There is a thing women do. To be more specific, there is a thing mothers do, and that thing is trade labor stories.
If you are a mother, you know exactly what I mean: while you were pregnant, some woman sat you down and told you that when her child was born she was in labor for a full, agonizing week, and finally she had to have a cesarean section anyway because the umbilical cord was prolapsed. When the baby was born she tried to nurse, but then her nipples cracked and bled and the baby ended up vomiting gallons of her blood he had ingested by accident. Then, to add further to the horror, that beast didn’t sleep through the night until he was EIGHTEEN YEARS OLD.
Men are rolling their eyes right now, but women know exactly what I mean. Labor stories are our war stories, and our C-section scars are battle scars. We use them to terrify and edify each other. We wear experiences like that the way some people wear their medals of valor. I went through this, and I SURVIVED it.
Furthermore, it was worth it to me because it brought my child into the world. I am a HERO. And when your baby is born, you will probably not be as big a hero as I was. This is the way women act. Sorry, new mommies, not only should you get used to it, but you should also probably accept the fact that in three years you will be doing the same thing.
Hey, I’m not judging. I do it too. I have given birth four times, and if a pregnant woman asks me if I have any advice, I say to her, “Have the epidural, girl. No one is going to give you an award for twenty-three hours of natural labor.” I honestly feel that, even though some of these stories are meant to be frightening, the vast majority of them are meant to help. To educate. To prepare. And so is this one.
I have three birth stories I tell to pregnant women. But there is another one, and I am going to tell that story today.
When I was eighteen years old I was pregnant with a little girl. It was in the very early stages of my first marriage; we were poorer than dirt and so, so young. To take care of the baby, my ex-husband joined the service. This was in late 2001, just after the World Trade Center massacre, so he was immediately shipped off to basic training.
My best friend, Mary, took me to all of my OB appointments, and even though there was no way I was prepared for motherhood I did my best. Mary’s mother made a layette with fairies on it, and Mary and I went to a used clothing store and picked out a tiny yellow dress because I was determined never to put my daughter in pink.
When I was eight months pregnant, my husband came home from boot camp and we bought a car to get us to the Air Force base where we would be stationed. While we were car-shopping I realized the baby had not moved since the morning, and I thought I felt my water break. I was 31 weeks pregnant at that time.
I called my doctor and she said to come right in, but we stopped at home so I could change my pants because they were uncomfortably wet. I regret changing my pants to this day.
I went to the doctor and they checked for any spilled fluid, but they couldn’t find any. The midwife I had decided to see did an ultrasound and said, “See? There’s the heart beating.” She seemed impatient, as if she was in a hurry to be doing something else.
I said, “But I haven’t felt her moving all day. I think something is wrong.”
She said, “You probably just need to eat. Make your next appointment out front.”
I was eighteen, and I didn’t know anything about how to make a medical practitioner pay attention to what I was saying. It was my first pregnancy, right? So I would be insanely worried but fine, right? I heard her arguing with a patient on the phone as I left. She was trying to convince a woman that just because she had a new STD her husband wasn’t necessarily having an affair. I wondered if she had left that call on hold while she saw me for five minutes and I remember thinking, wow, those people have problems.
I don’t think I ever felt the baby move again. I spent a lot of time telling myself, the midwife said it was fine. And I would feel little flutters, probably just wishful thinking, and tell myself those were kicks. We moved to New Mexico and we lived in a hotel on the base. I made an appointment with an OB, but they couldn’t see me for three weeks. I didn’t see a doctor for about a month and a half in all.
I was in a new place for the first time in my life, and I was scared and I missed my mom and my friends. I tried to tell myself it was all okay. My husband and I were together now, and we would have our baby and start a family.
People I had just met would say, “You’re really nine months along? You’re so small!” And I would take it as a thing women say to comfort one of their own.
On the day of the doctor’s appointment my husband drove me into town. On the way we passed a Goodwill and I said, “Honey, when you get paid we should go to the thrift store and buy the baby some clothes. She will be cold and it will be all our fault!” Of course he agreed.
The nurses at my new doctor’s office were very nice to me. They all said how small I looked, and I said thank you as modestly as I could.
When the doctor got in he looked at me, frowned and said, “How far along did you say you are?”
“Thirty-six weeks,” I told him. He took out his measuring tape and measured my belly, then frowned some more.
He said, “You’re measuring about thirty weeks. “
I told him how everyone always told me I looked small but I had been under medical care for the majority of my pregnancy and I knew I had my dates right.
He took out his little Doppler listening device and placed it where a baby should be if she was about to be born. He frowned some more and moved the machine somewhere else. Then again. Finally he said. “I can’t find a heartbeat.”
I guess my brain wouldn’t register his words, because I just thought that meant he couldn’t find one. Maybe there was something wrong with the machine. Maybe there was something wrong with him. When they led me to another room and prepared me for an ultrasound I still wasn’t worried.
He looked a long time and finally said, “There isn’t a heartbeat. I still can’t find a heartbeat.”
I don’t remember what I felt right then. I think nothing. I remember saying, “Wait, is the baby even alive?”
And he said, “I don’t think so.”
I still had to have a labor, he explained. If they did a C-section it could complicate future pregnancies. He gave me a ton of prescriptions and told me to come back to the hospital the next morning.
