Tag Archives: infant death

The Difficult Miracle of Being Human

She knew she was pregnant before the stick said she was pregnant. It wasn’t fetal movement or anything like that, because no baby moves that early. It was more of a feeling, a sense of being together with someone, finally, in a way she had never been together with the husband.

She did not tell the husband. Not right away. She waited until it was “safe,” until there was “less chance to lose it,” and then she peed on a stick to confirm the beautiful thing she already knew so that she could take that stick and tap it against the doorframe of his office while waiting for him to notice her. He turned around, removed his all-encompassing soundman headphones, and flashed her a quick eye roll that he completely intended her to see. “What is it?” 

The husband did not like to be disturbed, but clearly he hadn’t seen the stick. She waved it a little closer, a little closer. Still nothing. The husband moved to turn his chair around. “I’m pregnant,” she blurted, just to get him to stop, pay attention. It wasn’t how she’d planned to tell him.

“Are we ready for that? A baby?” His words were fast, sharp. To the point. He wanted to get back to work. 

“Who’s ever ready for a baby?” The stick hung limply in her hand, unseen. Wasn’t he supposed to want to see it, to celebrate? At least, that’s what she had thought, hoped would happen. She shoved the stick into her pajama pants pocket, because what else was she supposed to do with it? 

“It won’t fix things. With you. Us.”

It was always her that had to change, never him. But she wouldn’t dare say that out loud. “Don’t call the baby an It; the baby can hear you.” 

The husband didn’t respond.

When the husband turned around to go back to work, she went back into the bathroom and cried. She didn’t need him. She had a baby now. Or she would, in several months.

She did what she thought she was supposed to in the months following. She went to the doctor, let him confirm what the stick had already confirmed. She took vitamins. She read websites: What size was the baby today? What was developing? Growing? Changing? Did they have fingernails yet? Or rather, would she feel them if they did? She thought about what weird things; she pictured the baby clawing her insides as they waited impatiently to come out and meet her. 

She wanted to start registering for baby things. She convinced the husband to let her find out the sex so that she could pick better items. It was a boy! She thought the husband would be more excited to have a boy, but the husband didn’t respond. She took the 3D ultrasound picture, with it’s grainy whites and browns, snapped a picture with her own phone, and sent it to everyone she had ever known. She showed the registries to the husband that night while they watched tv, the show on display was meaningless in comparison to the excitement of picking her child’s future. Bottles, pajamas, toys, diapers, a crib, a stroller, she registered for anything and everything that any site told her a baby would need while the husband sat next to her, supposedly helping but really somewhere else. “Winnie the Pooh,” he scoffed at one point, “isn’t that a little young?” 

She had always loved that cuddly yellow bear, and the husband certainly hadn’t helped her pick things out. “What would you rather ask for?”

The husband didn’t respond.

She worked hard, saving money for when the baby came and she would need to take off. The husband stayed home, or worked at the church, or did whatever sound career thing it was he did with his day. She came home after ten, twelve hour days and made him dinner, cleaned. He told her she didn’t do enough, so she threw a potholder at him and called him an asshole.

The husband didn’t respond. 

She pictured life after the birth of their son, and how she wished and hoped it would change, when she really knew that nothing would change at all. That she would work a 50-plus hour work week and then have to take care of a baby at the end of the day. She said nothing to the husband. It would do no good. She kept plugging along; she kept getting ready. She cleaned the backseat of her car to get ready for the carseat. 

It came time for the baby shower, a mixture of cakes and presents and balloons—cute green and blue-for-boy balloons that she loved but couldn’t bring home in case the cats decided to eat them and then died from choking on string. She asked the husband to help bring home gifts; they lived up a steep flight of stairs and she didn’t want to carry everything. 

The husband didn’t respond. 

So she did it herself. She carried each and every thing up the stairs, and then she took a nap with the cats on the couch while a Lifetime movie played on the tv. A few weeks, just a few weeks, she would meet him. And everything would change then, when her son was born.

