A Stillbirth Story

Rowan was due on Aiden’s birthday.  I always loved and hated that.  It seemed so perfect that they would be almost exactly 4 years apart, no matter what.  I could also picture inevitably angsty teenage boys shouting “no one ever thinks about ME!!” and slamming doors during birthday week.  We intentionally planned Aiden’s birthday party a couple of weeks early to hopefully avoid the chance of my being in labor at that time.

Ironically, I spent Aiden’s early birthday party and the next couple of days in “prodromal labor”, which we intermittently thought might be the real deal.  Aiden’s birthday/Rowan’s due date came without incident, and we settled in to the notion that we’d have another late baby, and that the boys birthdays would hopefully be separated by a few days.

I was having regular midwife visits during this time – every 2 days once my due date had passed.  Rowan had always measured small, and once 41 weeks passed, there was some questioning of dates, even though I was very sure of conception timing.  From about 40 weeks on I was doing all of the natural, at home things to get labor going, but my midwife wanted me to be really gentle.  She said that some babies just need longer to “cook”.  We made plans for an induction at 42 weeks if things still had not happened on their own.

My mother and I had been going back and forth every day as to when she should come – we wanted her to be there for the birth, but also wanted her to be able to stay for as long as possible afterwards, and not waste time before Rowan was born.  She lives in Northern Canada so it would be hard to get the timing right.  At 41+4 (days) she came because we knew that it wouldn’t be much longer one way or the other.

On the morning of 41+5, I had what I hoped would be my final midwife appt.  I had been having contractions in the night, and they were mild but it felt right.  My mother came with me, and we toured the birth center together.  She and my midwife had an immediate love and respect for each other – they both knew how important the other would be to me in this experience.  Rowan’s heartbeat was strong and steady like usual.  All was well.  I was just barely dilated but my midwife agreed with me that we would be seeing each other soon.  She swept my membranes to help get things going since we would be looking at an induction in a couple of days anyways, which I really wanted to avoid.

We went home and walked around the neighborhood the rest of the morning, talking about birth and babies as my contractions slowly picked up.  Already this was so different than with Aiden – my contractions were hot and heavy with him from the beginning, and very ineffective.  We went to a favorite nearby lunch spot with Laura, who was visiting from Portland (we lived in the Bay Area briefly).  She was a labor and delivery nurse at the time and had been a doula for many years, and one of my closest friends – she wanted to know every detail and planned to come back from the coast house they were vacationing at as soon as Rowan was born.  I could tell she wanted to just stay.  I wish I had told her to.

We walked to pick Aiden up from school, and by the end of the afternoon, I knew it was time for Chase’s parents to come and get him.  I wanted him to be around me in labor for as long as possible, but I also really wanted to avoid a middle of the night transition, or him waking up to us gone, so felt it was best for them to take him before bedtime so that he knew what was going on.  He was stoked to go to Gramma and Bompa’s.

Chase, like he had done when Aiden was born, had made music playlists for labor.  One was called “Labor Up”, and one was called “Labor Down”.  The first contained more upbeat, trance-like music that was energetic and contagious for early on when I was still conversational, active and alert.  The second was a lot more mellow and perfect for the long moany moments that took over as the night went on.  Many of these songs have become part of my visceral, almost physical memories of Rowan’s birth.

By 10:00 I was feeling like my body had really taken over.  Chase was in communication with my midwife and doula, who were beginning to prepare for us to come to the birth center.   Around midnight I gave the signal that it was time to go.  For me the decision was based on not feeling like I could be in the car in any more discomfort than I was currently in.  Even so, I felt peaceful and strong, and sensed that things were progressing quickly.

The car ride was short but intense, and I remember such relief when we arrived.  So much anticipation – it just felt like everything was so different than with Aiden’s birth.  We moved our stuff into the birth center and got “comfortable”.  My contractions were coming fast and strong and I was leaning against a tall wingback chair in the room.  It was a few minutes before I could get into the bed so Sara, my midwife, could check on Rowan.

