I have been trying to find the mental fortitude to write our youngest daughter’s birth story for five weeks. I want the details down before I forget them. I feel sure I may have already forgotten some things, but those are just the little things, nuances and comments made in that first endless week.
I have learned very quickly that after that first week or two after a child is born still, people don’t really want to hear about it anymore. It is such a sad and nonsensical thing, that a baby would die for no clear reason, and most people would rather not think about such unpleasantness. I am no longer asked how I am doing by most of the people I know. I have heard, “but it’s been a month, don’t you feel any better?” by a well-meaning friend. I do not feel better, and I do not want to forget a moment of this wonderful child’s existence.
The story is not short. It is not happy or uplifting.
Our daughter was stillborn at 42 weeks 3 days. She never opened her blue eyes. She never cried. She never nursed at my breast or grabbed her daddy’s finger with her chubby hand, but she was still born, and she deserves to be remembered forever.
I had been having contractions on and off for several weeks. Sometimes they were only slightly painful, coming every 10-15 minutes and lasting 20-30 seconds. At other times they were intense enough to need to breathe through, coming every 5 minutes and lasting a minute or so. Each time I was sure “this is it” and each time the contractions would slow down and then stop completely while I slept, only to start again the next afternoon. I made sure to drink a lot of water and orange juice, thinking that the contractions could be a sign of dehydration and wanting to be sure that wasn’t the case.
I reached the 40 week mark on June 14th. I was thrilled to have made it to my due date, feeling a little arrogant about how the doctors had said I would “never carry a baby to full term”, but also feeling ready for our baby girl to make her appearance. We had read all of the research that shows that 40 weeks is just the average length of a normal pregnancy — anything from 38 to 42 weeks is considered in the normal range, and I know of several women who have had their babies at 43 and 44 weeks. We weren’t worried.
Our baby was moving a lot throughout the day and night, kicking my rib cage with enthusiasm and wedging her little head so far down into my pelvis that I felt like I was going to squish her when I sat down. At 40 weeks, I was dilated to 4cm and 100% effaced. The contractions continued daily, and we felt like any minute they would evolve into full blown labor.
At 41 weeks, I was still 4cm and baby girl was at 0 station. We discussed induction but decided against it. I wanted a vaginal birth after cesarean very badly, and pitocin is generally contraindicated in a VBAC, particularly when the mom has a “special scar” like I have (an inverted T incision from Addah’s birth, which basically means that my uterus was cut both low transverse and vertically). It’s been 9.5 years since she was born, but I still didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks with uterine rupture.
By this point I was very uncomfortable and ready to not be pregnant. I cried one night that I just wanted to go have a c-section, just so I wouldn’t be pregnant anymore. I didn’t really want that, not then and not looking back, but when your hips and back are aching with every movement, you start to feel a little irrational. David and I had a long soul-searching conversation over the course of a couple days and decided that, since baby girl was still fine, with a great heart rate and passing every kick count, we’d give it until 42 weeks and then reconsider the hospital induction. We felt very good about this decision, having weighed all of our options.
On the afternoon of Thursday, June 28th, the day that I hit 42 weeks, we made the decision that if I was not in “real labor” by the next night, when the girls were supposed to go to their dad’s house, we would go into the hospital for a medical induction. We didn’t make this decision based on any worry about the baby’s health, as she was still kicking quite exuberantly in her very tight living quarters. We made the decision because I was uncomfortable and oh-so-ready to meet our baby.
I woke up on Friday morning to contractions, but this time they felt different. They were more painful, radiating from back to front and sometimes down into my thighs. I told David that I was pretty sure these weren’t going to stop. They felt more real than any of the other times. I was able to manage them fairly easily at this point. David went to work and I went through the motions of my day, stopping to breathe through contractions when necessary.
At one point that morning, I remember telling Addah that her baby sister has hiccups, and remarking to David that it feels very strange having hiccups in one’s vagina.
The contractions slowed down that night but never stopped completely. The next day was much like the one before, painful contractions but nothing I couldn’t handle. I was very excited, getting the last of the baby things in order, picking out her first outfit and debating about which blankets matched which outfit the best.
