Missing Someone Gone While Raising Someone New

Read Caitlin’s previous writing on her first and second pregnancies here!


I have learned, already, that it takes about six weeks to come up for air. Well, to be fair, we’ve been on several outings; my internet presence has taken more of a hit because these are the nicest months in Chicago and therefore spending my now extremely limited free time in front of a computer seems sacrilegious. But let me start at the beginning, or his beginning anyway.

I slept remarkably well the night before the scheduled c-section — better even than my wife. We had to be at the hospital to check in at 6 a.m. for an 8:45 surgery, and that’s when the waiting became pretty unbearable. They took me to the prep area, I was hooked up to monitors, got asked lots of questions, talked to the anesthesiologists, nurses, doctor, and the surgeon. I was really anxious for the surgery and in retrospect, in some ways being under general anesthesia (as I was last time) was preferable to the waiting and the expectations.

Sleeping on Mama C

Sleeping on Mama C

I was most apprehensive for the epidural/spinal block as I’ve heard some nightmare stories of reactions, and I must admit, it wasn’t pleasant and I would have liked to avoid it if it were possible. One, the initial numbing shot was painful, despite the two kind nurses holding my hands (my wife wasn’t allowed in until the last moment). A student placed the catheter, which was fine, he did perfectly (according to his supervising doctor, who was very reassuring for me as she kept saying things like “wonderful placement, excellent job.”) Despite the attempts to ward off nausea prior, I did have to turn my head and puke into a cup the student held for me, but it all worked as it should, and I was numb soon enough and the show began.

My friend described the sensation like “rummaging around in a purse,” and it totally felt like that. No pain, but you can feel where they are in your body. I kept thinking they were taking the baby out, but it was just my organs (talk about disconcerting). The surgeon was going to do a transverse incision this time, but he discovered that my previous classical scar was thinning dangerously, so decided to repeat that cut so that when they closed me up they could add sutures and try to make it stronger so that subsequent pregnancies would be possible. It’s still hard for me to reconcile the thought that one freak condition in my first pregnancy has threatened all subsequent chances at having children. Some things aren’t fair.

But then – he was born! And crying! I had asked for very few things in my birth plan — delayed cord clamping, and skin-to-skin and breastfeeding as soon as possible. Now, our hospital is wonderfully militant about the latter two things anyway, so I wasn’t surprised when the nurse first opened my gown, then laid him on my chest for a bit, then held him upside down over my shoulder as that was the easiest position for him to nurse in with me so covered up. It wasn’t quite what I envisioned, but I can’t complain at all — I had my baby nursing while I was in the OR getting sewn up. Not for long, but enough for me to feel like I got everything I could possibly get considering the circumstances. Then my wife got to hold him as they stitched me up and we rolled into recovery.

All the mother-baby rooms were full; a lot of people were checking out at and then the rooms needed cleaning, so we were in recovery for a while (ironically, when I checked out not even half the rooms were occupied — I guess “feast or famine” is typical in an L&D unit). I wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere anyway, since my body temperature was hovering around 95.0 and I wasn’t allowed to leave until it was 97. So I was piled with warming blankets (I didn’t feel cold at all, but I guess being in a cold OR and having your innards exposed tends to cool you down). Our chaplain friend from Ander’s stay in the NICU stopped by because she knew we were going to be there, and we just relaxed and cuddled the baby. The good part about being in recovery so long was that by the time I left, I was feeling really well — all the epidural effects had worn off.

We named him Graeson Robert (the “son” is a nod to his older brother Anderson). He was in the average range for head circumference and length, but was considered small for gestational age, so he had to undergo a battery of tests, including sitting for 90 minutes in a car seat strapped up to sensors to ensure he could maintain an open airway and circulate oxygenated blood. They had to do that test while he was sleeping, so they started at midnight on our second night, which was traumatic for me — it was the same oxygen saturation monitor that Ander was on that kept plummeting for him. Graeson passed with flying colors, but that beeping machine had me on edge for the whole time, despite our attempts to distract ourselves by watching HGTV. He passed all his tests, actually, including GAINING weight even in the hospital, which our pediatrician called “unprecedented.”

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So here we are! Settling into life with a newborn, which is still rather surreal. I can’t believe I can just pick him up and cuddle him whenever I want. I’m so accustomed to asking permission to hold other peoples’ babies. I’m glad I over prepared to be incapacitated, because now that I’m actually pretty functional it feels remarkable. The only bummer at first was his smallness on outings – he was too small for all the carriers to be safe, so we could just do stroller outings. We were a little surprised that our pediatrician said we could take him out whenever we wanted, as long as we avoided crowds and made anyone holding him wash their hands. For some reason I think we both thought newborns were more fragile and needed to be inside for the first few weeks, but apparently not, which is also good for our own sanity.

So far, we’ve made it to the Chicago Botanic Gardens (including the butterfly exhibit and our first nursing-in-public in a gazebo in the English walled garden), to three different beaches, for several walks in the neighborhood (including lunch and dinner in the park), to the Art Institute and to the Arboretum. I’m just as surprised as anyone that we have managed all these things, though we did have ample help from both my parents and in-laws. Having them here really forced me out of my comfort zone, which was probably good for me, since I was really crippled by anxiety at first.

