The Condo Meeting

I hurried out of my car and across the street to my condo building. Sitting outside was my neighbor who was a regular attendee of the condo meetings, so I was a little confused. I was a few minutes late, so I expected everyone to be there already. He looked up from the bench he was sitting on and asked “Isn’t something missing?”

“Oh? Is the meeting at 6:30 not at 6:00” I responded, thinking maybe I got the time wrong.

“No.” he smiled. “Where’s the baby?”

I should have known. The last time I had been at a meeting, I was visibly pregnant. Somehow this detail was lost on me when planning to come to the meeting.

I opened my mouth to speak, but my voice is caught. It has become my signature pause, this awkward hinge in the conversation. What should have been an easy answer oh she’s at home with her father! has become a silence that lasts a beat too long followed by “My baby died.”

The words are easier to say now. The surprise and awkwardness that follows is still painful. I still feel the need to make it better for the other person. “We knew she would be sick.” I said, to somehow make it better and let him know. It’s okay that she died. She wasn’t going to make it anyways. It’s not like I loved her or anything. To his credit, not a single platitude crossed this neighbor’s lips. I don’t remember his exact words, but a genuine “I’m sorry” were some of them. Maybe it was his medical background, a retired radiologist, but knew nothing he could say could make it better. He put that into words and for some reason, this was more comforting than what most people say.   I left him to wait for his sister, the reason he was missing the meeting. “First time in eight years,” he had told me.

When I walked into the basement, I encountered six people siting in metal folding chairs around a long table- our formal condo association meeting. One of my old elderly neighbors saw me and introduced me to the new property manager.   “So you had the baby?” she said after introductions.

“yes.” I said without expanding and took my seat quickly.

A few minutes later a couple entered the room. I had met them once before at the last condo meeting. They had just bought a unit in the building and she was visibly pregnant herself. I knew I was expecting a child with Down Syndrome at the time but had not yet had the oligohydramnios diagnosis. When I asked if she had kids, she had patted her belly saying this was going to be her first. They had not asked the same of me.

The couple entered the room, him with a diaper bag slung over his shoulder, she with a eight month old baby on her hip. Tears stung my eyes. Not again, I thought. Today I hadn’t worked; I’ve been working four days a week, giving me one day off to decompress from the stress of working in obstetrics while trying to process the grief that comes with baby loss. This day off is supposed to be the day free of babies and bellies, a day where I can have my grief in peace. I had already had my one surprise baby encounter at the chiropractor.

They pulled up two more chairs at the place at the table with the most space- right next to me. I found myself taking short breaths again, trying to calm myself. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes again. I reached for my water bottle and started drinking water, a trick I learned years ago from a friend. When I don’t want to cry, swallowing and drinking water can actually help. I felt frozen; I couldn’t leave, but I really wanted to.

A year ago I had to miss an important condo meeting- one where I was needed to reach the minimum number of people to vote on the budget- because I thought I was miscarrying. The condo’s fiscal year was up and I thought we might be voting on budget again. I didn’t want to have to come back here again for a while.   I tried to compose myself, staring at the a crack in the cement wall as I listened to the voices of the other unit owners discuss slippery stairwells and fallen tree branches. The voices were muted by the hiccups and gurgles of baby sitting beside me. I made sure to keep the kid out of my peripheral vision, but couldn’t plug my ears. And I could see another owner, a seemingly all-business type of guy, turning to face the baby and make cooing gestures at him.

After a few more minutes of my eye welling up only to be subdued by sips of water, the woman announced that she was taking the baby up to her unit; the child was hot being there in that stuffy basement. One of the elderly women at the meeting was clearly sad to see the baby go. She offered to hold the baby for the woman and when she politely declined, the elderly woman tried to insist. She was trying to be helpful and I’m sure wanted some cuddle time. There was a little back and forth between her and the mother, the mother explaining again that the baby was hot and they would be going upstairs. I had to hold back the screams of Just let her go! Can’t you see I’m crying! Let the damn kid go upstairs, out of my sight. I wasn’t mad at the mother or the baby or even the elderly neighbor who wouldn’t let her go. None of these people knew the torture it was for me to sit there hearing and seeing what I was not gifted. I was mad at my circumstance- the one where I ended up childless.

Mother and baby left, leaving the rest of us the conduct the remainder of the meeting. I survived and left quickly afterwards. I had hope someone would ask about my baby afterwards, but no one did. The worst part of the whole experience was not being asked about the baby in the beginning, was not having the baby in the room with me. The worst part was being in the room with the baby and no one having any clue what anguish it caused me. The worst part was holding my secret grief.

