Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

Finding Hope in Parenting After Loss

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Art: Linda Williis

By Tara Shafer

My second child was stillborn ten years ago.

A decade out from loss and this is what I know.

When a sonogram showed no heartbeat, I understood I had to deliver my baby.

If I try hard enough I can put myself back there, but I can’t stay. The horror of the moment makes me resist. It propels me like a magnetic force or a backdraft – away.

That day I was admitted to the hospital. I lay in Labor & Delivery stoned on Valium. I was in labor with a dead baby. I remember falling in love, observing great beauty, and getting my heart broken.

I looked out the window at the orange glow of urban pollution against platter-sized flakes of snow that made up a muffled peaceful hush drifting upwards like specters.

Time was vaporous. I had been induced to deliver with Pitocin. My body had come undone. I waited for contractions to start.

I cried for my dead son. I cried also for my two-year old son, Reid. He had never been away from me and now we were forced apart without warning. That morning he and I had walked through the Central Park Zoo. We passed the carriage horses on the way to a medical appointment and Reid watched them eat oats out of big buckets.

I closed my eyes. These children. I did not know how to occupy both the lands of the living and the dead. I could not be in two places at once. I looked at my heavily pregnant stomach. Then, I remembered the little red sweater Reid wore when he waved and left the room, glancing backwards.

I can no longer remember the sequence of what happened or when. What I remember most vividly about my son’s (still)birth is playing with the edges of things – discovering all sorts of peripheral realities where death meets birth.

As I labored I imagined stranger hands on him. He was mine but I could not keep him. I tried to imagine this infant, alive, asleep at home.

On television that night John Lennon was being over-remembered on the anniversary of his shooting. Lennon singing Imagine was on news clips over and over again. I was drawn to the tinny end-of-the-world music box quality of the song.

After many hours my baby was born. We named him Dylan. I did not even anticipate the sound of crying. Still, the silence was shocking. In the room there is no one talking. My devastated husband Gavin was there. The nurse readied the receiving cart but without a sense of urgency. She was somber and deliberate in her movements. She swaddled him in standard issue hospital blanket and put a hat on his head. She looked more like an undertaker than a nurse.

In holding my son, I was aware that there would be no second chances. I did what I could to stay present even as I left behind the life I had been leading until that point.

After a while someone (I don’t remember who) asked, “Are you ready?”

I suddenly understood what it would have felt like to give up a child for adoption when adoption was secret and mothers too young. You hand your baby over.

As I did. But I knew he would never grow up. He would never find me.

“Are you ready?”

It is a terrible way to phrase this question.

We cremated our baby. We returned to our life with Reid. We tried to figure out how to explain the death of a baby whose existence had had never known to a young child. A play therapist assured us that young children do not see death as either permanent or negative. Several days later we explained that the baby would not be coming to live with us. That night as I lay in bed, soapy softness wafting off of him, I asked Reid whether he would crawl back in to my stomach and be a baby once more. Not my finest moment as a mother. He answered, “yes Mommy, so I could die and die and die.”

When we tried again, sex was multi-faceted. It was recreational, procreational, and post-traumatic.

When we did get pregnant again I had difficulties processing this reality. I took Reid to a nearby orchard and sat we sat there. I tried to understand that the coming months would be living moment to moment. I thought about the fear I would face as I waited for fetal movement. I thought about how this was the gift of another chance. I considered this all under the kaleidoscope sky with the apple trees, and the earth smell of fall everywhere. There were creeping early shots of colors in the trees as they prepared to burst into color and then retreat – a half death – until the spring. I looked at the weeping willows tacked up perfectly against the blue fall sky settling down from the scorch of summer; the world around began to recoil temporarily.

Reid grounded me and I had to let him.

