When someone asks me how many children I have, my answer depends on my mood, how much time I have, and how well I want to get to know the person asking. I usually just tell them I have two, but sometimes that feels like something between denial and betrayal because I really had three children. I still have three, but only two live with me. My first baby lives only in my heart and all that I have left are memories, a few pictures, and a small wooden box of ashes.
Losing a child is the unthinkable. It's not something that people like to talk about, so they usually don't. They tend to pretend it doesn't happen, even when it does. When I lost my first child, I was amazed at how the world went on as though nothing had happened, and the extent to which people who knew me would go out of their way to pretend everything was fine. My life was far from fine. The death of my son changed my life in ways I never could have imagined. The lessons weren't easy ones to learn, and took a while to see, but I had to take what I could get from his short life and time here with me.
My first pregnancy was a very healthy and happy time. I ate the whole grains and fresh foods, walked every day, and read all the baby books. I gained just the right amount of weight, had the clothes and car seat ready, and thought I was pretty well prepared. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened. Less than a week before my due date my baby just stopped moving.
At the hospital, I refused to believe that it could be anything major because I had done all the right things. I thought that God and all good things were on my side, so surely everything would be fine. But the tests showed that my baby had died. I still remember the mixture of horror and pity on the doctor's face when he told me. I could not believe the words I was hearing. I wanted them to do something - cut me open, pull the baby out, and resuscitate him. But there was nothing they could do. He was gone.
We went home to wait for the shock to settle, and for nature to take its course and send me into labor. I carried him for two more days. I was afraid to be seen in public for fear that someone would ask me when the baby was due. I didn't want to admit that my baby was dead. My body had betrayed me. The big, round, full belly I had loved was limp and lifeless. No amount of praying, crying or begging was going to change that.
I had hoped for a natural birth, but since we knew he had died before I went into labor, I wanted the drugs to numb me not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. I was giving birth to a child I knew I could not bring home with me. The labor and delivery were fast - so fast that when the time came, it was too late for the epidural. I didn't know how I could possibly push this baby out, but I did. And through it I found strength in myself that I would draw on to carry me through my future pregnancies and births and life.
That day I gave birth to a beautiful 7 pound 2 ounce, 21 ½" boy. He had a head full of dark hair, and the most kissable red lips I had ever seen. He would never take a breath, or cry, or smile. His eyes never opened to show me their color. We named him Hans. When I held him, I was in love. He was nothing less than perfect. Some people have expressed surprise or even dismay that I would choose to see, much less hold my dead child. Although I was afraid myself, and facing death is scary, I knew it would be my only chance to see him. If I didn't do it, I would wonder for the rest of my life what he looked like. It was definitely the right choice to see and hold him because those moments with him were the most peaceful and pure of my life. While I held him, I felt no sadness, only a mother's love, awe and wonder for this marvelous little person who I had grown inside me. I had opened the door to this miracle. We cleaned, dressed and swaddled him. Our parents fought their fears to meet and hold their first grandson. That natural high lasted until I had to let him go and say good-bye. That left a hole in my heart I thought would never heal. Five years later, it is still a scar which I know will always be there.
Since I had never heard the term "stillbirth" used in modern times, I had thought it didn't happen any more. I felt like a freak of nature, or like someone being punished for some terrible mistakes. I knew women who had suffered from miscarriage, but had never known anyone who had carried a healthy baby to term, only to lose their child to an umbilical cord accident before labor even began. I never imagined that something so ludicrous could go wrong, and neither modern medicine nor technology could do a thing about it.
The pain in my heart, though, was far, far stronger than the labor had been, and nothing could take it away. I heard the line "At least you can have another baby" more times than I can remember, as if people can be replaced like a T-shirt or a coffee cup. I wondered if I had lost my husband, would those same people try to comfort me with the thought that I was young and could always remarry?
After Hans 'death, I felt as though there was a crater missing from my soul. I did a lot of thinking, reading about others' losses, and writing about my own loss and emotions. I worked through the confusion, pain, anger and hopelessness by connecting with other mothers like me with no child to show for their pregnancy and labor. Through the Internet I connected with women around the world who had suffered losses like mine and could truly relate to what I was feeling. I released my feelings into painting and writing. I planted my first garden to nurture some living thing of beauty. I found healing and gifts in my life.
Through this I learned that I am a much stronger woman than I ever could have imagined. In my younger days, I had dealt with pain in less than healthy ways - denial, rage, or over-indulgence. This time, I had to find another way. I knew that the only way that the world would remember Hans was through me. If I became a bitter, angry alcoholic, then that would be his legacy.
People would look at my life and think "She was fine until she had that baby that died." Whatever negativity that followed would be blamed on him. I could not do that to him. Nor would I let my pain turn into hate for the women who didn't care for or want their children. I couldn't wish this pain on anyone. Hans' life was created in love, and I wanted his memory to be as well. I had to work through this and find hope.
I guess I may have taken it for granted at one time, but now I understand that motherhood is a sacred and special club that any member is blessed to join. I realize what a gift a child truly is, and how few are treasured as such. My priorities shifted, and I realized that things that may have warranted anger or tears in the past really were not that important at all. In the end, the only things that really matter are the people you love. Of course I forget sometimes and get upset over nothing. But then a dragonfly or a red wing black bird will fly by, and remind me of my son and of what is really important in life.
After a loss, many women try to become pregnant again right away. I was terrified at the thought. I needed time to mend my heart, mind and life. And frankly, in those months after Hans' death, I didn't want another baby. I wanted him, and only him. That was a love too special to share. I knew it wouldn't be fair to me or to another baby to embark on that journey too soon.
