The following piece was supposed to be submitted to an anthology that will be titled “Mothering Through the Darkness.” The stories it will contain when it comes out will center around mental disorders during and after giving birth and especially postpartum depression. This was difficult for me to write, and despite sitting down to work on it periodically, I missed the deadline. I chose to finish it though because I felt that it has been an important part of healing and a testament to what my daughter has done for me.
Putting grief into words is futile, and trying to do so would bankrupt the vocabulary of all languages. -Mark Twain, on the loss of his daughter Suzie
Some have told me that I am not a mother, and those who have no experience with miscarriage or infant loss might genuinely ask how one can “mother through the darkness” with no child to care for. The truth is both simple and complicated. It is simple because all of my love, preparations and instincts to care for my little one didn’t go away when she died. It’s complicated because I can never explain to you the dualities that I live with now.
On April 19 at 12:04am, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She was 2lbs 13oz and 15 ½ inches long. I was only 32 weeks along, but my labor was induced because I had become a severe pre-eclamptic and my doctor was afraid for my life. I’d spent almost a week in the hospital before the actual delivery, twiddling my thumbs while the nurses pumped me full of medicines that often conflicted with each other and had unpleasant side effects. After my water was forcibly broken, more than 24 hours into the highest level of pitocin my nurse was comfortable giving me, I watched my daughter’s heartbeat move in time with my contractions. I remember one of the nurses telling me that Eevee was doing remarkably well given everything they were putting us both through. And I was so damned proud. That was my girl.
She was born at 12:04am and at 12:47am she died. I held her for only a moment, after the neonatal doctor had given up trying to help her breathe. She wiggled a little, and now I think about how much she suffered, trying to get air into lungs that were too underdeveloped. I think about how terrified she must have been and how I, the one person in the world who should have been her fiercest protector, was too far gone with drugs and exhaustion to soothe her, to make everything better, or even to be with her when all of that fear ended.
Nobody talks about how much guilt there is in grief, or how (as if your dead infant isn’t bad enough) you’re going to do yourself even more harm with the mind games, and there’s not much you can do about it. You’re going to feel like her dying was your fault even though you’ll be told over and over that it isn’t. She was growing inside you; who else’s fault could it be that she didn’t develop correctly? You’re going to hate yourself for living, especially the day you put her in the ground. You’re going to hate your body for failing you, and then you’re going to blame yourself for not giving yourself and that baby what was needed to live. These are all things I wish someone had told me. But grief, like depression, is a path you begin walking alone, before you realize where you are and that you need help.
Depression – postpartum depression, if that’s what it was; not that I knew one way or another – was not something I had dealt with before my daughter’s birth and death. The handful of times in my twenty-four years that my life had not been the way I wanted it to be had failed to prepare me for the totality of this new-found devastation. When you lose an infant all you have is your grief, but unless you are that grieving mother, the significant other of that grieving mother or one of the people who prove strong enough to still be a friend, there’s no concept of just how mentally damaging it is to both deal with a loss and depression all at once. The only way to understand is to endure, and having endured all would give anything to go back.
I was never diagnosed with any mental disorders, nor was it recommended to me that I seek any kind of help. I left the hospital with a handful of different drugs to address physical concerns and instructions to call my OB for a postpartum appointment in six weeks. My exiting of intensive medical care was cold and clinical, despite the heartfelt sadness many of my nurses held for us. When they released me to go home, I was wheeled downstairs holding my little memorial box, the shirt she’d worn and the blanket she’d been wrapped in, instead of my infant. In all honesty, I don’t know that l would have accepted anyone trying to diagnose or treat me for anything other than what pertained to my physical recovery. Even then there was a part of me that was thinking about trying again, about how I didn’t want to give anyone any reason to try and take away the healthy baby I knew my second child would be. And I feel guilty for admitting that; even before I laid my first to rest, I had thoughts about the second.
The further into grief you get, the more commonplace those dualities I mentioned earlier start to become. I am a mom without a baby. I am broken inside but still breathing. I have an unfinished nursery. I think about which picture to bring for family portraits. I both seek kind words from others and am insanely frustrated when given advice from someone who has never lost a child. Birth announcements make me cry. I drive with the windows down, the music up and feel guilty for being able to do both. During every conversation I have now, when problems are discussed and obstacles overcome, I think, “But my baby is dead. Nothing going on in your life can be worse than that.” And even though I burn to say that, to both give some perspective to others and to relieve my aching heart, I never do. So I always have this mirror conversation that gets stored away in my little box of pain. Unheard and unanswered.