I hid the fact of pregnancy for an absurd amount of time. Depending on the moment in the day, I loved or tolerated or survived this pregnancy. I learned to exist in crisis mode. Phone calls made me jump. It began to feel like alarmist Zen. I did weekly non-stress tests at the hospital. I gazed upon my baby on an ultrasound screen in sanity-saving weekly ultrasound appointments. He was so near and so far. I could grow him but I could not save him if it came to it. I was more voyeur than mother.

These were hard months, but so too, were they full of grace.

As the days before birth approach, I found I could not stay present. There was a biblical storm and the rain came down in sheets. Non-essential travel in New York State was officially discouraged.

We drove slowly from upstate New York to the city hospital on the flooded roads that were looking delta-like. There were houses sticking up through water. I half-expected to see destitute children sitting atop roofs without shoes. I glanced at Reid in the rear view mirror and I thought about his sustaining love and how he could never know the impact of his presence. I was shocked at the finality of and the force of regret I suddenly felt at what will be lost between he and I.

As panic at the thought of the alternative rose like bile within me, I tried to steady myself. I told Reid how very much I loved him.

He looked into the rear view mirror and placed his fingers on his eyebrows and moved them around.

“Mommy?” he said. “Did you know that my eyebrows look like corn cobs when I do that?”

At the hospital my husband and I stood outside in the early spring wind blows dampness around imagining the promise in existence everywhere. People walked by, hospital staff stood smoking in scrubs, the lights of a diner flickered. I remember thinking that I had never seen anything more beautiful than this. The rain was stopping but rainbow colored oil slicks ran down in rivers towards gutters on the city streets.

The next day, my son David was born and they put him on my chest.

He was so small. I had forgotten what newborns felt like and how much like a petal their skin is.

I lay there, an infant at my breast and I again recognized that humans are frail. There is honor in trying to become strong.

A few years later another baby would be placed on my chest. This one would be a girl. Isabelle, like her brother, would be born in a snowstorm. However, she lay next to me fully in my possession.

My family is growing up. I can’t even believe how old my children are now as they set their courses. I try, as all parents do, to provide perspective. At the Haydn Planetarium there is a plaque that describes the potential for interstellar life and how little we know yet about galaxies. Part of it reads: “The stars in the sky seem permanent and unchanging because it takes millions and billions of years for their lives to unfold.”

I have a memory from childhood. There is nothing significant within it except that I understood something abstract without being told. I was walking with my father once in mid-winter at dusk. The snow was blue against the winter sky and the embers of the orange light were fading and strewn across the sky. The blueness of the snow looked like the sea but perfectly still, beautifully captured imprisoned and resolute. It had stored the light from the sun and it was still there within, beneath despite the general appearance of death, of nothing stirring. My father told me, “This is the harsh beauty of winter.”

I understood that the scene was both beautiful and harsh and that these two things could easily be fused. What is absent can be just as glorious as what is present. On that rising hill beneath the sky there was lots of life but it was suspended, waiting. The winter was the victor there and it contained much in the way of dormant things all trapped within it. For all that winter freezes, it coats and protects.

Without all that is absent – what is taken from us  –  we do not know the truth about what is present. These losses, these tragedies, provide a context. They give the gift of hard-won self-knowledge too important to bury or obscure.

Tara Shafer is the co-founder of Reconceiving Loss (www.reconceivingloss.com) an online resource center to support families coping with baby loss. Her work has appeared on the New York Times and Mashable. She is a contributing blogger for BabyCenter, Huffington Post and Psychology Today.

All This Rocking

All This Rocking

WO All this Rocking ARTBy Jessica Latham

One hundred rocks. My husband tells me that’s how many times he sways our nine-month old son when it’s his turn, when my back is too tired from strapping our baby in the carrier, when my hipbone feels bruised, when another hour of our baby attached to me will make my skin crawl.

