I'm honored to have a guest post running on the (in)courage site today. It's about being a mom of two living daughters and also being a woman who's experienced infertility and miscarriage. It's about holding both life and loss in balance as I relate to women currently struggling with reproductive loss. I hope you'll visit, read, and join in the conversation.
On Wednesday morning, I learn that an acquaintance's sister has just experienced a stillbirth at 39 weeks - sudden, unexpected, and unexplained. I read the e-mail over and over, and I keep thinking of this baby's nursery, neat and ready, its emptiness no longer one of sweet anticipation, now a painful reminder of bitter loss. I think of our own nursery, of the newborn clothes folded into tidy rows in the drawers.
Later, I meet some friends at the playground. The other moms all have two children, a baby and a toddler each, and then there are Ellie and I and my very pregnant stomach. It's a clear fall day, sun filtered through falling leaves, and the mom chatter flows freely, addressing toddler tantrums, infant sleep, and how to fill the long days.
I have things to say about all of these topics, but today I do not want to talk. Ellie wanders to a remote corner of the park, and I follow her, happy for some distance from the others. She climbs up an aging piece of playground apparatus, and I spot her, making sure she does not slip or fall.
Tears spill down my cheeks, and I do not know why exactly. I wipe them with my sweatshirt sleeve while Ellie happily spins a steering wheel and slides her way across a swinging bridge.
I know I am sad for this woman I do not know, for her loss that is deeper than any I have experienced. At first, I think I must be afraid for the baby inside me, and it is true. I am. The seven weeks I have left suddenly feel very long.
But I know somehow, that there is more, that these tears are for Avaleen too. I am reminded today of the horror of death and of the little girl that might be here with us, toddling her way through the leaves and eating mulch.
I drive Ellie home and let the tears flow. Sometimes, there is nothing else to do.
The air here in Northern Virginia has suddenly turned cool, the mornings and evenings just crisp enough to require a sweatshirt. It's pleasant to be outside again, and Ellie and I have started taking walks several times a day. Sometimes she pushes a baby doll in her doll stroller. Sometimes I push her in the real stroller. Sometimes we both walk.
Monday afternoon was one of the latter kind. We meandered our way out of our little court, down the sidewalk toward the adjacent elementary school. The air was cool and comfortable, absent of summer humidity, and Ellie ran along beside me happily, chattering about the playground where we were headed.
When we arrived, she took off toward the equipment, eager to climb and jump and slide, and I stood for a moment watching her, enjoying the pleasure of the weather and Ellie's delightful energy and the kicks of her baby sister inside me. I reflected on the independence Ellie has now acquired, independence that allows for us to leave the house with nothing but our keys and for me to stand and watch her at the playground instead of running around to ensure that she safely maneuvers her way through each piece of equipment.
Suddenly, I thought of Avaleen and how different my life would be if she were here. I'd have pushed her here in a stroller, with a bag full of diapers and wipes and burp cloths. She'd be almost ten months now, likely crawling, possibly working on her first steps. She'd need to be held, prevented from eating mulch, guided up steps and down slides. There would be no time for peaceful standing and reflecting.
I felt guilty in that moment for enjoying life as it is now. Of course, I'd take Avaleen back in a heartbeat if I could, would gladly embrace the challenges of being a busy mother of an infant and a toddler, but I know that's not possible. I know our lives will forever move on without Avaleen in them.
Recently, I've found increasing joy in those moments, even without her there, a joy that shortly after her death was impossible for me to imagine. I struggle though with guilt about that joy. I fear that experiencing joy somehow means I am forgetting her or losing sight of how important she was and is. I worry that our third daughter is somehow functioning as a replacement baby, even though I've never thought of her that way.
A friend who's also experienced a miscarriage told me recently that one day, suddenly, in the midst of a poolside conversation, she felt released to let go of her grief, to remember her baby but to no longer need to dwell on her loss. I haven't had a moment like that yet, but I've started to pray for one, to ask God to show me how to both keep on loving Avaleen and to enjoy the life we've been given without her.
I distinctly remember what I was wearing to the doctor's office on the day we learned Avaleen's heart had stopped beating: a white, flowing sleeveless shirt just loose enough to camouflage the slight swell of my 15 week belly. It wasn't a maternity shirt as I hadn't yet felt the need to dig into that musty Rubbermaid bin stored in our tiny attic crawlspace, just a regular shirt that happened to work well in the early stages of pregnancy. My doctor complimented me on it when she walked into the room that fateful day, all smiles and hugs, just moments before the Doppler came up silent.