Those first seconds felt normal – like the way it always take them a moment to find the right position, the right angle.  Then you hear the heartbeat, just after yours skips a beat.  Then it felt not normal, but like a joke – “haha, gotcha!”.  Then it felt like something was wrong, but surely not with our baby – the equipment, the gel, the technique.  Sara did an internal check – “scalp stim” – and thought she might have felt movement.  Everything was going to be ok, we just knew it.  We’d heard his heartbeat that very morning, strong as ever.  She checked with the doppler one more time, and then everything changed – her demeanor from focused and concerned to urgent and insistent.  We are leaving NOW.  It doesn’t matter that you can’t move during this contraction – MOVE ANYWAYS.  Chase, RUN and get the car.  He dashed off, confused and disoriented.  He says he’ll never forget that run to the car.  He’d had to park so far away.

We had nothing to do but make our way down the stairs to wait for Chase.  It was seconds, maybe minutes, but felt like hours.  I had a contraction right as they opened the car door for me, and couldn’t really move for a moment.  I remember Sara pushing me into the car, almost slamming the door behind me.  I was way too deep in my lizard brain to even be able to compute how my action or inaction would have an impact on what was happening to us.

We drove literally a few blocks to the nearest hospital.  Not the hospital we were supposed to go to in an emergency, or where I would have been going for an induction in two more days.  The closest, ghetto-est hospital.  The lights were so bright, the opposite of my home and the birth center.  We still had hope, like a strobe light, strong then gone – everything was going to be fine.  I don’t remember how we got to triage; don’t remember if it were the first room to the right of the entrance or on the eleventh floor.  Actually, my memory of the hospital is like that of a being in a daze or drug-induced state – I mostly remember lights and blurry faces.  I can’t remember how I got from room to room or where they were in relation to each other (and trust me, I can usually draw the floor plan of any building I’ve been in).

In triage they couldn’t get the ultrasound to work.  This is what we felt we had come here for – hoping against hope that it was an equipment failure, that the doppler at the birth center had been broken or weak.  The machine doesn’t work?  Chase says there was a piece of paper taped to it that said “DOESN’T WORK”.  They kept trying anyways.  They had the busy, urgent air of medical professionals accustomed to emergency, but no notable connection to what was happening to us.  At one point, someone asked someone else to go to the 4th floor to get another ultrasound machine, to which that someone responded bluntly: “I don’t want to go to the 4th floor!”.  I’m assuming she or another person did comply and go to the 4th floor, since another ultrasound machine eventually surfaced.  In the meantime, they tried putting an internal monitor in, which required breaking my waters.  The internal monitor didn’t seem to be working, and from the commentary of the staff, it seemed to be equipment failure, not that there was no heartbeat.

This continuous comedy of errors only served to bolster our blind hope that THIS IS ALL JUST A CRUEL JOKE ROWAN IS FINE I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING AND I’M SO MAD BUT WON’T IT BE AMAZING WHEN THIS IS ALL OVER.

All of this was a blur, happening both instantly and over a lifetime.  I have no frame of reference for the actual passage of time.  When so-and-so got back from the 4th floor with the replacement ultrasound machine, the strobe-hope flickered one last time then died.  I never really saw the image on the screen, just felt Chase grip my hand, my mom my leg, and heard the doctor’s words: “I’m so sorry.  There is no heartbeat”.

Those still seem like strange words, although clinically and technically probably the simplest.  I remember leaning over the wall in my mind, seeing the darkness and knowing that I could jump and not come back.  Chase would say he saw me there too.

Then I screamed.  My mother was praying for him to come back to life.  She put her hands on my belly, praying and crying fervently, desperately.

And my labor stopped, right then.  They say that a strange doctor walking into a hospital room can slow a laboring woman’s progress, even reverse it.  I know how this is true, how much our minds and our surroundings impact our bodies and their work.  After, my body would take months to heal from the most minor of physical birth trauma.

There was now no “emergency” – although we still faced the denial stage of grief, insisting that maybe it wasn’t too late, let’s just do a c-section right away and hope for the best!  On some level, even our midwife still hoped…. I remember her asking them to check for his heartbeat again.

