Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The mothers of angels

On a beautiful sunny day, 6 years ago this summer, I gave birth to my first son. I never thought I would have a summer baby - especially since my due date was early January. Rather ironically I gave birth on 'labor day' in Chicago - a spectacularly busy day in delivery wards. Nothing to do with celestial alignment or the position of the moon or even mere fluke. Mainly because it is fairly common for American moms-to-be to arrange to be induced before the end of August. This ensures the baby gets into school a year ahead of his/her would-be peers who are unfortunate enough to be born after 1st September. I kid you not.

So the hospital was jam-packed when I was wheeled, screaming and crying hysterically, through the corridors after my water had broken at nearly 22 weeks. I had actually been in labour for the past 24 hours. Not that anyone seriously believed me because the contractions weren't registering very clearly on the monitor. My cervix was slowly effacing - I had no idea what that meant at the time. Obviously hadn't spent quite enough time watching A Baby Story. My condition had the specialists stumped - it wasn't incompetent cervix - and it became apparent early on that there was nothing they could do except monitor me and see what happened. I may only have read the first half of the font of all pregnancy knowledge - What To Expect When You're Expecting - but even so it was pretty clear after my waters broke that this pregnancy was rapidly coming to an end. And so, as a result, was my baby.

To say I was in a state of denial and shock doesn't really do justice to the overwhelming feeling of powerlessness and disbelief. There was no way on this earth this could be happening to me. To my baby. Surely I was having an out-of-body experience and had somehow fallen into a parallel universe, where all your worst nightmares and fears come true. This simply could NOT BE HAPPENING TO ME.

The fact that everyone around me seemed so calm and in control served to make my hysteria even more pronounced. I had one arm wrapped around my tummy and the other hand beseechingly grabbing at any Doctor or nurse near me. 'Please don't make me kill my baby....please, please don't make me kill my baby' I begged over and over again. I'd had enough chats with the specialists over the past 24 hours to know that, if the worst came to the worst, no medical efforts were going to be made to keep my baby alive. It wasn't hospital policy. The baby was too young. Given another week and maybe...but at just under 22 weeks, no chance.

Within a matter of minutes and two half-hearted pushes (that I tried so very hard to resist), my baby was born. I felt it slowly slide out of my body and thought my world had come to an end. I was totally empty. 'Don't look at it' I begged my husband - frightened for both of us at what we might see. Only hours before we had watched the baby on the ultrasound, sucking its thumb, wiggling about abit, clearly comfortable and settled and with no intention of going anywhere. But that two-dimensional black and white grainy television show didn't equate at all to our real baby - who had been safe one minute and was doomed the next.

'You have a boy. Would you like to hold your son?' the gentle Doctor holding my hand asked kindly. I nodded numbly. I'd read somewhere, in an article that I never thought would be relevant to me, that this was a good thing to do - was a healthy part of the process that would assist with the inevitable grieving that would follow. It was the last thing that I wanted but I didn't want to change my mind a few days later and for that opportunity to be lost forever. He was placed in my arms - and my whole world changed again.

He was perfect. Totally tiny of course, but absolute perfect. My husband and I gazed at him in awe. Our son. Oh my God. He was amazing. Beautiful. 'Hi' I whispered and felt filled with love and complete peace and joy. Here was my son. I was a mum. It felt indescribable. Wonderful. I cradled him close - watching him stick out his tongue. His eyes were still fused shut but I knew that he saw me. He grasped my husband's finger and the rest of the room blurred as we sat in harmony with the child we had created together. Time stopped and we simply absorbed the moment. I knew in that instant I would be forever grateful for having him in my life. We lived a lifetime with him in the two precious hours we had together. The nurses presented us with a keepsake card created for all newborns - complete with tiny ink footprints. He was real. He was here. He was ours. He was loved beyond measure. There was no sense of sadness and no sense of loss. Just a feeling of wholeness and light that is hard to describe.

And those are the moments that I strived to recreate in the months and years it took to mourn him. The knowledge that, even when thinking of him provoked such physical pain and frustration, he was - and is - without doubt one of the greatest gifts of my life.

Today I wouldn't change a single thing about that day and about the outcome. If I was given a choice not to experience the birth and death of my first baby I would fight tooth and nail to do it all over again. To never have met him at all? That would have been a far greater loss. On the scale of human emotions I experienced them all through him - from blinding, total joy to absolute heartbreak and sorrow. He was worth it all and more.

The reason for this reflective post is that in the past 6 years I have been stunned by the number of friends, or friends of friends, who are now 'mothers of angels' (sounds a bit softer than 'dead babies'). These include a best friend whose first son was stillborn just three months after mine and another friend whose second son died shortly after birth due to a heart defect. There have been more. Only last week a friend in my book club gave birth to twins at just under 22 weeks. A boy and a girl. My heart goes out to her and her husband. There is, without doubt, a long journey ahead for them.

There were two things that I found inexplicably hard during my journey. The first was not being recognised as a mother. I didn't bring a baby home and I didn't have a baby to care for, therefore I wasn't really part of the club. In MY heart and mind I was totally part of the club - but being the mother of a dead baby isn't something that most people are able to recognise and identify with, much less celebrate.

Nowadays I am a paid up, totally legit, bonefida member complete with two healthy living children. But I continue to struggle sometimes with the fact that my first son is an invisible part of my family. Many people have no idea of his existence - although he was as real as Captain Underpants and Johnny Drama. I am the mother of three sons - not just the two that have been sent to this earth to wake me at the crack of dawn every day and fray my nerves to within an inch of being committed. My immediate 'family' will always have a minimum of 5 people in it - not just the 4 that are still living.

To all of the people I know who have also experienced this tragic 'gift' in their lives, you can be assured that I, for one, will continue to remember and see your babies as a part of your family. Always.


  1. You write so eloquently and beautifully. I am truly sorry for the loss of your son.

  2. Every time I hear you talk about son no:1, I get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye.
    Life is never just easy, but I am always amazed at how strong you are and how you face your adversities with grace.
    Speak soon.

  3. I started to write a comment - twice - but words don't seem to be enough and anyway I can't see much through misted eyes...
    Beautifully written. I miss him too - my first little nephew - and I picture him often.
    Love you xx

  4. Wow, that is such powerful writing.

    Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  5. I was moved to tears. You are so brave.

  6. OMG. I was getting read to post that my last baby was born six years ago this summer - and then I read through till the end. How utterly unimaginable. I'm so sorry.

  7. Thank you for your kind comments. It was very cathartic to write about Mack - I have talked about it lots but have never written down both my memories of the birth itself and how I've come to terms with it. It felt good and I really appreciate you reading it. Thanks x

  8. There are so many of us who have been through this - far more than one would ever imagine because people just don't talk about it. I did, and it made a lot of people very uncomfortable. Poeple don't like to be reminded that things can go wrong - they want every pregnancy to be a perfect one.

    My daughter was cremated and we agreed her urn would be put inside the casket of whichever of her grandparents died first. My MIL died last April and I was stunned at how upset I was that we made no public acknowledgement that my daughter was buried along with her.