I haven't been able to wear it since. I've pulled it out of my drawer numerous times during this pregnancy, thinking it would look nice, reminding myself there is no rational reason why putting it on could cause a miscarriage or bring any sort of bad luck. I know that sort of thinking is complete and utter illogical foolishness. And yet, every time, I've put it back on its pile unworn. The memories now woven into its very fabric are just too painful to carry so close to my skin.
I've struggled a lot with the little things this pregnancy: forgetting to take a supplement on a day or two, worrying about the traces of dairy I might have accidentally consumed, awaking in the middle of the night to find myself sleeping in the forbidden back position. It feels as if we're always just one little misstep away from losing this baby too, that any little mistake might be enough to end her fragile life.
In my head, I know that these worries are really about my desire to control, to believe that if I do everything right, things will be okay, life will move along smoothly. I know too that things don't work this way. Babies die in spite of our best efforts. Babies live against all odds. Life eludes our control.
But it is so hard to live this way, to put on the metaphorical white shirt, to relinquish the threads of perceived control we hold so dear.
When I first found out I was pregnant with this baby, I was grateful and excited, but mostly, I felt disengaged. It was almost exactly a year since we had learned I was pregnant with Avaleen, and it had been a hard year: months of pregnancy-induced nausea, a terrible death, endless doctor's visits and insurance phone calls, and grief that had only recently begun to ebb. I feared we were headed down the same road again, and everything seemed to remind me that this pregnancy was just like the last: finding out the news just before Ellie's birthday, telling our families over Easter, filling out the pool registration form and thinking about maternity swimwear. It all felt eerily familiar.
I was terrified to hope, couldn't imagine that we'd actually be holding a baby in our arms this December. My first doctor's appointment was early due to my history. The day of my appointment, six weeks pregnant, I convinced myself the baby had already died. I had started to feel nauseous, and then it had stopped, just as it had a day or two before we found out Avaleen was gone. I frantically smelled the spices in my pantry, searching for an odor that would turn my stomach, but I felt fine. I knew we'd lost this baby too. I just knew.
And then, at my doctor's office, in the very same room where Avaleen's death had been confirmed, we saw life. On the ultrasound screen, there was the faintest of flickers, a heart beating in a tiny form barely recognizable as a body. Still, I struggled to engage. My heart didn't want to dream or plan or love because I was so scared of feeling the pain of loss again.
The nausea hit full-force shortly thereafter, and I was quickly reduced to survival mode. My goals were simple: make it through the day until CJ got home from work and somehow keep the three of us fed even though the very thought of a menu plan or grocery store could send me running to the toilet. I didn't have time or energy to worry much about the pregnancy, which was perhaps a strange sort of mercy. I was simply getting by.
Because my nausea continued until 17 weeks and to a lesser degree beyond, it's only been recently that I've even been able to consider my heart again. When I look at the facts, there is much to be encouraged about. We've made it past the 14.5 week point in the pregnancy where we lost Avaleen, past the 20 week ultrasound where any number of problems might have surfaced, and past the 24 week mark when there is hope of a baby surviving apart from its mother. My doctor says this is a textbook perfect pregnancy.
But she still has me come in for more frequent appointments, still does regular ultrasounds just to make sure everything looks okay. And I'm still very much aware that loss can happen anytime for all kinds of reasons, that whatever took Avaleen's life could still affect this baby, that something new could surface. There are no guarantees.
I'm trying to engage my heart all the same, allowing myself the pleasure of planning for baby girl's arrival, allowing myself to dream of Ellie's new bedroom, of the simple nursery updates I'd like to make. I've booked a newborn photography session. I've started thinking about a birth plan.
But, still, just this morning, I woke up turning around a thought in my brain that felt both foreign and surprising: You have a baby inside of you. You are going to have a baby.
Prior to Avaleen's death, I didn't think all that much about what it would be like have a miscarriage. I had a vague sense that it would be hard and disappointing, but I focused my thoughts on the bigger picture: as long as the couple involved could eventually have a child, I rationalized, it was kind of okay. The real grief in my mind was not the miscarriage so much as the possibility of not being able to have children at all.
When I found out Avaleen had died, I immediately realized the foolishness of this way of thinking. I already had a child. There was no indication I wouldn't be able to have another. And yet the emotions I was feeling were anything but vague; from the beginning, I had a very clear sense that we had lost a particular, unique child with distinctive physical features and personality. She had lived inside me for 14.5 weeks, and I had felt her move. The miscarriage meant that, no matter how many children we might go on to have, we would never get to meet, hold, or welcome her into our family. She was irreplaceable.
And yet, here I sit, pregnant with another daughter who is due to be born almost exactly a year after Avaleen should have been. In all likelihood, the baby I carry wouldn't have been conceived if Avaleen had been born.