It was over a year after Hans' birth and death before I was ready to open my heart again, and consider going through another pregnancy and having another baby. I needed to come to terms with what had happened and to grieve. Eventually we decided to try again. The next pregnancy had its share of fear and uncertainty. I knew I couldn't take it for granted. I had lost the innocence of my first pregnancy. I knew that not only did bad things happen to good people, but that they could happen to me too, and without reason or warning. I had learned about so many kinds of loss from my support network, that now I knew of things to worry about that I had never even heard of the first time around. Fortunately, I was blessed with caring midwives who offered extra visits, let me borrow a Doppler if I was worried and needed to hear the heartbeat at home, and let me know that I could call any time. Just knowing what was available took a lot of pressure off.
Family and friends all tried to reassure me that it couldn't happen again. The fact that it was statistically unlikely didn't matter when I had already been the one out a thousand whose healthy full-term baby died. I knew it was improbable, but in life there are no guarantees. As the old saying goes, "once bitten, twice shy."
Just before Hans' second birthday, I gave birth to my daughter Lily. As her labor approached, I was glad I had missed the epidural with Hans. Having delivered a full-term baby that I already knew had died with no epidural gave me the strength and confidence in myself to know that I could indeed have a natural childbirth, and I did.
Two years later, my son Henry was born. With a successful pregnancy behind me, I felt more reassured that this baby too would live. But when he went three weeks past his due date, I became especially nervous that something would go wrong. A few nights I tormented myself thinking of the what-ifs. If I induced labor and the baby went into distress, it would be my fault if he died. Or, if I didn't do anything and the placenta stopped working or the cord detached, that too would be my fault. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was not in complete control of this. All I could do was my best, and I had to give the rest up. I finally let go of needing to be in control. Henry was born alive and well and naturally too.
With three pregnancies behind me, I had read everything I could find on childbirth and child-rearing. I think that I may have actually spent more time studying for my children than I did studying in college. This parenting thing was far too important for me to just follow the status quo. I read about many parenting styles, but only a few ideas rang true to my heart. Somehow, my baby's mortality made me realize that a baby is just a little person who deserves the same respect as anyone else. I can remember what it felt like to be a child, and not seem to have any rights. I hated being yelled at as a child, and after my loss I really hated hearing other parents yelling at their children. It seemed many people don't realize what they have. I wanted to follow my heart on this. Children are a gift even though they are often treated like nuisances. They are made to be loved, protected and nurtured, not controlled and dominated.
Before I had babies, I had never really been around them, and had spent over 25 years being pretty much centered on myself. It amazes me how different things are when you actually have a child. I had no idea that such a tiny being would change my life in every single way.
During my first pregnancy, my sister-in-law suggested that I let the baby sleep with me. I remember thinking that it was unlikely that I'd want to let a child move in on my space like that. Besides if I let them in my bed, how would I ever get them out? Now I can look back and laugh at my pre-parenting attitudes. I have since had two children sleeping in my bed, and I loved the closeness and snuggling. I wasn't concerned about when they would leave. I knew that they would leave, and that I would miss having them there.
I had thought that I wanted to breast-feed Hans, but I may not have been as determined to nurse as I was with my subsequent children. Having been a second-generation bottle-fed child with no experience with babies led me to see the value in taking the hospital breast-feeding class. I had read that breast-feeding was best, but I thought nothing of the gifts of baby bottles at my shower or the free formula samples sent to my home. But when my first baby died, and a few days later my milk came in, I literally ached to feed him. The pain of my swollen breasts leaking milk with no baby to feed added insult to injury. I wanted desperately to nurse him, to give him the life that flowed out of my breasts. The more I read, the more I learned about the real benefits of breastfeeding and the unscrupulous marketing of formula companies. My next two babies never tasted formula, or drank from bottles. They never tasted milk other than mine until they were walking and talking.
The emptiness Hans left gave me an idea of how much I had to give to a child. I read enough that I had all the book knowledge I would need, but raising my living children has shown me that good parenting, like much in life, is easier in theory than in practice. It is impossible to know what kind of mother I would have been to Hans. Of course, I would have done my best with the tools I had at the time, however limited. But after his loss, I knew much more clearly the kind of mother I wanted to be, and thought that I would be. I am of course not always the mother I want to be, but I do the best I can. Sometimes the realities of two young children are more than I am prepared for and I find myself yelling or being short-tempered and falling back on the old family cycles. It breaks my heart to know that my words can hurt my children. I know that I am far from perfect, but I am more conscious of my actions and their impact on others than I ever have been in my life. I make mistakes, but I also apologize.
Whenever I think of Hans, I relax and remember what is important. I remember how lucky I am to have Lily and Henry, and I try to do better the next time. These little ones are depending on me. They have so much to teach me about love and life if I can just open my heart and mind, and slow down the pace of life enough to learn from them. I know that I have been entrusted with something special, and I cherish it because I know how much it hurts to lose it. I am definitely learning as I go, but I will never stop trying to be the best parent I can for my children. My job as a mother is the most important one in the world.
I don't believe that Hans died to teach me these lessons, but I do believe that it was my job to learn what I could from my loss. Hans brought so many gifts into my life. Without ever saying a word, he taught me what is really important. I wish I could have gained this knowledge in some other, easier way, but I am eternally grateful for the time that I had with him, and the blessings his short life brought. I know now what precious is.
Pamela Jorrick and her family live in California.