Advertisements

The chiropractor waiting room

I arrived early to the chiropractor in a surprisingly good mood. I still struggle with depressive thoughts and so having a day or even moment of mood levity is treasured. I had even texted a friend of mine just an hour before, “For the first time I feel a little hopeful!”

I signed in and said hello to the cheerful secretary. She has always intrigued me from the first time I met her. She was pregnant then, as was I, but she was carrying twins. I started at this new chiropractor in my pregnancy because early on I was feeling a bothersome change in my pelvis, especially after running. She came highly recommended by a friend of mine and her hours and location were super convenient. When I met her secretary I had asked, like a good midwife, when she was due. I soon learned that was a surrogate for another couple. I had written my grad school praxis about gestational surrogacy. The practice fascinated me and I told her that. I thought it was one of the most courageous, generous things a woman could do.

I became a frequent visitor after my low fluid diagnosis because the long weekend I spent in the hospital bed really screwed up my tailbone. In the two weeks following I went almost everyday and my problem was solved. While waiting for the doctor, I often chatted with this secretary, learning that she was carrying two girls, one of the babies was breech and how badly she want a vaginal birth. I overheard her once telling another patient how her doctor had told her it’s illegal to have a breech birth in Connecticut. I couldn’t help myself; I had to say something.

“No it’s not!” I piped up. “It’s totally legal. I’ve been present at breech births.” I had patients who come in fully with the baby’s feet hanging out of the vagina. At that point, best to deliver the baby breech. I’ve had patients who have fooled us, when we thought the baby was head down and when they became fully dilated we realized it was an especially head-like butt coming first. Some of those babies came out vaginally. I’ve had twins where baby A is head down and baby B is breech, and under those circumstances we sometimes consider breech birth. There are risks- mainly head entrapment (the head is the largest part of the body and so if the butt comes first you don’t know for sure the head will fit until it’s too late)- so usually we recommend a c-section if the baby won’t turn. But it’s not illegal.

“But it can be risky,” I backtracked, not wanting her to feel badly about her choice in doctors. “So most doctors recommend a c-section.” She had her babies vaginally around Christmas, after both girls lined up head down. I was surprised she was back at work a few weeks later, but then I remembered how she didn’t have those babies at home with her.

When I went into the chiropractor today she was behind the desk. My doctor knows the whole story with Mabel, but I’m unsure if the secretaries do. The other secretary, another cheerful, chatty woman, asked me once about Mabel after I had delivered. She asked whether I had a boy or girl and what I named her. There were no follow-up questions or condolences, so I assumed she didn’t know.

After I signed in today, I sat down and listened to her talk to another waiting patient about her son’s blueberry picking trip. Moments later, a woman walked through the door holding a baby carrier. She put it down in my full view as she signed in. I could see this little baby girl staring up at me- I guessed she was about six months, Mabel’s age. I took a few concentrated breaths as the secretary started asking about the baby.

“She’s great. Well, I mean, lately she’s a little monster!” she said looking at her daughter in a high-pitched singsong voice women use to talk to babies. “My girl, who has been sleeping through the night for the past two months, doesn’t seem…”

I didn’t hear the rest of the sentence. Tears came on hot and strong and I got up and walked out the door. I sat on the curb in the parking lot, letting the tears flow. That was supposed to be me. I’m supposed to be here with my baby. The woman with the baby in the carrier sitting next to the woman with empty arms. The contrast was too much.

I played on my phone (my standard go-to when I need to calm down.) and waited until another patient came out. As she passed me, she said “What a good idea!” For a moment I expected her to say how that baby’s presence was too much for her too. “The sun feels just so good out here.”

I nodded and gave a weak smile. I guessed the woman with the baby had been taken in by the chiropractor by then and so I returned to the waiting room. I took my seat wondering if the secretary had any clue what was going through my mind. She didn’t chat me up, telling stories of blueberry picking or asking about my life. Perhaps because my visible frown advised her to keep her distance. Perhaps because she could see the emotional havoc that just went down in front of her.

Numbers by Mabel…

36+1 her chart reads. That gestational age has forever burnt a mark on my brain. The amount of time I was pregnant with Mabel. I want to tell her what a special time this is. Every day is a gift. Something I didn’t realize until I had no more days with Mabel on the inside.

March 11, March 21, March 1. Due dates for the new OB patients I am seeing. My voice catches as I say the dates out loud to the expectant women. Mabel was born in February but her entire pregnancy was centered around her due date- March 14. I know what it’s like to look forward to March, I want to tell them. If I knew what I know now, would I have looked forward to March in the same way?