And just a short time later, at 37 weeks, when she called the husband to tell him the baby’s heart was no longer beating, well, he didn’t respond then either. 

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The Dead are Cold (And Other True Facts)

My son is beautiful. He is seven, almost eight years old. Tall for his age, with a head full of brown hair that he refuses to let me cut because he likes it long. His eyes are greenish gray, and they stare right into me with an understanding much beyond his years. He is an avid piano student, but some days he hates playing. He reminds me of myself in that regard—when I was a kid, I told my organ teacher that my hamster had bit me in the finger so I couldn’t play, but then I went home and played what I wanted to play instead of what I was supposed to. 

My son is kind. His favorite toy is a giant stuffed brown bear. He still sleeps with it at night, but he will also share it with other children when they are sad. I worry for the day when he will decide he is too old for toys, that I will cry. His favorite color is blue, and his favorite clothing item is his tiny pair of blue overalls where the straps are so worn that they slip off of his shoulders. 

My son is smart. He’s already in third grade. He went from pre-K straight to first because he already had the fundamentals down cold. They said he was “smart,” and “needed to be challenged.” He brings home a new book almost every day, but he prefers to read it to me rather than the other way around. I only help him when he asks, and he rarely does—and all his books are far above grade level. He can’t draw though. He comes home from school with stick figure drawings that have graham cracker crumbs stuck to the edges, but I am proud of them.

My son is proud of me, and of my writing. Or, at least, I like to think so. 

My first major, national publication was for a parenting magazine called ‘Brain, Child: A Magazine for Working Mothers.’ I wasn’t horribly enthused about it, and I didn’t tell that many people. One I told, a professor in my graduate program, replied, “Oh, are you a parent?” I didn’t know how to answer that question. I never do. 

My son is dead.

*

The first dead body I remember seeing was when I was eighteen years old. I was a new youth leader for a local teen coffee house. It was New Year’s, and Renee and Stephanie were riding home in the back of a station wagon with one of their families—Stephanie’s, I think. A drunk driver came down Highway 120 and plowed right into the driver’s side of their car; everyone inside was killed instantly. I attended Renee’s funeral as both a representative of the coffee house and a friend; we were not that far apart in age. Because she had been on the passenger side of the vehicle, Renee was, for lack of a better term, more intact than Stephanie and thus had an open casket. I waited to see her for over an hour, listening to the people around me cry. By the time I got up to the casket, the line behind me wrapped around the funeral home. I stared down at Renee, her eyes closed, her skin the pasty white of overdone makeup, her hands with fingernails still lacquered in solid black gently folded across her stomach. Her dress was white, and I remember thinking that Renee would not have worn a white dress. I remember reaching out gently, to touch her cheek that was completely devoid of the normal pink color. I remember how cold she was. I remember nothing else until I sat in the driver’s seat of my cherry red Camaro, smacking the steering wheel over and over with my fists and bawling my eyes out because this “little” girl was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. 

And she was cold.

My entire life, I’ve been afraid of dead things. When I came home from work one night to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl that I kept on top of my television cabinet, I called B, my then-boyfriend, to come and scoop it out for me. When my cat Tigger died, I couldn’t look at the body and had to go in another room while someone else took it away. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. My son was different though. His tiny body was still somewhat warm from being inside of me. Stiff though from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30; we would never know exactly. When I held him, it was amazing to me how light he was. I don’t know what I had expected; at four pounds, he was substantially lighter than my jumbo-sized 22 pound cat, and he felt like he was floating in my arms. At the same time, I felt like I was floating above him, like it wasn’t real, and I took in every detail—the tiny bit of hair scattered across his head, the way his fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap his dead fingers around mine, fingers that were long and just perfect for playing an instrument. It didn’t seem right that my son could be there, that he could be whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. 

The one thing I didn’t look at when I held my son was his eyes; I don’t know the color of his eyes. I never will. It seems important somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were.