We didn’t know where anything was, so we filled the prescriptions at the Wal-Mart pharmacy because we knew there was always a pharmacy in a Wal-Mart. I called my mother and her husband told me she was at work. I told him it was an emergency, she couldn’t call me back after work, it had to be right then. So while we were still waiting at the pharmacy she called back and I told her what had happened, sobbing all the while. People nearby gave me furtive, horrified looks.
My husband looked lost, like a child that had been abandoned on the side of a highway with no way to get home and no one who wanted him there anyway. I had nothing to spare for him. I was so stunned I couldn’t yet be heartbroken, like that moment right between when you burn your hand and when the pain finally gets to your nerve endings. I cried, but more from the surprise than anything else.
We stopped for lunch because we didn’t know what else to do. Food had to be eaten, right? It was lunch time and people without dead children eat food, so we should pretend to be people like that. The waitress was very nice and we didn’t tell her anything.
Mary called me while I was in the parking lot, sobbing. I hadn’t said anything to her all day so I thought she’d had a fight with her boyfriend. She promised she was coming, and I had nothing to spare for her, either.
When I got home there was a lady who worked at billeting that I had spoken to regularly standing on the sidewalk. She was from the Philippines, and married to some retired officer. She had a kind face, wrinkled with laugh lines, and she was possessed of a truly adorable accent. We had often talked about babies and housekeeping and things she knew that she wanted to teach me. She smiled and asked how my appointment had gone, how the baby was doing. I told her the baby was dead and I would have to go in the next day to deliver her. I remember the way the woman’s face fell.
I stopped crying some time during lunch and I just spent all night blank. People came, and I felt nothing about that. I was dimly aware that Mary and my mother had a fight; in retrospect I think it was about who had more right to grieve.
I was also dimly aware that it was snowing in the mountains, and my husband’s family might not be able to make it through Raton Pass. They did come eventually. I suddenly had a hotel suite full of people. The next morning the whole troupe of use went to the hospital at dawn and they induced my labor. I refused an epidural because I was afraid of needles.
We played cards, my husband and Mary and her boyfriend, and the nurses came in to check on me periodically, asking if I hurt. For a long time there was no pain. Finally it did start to hurt and I asked for ibuprofen. The nurse said it wouldn’t help and asked again if I wanted an epidural. I told her I didn’t. Instead she put something in my IV that got me very, very high.
For a long time I couldn’t remember anything from that day. It has come back to me a piece at a time. My mother-in-law had brought a friend from her church, and I remember the woman combing my hair. I remember that my sister-in-law told Mary she had to leave as things started to get hairy, and I said, “No, I like her, I want her to stay.”
I remember crying at one point, and my mother asking me if it hurt. I said, “No. Well yes. But no.”
She said. “Just sad, huh?” and I nodded and cried harder.
My mother held my hand then and I drifted through my medicated high. When it was finally time for the baby to be born, sometime around three in the morning, my doctor walked in with his hair mussed and I snapped, “What, were you asleep?” and he quipped, “No, I was just sitting down to dinner.” Of course he was asleep, I realized. It was three in the morning, and this was not his tragedy.
I held my baby and I thought she was beautiful. Her eyes were brown, like mine. Her hair was blonde like her father’s. Her fingers had tiny little nails at their tips and her legs were so long, as if she would have been tall if she had survived to grow up. She had ten fingers and ten toes and no heartbeat.
She was the first newborn I had ever held. Babies that age are little more than potential and soft mouths seeking a nursing breast, but she was not even that. She was tiny and cold in a way no baby should ever be. We named her Sonja. We did not get a birth certificate, but we did get a death certificate. That is the way it is with a stillbirth, at least in the state of New Mexico.
I remember telling her as I held her,” I’m sorry, baby. I wish I could take you home with me.”
I could go on and on. I could talk about how my breasts filled with milk for a baby that wasn’t there, or what it felt like to choose that tiny marble urn. I could talk about bargaining with God, and promising that I would gladly die if he would just bring her back to life. I could talk about staying in my house for eight months, too unable to deal with anyone to go outside, or I could talk about the slow collapse of a marriage that never recovered.
But that is a very long story. Ten years long, in fact, and still being told. I never work on March 2. I write her long letters about how I wish I could teach her to put on make-up and shave her legs, about how I would do anything for one fight about her homework. But regrets get old after a while, and sometimes you just take them out to polish them a little before you put them back up in their worn mental spot.
I suppose what I have learned through all of this is that I will never get over it. People want me to. They want my three beautiful children to be a happy ending. But there will always be a hole in my heart that will never be filled up. It’s a Sonja shaped hole, and there is no person who has exactly her shape.
I have come to understand that I can be very happy, with a loving husband and a nice home and children who get funnier and more lovely with every passing day, but there is always part of me that will be sad. And that’s okay. I can’t really expect myself or anyone else to get over it. It has taken a long time to forgive myself for my grief, for making the people around me uncomfortable. I am still working on it.
So I guess my advice for mothers like I was is this: Let yourself be sad. You have to. There is no way around grief, because it is too deep and too wide. There is only through it. And if you love someone who is living with a loss, my advice to you is this: Hug them. You will feel awkward, but try. You will want to say something, but there’s nothing you can say that will help. The only thing you can do is offer your love, and understand they will cry every day until they can manage to stop.
It is not your job to cheer them up. It is not your job to shame them until they take a shower and pretend they are okay. It is your job to love them until they can function again.
Love each other. Remember that we are not alone.