By Saturday evening, the contractions were coming much closer and more intense. I told David that “we’re going to have a baby tonight”. I wanted to sleep while I still could, to conserve energy for the birth to come. I would wake up to breathe through a contraction and then fall right back asleep. I slept this way all night, fitfully but still getting some much needed rest.
I woke up on Sunday in real pain. It didn’t feel like the labor I’d been having, and it didn’t feel like the way countless books and birth stories and friends have described labor. It was pain and it was harsh. I couldn’t sit, couldn’t stand, couldn’t lay down, couldn’t make it to the bathroom without help and I felt like “if this is what labor really feels like, I give up”. I told David that something felt wrong, that it hurt too much and I needed to go to the hospital NOW.
He grabbed my purse and the diaper bag. Lee’s husband Benjamin helped me into their minivan and we sped toward the hospital. Each bump on the (under construction) interstate felt like I was going to split in two, and the 10-minute drive felt like it took hours. David parked in front of the entrance for Labor & Delivery, grabbed a wheelchair and helped me into it. We went upstairs and were asked to wait “just a moment” in the waiting room, while they made sure they had a room available for us. Those five minutes sitting in the wheelchair in the waiting room were awful… I was crying… I just wanted the pain to stop. They didn’t even feel like contractions that stop and start anymore… just pain that wouldn’t end.
We were taken to a room and the nurse hooked up the heartbeat and contraction monitors while the billing lady took my insurance cards and information. I was asked if I wanted to attempt a VBAC and I said “yes, I wanted to go natural but I think I need something for the pain… not an epidural but something because I can’t handle this”. The nurse said “sounds good, we’ll get you something as soon as we get the monitors up and running”. A different nurse came in to check my dilation and said I was “5cm, 100% effaced, baby is at +1 station”. I felt amazed… they were going to “let” me have a vaginal birth without arguing that a cesarean would be a better option!
David was sitting by my head, holding my hand, both of us as excited as children at Christmas. We were about to have a baby! The nurses were using a handheld doppler to find the heartbeat, and it seemed odd that it was taking so long. They said that “maybe it’s because she’s so far down in your pelvis” and brought in an ultrasound machine and tech. A couple minutes went by and the tech said (very cheerfully), “we’re going to have the doctor come take a look”. I was still in pain, trying to focus on the baby and on David, not paying a lot of attention to what the nurses were doing.
The doctor came in and began the ultrasound. After a couple more minutes, David and I looked at each other and the realization that there was a problem began to dawn. I said, “can you not find her heartbeat?” and the doctor said “no, here is her rib cage and there is no heartbeat there”.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. I felt cold, lost in some surreal nightmare. David ran to the bathroom and collapsed to the floor, sobbing. The nurses and tech disappeared from our room. The doctor said “I’m so sorry”. David asked if he could possibly be wrong, that maybe he made a mistake. The doctor said that there are no guarantees in life and that there was a chance he was wrong. I asked “how quickly can you get her out?” and he answered “with a cesarean, we can get her out right now”. I said, “then do it, get her out now”.
All thoughts of my much coveted vaginal birth after cesarean were gone from my mind. If a cesarean can save my daughter, do it and do it immediately. Cut me from stem to stern if that’s what it takes for my baby to be okay. But of course, I realized later that the doctor must have known he wasn’t wrong, that our baby was already gone.
Over the next 15 minutes, I signed a consent form, was shaved and prepped for surgery, and had my blood typed. David changed quickly into blue paper scrubs and we were whisked down a hall full of the sounds of babies crying. Once in the operating room, a spinal was administered and before David was even in the room by my side, the surgery was in progress. I was crying, but still believed absolutely that they were wrong. I would hear her cries any minute. She might need some help, maybe she’d need to go to the NICU, but she would be fine.
The smell of infection filled the room when our doctor opened my uterus. David stood and watched as the doctor pulled our daughter from my body. He looked down and said, “she’s pink, they’re working on her” and again I thought that she would be okay, they would fix her. The operating room was silent, but for the radio playing on a far shelf — the line “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end” from Semisonic’s “Closing Time” was playing as my husband looked down at me and shook his head slowly.
I began to sob in earnest and the anesthesiologist, with tears running down his own face, gave me “something for anxiety”. The nurse called David over and handed him our beautiful daughter, Clara Edith. He brought her to me and I touched her cheek, still warm from my body. I wanted to hold her so badly, and I was assured that they would take pictures of her right then and bring her to me as soon as I got out of surgery. David handed her back to a nurse and she was carried from the operating room.