I’ve begun to forget his face. It’s harder every day to remember what he looked like. I never heard his voice, his laugh; I won’t ever know these things. He was burned, his remains put into a little box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm and later scattered somewhere unknown to me. His things are gone; he is gone. I have no part of him left, nothing physical of him to hold, to see. I have no proof of his existence; he only exists in my head now. When I miss him, it feels like I’m being gutted. There is no way to make it okay. There is no part of him that remains. 

*

The first time I saw my son, he was nothing more than an image on a screen. A strange mix of brown, sepia, that produced a recognizable image—a nose, eyes, even tiny fingers. A human. A baby. It was hard for me to reconcile the image on the screen with me, to believe that I was really growing a baby inside of me. When the technician asked if we wanted a copy of the ultrasound, I eagerly took the picture. I scanned it in with my new iPhone and sent it to essentially everyone I had ever known. It was the first time B, the husband, was at all excited.

The ultrasound spurred me to clean out my junk-mobile of a car. I had the messiest car ever, and I had for years. It started when my commute time to work doubled; I would eat food driving both to and from work and then throw the wrappers into the backseat. The more I traveled for work, the more things appeared—an extra coat, random shoes, pants, shirts, books. For all I knew, there was something alive back there. The pile was so high that it surpassed the center console in height and threatened to spill over into the front. It got to the point where it was just too overwhelming to even consider cleaning. Of course, this meant that now that I needed to install a carseat back there, there was a lot of work to be done. I didn’t dare ask the husband to help me. It was my fault, my mess, and he never even rode in my car anyway. 

I pictured my son while I was cleaning. I imagined that he would grow, grow up, grow out of the carseat. Sit in the front with me after he turned twelve. Starting driving at fifteen and a half. Many times during the cleaning ordeal, I had to wander away. Out of the garage, down the block, getting air. I wasn’t sure how I had driven so long with the car in that condition; I suddenly understood my need to drive with the windows down as at least five bags of trash made their way to the dumpster, with several more bags awaiting their end destination of Goodwill. Exhausted, I never bothered to clean out the trunk. I worked hard enough during my day job that I didn’t want to do anything more than I had to.

I was a merchandising manager for Party City while I was pregnant. Halloween pack-up was well underway, which involved a great deal of ladder climbing and frequent sitting on top of rolling ladders when I got tired—which happened all the time. People worried that I was working too hard, but my doctor supported me. The level of work I was doing was in the same league as what I had been doing pre-pregnancy. Since it wasn’t a new routine, it wasn’t a problem. I almost wished it would be. Ten hours on my feet while pregnant made an extremely long day.

By the time I got home most nights, I was too tired after an entire day of work to do anything else. B had a specific list of daily chores for me: dishes, cooking, cleaning, vacuuming, anything pet related, and anything the husband didn’t want to do. I never got to the dishes or the cleaning or the vacuuming. The cats were like my children, so I took care of them. I cooked meals because I was hungry, but frequently grumbled in my head that the husband should cook for me once in a while. When he bitched that things around the apartment weren’t done, I chucked a pillow at him and called him an asshole. He wasn’t the one working fifty hours a week while growing a human being inside his body. He wasn’t working at all. 

“Do you want to quit your job then? Is that what you’re saying?” He leaned on our breakfast bar.

“I didn’t say that. I just said that I’m tired and need a little rest every now and then. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.” I bit my lip. I was crying, again. Damn hormones. 

“I do everything around here,” he replied snidely. “I pay the bills.”

That was all he did. He didn’t have a real job. I was the breadwinner, but I couldn’t quit—I held the medical insurance policy. The husband was wrong, I was sure, but I nodded slowly and got up to make him dinner; I imagined that someday soon I would be cooking for both me and my son, and it didn’t seem weird to me at all that B wasn’t in that picture. 

*

B and I didn’t name our son until we held him. I had just finished The Mortal Instruments, and I was absolutely in love with the name Jace. The husband was in love with naming him after his grandfather and the slew of men on his side of the family who carried the name Erich. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the name Erich; it was just so old fashioned. We argued back and forth about it, electing to waiting until the baby came to decide. Somehow then, February 26th, 2010, I looked into my son’s eyes and held my finger in his tiny fist, and I knew his name was Carter. I conceded to Erich as a middle name, because I didn’t have the energy to fight. It didn’t seem to matter anyway.

