My Pregnancy Was Perfect, and I Lost My Baby Anyway

First step – create a folder in your inbox labeled “Conception.”

Well, no. There are many, earlier, first steps, though this was the moment when the journey to have our first child began to materialize in a concrete way, changing from a future wish to a tantalizingly close prospect.

I am four years beyond the creation of that folder. Two months past the birth and death of my first child. Back then, 2010, lifetimes ago, I was anxious when I thought of how close I already was to that suddenly less-fertile age of 35, and how if I want to have a second child, I’d likely be in that nebulous, dangerous zone of 35-40.

I am a first born.

I tell you this because it was what my mother used to say to justify why I was such a perfectionist as a child, so anxious to “get it right.” I was the child always labelled “teacher’s pet,” even as a superlative in my high school yearbook. And I was the child proud of that label.

I am obedient to a fault. Jaywalking, even when the street is totally empty, makes me uncomfortable. I come to full stops at stop signs. When I have to swing my bike onto the sidewalk in places where it’s unsafe to ride in the street, I get off and walk so as not to inconvenience pedestrians, who have the right of way there. I follow rules. All. The. Time. And I’m proud of it; I call it integrity.

What this means, however, is that I also believe that I am entitled to certain things. I follow rules. Therefore, I am intelligently minimizing my risk of bad things happening to me. Therefore, good things are more likely to happen to me, and since I’ve been such a “good girl,” I deserve them. For the vast, vast majority of my life, this “rule” held true. I did well in school, attended and graduated from a good college, got a good job… you get the picture. I went to church every week and said my prayers every night.

Of course, I even followed the rules for getting pregnant: I got married, which also meant legal paperwork, since we lived in Virginia in 2011, and we wanted to ensure that our relationship would be protected. My wife, completing her PhD, applied for jobs in more gay-friendly states, and we chose Illinois. Before we even moved there, we visited a health clinic to begin the IUI process. We got a nice place to live with a room for a nursery. We saved money from our better-paying jobs for sperm and medical expenses. I started taking prenatal vitamins three months prior to conceiving. I cut out all caffeine and alcohol. I follow rules, so I never smoked or did drugs of any kind (I’ve never even been on any prescription drugs. I’ve never touched a cigarette.). I read all the baby books and followed the rules on what to eat, what not to eat, how not to lie on your back after your first trimester, how to exercise, why to see the dentist (I did, of course).

I did not get my reward.

I was determined to have a healthy, non-medicated, 100% exercise pregnancy, and a beautiful, natural birth. I was healthy and young and was going to give my baby the best possible start in life! (Exclamation added to represent the excitement I felt over having the opportunity to do this “perfectly.”) No one in my family had any history of pregnancy issues, so I expected a pregnancy similar to my mother’s – the standard morning sickness and other common pregnancy ailments, but nothing serious. I had a small bleeding incident at six weeks – just an hour of red blood – and we went to the ER, where we sat for eight hours (overnight) for them to tell us everything looked normal and the baby was doing great.

All proceeded then as normal until just after Thanksgiving (around 19 weeks). The baby was moving, all prenatal visits had gone swimmingly (A+, my midwife said; of course I expected nothing less), and we were designing our birth plan – vaginal birth, no epidural, waiting 90 seconds to cut the umbilical cord, midwife driven at the family birth center (not at the hospital), home visit 24 hours after the baby was born (they discharge you after only 12 hours so you can bond with the baby in a familiar setting). Of course, best laid plans and all that….

The day after Thanksgiving, I started feeling really bloated, like I had eaten too much and the really full feeling wouldn’t go away (I did eat a lot on Thanksgiving, but by the next day it should have subsided). I started having some brown spotting, and went to my midwife, who reassured me that it looked very minor and was “old blood,” maybe even leftover from the six week bleed. But a week later, as I was lying in bed reading around 9:30 p.m., I felt like I needed to pee very badly. I just made it to the toilet when the blood gush started, followed by a large blood clot the size of my hand. We headed to the hospital, shaking, terrified, where I was monitored overnight, given an IV, and first diagnosed with a placental abruption. Now, many times these are mild, and you only have one incident; the placenta doesn’t reattach to the uterine wall, but it doesn’t get any worse, either. I was having contractions, but I couldn’t even feel them, and they weren’t opening my cervix, so the doctors released me with the instructions that I was on pelvic rest and should go back to the hospital if I had any more bleeding, about a 50/50 chance.

Well. There are some things outside of the control of even the most controlling of control freaks. That next Friday night I started bleeding again, and we got a bit of a stern talking to by the doctor, who told me to go home and stay there – and “be prepared for the likelihood of a miscarriage.” By this time I was so close to the magic, viable 24 weeks, so we prepared to heed her advice. Over the next two weeks, I was in the hospital four additional times for heavy bleeding, only permitted to go home for Christmas and New Year’s, though the holidays were celebrated over Skype instead of at my parents’ home in Connecticut as planned.