***

It’s a Thursday afternoon and I am putting my son down for a nap. I must have rocked him at least one hundred times. The carrier cups his meaty legs as his head tilts to the right and parted lips quiver on my breast. Yes, he must be asleep. Past his head, I stand and stare at the phone in my hands. Which part of the story did he fall asleep to? On my phone, I read from books, novels and self-help, parenting and inspiration. The sound of my voice seems to soothe him and I hear my own life in the words of other women, strangers tied into the same web of motherhood.

His lips slip off my skin as I alter my stance from swaying to stillness. Now that he’s asleep I will finally have time to write. But where? How? Texting on my phone takes too long, but the sound of the keys on my computer might wake him. I rock. I sway. I look. On the bedside table is my journal, hidden under a stack of books – Anna Karenina, Simplicity Parenting and Hafiz’s poetry, The Gift, each of them sadly neglected since his birth. Bookmarks are shoved into the front and centers of each book and in the journal, which has far fewer words than I’d like. When was the last time I opened it? I slide the books aside to reach for the journal and a pen. I glide and rock, sway and shake my way ever so gently not to wake him. I decide to leave him sleeping on me. Still standing, I open the book of blank pages, prop it against the dresser and begin to write.

My nipple presses against his cheek and his ear is folded on the lip of the Bjorn. Our stomachs press toward one another like the delicate contents of a sandwich. His tummy, so pure and full, hits the scar above my pelvis, the one I press with my fingers, hoping each time it will somehow disappear. My bellybutton, almost perfectly aligned with his, still projects outward.

“A hernia?” my aunt asked me once.

“I don’t know.” I gave up searching for answers a long time ago and have come to terms with the disappointment of my battered body.

I must be at three hundred rocks now. My son sucks the air, his lips pursed around an invisible nipple. I press my phone to check the time and a light highlights a prompt for my password, one I put in so my son would stop accidentally calling people from the thrill of biting, sliding, pressing and hitting. I’m ashamed he already uses my phone, copying the constant use of mommy’s life raft. I’m ashamed of what others would hear if my son dialed unknowingly. Not unkindness to my son, but the tiresome bickering between my husband and me, both overworked and overtired, projecting our anger and pointing fingers at one another.

“It gets easier,” my mother told me, “after six months.”

But it’s been more than six months. Did she lie to give me hope during the first weeks because she couldn’t stand the thought of what her daughter had endured? A difficult delivery, swollen labia, stitched stomach, numb left foot, bloody breasts, constipation and a CT scan showing signs of an infection, a blockage of the intestines due to an internal cut during surgery resulting in pain worse than contractions.

“Most women are gone by now,” the doctor had told me after my sixth day at the hospital.

“And do most women go through this?” I cried, fragile and wounded.

“I think it’s time you think about possibly getting some help.”

“What do you mean?”

“An anti-depressant. Your records show you’ve tried and done well with Zoloft.”

“I don’t need anything.”

“What do you say we get you back on ten milligrams to start? Women in your situation often need some assistance when bonding with their baby begins with difficulty.”

“I’m not having trouble bonding with my baby,” I said. “He is the only bit of light I see in my new life. My problem is not my child. My problem is the pain. The frustration. The shock. I cannot eat. I cannot sit up, move or walk. It appears I cannot even feed my child from my own body.”

“This will help with some of your frustration,” he said, his tone softening.

“Fine. I’ll take it.”

“We need to get you better so you can go home.” He continued scribbling secrets on a pad then walked out of the doors into a hall of women walking about, smiling with visitors and planning their departures.

The lights seemed too bright, the wall too white. Was I in an insane asylum or a birthing recovery room? Were the balloons, flowers and stuffed elephants in my imagination? Were my meals and medicines part of a new life here permanently? Or was this all a dream?

I left, still swollen despite three days of starvation, only morphine and water filling my aching body.

“I don’t even have body odor.” I said to my husband the day we left.

“That’s because you’re not eating anything, love.”

Those nights in the hospital I sat thinking, how long did we dance during labor, rocking rhythmically as one? How many steps did I take, my son’s body wedged into my own? And, once home, how many sways in the night did we share, his tiny folded wing across my shoulder, my distended stomach shifting like a bag of sand?