Reports of normal nuchal translucencies litter my in basket. 1.9mm, 2.0mm. Oh, the relief in those numbers. This is normal, I want to tell them, this normalcy is a gift. I have a new appreciation for normal.

These numbers cross my path throughout the day. Mabel’s numbers. Mabel was here… is here…

Blissful Ignorance

I stared at the couple across the desk from me. It is their first pregnancy. Cheerful. Ignorant of what lay ahead.

Danger! Danger!

They want to know when the first ultrasound is going to be. Seeing the little blob will confirm that the baby is real. That the little blob will turn into different kind of a blob, one that looks like a baby. The heart will beat, the legs and arms will form, a face will appear. Never will they think that the feet could be clubbed or the heart might be motionless. Make it to that first ultrasound and all will be well.

Fools!

Who am I kidding? What blissful ignorance! I envy them.

I smile and schedule them for an ultrasound this week. They don’t know that everything could be taken away. Taking a baby home at the end of this is not a given. But they don’t need to know this. For now, they look forward to seeing that little blob and all the promise it holds.

Good role modeling

The three-story house loomed above me, waiting to swallow me up whole. A wide wooden staircase led to the front door like a path to its mouth. The house was one typical of the Outerbanks, an oversized and luxurious rental occupied on a weekly basis by large families or groups of friends. After nine hours in the car, my legs celebrated the freedom to go up those stairs but my heart was heavy. I had arrived at the family reunion that had been in the works since I was pregnant. It was a trip planned when we thought Mabel would live, when we thought Down Syndrome was her biggest hurdle. Now I was here without my baby, starting the shadow of the vacation that was supposed to be. I didn’t know how it would be interacting with many relatives there who I had not seen since Mabel died. Would they acknowledge her? Would they say something well intentioned but secretly painful? I was especially nervous because there was going to be a two month old in the house and my mind had already imagined many painful scenarios- everyone sitting around passing the baby with oohs and ahhs, no one recognizing the other new family member who couldn’t be there, people giving me a hard time because I’m not as engaging as I once was. Luckily, my mind was more creative than reality.

When I walked through the door, the family was spread out, some seated on the couch in the great room, some around the large dining room table, some I could see through the windows out on the deck. I scanned the area and could see the baby was out on the deck, so I could at least easily make my entrance. As people started noticing our appearance, they came up and gave the typical friendly family welcome- a hug, questions about the drive, offerings of a drink. At first it was how I feared- just the same old family reunion, without anyone saying anything about the life altering events of the past year. When my great aunt saw us, she came up to me and gave me a big hug, saying loudly in front of everyone, “I am so sorry for your loss. And I’m so sorry we couldn’t make it to her services.” I breathed a sigh of relief, the tension in my shoulders releasing into her hug. “Do you have pictures? I would really like to see pictures.” I smiled and mentioned the video I could show her later.

My aunt did me a great service. She easily and quickly acknowledged my Mabel and did it in front of many others who had not yet. It was wonderful role modeling. The matriarch of this family reunion opened the door for others to speak up- and they did. I am so grateful for her kind words upon arrival and for those that followed in her footsteps.

After the initial hellos were said and people went back to the puzzles they were doing and the conversations they were having, I found myself standing in the great room looking out the window. I could see my sister sitting in a deck chair with her back towards me, holding her baby. I just stared. That’s what I should be doing. I don’t get that. The universe has not allowed me to mother a live child. Thoughts raced through my head. I didn’t realize what I was doing until an observant cousin sidled up to me and whispered “We know this is hard. We are here for you.” I was caught off guard, not realizing I was staring and certainly not realizing anyone else saw me doing it. A wave o f emotion hit me at that moment and I turned on my heels, heading back out the door. I needed air. I sat on that large wooden staircase crying until Chris found me.

I sat on the steps, unknowing another cousin was on the deck behind me, witnessing my meltdown, but it was okay. Those seeing my tears saw just how hard it was for me. After a few minutes I pulled it together, re-entered the house and started my week.

What am I so afraid of?

What am I so afraid of?

I am spending the week in North Carolina with my extended family. Nearly thirty of us are gathered for what used to be an annual family reunion and now is a more sporadic get together. This was this trip where I was supposed to be introducing my baby to all her relatives. Instead I am here trying to enjoy myself, despite the fact that my baby died, despite the reminder that this trip was supposed to be different, despite the presence of my newborn nephew.

What am I so afraid of?

My sister suggested that holding him might be the first step in getting over reluctance to hold a baby. I had talked to her about my concern about going back to delivering babies and she was trying to be helpful. The idea of holding a baby isn’t so much a phobia, but there is fear involved.