I went into labor on January 3, 2014. I was 23 weeks and six days pregnant.

I was taken to Labor & Delivery, where a neonatologist met us to talk to us about the baby’s viability options before 24 weeks. We were warned that he would likely not survive and we were asked what lifesaving methods we wanted them to take, since they could cause permanent damage. I was given indomethacin to stop the contractions, but told there was only a 50% chance it would work, and I was started on a course of steroids to help mature the baby’s lungs should he happen to come that weekend.

He came that weekend, in a blur of sudden contractions, running nurses, a jammed OR door, my wife sodden and sweating in her snow gear, my anxieties still powerful enough to ensure my belongings (sentimental teddy bear, glasses, cell phone) were still with me. My son was born kicking and screaming, but neither of us saw it. I needed two pints of blood and I guess it was a messy procedure, and the placenta was all in tatters. I drifted in a Demerol-induced haze in recovery for over four hours, not quite believing that I had just had a baby. I didn’t see it, after all; there is an element of the surreal in being told you have just given birth, but not remembering any of it.

I was lucky – as soon as I was alert enough, before they took me to my room, they wheeled my gurney to the NICU so I could see the baby. I couldn’t sit up yet, and his isolette was a bit high, so I didn’t see much of him that day – but it was enough to know that he was alive and stable and perfectly okay for now. The first thing I said was, “he’s so big!” Of course, 1 lb 9 oz, 12 3/4 inches isn’t that big, but to me, he was huge! I couldn’t believe he had fit in my stomach. The second thing was looking at my wife, and then at the nurse, and confirming that his name is Anderson.

MothersDay

Ander slept so peacefully, with his hands under his chin or on his cheeks. But his heart and lungs were struggling from his first breath, 16 weeks before he was supposed to need them. We cupped his head and sang him Christmas carols, hoping to get his oxygen levels to improve. We had a “honeymoon period” the first week, and we held him. But then: he needed heart surgery, as his heart hadn’t finished forming properly. His lungs weren’t getting enough oxygen to his developing organs, and the doctors played a “game” of ventilator roulette trying to find the best combination of pressure, suction, ventilation, and oxygenation. The threat of pneumothorax loomed. Our doctors discussed with us our options for treatment, and started putting some of the aggressive treatment options in frames of quality of life and expected outcomes. Our son’s chronic lung disease kept getting worse, so they put him on a go-big-or-go-home drug that was, one doctor explained, “like hunting for an antelope with a torpedo.” A few days later, he went into cardiac arrest, but was revived. The next day, it happened again. The third day, we chose to take him off of life support so he could die in our arms. We informed our family: “Anderson is a Scandinavian name that means brave and strong,” we told them. “And our little boy fought like hell to give us 26 days together.”

The feeling of bitterness, the vast expanse of unfairness, is not altogether different from that you felt as a child when you didn’t get something you wanted, even though you behaved. But then, perhaps you could blame your parents, a teacher. When you lose a baby, who can you blame? You could blame yourself, but when you know you did nothing wrong (a fact confirmed by several doctors), it feels hollow. You are left, then, blaming intangibles. Life. Often, God. With Ander’s death, the structural support upon which I had built my perfectly constructed life came crashing down.

I am still waiting for our first “permanent” child to arrive. They have a name. They have parents who love them, who have planned, literally for years, for their arrival. They have grandparents already debating who gets first visitation rights and what they want to be called.They have cousins stashing aside hand-me-down clothes and promising not to steal “our” name. I know this, because our angel boy had all of these things, and he still did not survive. I know this, because they are on the way, due to arrive this August. So, I’ll keep following the rules, because they protect me from guilt and are a subtle but present barrier to some of my anxieties.

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.

40 Comments

    • Thank you so much. It’s a bittersweet day for this to be published as I’m exactly 24 +1 days pregnant with this new baby today – the same gestation I gave birth to Ander. So as I’m feeling delicate today emotionally I more than ever appreciate your (and others’) comment!

  1. As a fellow rule-follower/life-controller, I really connect with your story. I also have this ridiculous idea that life is a series of checks and balances…so if things are going really well for me, bad things will inevitably happen to ‘balance out’ the good, so I then struggle to hold on and control everything I can. It’s utterly exhausting.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Sending you love and best wishes with this pregnancy <3

    • I struggled with that too, feeling that this was my “punishment” for living what, to this point, has been an incredibly blessed life. I’m not sure what I believe anymore, but that is the subject for a later article!

  2. All the first person stories draw me in, but this was a particularly compelling one (I too tend to follow the speed limit! And then expect that following the rules and doing the paperwork right means it will all work out). I hope that your second child joins us safely and smoothly, and appreciate you sharing your experiences with your firstborn.