After two weeks my shocked body, previously unresponsive to cups of warmed prune juice and three laxatives per day, finally awoke and began releasing wildly during our newborn’s photo shoot. I wanted to laugh, but this was not a joke—it was bullying by some sort of a wicked god that sent me back questioning my actions in this life. This isn’t how birth recovery is supposed to be, I thought. Was I naïve and ignorant to have hoped and wished for some other reality of birth?

***

I turn the page of my journal, my hand scribbling memories I’d pushed aside. Words I’d locked away now emerge like wild birds that have been caged for far too long. The rustle of the thin sheet of paper causes my son to stir and his eyes flutter. “Shhh,” I shush as I rock and sway. I drop my pen and cup my two hands around the base of his head. My legs bend and straighten, shift and shake until his eyes are still once more. I pick up my pen and continue piecing together bits and pieces of my life on the lined paper as if the words themselves will comfort me when I see them before my own eyes.

A friend came over last week to meet the baby, but mainly to talk business over beers with my husband. No break tonight. After eleven hours with my son, he’ll be bathed, dressed, fed and put to bed by me. I bring our friend upstairs and don’t know why. Perhaps because I’ve forgotten what adult interaction entails. Is it appropriate to tour just the downstairs of a home or must I lead him up the stairs? It’s so silly to think of the tiny interactions forgotten when handshakes and home-visit formalities are traded for wiping bottoms and celebrating shaky first steps. As we tour the home, my husband’s friend politely says, as if hearing the conversation in my head, “No need to apologize about the mess, you have a baby.” How long can I use my boy as an excuse for my messes, my pain, my exhaustion, my bolts of unhappiness and shrills of joy? How long must I defend and explain my parenting decisions?

“He sleeps with us,” I tell him as we enter my son’s nursery. I see the shock in his eyes. “He runs the house,” I say and laugh, trying to make light of his judgment. The crib is bare, covered in long black and white hair, used each night only by our two cats. Why do I care what this bachelor thinks? Because he’ll judge me? Because, as I feared, he’ll tell my husband later that night, “You need to be tougher, you need to let your son cry-it-out.” Because I cringe at those words. Because, when I’m alone, I imagine myself, like a lioness laying beneath a tree with my cub curled into the crevices of my body, where I can rest without the need to explain co-sleeping, carrying, or any other modern label.

We move into the master bedroom. “We did some rearranging a few days ago.” I tell my friend as he glances at the folded bed frame and box spring leaned against the wall of our bedroom. So our active crawler does not fall, we deconstructed the bed and left only a mattress on the floor. A blanket is spread between two pillows on our mattress, a mini bed where my son sleeps between us. A battle I won—my son and I won. He fussed when we tried the crib and the co-sleeper, and so between us he went.

He still wakes two to three times each night. After nine months, I still wake as foggy as the mornings when he was a newborn. He turns and I turn. He begins sucking slowly, then picks up speed, waking me, bringing me back to the reality that my breasts, like my body, only provide half of what he needs – just as I couldn’t push him through after the countless hours of labor. I tap my husband’s back.

“He needs a bottle,” I whisper.

“Again?”

He slides out of the bed. I hear his sleepy stride against the floor, the stairs and then – POP – the sound of the microwave opening. It takes eleven seconds for the water to match the temperature of my own milk. With moonlit eyes, my husband mixes the powder and comes back into the bedroom. With my son’s eyes closed, I guide the bottle into his mouth and pull my shirt down. He sucks methodically.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper as my husband settles back into bed. I’m sorry that I cannot provide enough milk so that our son needs a bottle that you have to make. I’m sorry that I cannot go downstairs myself because he’ll wake up and I no longer have the energy to put him back to sleep, or the courage to ask you.

