I have not publicly shared my birth story of Baby Joy with most of my friends and family because I didn’t want them to think of her differently. It is not a pretty story and I didn’t want their discomfort with my pain to diminish the joy that I also felt in finding my strength to survive it. October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month and will forever be the month that I am even more aware of all of the heartbreak in this world. My personal heartbreak led me on a path of discovering how to offer hope in times of despair. Every loss that I am able to offer support through makes me feel more at peace with my own loss experience.
It is with trepidation that I share the reality of my birth story, but this is a story I feel I have to tell. On June 14th, 2016, at 12:15am I laid in my bed and finally let myself feel the full weight of what had transpired a few hours earlier. My husband, who left me 2 months ago so we could have “space to work things out”, had come over and informed me that he had found his soul mate. As the the reality of his words hit me and the first tear fell, my waters released, too. The full devastation of my crumbling world overtook me and I spilled water from both ends for ten minutes.
I slowly sat up and realized that, yet once again, I needed to put myself aside and be present for my baby. I texted my cousin and my doula to come and started to busy myself with picking up the many kids’ toys that littered the living room floor. My doula arrived and helped me keep cleaning up and make the bed. By 2:15 my labour had begun and I was starting to feel uncomfortable. I got in the bath, a mess of emotions, unsure if I could face life on my own, not wanting to be a single mom with three kids; this was not the life that I had envisioned.
I struggled through my feelings, through my fears, as my labour pains continued to swell. This labour already hurt more than either of my previous ones had and I doubted my ability to birth. This did not feel fair. At 2:45 I reached the point of wondering how long I could withstand this type of discomfort. Ten minutes later my dear cousin arrived. For the following 50 minutes my surges were inconsistent in both frequency and intensity as I wrestled with whether or not I was ready to have another child. After a heart-to-heart with my cousin, I came to a point of acceptance and choose to believe in my strength as a woman, not for birth, for life. My contractions immediately picked up in frequency (3:45am) and I stood alone in my bathtub, pouring water over my stomach and my back. I would lay down in between contractions to relax, but it seemed another wave would almost immediately be upon me and I would return to my feet to cope.
At 4:30 I paced my living room and kitchen, feeling restless. The time came where my body wanted to start pushing and I hung my towel over my chin up bar and breathed in goddess pose while pulling with my arms. Alternating between this, squatting, crouching, I could not get comfortable, things did not feel positioned correctly and I kept trying to widen my left hip to make space, but with no relief. I felt frustrated. My doula told me to see if I could feel baby’s head. I placed my fingers lightly inside, yes, I could feel her, she was right there. Suddenly panic flashed through my mind again as I thought about financially supporting my children and myself forever, alone. I felt baby withdraw inside me, further and further back up, and struggled, surge by surge, between remaining present with her and just wanting to disappear from the pain of my life.
Frustrated and confused, I struggled for an hour, before giving up on my kitchen floor. Helpless, I laid for an hour, too exhausted to try. As morning approached, I realized that my hopes of having my boys wake up and come out and meet their new sibling was slipping away, so texted my friend to come get my boys for the day. I felt utterly exhausted from the week of unexplained pain I had already had and was intimidated at the prospect of a potentially long labour as my first two were only a matter of hours. I started to get my kidlets up and ready as my friend arrived to help. My 4 year old, who had been sacredly connected to baby the entire pregnancy had been excited to witness the birth and was upset that I was making him go.
My contractions resumed and I breathed through the growing discomfort, trying to remain calm for my children, but was frustrated that my oldest was purposely taking longer to leave, being difficult about wanting to pack certain stamps and crafts and with putting his shoes on. Finally they were out the door and I immediately went and sat on the toilet. The intensity was overwhelming and I knew I had to be in the bathtub for the next surge. I reached my hand down and the water had gone cold. I called for my doula to refill it, but she had no more then pulled the plug and I had to push her out of the way to sit again. A head immediately emerged, with crashing speed, growing and growing. With firm encouragement from my doula, I repositioned to kneeling on the floor as I heard my 4 year old’s hysterical cries back at the doorway because he “hadn’t gotten” to give me a hug good bye (I suppose the first five didn’t count). I yelled that he could come, and he knelt in the doorway, and was immediately transfixed as he watched “his” baby’s head emerge. Her head was completely out and he laid down on his belly with his chin in his hands, looking up, smiling at her, as she looked around, moving side to side. The only thing getting me through that discomfort of my half-out wiggling baby was the look of utter joy on my son’s face as they looked at each other.
I suddenly had this sense that things were about to be extremely painful (little did I know the depths of that pain), and yelled with urgency for him to leave. Not 5 seconds later her body emerged. I saw immediately that something was on her and thought my placenta had also come out….then I realized that her organs had grown outside of her body and it was her enlarged liver that I was seeing. I reached down and cradled her small intestine in my hand to support it. I could see her kidneys. I realized that this was going to be a severe situation, but knew I had to focus on what I COULD change right now, and looked at my most beautiful baby’s face, took in her curly hair, and her cleft chin, just like mine, and urged her to breathe.