*

When you are expecting a baby, especially your first, people find it helpful to fill you in on all the little facets of pregnancy and birth. The first thing they tell you is that childbirth will hurt. A lot. They aren’t lying. I’ve heard it referred to as taking your lower lip and stretching it over your head, and though I haven’t tried this particular activity, I can’t imagine it even comes close. I don’t know of anything that does. The pain will go away though, they tell you, once you hold your baby in your arms. Now this is a lie, as it does not take into consideration those who do not get a living, breathing baby; for us, the pain does not vanish. The next thing people tell you is that stretch marks will eventually go away—another lie. Sure, they fade and turn a freaky white color, but they never disappear, not completely. Yet another thing I remember learning is that you burn a lot of calories when you breastfeed, and that many women lose baby weight in this manner. I’m fairly certain this is true, based on research I did pre-pregnancy. For me, however, this was yet another lie. 

Some things people just don’t talk about. For instance, they don’t tell you that one percent of pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is defined as death after twenty-four weeks. They don’t tell you that things won’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes. No one tells you that babies can die. They don’t tell you that your body postpartum will be irrevocably changed. 

A stillbirth baby, especially at full-term, is such an unexpected and sudden loss that people often forget you have gone through the birthing process and need to recover just like any other woman. You might receive pain killers, but no one tells you what they are for. They don’t tell you that you’re going to hurt like hell as your womb shrinks back to its normal size and shape; they don’t tell you that you might need help with simple physical tasks; they don’t tell you that you will bleed for weeks after and that you cycle will change forever. They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body, since the baby is dead. All of the little details go by the wayside in favor of making sure that you are “okay” and that you are not going to leave the hospital and promptly throw yourself in front of a bus. 

The biggest thing that no one told me when my baby died was that my breasts would still produce milk. It wasn’t really anything I thought about once he was gone, not until it happened. My body didn’t understand that there was no baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it to myself and make the natural process stop. I called my OB right away, and they had me wear a sports bra two sizes too small that I stuffed with cabbage leaves. They apologized for neglecting to inform me, but it meant nothing. To add insult to injury, not only did I not have a baby, I stank like cabbage. My body had betrayed my mind. As a society, we are largely concerned with how we look, and here I was with the body that comes post-baby and no baby to show for it—a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before and a plethora of stretch marks. No amount of exercise would make those things go away, not completely. I was shaped differently, inside and outside. I was different, and this went unacknowledged.

March 2010 was the time that they took the population census. I did not fill out the form when it came in the mail the first time, and I didn’t fill it out when it came in the mail the second time. I never filled it out, instead choosing to rip it into pieces and stuff it in the kitchen garbage like it had never come at all. When May rolled around, the census workers started coming to people’s houses. One rang my doorbell. I went down the stairs into the entry hall and pulled it open. 

“Hi.” It was an older woman with hair like my grandmas and a bright red vest that identified her as a census worker. “I’m here because you didn’t fill out your census form. I just need to collect your information.”

I tried to shut the door, but she stuck her foot in it. “It will only take a few minutes.” She was very persistent, and I left the door open just enough to see her face as she asked, “How many people live in your household?”

“Two,” I said to my feet.

“And they are?”

“Me and my husband.” I tried to push the door closed then, but she wouldn’t move her foot.

She was scribbling on her clipboard. “And how many children?” She didn’t even look up as she asked. 

“None,” I snapped. “None. My son is dead.”

I slammed the door in her face.

