My first child was due to be born on May 13, 2020.
Perhaps it would be more medically accurate to say my first pregnancy. Who qualifies as a first child? Various medical staff ask us often: “Is this your first baby?” I never know how to answer. I want to say no, but medically, I sort of need to say yes. After an awkward pause, I stammer onto something like, “Second pregnancy, first baby.” I still don’t like the implication, but it gets the point across.
We found out we were pregnant again just after the new year, less than 3 months after our miscarriage. Within days, we told our immediate family members, because we weren’t sure how long the good news would last. I wanted them to experience that early joy, even if I couldn’t quite feel hopeful myself.
At our first appointment (week 8), I forced myself into the ultrasound room. It was the same room from October, the same room where I found out our baby girl had no heartbeat. Andrew held my hand, and I held my breath. The sonographer searched.
“There it is,” she said. “Beating away at 150 bpm.”
I didn’t believe her. “Really?” The question caught in my throat.
“Yep, you can see it right there.” She pointed to the tiny, flickering blip on the screen.
All I could do was nod. Baby was alive and well. With that tiny heartbeat, the slightest flicker of hope lit in my heart.
Four days later, everything changed. Andrew and I went out on a date night, but the evening didn’t go as planned. Before the symphony began, I emerged from the bathroom and told him we had to leave. I was bleeding, a lot. We had to go to the emergency room.
It’s happening all over again.
We waited for two hours in an understaffed ER, dressed to the nines. I cried the whole time, listening to other names being called. I knew I wasn’t in immediate danger, and they couldn’t do anything for our baby. Even so, it felt cruel to let me sit there for so long, crying, not knowing if my baby was dead or alive.
In the end, our wait turned out to be fruitless. My baby had a heartbeat, but there was also a major hemorrhage nearby. “Threatened miscarriage,” the young male doctor told me. “Only time will tell. Your odds are 50/50. You’ve had a miscarriage before, so you know what to expect if your symptoms progress in that direction.” I corrected him. I’d had no symptoms the first time around–it was a ‘missed’ miscarriage, and I had a D&C at week 9. “Ah, well in that case, it will be like a period, but worse.” As he continued talking about expectations for my reproductive system, I confirmed my suspicion that I could never see a male OB/GYN. What business did he have comparing miscarriage symptoms to a period? What did he know of any of it?
We trudged out of the hospital, discouraged and exhausted. The flicker of hope inside me faded to embers, still hot but dying away. I went home and spent several days trying not to move, willing my insides to hold together just long enough to get more answers.
We saw my doctor five days after the ER visit, and she pulled us straight into the ultrasound room to look for herself. “Yeah, there’s the hemorrhage, right there.” She shrugged. “Baby is good. The hemorrhage isn’t interfering. Your body should take care of it with time.”
Nothing to worry about, she said. I worried anyway. Come to think of it, just about everyone told me not to worry. Sub-chorionic hemorrhages are common, and in my case, perfectly harmless. Celebrate the baby! Be excited! I couldn’t access the optimistic outlook. I had lost too much, too recently. I knew better.
After three more major bleeding incidents, three emergency doctor appointments, and two emergency visits to the labor and maternity center, I felt justified in my anxiety. Between weeks 8 and 13, we had nothing but scares. I sent a bajillion text messages asking for prayer, feeling like a worn, broken record. But every single time, in every emergency, baby’s heart pounded away on the ultrasound screen, always at 150 bpm. And the hemorrhage–however persistent–didn’t interfere with baby’s growth.
A switch flipped for me around week 14. To be honest, it completely snuck up on me. I barely noticed the shift in my self, from anxious self-protection to hopeful planning. Apparently, repeated emergency visits and professional reassurance were just what I needed to believe this baby could make it.
Tucked away in this isolated COVID-19 reality, we started talking about names, and making lists for each gender. I started a registry for the unbelievable amount of stuff that babies need. Andrew did the heavy lifting shifting furniture around the house, slowly converting our guest room into a nursery for our growing child. There’s still plenty to do, but I’m also months ahead of ‘schedule’ thanks to the pandemic hibernation. I’m too Type A to be anything but hyper-productive in quarantine.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say ‘too emotionally avoidant.’
Yes, I’ve worked on the baby’s room, considered pediatricians, and sorted through the mountain of baby crap on the internet. But for several weeks, well beyond week 14, Andrew repeatedly asked “Have you written to baby yet?” I shook my head. No, no I had not.
I started writing to our baby girl well before she was conceived, months ahead of trying. Then I wrote to her throughout the early days of my pregnancy, sharing about our love story, and writing prayers over her little life. The quantity of empty pages in that journal is devastating. Connecting with baby, talking with baby…that is an intensely personal act. And it is much, more more vulnerable than ticking items off of a to-do list.
Eventually, I cracked open a new journal and started writing to this growing baby, around week 18. Occasionally, I sing a song for baby. But my heart is still guarded. My journal entries are shorter and less frequent, because it still feels exposing to believe this baby is going to be okay. Nothing promises that will be the case, not even the goodness of my sovereign, generous God.
As busy and productive as I attempt to be, the quiet of this season has slowed me down to feel all the feelings, and face them head on. As I cradle my growing belly and marvel over detailed ultrasound photos, it’s tempting to feel guilty. How can I celebrate this little life when my other baby never got this far? How can I be joyful when I’m still grieving? How can I believe this will turn out any better than before, even if we’ve made it to some new milestones?
Our original due date approaches, and my heart grows heavier. The baby growing in my belly only exists because my first baby died. It’s a strange notion… a little life completely intertwined with a big loss.
I wrote about our miscarriage in the fall, and the flood of support that followed was miraculous. So many women near and far reached out to tell me about their own losses, and to share encouragement. A great deal of that wisdom is precious to us, but one note in particular has stuck with me, especially as this second baby grows.
An old friend shared that years after their loss, they talk with their children about their kiddo in heaven. They acknowledge their son as part of their eternal family, and talk about how each sibling that followed was a gift from their older brother in heaven, only possible because of him. He went to be with God, and sent baby as a gift while they wait to be together again.
It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it?
This weekend, I’ll celebrate Mother’s Day with a conflicted heart. Three days later, I’ll honor my daughter’s should-be birthday while I carry this second, healthy baby at 22 weeks. ‘Confusing’ is a tremendous understatement for this experience. But guilt… guilt is not the answer, as accessible as it may be. The turning point, as it often is for me, is to shift my gaze upward.
When I imagine my daughter in heaven, I see her vibrant, jubilant face, carefree in a place without pain or tears. I see her standing alongside my grandparents, and as beautiful as they are together, they pale in the light of my Father’s presence. In all of their faces, I see nothing but delight. They delight in my growing child, as they delight in my beautifully conflicted heart. They are full of hope and promise, because they know we will all be together again someday. The pain is a fleeting thing, they whisper. Our family will be fuller and infinitely more beautiful for it.
Ushered onward by the sight of them, I embrace the joy that this child brings, albeit with tentative steps. Nothing guarantees that my baby will live a long, healthy life on this earth. Even so, I see this baby as the gift that it is, a miraculous addition to our forever family. This baby doesn’t change the fact that I lost my sweet girl, and that’s okay. I can love them both. I can long for them to meet. I can eagerly await our epic family reunion. Until then, I will accept and care for this blessing. I will rejoice, weep, eat a bunch, and probably do it all over again tomorrow.
As I write this, I realize I’ve stumbled into a known reality of Christian life, but perhaps also a reality specific to motherhood in a broken world: this bittersweet place of ‘already but not yet’, where grief and hope collide.