I don't think of her as a replacement for Avaleen, but I understand that others will. I know she will be referred to as Baby #2, and in one sense, she will be. Lord willing, she will be the second child we bring home from the hospital, the second child we strap into our family vehicle, the second child we tuck into bed each night. But to me, Avaleen is Baby #2. She is the second child I carried, the second child I loved.
I'm not sure yet how to incorporate that reality into my speech. When the lady in front of me at Starbuck's asks if I'm pregnant with Baby #2, what will I say? When the grocery store employee comments on my two daughters, will I mention that there are really three?
I don't know. I'm still trying to figure it out. I realize that as much as I want Avaleen's existence to be shared and remembered, there will be times when it will just be simpler and less awkward not to mention her. Our culture doesn't really allow space in casual conversation for references to the children we've lost.
I hope though that can figure out ways to communicate what I feel, that Avaleen is every bit as much my child as the toddler with whom I spend my days, as this baby about to be born.
Yesterday, in Starbucks, I spotted a mother and her three young daughters, lined up in a row of window seats, sipping cool drinks and reading library books and filling out pages in what I assumed to be some sort of summer enrichment workbooks. Knowing another baby girl is on her way to our family, I watched them, watched the sisters in their sundresses squirm and occasionally squabble, watched the mother in her cute sandals manage them all calmly. I smiled, imagining my future as a mother of daughters, beginning to dream of our own similarly organized and educational adventures.
And then, when the mother turned to help the oldest with her workbook, I watched the youngest two girls talking, and it hit me suddenly that there were three. Three daughters: living, laughing, and interacting in a way that my three girls never will.
I watched the middle daughter, noted her dark bob and white sandals, and thought of Avaleen, wondered what she would have been like, if she would have made her sisters laugh or perhaps been the one to calm them with her steadiness.
This pregnancy has eased some of my griefs, but it hasn't changed these facts: there will always be one daughter missing, and there will always be one daughter missed.
Today, I begin a series of posts entitled Pregnancy After Loss to explore some of the things I've been thinking about the first half of this pregnancy, as I deal with the reality I mentioned in my last post: pregnancy does not always result in the birth of a living child. The first post in the series follows below.
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A friend from high school wrote recently to tell me about some of her own struggles with fertility issues. In her e-mail, she mentioned that she often feels like her world is divided into two groups: friends who can have babies and friends who cannot.
I can relate. When we struggled to get pregnant with Ellie, I was the only woman in my small group who didn't have children, and I felt terribly alone in that context. It was much easier to relate to my friends from other places, friends who didn't or couldn't have children. After losing Avaleen, I struggled too, even though I had one living child of my own. On playdates and at mom's group, I often felt surrounded by women who seemed to pop out babies effortlessly, who to my knowledge hadn't experienced a pregnancy loss, and I felt not only envious, but also unable to participate in casual conversations about pregnancy aches and pains and newborn care, even though I could on one level relate.
One of the difficulties for me about this pregnancy is that I feel like I've shifted from one club to another without fully belonging in either. I'm pregnant with my third child in three years. I can no longer really claim that we've had significant struggles getting pregnant. This pregnancy seems to be progressing well. I am a woman who can have babies.
And yet my year of infertility and especially the loss of Avaleen have forever shaped the way I think of conception and pregnancy. I know what it is like to watch month after month pass by with no plus sign on the pregnancy test, to struggle with the news that yet another friend is pregnant when you are not. I know what it is like to lose a child, to be forever shaped by the absence of a life you once carried inside you and by the fearful knowledge that it could happen again. The truth is I don't really feel like a woman who can have babies, but rather a woman whose family is growing through struggle and tears. And even though my first child plays with her Daddy and my third is growing inside me while I write, I still very much identify with the woman who can't have babies. I've lived some parts of her story, and while my pain has been lessened in ways that her's has not, I feel a kinship to her.
That's part of why it's hard for me to announce this pregnancy so publically, even though I want to write honestly about all of my life. I've spent the past 7 months talking to women (and men) who've expeienced disappointment and loss related to having children. I've interviewed them for my book, and many of them have reached out to me because of my book - aquaintances from high school and church, friends from college I'd lost touch with, even friends of friends I'd never met previously. I carry their stories with me, and my joy in my own pregnancy is tempered by my awareness that I've been given a gift many of them have not.
I pray for them often, and I grieve with them. I don't have any easy answers for the pain they must sit in. Part of me feels like I am betraying them with this pregnancy, like I'm losing my ability to identify with and to speak to them. I don't know. Perhaps that is true. I can only be faithful to share from the experiences I've been given. But today, I just want to say to all of my sweet friends who are struggling to have babies, you are on my heart and in my mind. I may be pregnant, but you are not forgotten.