*

I constructed a world in the months after Carter died. A world inside my head where the imagined was real and the real was imagined. In that world, my 37 week OB appointment never happened. I was not an hour early. I did not stop at the store for apple juice. I did not leave my coat in the car even though it was the middle of February. The nurse never hooked up the heart monitor; I never heard her say the baby’s heart wasn’t beating. I didn’t watch an ultrasound screen where the baby didn’t move. This world where the nurses asked about what I did for a living and shoved Kleenex in my face and distracted me while we waited for the doctor and the husband; this world where the doctor told us he was “so, so sorry,” where he gave me the option of going home and waiting for labor to happen naturally or going into labor artificially; this world where I laid in a hospital bed in labor for 22 hours to give birth to a dead baby. This world is not the real world, and I know that. 

If I think too hard, what I’ve constructed completely unravels. 

My son is beautiful.

My son is kind.

My son is smart. 

My son is dead. And cold.

Two years after Carter’s death, I purchased a memorial brick by the lakefront. The city planted a tree as a memorial to “all the dead children,” and it sits twenty feet from the shoreline; it’s small, with spindly branches, and the leaves are few and far in between. It didn’t seem to grow much, and I was struck by the idea that a memorial for children that will never grow up would never grow—the stunted tree surrounded by bricks surrounded by flowers was the perfect tribute; clumps of purple and red and pink that took away from the fact that each brick was all that was left of a life.

Every year, tiny growths appear between the bricks. Weeds, or perhaps flowers. Signs of life that will be gone come winter, because everything dies. Winter brings snow and ice, coating the ground and making it impossible to remember him. I visit the tree on the anniversary of his death every year I am in the state, to place my hand on his brick and be able to touch him. A simple reminder. If it’s winter, I can never make headway in the frozen-over snow. I can get down on my knees and claw with my fingers, but I only ever break through to ice. Carter is sealed away behind a wall I can’t break through, an event I cannot penetrate. Death.  

On the anniversary of his death, I will never locate the brick. I will never be able to break through. I will never find him.

It’s too cold. I am cold. 

The dead are cold.

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Six Years (The Value of Time)

It’s sunny outside today on the streets of New York, the kind of light so warm it has its own unnamed color. It’s sunny, and you will never see it. I imagine you though, as you would be now, eyes of greenish-gray that stare into me with a wisdom beyond your years; favorite color of blue, the blue of jean overalls like the favorite pair you have that you always refuse to take off; so smart that you skipped from pre-K to first grade because you were just that advanced. You remind me of me, or, rather, I imagine you do. You will never see it, you will never be any of it, and that’s okay—you were meant to do more somewhere else, and I was meant to be here.

I expected your skin when you were born to be like paper, that thin flimsy yet rough texture that cuts you if you touch it wrong; it wasn’t—your skin was like almost like mine with its peach and rosey blood hues, but marred with a translucent quality of never having seen the sun. Hair coated your head in wisps and slight curls, almost brown but not quite, so thin (like mine) that I could see the skin beneath. Everything about you looked normal, from the top of your head to the tip of your toes, and it occurred to me that occasionally time just stops us where we are, that we look the same when we die. At least at first. They put you in the fridge to keep you as you were, preserve you, in case I wanted to see you again. I didn’t. I wanted to remember you warm and pink, not cold and blue; I wanted to remember you as alive even though you weren’t.

Growing up, I was always afraid of death and the dead. When I came home from work to find my goldfish Herman floating in a u-shape above the pretty purple castle inside of his glass bowl on top of my television, I called my boyfriend to come and scoop him out for me. When my grandma’s dog Max died, I had to cover it in three different blankets so that I wouldn’t feel the body as I helped her put it in the car to take it to be cremated. I couldn’t touch them or be involved with any of it, because I couldn’t accept that they were dead. You were different though, your tiny body still somewhat warm from being inside of me, stiff from being dead for many hours, at least 22, but as many as 30—we would never know exactly. I felt like I was floating above you, like it wasn’t real, and I tried to grasp every detail: the way your fists were clenched and how hard it was for me to wrap your dead fingers around mine, fingers just long enough for playing an instrument, the way your head listed just slightly towards my chest in a way that made you seem alive. It didn’t seem right that you could be there, that you could whole and still be dead. It didn’t seem right at all. The only detail that I can’t recall, six years later, were the color of your eyes. I will never know this about you. It seems important, somehow, like a fact that I should know, and it kills me that I don’t. A mother should know what color her son’s eyes are. Were. Holding you gave new meaning to the word dead weight; your four pounds in my arms felt like the world and the air at the same time, like you were everything and nothing and here and gone, because you were—here, and gone. It is the gone that we don’t expect, that we don’t take pause to consider.