From there, we moved quickly to wanting a c-section just to have it all be over.  I had stepped back a little from the brink, but all I could think at this point was how I did not have the strength to push out a dead baby.  The doctor and our midwife were both strongly advocating for delivery over c-section.  They didn’t feel that I needed a c-section recovery on top of losing a baby.  Sara, our midwife, also knew that this would be what I would have wanted for Rowan’s birth, even if I didn’t have the strength to see it right then.

My labor was still almost completely stalled – I was barely having contractions, and they were weak.  Both the doctor and Sara were very honest with us that stillbirth delivery is usually a very long, slow process.  If I decided to go ahead with delivery, we could expect it to take a couple of days.  Both the physical impact of grief and of a lifeless baby that is not participating in the birth process are big factors.

The story changed suddenly in me – this was always how Rowan was supposed to come into the world.  He was always going to redeem birth for me.  He was always going to erase my fear that my body didn’t know how to do what it was made to do.  He was just going to do it way differently than we knew.

He deserved the same struggle and suffering that brought his brother into the world.  And it felt like the only way I could really have another son, to really call him that.  I didn’t know how else he would feel real to me, part of me.  If they cut him out of me, I would give him to them.  If I gave birth, I would give me to him.

I stood up.  The blood ran slick and heavy down my leg and pooled at my feet, and it’s one of the only other visual memories I have from the experience.  Rowan now felt heavy inside of me.  In retrospect, I could then remember how in the early evening, during labor, I had laid back on the couch in between contractions.  The way his body had fallen to one side had felt heavy, unnatural.  Like he wasn’t resisting the motion of my body.  I don’t remember feeling him move or kick during those hours, but I wasn’t thinking about that.  It wasn’t even a detail until later.  Now, my physical memory of how he felt inside of me during this time is exactly that of a rock.  Slightly jagged, and rough all around.  It scrapes me when I move, heaves lifelessly from one side to the other.  Sometimes I feel it at night and think I also feel blood or water dripping down my leg.

A little earlier, they had told me that I was 3 cm dilated, which had been discouraging.  It took me days of active labor to get from 3 cm to 10 cm with Aiden, and the odds seemed even more against me this time.

Despite this fact, my strength and confidence in deciding to deliver Rowan came entirely from a feeling of connection to him, and of how important to us it would be for him to come to us that way.  We knew we could be in for a rough time, but I wasn’t afraid at that moment.  and we were aware that I would need to be induced if labor didn’t pick back up on it’s own in fairly short order.

Within minutes of standing, however, contractions resumed almost as if they hadn’t stopped.  I was transported to a labor and delivery room and was deep in the throes of it again.  This was around 1:30am from what I can tell.

5 hours later, Rowan was born.  What happened between 1:30 and 6:25 is nothing short of a miracle.  Those were the longest and shortest hours of my life.  I felt like a child, so in awe of the power that was moving my body.  There was inevitable anticipation, coupled with the dread of what it would be like to see him.  Maybe everything will still be fine?  Maybe he will shudder then cry, it will be a miracle, everyone will be in shock.

Everyone took turns holding, bolstering, supporting me during contractions.  I progressed so quickly.  My body knew exactly what it was doing.  All of the staff couldn’t believe this was almost over.   Even so, I had the late-transition moment of “I cannot do thisssssssss……..” and it hit me like a wall as I realized that somehow for hours I had been laboring as if it would bring a warm, breathing son to my arms, and what was it all for?

I missed him already.  He was going to change everything.

Sara looked into my eyes and said “you CAN.  you ARE”.  I cannot do this.  You can.  You are.  I remember locking eyes with her like I would with Chase during both of my births and finding something there that I could grip.

She used to be a nurse midwife before starting her own practice, and had worked for many years at this very hospital.  The entire staff knew and respected her, and for the most part, she was allowed to take the primary role in my labor and delivery.  Without her it would have been a very different experience, I am sure.  Without her I think the lights and the smells and the horror of why we were even in the hospital would have taken over and written a very different story.  But she brought peace and a beautiful tie to the way we had planned for Rowan to come.