I had tried mixing formula with cold water from the bathroom sink, but he wouldn’t drink it. Another battle won by our son. I’m tired of changing diapers on my hands and knees because he cries when he’s put on his back, so to the floor we go, as if playing a game of chase. Tired of screams in the car that come out of nowhere. Tired of the constant lack of breath. Breath. Breath. How often do I forget to breathe? How often do I apologize that I cannot do everything for everyone? I’m sorry for all of my faults – the ones I can control and the uncontrollable. And I’m sorry, in all of my exhaustion, that I’ve lost the love for myself.

***

My husband will wake two hours after heating the bottle and leave for a meeting with friends at a coffee shop before work.

“And what about me?” I asked him again last night. “How can I want to make love with you when we can’t even talk? We are strangers to one another. I am a stranger to myself. Do you hear that I need time? Just an hour to myself. Even less.” To shower. To go to the bathroom. To write. To be alone. To do nothing.

He gives at times, but I’m in an extreme state, overworked, exhausted, and I pity myself for having no family around, for spending one of my only free hours in counseling, during which I worry if my son’s alright or if he’s crying. For wondering when it will get easier, if it will get easier. Though my body is healed, so they say, I still take my frustration pills and share stories of highs and lows with a kind woman who lets me cuss and cry, who lets me lay down on her couch and then get back up a bit more refreshed. The tiny blue pills, and the tiny moments in these sessions, like my tiny boy, hold a power that magically changes my perspective.

I lift my pen and look down at my son’s eyelids, like shells of pearl. How could such loveliness have come from me? From within me? And for me to learn from, watch grow, and raise?

***

“He’s an angry baby.” The doctor’s judgment and conclusions, just days after his birth, made before my son was even given a chance, echo in my head. If only I could show that doctor now. If only I could show him my nine-month-old’s sweet laughter, his smiles and peaceful face. Each time I give more and more of myself to see my son’s contentedness. When people comment, “What a happy baby!” I want to give myself the credit, I want, out of all my selflessness, to at least be selfish in owning the fact of my son’s happiness. I want to tell them how I’ve given up showers and manicures, trips to the hair salon and gym – I trade all of this to wear him, hold him, feed him, play with him and tend to his requests. Will it all pay off in the end? When he’s grown, will he carry on without a therapist? Will he feel independent and safe?

I try to find the courage to imagine a sibling in his life. But each time a moment of good passes, a sleepless night returns, a cry in the five-minute car ride sends chills down my spine, making me realize that for nine months I’ve completely forgotten how to breathe.

***

I gasp and drop my pen. A slight sting pierces my breast, my son’s growing teeth biting down. I try to rock him back to sleep, shoving my other breast toward him for just another tiny moment alone, not truly alone, but at least silent, for more time to write. But he purses his lips, hits my shoulders with his hands.

“Ok, you’re up.” I say.

I look down and he smiles, four teeth showing now. I set down my journal and, like most things in my life, my thoughts remain half-complete, unfinished and hanging. My life is a series of interruptions: showers stopped, split ends hanging from my head. Like an orgasm ending too soon, a plate of dessert dropped on the floor, a plug pulled from my body – I feel taunted, stuck between on and off.

As he wakes, my eyes focus. I am broken from my memories, taken out of the hospital and back into my bedroom. I unfasten him from me, set him down. He stands with his hands in mine and we walk together, his chubby feet shuffling across the floor. Our bodies rock from side to side, like a boat lilting back and forth. As I steady him, I imagine for a moment that the tiny life between my hands could believe I am a steady anchor.

Using writing in all forms as an essential and gratifying outlet for her busy mind, Jessica Latham writes regularly for Mothering Magazine. She is assistant editor of Yukei Teiki Haiku Society, a Japanese poetry journal, and her work has been featured on NPR’s local station, in Literary Mama (forthcoming) and various poetry journals. Learn more about Jessica’s work at www.rowdyprisoners.com.