I’ve begun to forget your face. It’s harder every day to remember what you looked like, and so I write it down; I never head your voice, your laugh, and I never will, but I can commit what I saw to memory when it’s on the page. You were burned, your remains put into a little red satin box the shape of a heart that fit into my palm, and you were later scattered somewhere unknown to me. Your things are gone; you are gone; I have no part of you left, nothing physical to hold, to see. I have no proof of your existence, only memories of what I’ve lost, of what I’ve learned.

What I learned from you was the value of time. There is never enough. If I want something, I need to go for it. Get it. Take it. If I want to be the top, I need to rise to it. If I want to climb the mountain, I need to climb it. There is no time. There is never enough time. My roommate has a beautiful clock tattooed from her hip up through her ribs, with hands that spin and extend and get lost as they turn; I imagine that time is like that, that we spin and extend and get lost. Because of you though, with your beautiful piano fingers and your chubby little legs, I am not lost. I will not lose.

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The Fourth Trimester

The fourth trimester is defined in pregnancy books as the idea that the first three months of life should essentially be an extension of life in the womb for the newborn.  It starts in the hospital; it is better for the baby to stay with the mother.  Mother and baby bond and the mother takes her cues regarding establishing new routines from the baby rather than trying to force upon the baby a routine that may not fit.  This gives them both time to adjust to “life on the outside.”  But when the baby dies, this period is missed, glossed over.  The mother does not receive time to adjust as there is no baby to adjust to.  She is expected to pick up and move on as if nothing happened.  They leave her in the labor and delivery ward, because the regular nurses on other floors aren’t specialized in postpartum care.  She stays up all night listening to other babies crying, other mothers taking care of their children, and she is constantly reminded that there is no baby for her.

The other mothers on the floor are starting their fourth trimester, but she is standing still.

*

Someone slid a tray in front of me with soup and water.  I dipped the tip of my spoon into the soup, but the noodles were congealed.  Leaning over the bowl, I sniffed briefly before making the decision that it was not worth my eating.  I didn’t feel like eating ever again.  My cousin had come with flowers, and was talking to the husband and his parents.  I sat in the middle of their conversation, but I wasn’t really talking.  I smiled and nodded in all the right places, but I had never felt so alone in my entire life.  She was gone suddenly, and I couldn’t recall a single word that had been spoken.

People were moving around me and talking throughout the room, but everything was hazy.  The nurse who had been present for the delivery introduced me to the night nurse.  They checked my vitals for what had to be the tenth time in the two hours since the birth, and then they disappeared.  My body and my aftercare were apparently quite important, and yet, I was invisible.

The friends we had picked to be the godparents drifted in.  As they crossed the room, a dividing curtain drifted back to reveal the plastic bassinet next to the bed where a newborn would sleep.  They hadn’t taken it out.

There was no newborn inside.

*

When you are expecting a baby, especially your first, people find it helpful to fill you in on all the little facets of pregnancy and birth.  The first thing they tell you is that childbirth will hurt.  A lot.  They aren’t lying.  I’ve heard it referred to as taking your lower lip and stretching it over your head, and though I haven’t tried this particular activity, I can’t imagine it even comes close.  I don’t know of anything that does.  The pain will go away though, once you hold your baby in your arms.  Now this is a lie, as it does not take into consideration those who do not get a living breathing baby.  For us, the pain does not vanish.  The next thing they tell you is that stretch marks will eventually go away.  Another lie.  Sure, they fade and turn a freaky white color.  But they never disappear, not completely.  Yet another thing I remember learning is that you burn a lot of calories when you breastfeed, and that many women lose baby weight in this manner.  I’m fairly certain this is true, based on research I did pre-pregnancy.  For me, however, this was yet another lie.