I could write more words than this keyboard could handle about what is it to be a baby loss survivor, and still those who have not been there will not truly grasp it. A blank page might serve better. The thing about grief though, is that even though it never goes away, it changes. It’s a journey, not a place to stay, and the same can be said for any of life’s hardships. When you start looking at your grief, your depression, your doubt, your insecurities as places to move through, your understanding of them changes. Yes, things are hard now. Yes, you want to give up, and it’s okay if some days all you do is breathe. But the knowledge that everything comes to some kind of end can be freeing in such a dark space. You just have to be ready for it, and getting to that point is hard because no one can help you with that.
For myself, realizing how long I had been bogged down with depression, that unwillingness to live and unwillingness to change, was what made me realize that I had reached a turning point. When you wake up one morning and realize that you can’t remember the past six months, but you want to actually do something today, that’s your soul speaking. So I listened.
I got up that day, took a shower and went to my computer. I started cleaning out my email and looking through the stories that had been left unfinished. I fixed a sandwich for lunch, made some sweet tea and cleaned the house a little. None of these things were all that impressive, but it was monumental because it was the first time since April 19th that I decided I wanted – needed – to do them.
Getting back on the bandwagon of life was hard, but harder still was keeping it up. Giving up is your default setting in the early stages of grieving, and the smallest things can have the largest setbacks. There was more than one day that contained a hill that was a little too steep, an interaction I was unwilling to have, or just started out wrong and I went back to only breathing. Sitting, breathing. Crying, stopping, then crying again. Then breathing, just breathing.
The times when I felt crappy and didn’t care but still needed to be doing something usually resulted in eating. Food has always been one my coping mechanisms, and I frequently ate things that were horrible for me because I felt justified – I’m having a horrible day and my baby is dead; I’m going to eat whatever the hell I want. And really there isn’t a better reason to eat half a bag of Hershey’s Kisses. Almost as scary as the gluttonous times though were the ones when I couldn’t eat anything at all and would sometimes go a couple of days without food. These two opposites came and went without reason. It took months, continual self-will and the scale giving me numbers I didn’t like to get my food habits back under control. And even now, I still have bad weeks.
By the time I felt capable of functioning on a daily basis without having a breakdown, I’d been out of the workforce for around a year. I’d left the previous year in another bid to move back home. Instead of finding a job in my home state like I’d planned on, I found myself caring for my gravely ill father-in-law for a couple of months. Shortly before he passed away, I discovered I was pregnant and my all day morning sickness set in. So even once I was free to return to my original plan, I was too sick to even get off the couch.
Trying to find a job proved an interesting challenge. I’m a young, able-bodied gal – prospective employers always wanted an explanation for my absence. And explaining was difficult. Part of me wanted to be upfront with what I had been through, because there would likely be days when I simply did not feel up to working and I needed my supervisor and co-workers to understand. But divulging such personal tragedy seemed unprofessional and I felt guilty for knowing I lacked the ability to compartmentalize my life. In the handful of interviews I had, I hedged the question and filled the gap with a part-lie – I’ve taken some time away from the professional world to focus on my writing and taking care of myself and ailing family members. It seemed to work in most cases, if I stayed vague with the timeline. I still remember one woman asking me if I had any kids that needed to be considered in scheduling and I said “No,” without a second thought. I went quiet and must have gotten a funny expression on my face because she gave me a quizzical look. But I couldn’t have explained it even if I’d wanted to. How do you reconcile wanting to get a job on your own merits and acknowledging the trauma you’re still desperately trying to heal from?
When it became apparent – after four or five interviews – that I wasn’t going to slide easily back into the workforce, I decided that I needed to shift focus. I was still job hunting, but I spent most of my time looking at and trying to better the other roles that defined me. I had a tendency to think of myself only as a bereaved mother and it wasn’t until my husband told me that I’m so much more that I realized how narrow my self-understanding had become. I am a bereaved mother, yes. But I’m also a wife, an accidental homemaker, a writer, an animal lover and countless other things. It took me several days of contemplation to realize how much I had neglected the other parts of my life.
You hear it over and over, and not just in terms of loss and grief: do things at your own pace. You’ll know when you’re ready. It’s true though, it’s just that you don’t know what it means until you come to it. There’s no number of tips, lists or ideas that will help until that magical thing clicks into place inside you. I decided to revision myself and once that decision was made, the first steps moving through my grief journey were laid out in front of me. A grief journey is like building a house. You can’t just redecorate, you have to rebuild from the foundation up.
I am still grieving, and more often than not take two steps back for every one step forward. But isn’t that was mothering is all about? Rolling with the punches and making headway with life even when you feel like you aren’t? Because, like it or not, time and life both march on and you have to as well. Moving forward doesn’t mean forgetting that baby that made me a mother. It just means carrying on in a way that would make her proud to call me mama.