It took almost an hour and a half after Clara was born before the doctors were done cleaning out all of the infection in my uterus. I was told that my bladder had to be peeled off of my uterus and that I had “a whole lot of adhesions that needed to be removed”. I was taken back down the hall of crying and healthy babies to a room at the end, where my husband and I waited for our lifeless daughter to be brought to us.
An hour after the surgery, a nurse brought in a cart with a white basket draped in a hospital blanket. She asked if I wanted to hold her and I said that I did. She laid my baby girl in my arms and told us to take as long as we needed.
Our Clara looked just like David, but also just like Lakin and Addah. Her hair was dark, like her oldest sister’s had been at birth. We had expected a blond baby, like David, Addah and I had been. Her dark hair made it worse somehow, because she reminded me so much of Lakin, my first baby. Her fingers were longer even than her sisters’ had been and I remarked that “she has artist’s hands”. I lifted an eyelid to see that her eyes were bright blue, like her mama and daddy. I placed my hand on her chest and begged her to breathe. David held her little hand and we clung to one another, trying to figure out how we fell into this terrible nightmare and hoping beyond hope that we would wake up and our sweet girl would be alive.
We held her and told her how much we loved her for a long time. Our families did not know that we had gone to the hospital, so for a short time, it was just the three of us and we did not have to share her. The horror of sharing the news with our families would come later but for now, we tried to memorize every detail of this beautiful and wonderful child that we had waited and wished for.
Finally, we handed her back to the nurse. I felt lost, utterly lost. What does one do in this situation? What the hell happened? David and I were devastated. We alternated holding one another and and staring at one another in stunned silence, still trying to begin to process the previous three hours.
I didn’t think at that time that I would want to hold her again after that first time, but David’s mom wanted to see her late that night, and when the nurse brought her back to our room, I had an overwhelming need to have her in my arms. I broke down completely at that point. I sobbed, feeling my heart break into pieces all over again. I am very grateful that Lee was there by then to hold and comfort the two of us.
The next week was a haze of physical and emotional pain, visitors and phone calls from people who don’t know the right things to say (because there is no right thing to say), repeating this story over and over, and long sleepless tearful nights with nurses who I used like personal therapists. My blood pressure was dangerously low and I had a raging infection that threatened to take my uterus before it finally came under control. I came home on Friday, July 6th. I left the hospital clutching a soft pink bunny, the one that my Papa gave us at our baby shower, instead of our baby girl.
I sleep with that little pink bunny still, 5 weeks later. I don’t sleep as much as I used to. The tiniest things can trigger a major meltdown. David and I feel very alone in our grief and sadness, though we know now that 1 in 115 pregnancies end in stillbirth. I am consumed with guilt and “what if” scenarios that play on constant repeat in my brain.
What if we had decided to medically induce at 40 weeks? What if we had decided 41 weeks was our limit? What if we had gone on to the hospital as soon as those contractions started on the Friday before she was born?
The doctor said she had been gone between 1 and 3 days. I know she had hiccups on Friday morning. After that, I was having contractions and I could have sworn she was still moving and kicking on Saturday night, but I couldn’t swear to it. I was in labor and thought that any slowing in movement was because I was in labor. She died sometime between Friday evening and Saturday afternoon. The doctor’s theory is that my amniotic fluid level dropped drastically and she passed and ingested meconium, which poisoned her and ended her life. Her decomposition was already advanced enough that it had to be at least 24 hours, so I was told. Her death caused the uterine infection that made my labor go from normal labor pain to excruciating pain overnight. I was told that if I had waited another day to come in, I would have lost my uterus and possibly, my life. We were told that it was nothing we had done, that it was nothing we could have predicted, not to feel guilty. Still, those feelings persist.
The only thing that brings David and I any comfort is knowing that Clara always knew how much we loved her and how much we wanted her. We talked to her throughout each day, and she would kick and punch at our touch on my belly. We sang to her. David would rub my belly every night and she would always get so active when she’d hear her Daddy’s voice.
She was loved, truly. The time she had with us was beautiful and we will never forget a moment of it.
I only wish that it could have lasted for longer. She lives, now and always, in our hearts.