Some things, people just don’t talk about.  For instance, they don’t tell you that one percent of pregnancies end in stillbirth, which is defined as death after twenty-four weeks.  They don’t tell you that things don’t always go the way they’re supposed to, because they only prepare people for the best possible outcomes.  They don’t tell you that your body postpartum will be irrevocably changed.

A stillbirth baby, especially at full-term, is such an unexpected and sudden loss that people often forget you have gone through the birthing process and need to recover just like any other woman.  You might receive pain killers, but they don’t tell you what they are for.  They don’t tell you that you’re going to hurt like hell as your womb shrinks back to its normal size and shape.  They don’t tell you that you might need help with simple physical tasks.  They don’t tell you that you will bleed for weeks after, and that your cycle will change forever.  They are more concerned with handling your grief than with handling your body after the baby is gone.  All of the little details go by the wayside in favor of making sure that you are “okay” and that you are not going to walk out of the hospital and throw yourself in front of a bus.

*

The first thing I was able to articulate, once the epidural had fully worn off and the people were gone, was that I had to go to the bathroom.  The nurse helped me to get up by having me grab the bed rail and then swing my legs one at a time over the side of the bed.  They were still tingling from the drugs.

She asked if I wanted a shower.  I nodded.  She guided me into a chair outside the bathroom and then buzzed around hanging up towels and getting things inside the shower ready.  She put some shampoo and soap on the little ledge in the corner, then laid out my new underwear and gown.  As she left, she told me to pull the chain in the shower if I got into trouble.  I nodded, but she had already shut the door.

I stripped out of my gown, carefully depositing it into the hazardous materials bin along with the underwear someone must have put on me at some point.  I shut the lid, hoping I could pretend that the blood on both garments was just a dream.  It took me at least a minute in my daze to figure out how to operate the tap within the shower, but I finally got it on and cranked it as far as it would go.  The noise was almost deafening after the time I had spent removing my clothes in complete silence.  I stuck my head into the water, shampooing and rinsing my hair.  The hot water felt wonderful, rinsing away even for a moment the reality of the situation.  I didn’t realize how hard I was crying until the grief became so overwhelming that I sank down on top of the shower seat.

I turned off the tap, standing and wrapping myself in a towel.  Reaching out with one hand, I rubbed the steam from the mirror.  I dropped the towel and turned first one way, and then the other.  My body looked almost normal.  Heavier most certainly, and differently shaped.  But almost normal in that there was no more pregnancy belly.  Almost as if it hadn’t happened.

*

The biggest thing that no one told me when I lost my son was that my breasts would still produce milk.  It wasn’t really anything I thought about once he was gone, not until it happened.  My body didn’t understand that I didn’t have a baby anymore; it’s not like I could explain it or make this natural process stop.  I called my OB right away, they made me wear a sports bra that was several size too small with cabbage leaves shoved inside.  They apologized for neglecting to inform me, but it meant nothing.  To add insult to injury, not only did I not have a baby, I stank like cabbage.  My body had betrayed my mind.   As a society, we are largely concerned with how we look.  And here I was with the body that comes after having a baby, and no baby to show for it.  I had a ring of pudginess around my middle that had never been there before as well as a plethora of stretch marks.  No amount of exercise would make those things going away, not completely.  I was shaped differently, inside and outside.  I was different.  And this went unacknowledged.

*

The bill from the hospital came a few weeks later.  It cost us nearly eleven thousand dollars to not bring home a baby.  I crumbled the bill up and threw it at the wall before realizing that the husband would want to see it.  I retrieved it from where it had fallen behind the couch, smoothed out the edges, and placed it face down on the coffee table for him to read when he got home.

I paced around the apartment, restless and bored, before turning on the Wii and coming to the decision that this was as good a time as any to begin exercising again.  I had the misguided notion that I could get my pre-baby body back.