Seconds passed and I told myself to stay calm as I stimulated her, wiping her nose and mouth, rubbing her back, pinching her cord. My doula, who had not seen what I had as my daughter was born, asked from the look on my face “Do you want me to call?” “Yes” I responded, knowing obviously we needed help, but also having the sinking realization that it was not going to matter. My brain calculated her impossible odds at having even a chance at getting to the point of receiving many painful operations to “fix” her. The 911 operator was on the phone and I began chest compressions on my baby girl as my cousin breathed for her. An eternity passed. I fought back tears so that I could stay fully medically present to help my baby, as my heart sank into my stomach and I realized that my connection with her that I had felt for 38 weeks, 3 days was slipping away. I continued CPR until EMS arrived. I delivered my placenta – the most beautiful placenta that I have ever seen; it was extremely healthy looking, full of colour, and intact and I allowed myself to feel proud of my body’s ability to grow this child.
I cut the cord and handed the paramedic my baby. She took her from my hands and from my home and I waited with firefighters for a second ambulance to come, cradling my baby in my heart while we were apart. As I waited, I forced myself to believe in a 5% chance that they could revive her, even while intuitively knowing that her organs had compressed during delivery of her body, ending her life. I knew the questions to ask and within a minute of my arrival had ordered for my baby to be extubated and brought to my arms. She had never taken a breath on her own. She had zero brain activity. Her heart was beating far too insufficiently to ever possibly have hope of returning to functioning.
I held my baby girl. I kissed her. She was so beautiful. She looked indentical to her older brother, who had loved her so well and was the only person to ever see her face, to look into her eyes, while she was alive.
The Dr came in to do an ultrasound of her heart so that he could pronounce her dead in my arms. I didn’t say a word to anyone, but immediately recognized on the monitor that her heart was not in the right place. It was formed incorrectly. Though her heart was still technically pumping, my daughter’s lifeless body was growing cold in my arms.
The coroner’s report showed that my little Joy did not ever have any chance of surviving. It is a “medical miracle” that I carried her to term.
I am amazed and so grateful with EVERYTHING that was wrong with baby Joy’s body, her face, her hands, her feet, her beautiful curly hair…it was all so perfect. Everything that I needed to see for her to be my beautiful baby was perfect. It just goes to show that you don’t always know how things will turn out (both the good and bad in this) and that there are always little blessings along the way. Even in my brokenness, I can see the beauty of her life: while I was pregnant, she taught me to value myself more and start making my health and my happiness more of a priority. I ate the best foods I ever have, exercised the most consistently I ever have, and gave myself the most self care and self love I ever have.
During her gestation I took so much better care of myself and I am so grateful for that now. I didn’t realize at the time that as much as I thought she was taking from me and complicating my life, she was actually teaching me how to stand on my own and be confident in my own strength as a woman. While I was pregnant with baby Joy I learned how to see my own value again and knew that I needed to reclaim my independence and that my worth was so much greater than what I was settling for. I will be forever grateful for these lessons. There is a purpose for my pain.
So much has happened. So much hurt, but it has made me realize even moreso the divine purpose for our lives.
I have always felt called to both birth work and death work. I became a doula and worked in geriatric care. I always said how both birth and death were so similar; such a sacred time. My heart longed to support the families with compassion and dignity, respecting their strength to make it through on their own, encouraging them when they doubted it.
This experience feels like a perfect merging of life and death. I feel it is preparing me for the road that I am going to walk, making me relatable to those who have experienced such a unique loss. The loss of child is a different kind of pain; it is not the difficulty of the present as with labour or the letting go of the past as with geriatric death, it is grief for the future which never was. I feel complete in having been chosen as one strong enough to face this.
Now, just 15 months since her death, I have already made a difference in the lives of many families because of her. I completed a surrogate journey, offering life to another devasted couple; handing them their joy. I trained as a Reiki practitioner specializing in fertility, and have been able to extend peace and hope to women who acknowledge this month with me. I have walked beside several mamas who have had to bid their babies farewell. Some have held their babies in their arms, others in their body, and some only in their hearts, but all of us are in this together. All of us have tasted the sweet nectar of life and had it turn bitter in our mouth. All of us have arms that are empty and a hole in our heart. We all have asked “Why?” and not received an answer that soothes us. The loss of child is a pain that never goes away, but for me it is a pain that has caused me to grow stronger. My journey to peace has been in finding purpose in my baby’s death. Because I walk in the shoes of a bereaved mother, I understand how to support my sisters in loss. I have sought out and found answers to my questions and am able to live each day with purpose. Each day I choose joy and so I see it everywhere I go.