I’ll never know if my anxiety is normal new-mom jitters or a consequence of having already lost a child and knowing from my doctors that I shouldn’t try to get pregnant again for another two years at a minimum. The exhaustion set in around week three, and that’s when I had a few grief meltdowns too. You see, we wanted another boy, and Graeson looks just the right amount like Ander — basically identical except Ander had distinctive golden blond hair, while Graeson’s is a red-brown like mine. I think in a lot of ways it’s better that way. There are already too many moments where I’m startled by how much he looks like Ander — and unfortunately, the moments all bring me back to Ander dying, because that’s the only time we saw him without any tubes or tape on his face. So Graeson living sometimes reminds me of Ander dying, which is a bit of a jolt. Mostly, I am taken back there when I have G asleep cradled in my arms, head thrown back and mouth open. Once, my wife sang a song to Graeson to get him to sleep that happens to be one that we sang to Ander as he was dying (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) and that made me cry and just felt really sad for a while.

There were some happy “Ander moments” too. On Ander’s last night, our wonderful NICU nurse brought in her Nikon and took hundreds of photos of his last day, many of which we have hanging in our house and which we will cherish forever. The same nurse excitedly came to our house after Graeson was born to take a photoshoot of him, too. We haven’t seen the final photos yet, but her compassion, love and talent ensure they will be just as cherished as those of his brother.

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To end on a lighter note, here are the top six things I have learned in the first six weeks of parenting a child. Hopefully, some of this will help someone else!

1. You can’t really have too many swaddles or burp cloths. You will never use either more than once, or twice if you’re lucky, before it’s covered in breastmilk/poo/pee/spit up. Same goes with your own bed sheets.

2. Relatedly, it is true that you will do laundry every day. I didn’t actually believe that one, but then we had to change our sheets nearly every night for a week due to baby vomit. (Note: he doesn’t even sleep in our bed, and yet this managed to happen.).

3. Navigating “helpful” parents and in-laws is harder than parenting your newborn. Example: when you are strapping your child in his car seat (perfectly competently) and suddenly have two extra pairs of hands trying to “help” you, which really just makes the baby irritated and makes it impossible for you to actually buckle the straps.

4. I would love to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” Could someone please get my child to sleep for longer than 30 minutes at a time? He’s one of those babies who needs help falling asleep on his own, which means we must either strap on the Boba (a Moby-like wrap) and go for a walk, or practice the Karp method of soothing (swaddle, sway, shush, side/stomach, suck) or some other active thing to get him to take a nap, particularly from 8-11 a.m. and 8-11 p.m. Usually we manage to get him to sleep right about the time he is ready to wake up to feed again.

5. I get why people would have baby wipe warmers, particularly at night. I have solved this problem but just letting him stew in his dirty diaper for most of the night. I know. Not ideal, but you try getting a screaming baby to nurse happily and fall back asleep at 3 a.m. and let me know if you’d do anything differently!

6. Despite being somewhat constrained in my daily activities, this parenting thing in the first few weeks isn’t a bad gig. In fact, I watch so much daytime TV that maternity leave feels like a bit of a racket. But don’t tell my boss!

Caitlin Zinsser is a 30-something Chicagoan who still misses Virginia every winter. She has a BA in English from the George Washington University and an MA in English from Georgetown University, where she wrote her thesis on the (re)interpretation of gender identity and gender roles in Native American life in the 20th century. She now spends her days at a consulting firm helping others recognize their unconscious bias in the recruiting, hiring and promoting of women and minority populations. Having also taught for many years at an Orthodox Jewish private school for girls, she is also interested in the intersection of faith, religion and politics. Caitlin is passionate about equality and in the importance of speaking about "taboo" topics from queer issues to infant loss. She and her wife have a son who died shortly after birth, and a rainbow baby on the way.

Caitlin has written 6 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Look at him just posing in his Moses basket! You have a truly beautiful child, congratulations to you both. And thank you for finding the time to share your experience with us! Laundry every day!

    • Although Caitlin’s writing is really beautiful, I think it’s important to acknowledge that we can’t really know or experience another’s grief or loss, even though reading about it is incredibly sad.

      When I lost a friend unexpectedly, I found it a bit confronting when someone said to me that they felt my grief as well, because intellectually I knew that they hadn’t known the person and were sad to know they were dead, but weren’t experiencing the viceral shock and grief of the death of a loved one.

  2. It’s so exciting and lovely to hear Graeson has been born. I’ve followed along with your collunn and really admire you and your partner. I am also very sorry for your loss, and you write so beautifully about Anderson.

    As a hopefully-one-day-soon-parent it is definitely so helpful reading people’s reflections on what they’ve learned in the early weeks and months of parenting, and their descriptions of birth and pregnancy. I feel like your writing is force that resists the things in society that say LGBTQI parents are invisible and don’t exist, which is so encouraging for other people in our community I think. All the best.

    • Thank you so much! I am so grateful to have a chance to share my family’s story here, because you’re right – while LGBTQI parenting is fairly prevalent in my lived world, it’s nearly invisible in the parenting literature, blogs, books, etc. – which is overwhelmingly frustrating.

  3. Congratulations! I was so excited to see this update, see the pictures of Graeson, and read about the things you’re doing with your new baby. Thank you for sharing your story and your children’s stories with us.

  4. Thank you for sharing all that you did because many people grow up not knowing or thinking something like losing one can happen, or that it’s really okay to miss the one gone even though they had such little time with.

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