I was still doing step aerobics when he got home.  I didn’t want to see his face when he caught wind of the bill.  Eleven thousand dollars.  Who knew?

I burned over five hundred calories doing step aerobics, and I did them every day for a long time.  I started running again.  But I couldn’t get my life back; I couldn’t even get my body back, not the way it had been.  Clothes shopping became the bane of my existence once again.  In the month after the birth, I had an event that required I purchase a dress.  I had just had a baby.  Even though he was gone, I had had a baby.  I had all of the extra weight but nothing to show for it.  I thumbed through the racks aimlessly, attempting to be interested but having an incredibly difficult time engaging.  I pretended to be enthralled with a few choices and vanished into a dresser room.

I stepped into a dress that was the size I had been pre-pregnancy.  It wouldn’t even zip.  I threw the hanger against the wall of the dressing room so hard that it broke and fell to the floor in pieces.

That seemed fitting.  I hated my body, and found myself massively ashamed by my inability to make the clothing fit.

*

A normal fourth trimester:  snuggling with the newborn, feeding on demand, lacking in sleep, and developing routines.  Maybe beginning to exercise.

My fourth trimester:  going home with my son in a box, planning a funeral, and then going back to work and moving on in a society that had a difficult time acknowledging he had even existed.  And exercising.

*

The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project is a photo documentary created by Ashlee Wells Jackson, a mother and photographer from Chicago, Illinois.  After going through a traumatic pregnancy and birth, Ashlee now wants to change the way that women view their bodies postpartum by creating this project to help women learn to love the changes that occur in their bodies.  She is photographing women in the Chicago area, and hopefully other areas as well, to put all of the images into a website, gallery, and eventually a published book.  The tagline of her website is “dedicated to embracing the beauty inherent in the changes brought to our bodies by motherhood, childbirth and breastfeeding.”  I don’t know why it took so long for someone to embrace this idea.

While the project is intended for women with living babies, Ashlee’s mission touched me all the same.  She mentions in her introduction to the project that while women are accepting of the changes that occur in their bodies during pregnancy, it can be harder to adjust to the fact that their body just won’t be what it used to be once the baby is born.  Women carry the scars of childbirth forever, even those who have lost their babies.  And the women who have lost their babies are an often passed over category.  Their fourth trimester is a radically different, yet in some ways the same, period of life.  Many women hate their bodies after.

To a woman who has experienced a stillbirth, her post-pregnancy body feels like adding insult to injury.  It’s hard enough to try to carry on with day to day activities, but to not be able to wear your old clothes is horrible.  Dieting and exercise while grieving is complete and utter torture.  When she looks down, she sees the flabby belly that used to hold a baby.  And sometimes it is easier to deal with those feelings of body hatred over the feelings of loss.  It is easier to just let people assume that because you are not carrying a newborn to show for it, you are simply fat.  That’s just wrong.  It’s wrong to hide.  There is an idea circulating our society that, no matter what the reason, it is wrong to be fat.  It isn’t fair.  Ideas like this just perpetuate sadness in women, particularly those that already hate their body after an infant death.  But in reality, it doesn’t matter what size we are.  We can’t always help the things that happen within our bodies; many things are out of our control.  We are all beautiful, and any woman who is willing to give up her body for almost a year to create a tiny little human is all the more wonderful for that.  Regular birth, traumatic birth, c-section, stillbirth, any birth—all of these women are heroes for their experiences.  This should be recognized, not put down.

The Fourth Trimester Bodies Project is such a beautiful idea because it brings to light the idea that there is absolutely nothing wrong with a post-pregnancy body.  Whether you have a baby at the end or not, there shouldn’t be body hatred at all.  It should be acceptance of the battle; it should be acknowledgement of what was rather than a desperate effort to erase it.  No woman should have to be ashamed of her body after the experience of pregnancy.  No woman should have to be ashamed of her body at all.

(The URL for Ashlee’s website is http://4thtrimesterbodies.com.  This project is an amazing idea.  And you should donate to it, if you are able.)

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