  3. This was powerful. I was instantly crying.
    Your story is almost exactly that of my mother’s, save that my mother is straight and that her child was born still. I don’t think she’s ever freed herself of the blame for the loss of my older sister—even twenty-six years later. When she had my sister, the general, pushed idea was that you forget and move on, and when I was born (three years later), the idea was pushed even more so (after all, she had a child now).
    But: you sound like you have an incredible support system, and you are so strong. You’re honoring and remembering your son and that is everything. I wish you everything good on the impending arrival of your second child, and I wish you peace.
    Thank you for sharing this.

    • I’m sure your mother remembers your sister every day. Unfortunately, people are all too often encouraged to not talk about pregnancy and infant losses, even today – which is why I’m all the more grateful Autostraddle invited me to share my story. It shouldn’t be a taboo topic, and encouraging people to move on from a loss like this only serves to prolong the grief and isolation. You’re right – I do have a great support system (and a feisty attitude that means I don’t tolerate when people tell me to “move on” and “get over it”), and for that I’m very thankful.

  4. My sister and her husband are hyper-organized perfectionist rule-follower types (I still have no idea how either of them could ever have been artists) and they lost their first child too in a miscarriage. It was heartbreaking for all, though I don’t think I fully understood the extent of her pain because she desperately wanted space and I think I was the only family member that respected that.

    They have a 2+ year old now who is a mini genius and super adorbs. I hope your upcoming child is similarly wonderful.

  5. Thank you, Caitlin, for sharing this vulnerable story, the story of sweet Ander’s life and death.

    Though we lost our baby so much earlier, I really resonate with the feeling of being out of control, losing my baby despite trying to do everything right, doing the very very best I could, and being totally unmoored by that. In my grief I felt at sea with it, like, how could I make sense of anything if I couldn’t control things? If doing my best wasn’t enough?

    I also felt, later, a sense of elation at that truth, waking up out of my depression to a “holy shit, what if I *can’t* control anything at all? and what if that is a serious relief?”

    So much to process.

    We are due within days of each other I think. And I so hope for both of us that we deliver full term babies and carry them home in our arms come August. Sending all my very best to you.

  6. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. My mother had two miscarriages (one many years ago and the other last summer) and with the amount of pain I felt as the older sibling, I can’t imagine what it must be like for you as a mother.
    You and your family are in my prayers.

  7. I took what feels like our billionth pregnancy test this morning – actually, I took three of them – and was greeted by three single pink lines. I think they shouted at me as I squinted back trying to make parallel lines appear out of nothing. Though we haven’t been pregnant, and I cannot begin to imagine your loss, we have dealt with our own foreboding sense of loss and grief on revolving timetable every 28 days for the past several months. Thank you for sharing your story, and your son Ander, with us. Thank you for sharing your joy, hope, and mixed emotions as you await the arrival of your rainbow baby. Your children have a very brave mama. Blessings to you as you wait, and grieve, and hope.

    • The waiting to become pregnant is terrible. In my next post, I talk more about this – particularly the fright and uncertainty of trying to become pregnant again after a loss. It’s NO FUN. Sending hope and baby dust to you!

  8. A dear friend of mine lost her 11 day old son to SIDS in October. She and her husband are also rule-followers, and I saw a lot of them in your story. I’m going to pass your story along to her because she has found a lot of comfort in reading stories like this and knowing her family is not alone.

  9. C- I am so proud of you and happy for you and K!!!!! Congrats on your first piece. It was great. Thank you as well for giving baby loss mom’s a voice.

  10. I was born three months early, and had a lot of the same health problems as your son. I always take my survival for granted, because it’s something I rarely think about–it’s a story pulled out and brushed off to impress newcomers, nothing more. Reading this, I realize how incredibly lucky I am, and I feel rotten that I’ve been so flippant about my story before now.
    I am so, so sorry for your loss. I can’t even begin to imagine how this must have affected (and continues to affect) you. You are beyond brave for sharing this, and my heart goes out to you and your family.
    And even though I’m not very spiritual, I’m sure Ander is watching out for his new sibling. I wish you all the happiness with this baby.

    • No need to feel rotten! I’m glad you were one of the lucky ones :). When we were in the NICU, all the stories we heard from other parents were of NICU survivors, and those stories are important in giving NICU families hope… as long as they’re balanced by stories of babies who didn’t make it, so parents don’t feel alone in their grief if theirs happens to be one of the unlucky ones.
      I’m not that spiritual either, but I also believe Ander is watching out for his sibling :).

  11. I’ve thought a lot about this article this week. I am reminded of it as my toddler sits watching sponge bob and I am on full scale alert for an imminent poonami from my constipated daughter.

    Your story about your lovely little man Anders has brought me a greater appreciation of the preciousness in my interactions with my children no matter how absurd and ordinary they are. Like the way she’ll just come over and clamber across my knees with her blanky, wail something incoherent them demand a tummy rub.

    I am grateful that you expressed so eloquently the pain in losing him so young. When I was pregnant I was chased by the spectre of that dark statistic that only one in two first pregnancies go to term. Your narrative and reflections shone a warm and humane light into the subject and your dedication to your first born son is such that his short life will continue to resonate with myself as a reader and mother. Thank you.

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