I’m afraid I’ll be taken back to the last moment I held a baby. I had been holding babies sometimes as frequent as daily because they often cross my path at work. When my coworkers had seen me with a baby on my hip as I talked to his mom, they have commented on how natural I looked. My friends have been amazed at how comfortable I was holding their little babies. But the very last baby I held was my own. She was dead.

I’m afraid holding a baby will bring me back to those moments of holding my dead daughter’s body. I’m afraid the weight of a small body in my arms will open up that place I have sewn up in my chest, the spot where I tucked away the hurt I felt relinquishing my baby. If you want to know what sadness is, listen to the sobs of a mother as she hands over her baby’s body to then nurse, never to hold her again. Ever.  I’m afraid those sobs will spill out and I’ll never be able to tuck them back in again.

Perhaps the weight and warmth will remind me of the few hours she was alive and I’ll be taken back to a brief time when I felt hope before it all came crashing down. I don’t like feeling hope these days because inevitably something happens and I fall. The more I had hoped, the further I fell. Going back to that moment of happiness and hope even for a moment will make returning to reality a hard fall.

I’m afraid my breasts will tingle and leak, the way some women who’ve had babies say theirs do when they hear a newborn. I’m afraid they won’t, proof that my baby didn’t live and I’m not a real mother.

I’m afraid of the rush of love I might feel for my nephew if I let myself and by doing that I am somehow betraying my daughter. I am not supposed to be happy around babies. I have so few things that keep me close to Mabel and right now grief is one of them. Letting that go, even for a moment, feels like I’m letting go of her.

Does my heart ache when I see that baby across the room, when I hear him gurgle and cry? Yes, of course. My heart aches for so many reason. I want my daughter. I want to be able to hold him without any emotional baggage. I want the life my sister has with this baby. I want things to be different.

What am I so afraid of?

I’m afraid I’ll be sad.

What’s it like to deliver babies?

“Do you deliver babies too?”  I nodded and gave a quiet “yes.”  It’s a hard question to answer these days.  Yes, it’s part of my job.  No, I am not doing right at this moment.  Yes, I do want to someday.  No, I don’t know when I’ll be ready.

“Does that mean you could deliver my baby?”

“You have a one in five chance, it’ll be me” I told her.  It was my standard line- there are five of us midwives who do call and though on occasion our docs end up being the one catching their babies, we midwives attend almost all of the vaginal deliveries.

“What’s it like?” she asked.  “To deliver babies?”

I paused.  I haven’t been at anyone’s birth except my own since December.  What’s it like now?  I have no idea what it’s like to be present at one of the most intimate, life changing, joyous moments of someone’s life.  What it’s like to hold a warm squirming, crying baby up and place that baby on her mother’s abdomen, presuming that’s where she’ll stay until the mom is ready to let her be weighed.  What it’s like to hold a baby that will likely live.  I don’t know what it’s like to do that without being reminded of how none of those things were true with my baby.  My best guess is that delivering a baby now would be painful, heartbreaking and soul shattering.  Handing a woman the baby she will likely take home will be grief inducing.  Just the thought of it, the mere writing of these words causes my throat to clench and my heart to beat more wildly.  I have to breathe deeply to calm myself down.

Up to 5% of women experience PTSD after childbirth with a much larger percentage experiencing some symptoms.  Traumatic birth is the most common precipitator of PTSD in these women.  What defines traumatic birth?  Some definitions are obvious- an emergency c-section, problems with the baby, feeling violated- and some might be less obvious.  Some women can feel traumatized while their providers could think everything were perfectly.  My birth was beautiful and traumatic at the same time.  I found what beauty I could in it, but I did not want to actually birth her.  My baby was whisked away from me a moment after birth.  My baby died.  Whether or not I have PTSD is unimportant to me- but I definitely have some symptoms- avoiding, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilance at times, detachment at other times.  Right now, the idea of returning to attending births honestly feels like reliving the nightmare part of my experience.

I do want to do births…eventually.  It is the most amazing thing to be the first hands to welcome a baby into the world and to be a part of that intimate life changing moment for a family.  I want to help make births positive, not traumatic experiences, for women.  That is my goal.  For now I am on the schedule to return to births in September.  I am unsure if I will be ready.  If I’m not, I hope I can make it work with my job.  But in the long run, in the future, I really do want to return to birth, when it’s less traumatic for me.  Because it is truly amazing.

“What’s it like?” she asked.  “To deliver babies?”

“It’s the coolest thing in the world.”