I’ve never felt more like a child than when I was pushing – with each push I would scan the circle of eyes desperately, looking for confirmation that this was going to work, going to happen.  The emptiness of what I was doing would wash over me in between surges, replaced over and over again by power and elation.  I have experienced the pushing stage of both of my births as the most powerful, empowering moments of my life.  There is nothing like being completely overcome by life’s most primal and important urge, and having no ability to resist it.  It overrides pain and reason, even fear.

Rowan slowly crowned, and it felt like it took forever.  Each push brought the tiniest amount of progress, but I took so much comfort in the little sounds of encouragement from the doctor and Sara.  They had this way of making each bit of movement seem monumental – and like I was the first woman who had ever made such amazing progress.

Then he burst out of me, with the same ripping, heavy feeling I remember from Aiden, and I wanted him just as much.  They put his rubbery, slick body on my chest, and I wailed.  Where did he have to go?  Didn’t he know that he belonged with us?

I didn’t want to let him go.  It’s amazing how quickly you have to start making decisions, advocating for yourself.  They wanted to take him to another room to clean him.  Clean him for what?  Can’t you people just go away?  After a while, we did let them clean him, but insisted that the nurse do it right next to my bed.

The morning shift nurse was a mousy woman who saw fit to immediately tell us about having lost a baby herself 20 years ago.  Under different circumstances, different timing, we could have connected.  She launched into a pithy 10 minute sermon about how this will all turn out for the best and someday you’ll be able to help other people, “like me”.  She meant well.  After a while I interrupted her and asked if I could have my baby back.

We held him all morning, flinching as various hospital staff had to come into the room and do the necessary things.  We tried to ignore them, tried to just make our own little world with Rowan.  Chase, my mom, Sara, Rowan and I.  We’re the only ones who will ever really know.  Remember.  I wish more people could have seen him, held him.  He deserves to be remembered like that.

He was perfect.  I don’t remember ever wondering if he would be deformed except for in a split second right as he came onto my chest.  His forehead bones were overlapped from the birth canal and didn’t ease back into place because rigor mortis was setting in.  He looked a little like an alien, but also perfectly human.  He was slowly turning blue, and his lips were the bluest.  I kept kissing them.  His fingers were so long, and I could still slip mine between his.  His skin was cold but soft, and he still felt like a baby.  I mostly wish I could have seen his eyes.

I’ve written about it elsewhere, but one of the hardest decisions was how to separate from him when the time came.  We wanted to go home so badly.  Being there was like staring at a new wound under cold, hard light – it looks purple, sick (I don’t mean Rowan).  We longed for the soft, dim light of home where the edges would look a little less angry and we could comfort each other and hope for healing.

We decided to wrap him up and leave him on the bed.  Walking away from him was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I kept going back.  Chase was so strong.

Then the car pulls up and you have to get into it and drive home in the sunlight that you didn’t know about and think about how you’re going to make the kinds of choices that mean you’ll be doing ok in a few weeks or months or years.

He was born on our midwife’s birthday.  We had forgotten that it was her birthday until she was holding him shortly before we all left the hospital, and whispering softly to him about how they will always share a birthday and she will always remember him.  Last night, on the eve of his first birthday, she wrote me and shared that she still holds space for Rowan and his story.

During the weeks after his birth, she told me that Rowan was going to change our family, and he still had – just not the way we expected.  And it’s true, we’ve been changed and for the better.

But that’s a different story.  This is the story of Rowan’s birth.

Guest Interview with Mellisa on "In Her Voice" - The Wisdom of Womanhood

This week Mellisa had the honor of being on the In Her Voice podcast with Kelly Covert, and we're so excited to share this conversation with you all!  They get real on the wisdom of womanhood, listening to your inner voice, and believing that your (and your childs) needs are legitimate.  

 

Here are a few highlights:

  • Finding the willingness to become who you want to be.

  • How a loss can be the catalyst to pull yourself into a new place of being.

  • How Mellisa's son helped her begin to listen to her inner voice.

  • Learning to distinguish the difference between what we know in our head vs. what we know in our hearts and bodies.

