that yes — I am a mom. Sylvia’s mom.