How I'm Learning To Cope After The Loss Of Our Unborn Daughter

by Brent Stoller
Originally Published: 

Trigger warning: pregnancy loss

What’s it going to be like? How am I going to feel? Will I feel anything at all?

These were just a few of the questions running through my head when my wife, Emily, got pregnant in December 2017 — which was going to make me a first-time father in August 2018.

I wish I could say this prospect overwhelmed me with excitement. And to a certain extent it did. But mostly, it just overwhelmed me.

I’ve never been the most open or vulnerable person. At times, my emotions have been less accessible than the cords and cables stuffed behind our living room TV. It took me five and a half years to propose to Emily, and an embarrassingly long time before that to simply tell her I loved her.

Now, I was expected to love this baby — this baby I’d never seen or met and who was going to consume all my free time and income — like I’d never loved anyone before.

And I didn’t know if I was up to the task. I didn’t know if I had what it took to be a father.

Then, we lost Emily’s pregnancy, and I wondered if I’d ever get to find out.

When it comes to pregnancy, everything is harder for the woman. Obviously. Except for one thing.

As the guy, the idea of becoming a parent registers as more abstract than actual. At least it did for me. I understood something was growing inside Emily, and I understood we were responsible for it. Yet I couldn’t fully grasp what that meant.

Conversely, Emily was a mother from the moment of conception. That’s not to say she didn’t have concerns. She did. In fact, she too was questioning her capacity for love — only in the opposite direction. She wondered how her heart was going to possibly handle this new tidal wave of love without bursting like a pinata into a heap of Valentine candies and snuggling puppies.

That’s what she told me (if not in those exact words) when I asked her if she shared any of my fears — which made me that much more fearful.

My only hope was that the closer to the due date we got, the more ready I would get. Maybe once I could feel the baby kicking, or once we reached the stage where its size was no longer measured in terms of fruit, I would feel better.

Unfortunately, I don’t know if that would’ve happened, because I never got the chance.

On April 13, 2018, Emily and I went in for her 20-week anatomy scan. To say I had no worries would be inaccurate — and not just because it was Friday the 13th.

Over the previous year and a half, Emily had suffered two miscarriages — one at 11 weeks, one at just shy of seven — which we eventually learned were caused by a chromosomal condition Emily was born with known as a balanced translocation. But we’d neutralized that threat by doing IVF with PGS testing, and Emily had been implanted with a genetically healthy embryo. Or so we thought.

It’s difficult to remember what the doctor said after saying the four words you never want a doctor to say consecutively — “We have a problem” — but the gist of it was this:

Our baby was the victim of a lethal genetic abnormality. It was completely unrelated to the balanced translocation, and it wasn’t anything we had caused. Something simply had gone wrong at conception. It was just bad luck.

This mutation, too rare to be detected by standard testing, occurs in 1 in 35,000 pregnancies. And this time, we were the 1.

In a way, this loss felt like multiple losses rolled into one: The loss of joy. The loss of an idea. The loss of purpose and motivation. The loss of our future.

But for me, it didn’t feel like the loss of a person, of a child, at least not initially. It hadn’t felt that way with the first two miscarriages either (although those happened much earlier in the process). I’m guessing this was because of the same defense mechanisms that have so often barricaded my emotions as a means for protection. But you can only hide for so long.

On July 13, 2018, three months to the day after receiving the diagnosis, Emily and I installed two plants at our front door to memorialize our losses. Each plant featured two bulbs, giving us a total of four — one bulb for each of our lost children, and one bulb for hope.

During this last pregnancy, we were going to wait for the baby to be born to learn its gender. But once we found out that day would never come, we had the IVF doctor write the sex down on a piece of paper and put it in an envelope, which we stashed with the ultrasound pictures we’d accumulated through the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

And as we dedicated the plants, after we each read a short eulogy of sorts, Emily and I sat together on our front step, surrounded by the ghosts of our children, and opened the envelope in what had to be among the more depressing gender reveals ever held.

We would’ve had a girl.

It’s easy to think about what could’ve been…about how I didn’t get to learn to braid her hair, or attend her piano recital, or carry her upstairs when she fell asleep, or teach her to swing a golf club. About the University of Texas (my alma mater) cap I didn’t get to buy her, and the daddy-daughter dances we didn’t get to attend, and the prom date I didn’t get to meet and give that fatherly, all-knowing stare.

It’s easy to think about all of this and become consumed with the heartbreaking, soul-wrecking reality of what now will never be.

And sometimes I do. (Like right now, as I write this through tear-filled eyes.) But as more time has passed, the more my perspective has changed. After all, this little girl was with us for 20 weeks. She went to Barre class with her mother, and she watched March Madness basketball with me, and she gave us hope, and happiness, and love, just as children do.

She changed our lives forever.

No, she and I will never meet. Not in this world, at least. But she was, and still is, my daughter. And I will always be her father.

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