  • Understanding that if what we are doing isn't working, we can choose to change it without risking anything.

  • Understanding that our own needs are legitimate and learning how to take care of them.


Kelly has this way of putting anyone at ease and bringing out their richest wisdom.  You can also hear her on our Motherbirth episode this week - Discovering Your Worthiness.  

When Birth Doesn't Go As Planned

“I WANT YOU TO PICK YOUR SIX FAVORITE COLORS FROM THESE CRAYONS, AND DRAW THE SCENE OF YOUR IDEAL BIRTH.”

Oh, shit.  I am not visual or artistic.  This is going to be hard… she continues:

“You can use images, stick figures, symbols – don’t worry about it being a piece of art.”

The instructor smiles knowingly while everyone in the room glances around, slightly panicked.

I’m sitting in a room of 15 women. It’s our 5th week of doula training. We are here to learn how we can best support women during the biggest transition of their lives.

We take our time picking our six favorite crayons, latching onto the one piece of direction we have.  Having the perfect colors seems like the best chance of success at something so elusive.  By the time the crayons get to me, there aren’t many options left, but I’ve made peace with the fact that this isn’t going to come out very well.

Less than a minute after we begin, just when most of us are starting to feel a little direction, “now, take your three favorite colors of the six.  Set them aside.  And keep going”.  I had only liked 3 of my colors to start with.  I am left with brown: red: orange.

I keep going, unsettled, but something begins to well up.  I had seen water.  Now, I see rain; it belongs too. February is full of rain.

And then, what feels like seconds later, the instructor’s voice over the music – “now, take your paper and turn it sideways.  And keep going.”

It is not hard to maintain the vision that has been forming.  I know this is no piece of art but it has a little life of it’s own.  Startled, I realize that the images finding their way through my unskilled and intentionally limited hands represent my family.

And finally, “I want you to switch to your non-dominant hand.”  This is the final straw for many, and for me too.  I struggle to create fluid lines, already impaired by the sideways view.  Yet, I know what the final touches need to be.

It is all here, they are all here; my whole family, all of my babies, everyone I want to feel present with me at my birth, in this silly chicken scratch crayon drawing… and now I’m struggling to keep it together in a room of near strangers.

The instructor tells us we are done.  She asks about the experience, and specifically if there is anything that came out visually that surprised us.  A week or two before, we had written a description of our ideal birth.  This exercise clearly accesses a different part of us – many express that there is some person, some element, some feeling present on paper that we did not know should be there.  For me, it is Rowan.  I realize that he will have a voice in this next birth, a place we make for him.  I look at the childish drawing in front of me and I see so much fullness and completion, despite the missing parts.

The central goal of this exercise is to get us thinking about how our dreams and wishes for birth are important and valid and yet sometimes things change; sometimes things are taken away.  As we share and reflect on our drawings, it is evident that even with seemingly crippling limitation or loss, we can still create, we can still dream, we can still be present.  We can still go on.

We talk about how we can support women in creating these beautiful, empowering images of what they see for their bodies and their babies, and yet be able to hold these with open hands.  And, as I am experiencing, focusing less on the details and more on the feelings that really come down to support and presence anyways.


The last time I had a birth plan, it looked a lot different.  Far from an exploration or depiction of what I envisioned birth feeling like, it was a list; of all the interventions I wasn’t going to allow and the perfect sequence of events that would mean the perfect birth. That birth, my first, was long and difficult – a series of stalls and interventions that left me exhausted and overwhelmed, and horrified at the deviations from my plan.  In the end, I pushed him out, despite my doctor’s warning that “if you don’t get this baby out we’re going to have to pull him back up and cut him out” (reverse psychology?).  Even with this apparent victory, there was no peace or accomplishment in his birth – just exhaustion, manipulation, and in the months that followed, achy sadness.

I had been really set on my three favorite colors, and when they were taken, I did go on.  But I never found any peace or joy in what was left to me.  Even though I would have been lost without the amazing support of my husband and mother, these were not the focus of my experience.  Most of the things on my list didn’t go as planned, and I felt like a failure.

