Trigger Warning: This story contains an image of and information about miscarriage, stillbirth, and pregnancy loss.
To put it bluntly, I have always been exceptional. I was high school valedictorian, graduated magna cum laude from an elite university, and while on full fellowship, earned two master’s degrees and a doctorate. So, when it came to motherhood, I expected to maintain this level of excellence.
Unfortunately, I was brutally reminded that there are two definitions associated with the word exceptional. As a student, I was exceptionally good; yet, as a mother, I was exceptionally unusual.
Five years ago this summer, my daughter and I became part of a silent statistic: Less than 1% of pregnancies end in stillbirth in the United States, with stillbirth defined as fetal death after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Then, a year later, I became part of another potentially dangerous set of statistics: Approximately 5 to 8% of pregnancies are affected by preeclampsia (i.e., toxemia or pregnancy-induced hypertension); preeclampsia causes 15% of premature births.
For the first time in my life, I was a failure. I failed to protect my children — one died within my womb and the other had to be forcibly removed at only 30 weeks gestation because I could not handle the pregnancy. What kind of mother was I? What kind of woman could not manage, at the very least, 37 weeks of pregnancy?
With my daughter, I had what we thought was a normal pregnancy until the routine 20-week ultrasound. She was measuring much smaller than expected. When I, along with my husband and mother, returned two weeks later for a follow up exam to check for growth, there was no heartbeat. None of us expected it. We were in shock. It is a moment that none of us will forget.
Immediately after hearing the devastating news, we were ushered into the doctor’s consult office. As I sat in grief, I was presented with two options. The first involved the dilation and evacuation procedure, often used to terminate pregnancies beyond the 12th week. Afterwards, I would not be able to see my baby because she would not be intact due to the procedure. Or, I could be induced in the hospital’s maternity ward to undergo the traditional labor process. I ended up being induced.
The next day, with my husband and parents at my side, I lay in a hospital bed for 12 hours under the constant supervision of the wonderful hospital staff and monitored by machines. A little after 2 a.m., I delivered, without complications, a 6-ounce baby girl with 10 little fingers and 10 itty-bitty toes. For a brief moment, I held her in my arms. She was not a “product of conception” as one doctor had described a day earlier. She had my husband’s profile. Her cause of death was never determined, but I do know she was perfect.
I recovered well after the delivery — physically that is. My daughter’s death destroyed me emotionally and spiritually. Instead of picking out a crib, I picked out a casket and designed a grave marker.
A few months later, instead of grieving on the day that we calculated would have been our daughter’s birth, I was expecting — literally. I found out that I was pregnant again. This second child was projected to arrive around the anniversary of our daughter’s death. In our time of great sadness, we had hope.
Well, this pregnancy was certainly quite different from the last. I had the “any time of day” sickness, a non-flu but flu-like illness, pink eye (for the first time in my life), and my blood pressure started to creep up. At 29 weeks, I ended up in the hospital with pre-eclampsia. I made it an extra week and a day before requiring an induction to save my life and that of my son.
Due to his prematurity, my son spent the first nine weeks of his life in the intensive care nursery, but today, at 4-years-old, he is a robust little man. He does not suffer any complications due to his early arrival. He is our treasure.
Yet, as I look at my son, beautiful and perfect in every way, I feel conflicted. I have him because I lost my other child. I might never have had him if my daughter was living today. While each day is filled with joyful giggles and warm cuddles, a hidden pain lurks about. The memory of a life lost too soon haunts me.
I have told my son about his big sister. We have visited her grave. We talk about her. She is his personal guardian angel, who I am convinced saved him during his own tumultuous arrival.
I want her to be a part of our lives, now and forever, but in our culture, we have been taught to keep silent about miscarriage and stillbirth. Is our silence supposed to heal us, like letting go of the past and moving on toward a brighter future? Has the reproductive rights movement encouraged this silence for fear that this act of mourning humanizes the fetus and, thus, inconveniently interferes with abortion rights?
With the birth of my son, I courageously looked death in the face and actually sang Queen’s Under Pressure as the doctors cut me open. With the death of my daughter, I mourned in silence. I am allowed in this culture to celebrate the accomplishment of my son’s birth but urged to forget that of my daughter’s. As a feminist, how can I take pride in surviving the circumstances of one birth without the other? For my own healing, I need to recognize and validate both. My children at 22 weeks or 30 weeks were certainly human and certainly a part of me. I will not apologize for my pain. I will not forget.
I admit that I cringe when anyone asks me how many children I have. How do I respond? If I say one, I feel like I am betraying the memory of my daughter. If I say two, it requires an explanation that makes people uncomfortable.
I have become accustomed to responding with, “one on earth and one in heaven.” I never need to explain further, for I am more often than not met with a simple nod or comforting gesture by other women. Their eyes, however, betray a silent understanding. We share a special secret as mothers.
I am forever changed by the events five years ago. I am broken like all mothers who risk their lives to bring their children into the world, whose bodies bear the extra weight and bodily forces in creating and then ejecting this new life. Our bodies break when we deliver them, and our hearts break when we first see them. We will never be as close and together than when we carry them in our womb.
It has been five years since the death of my daughter. I have been silent about my grief for five years because it was inconvenient, uncomfortable, and ugly. I will not be silent anymore.
October 15 is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. For information on how to find support and raise awareness for those suffering from loss, visit www.october15th.com.