When I got pregnant with Rowan, I instinctively knew I wanted things to be different.  I had no formal birth “plan” this time – just a lot of dreams and conversations adding up to hope that my body could do this better, more easily.  Somehow, even with the lingering, primitive fears I carried from my first birth, this one was was different from the start.  I could feel the progress of my body immediately, knew that it was responsive and true.  I had the benefit of having been through this before, but in a way I had distrusted my body so completely the first time that I felt like I had to learn completely from scratch.  This time the words of my mother and my midwife and Ina May and all of the others were inside of me and they knew I could do this and so did I.

And then he was gone.

He was more than just my favorite colors.  I didn’t know if I could go on.

I sometimes struggle to talk about my birth with Rowan because it’s hard to explain how something so painful could be so peaceful.  This is how I know the point of the drawing exercise to be true – my people came around me in the most incredible way and they carried me up and into and through the most healing experience of my life.  Rowan gave me the gift of coming so peacefully that I cannot remember him any other way.  He was not angry or lost.  My body did not fight him.  He also gave me this gift – of believing in my body again.

Birth doesn’t always go like we plan.

I still think a lot about how I want my next birth to be.  It’s what I do, it’s how I am.  It’s what I help other women do.  But this exercise has shown me the power of focusing not so much on a sequence of details but instead on discovering the elements that will make me feel the most supported and strong.  I am inspired to help mothers create empowering images of birth that can be fluid and adaptable and lifegiving.

When birth doesn’t go as planned, we become afraid, or angry, or overwhelmed.  So much feels at stake, beyond the obvious “healthy mom and healthy baby”, and for good reason – our culture first cuts us off from our intuition and wisdom, the gifts we were given as women, and then, demands we have to live up to a standard of perfection in everything we do.  Dreams crystallize into something rigid and idealistic… and when things don’t go like they’re supposed to we have a lot to lose.

If we let go of our tight hold on all these plans and expectations and what they mean to us, we make room for birth to be what it needs to be, and room for us to find who we are as well.

You should try it.  Draw your birth (or your marriage, or your graduation).  Take away your favorite things, limit yourself, change the perspective.  See what new direction meanders through your fingers; what really lies beneath your desire.  See who is there with you, and how they make you feel.  See how you have the strength to go on.


*This exercise was part of the Labor Doula Certification offered by Birthingway College of Midwifery in Portland, OR, taught by instructor Raeben Nolan.  The thoughts shared here are my own personal reflections.

From The Beginning (Trying Again After Stillbirth)

You will build and tear down and rebuild a million times before you decide to have another child after stillbirth.  Most of this constant construction will go unnoticed – you are strong, resilient, brave.

You will be so many different women, so many different mothers… to yourself, to your family, to the world.

You will be like a child yourself; so unsure one moment, so free the next.  Dreams will turn ashen then kaleidoscopic then back again.

You will question your body – can it support you through the sacred duty of carrying another child to fullness, through bending again to bring that child into light?  You will ask darker questions of it too – can it nourish what it once neglected?

You will question your mind – can it endure the pain and risk of offering yourself so completely to another being that may drift from your reach while you sleep, while you labor, while you give?  Can it ever be whole again?

You will question God, life itself, your partner, your decisions.  You’ll be sure you did something to deserve what happened and will obsess about all of the reasons why.

You will snap and crack, you will be crushed by heaviness some days.

But one day, you will also see the future – and it will surprise you.  You will see your body, strong and womanly, like a prayer.  You will see your partner, free to dream their own dreams for your family.  And you will see another child, finally invited into the circle that is no longer cold and brittle along it’s edges.

You will drift and slip between these moments, sometimes fearing, sometimes dreaming, but always building.

YOU WILL LEARN AGAIN THAT YOUR BODY IS A GIFT THAT WAS GIVEN BUT IT IS ALSO A GIVER.  YOU WILL LOVE IT AND GIVE TO IT AND TELL IT THAT YOU WILL ALLOW IT TO GIVE AGAIN TOO.

And it will, in it’s own time.