Where Hope and Grief Can Co-Exist

You see, when you have lost a baby for no explainable reason, you have bad days and good days in the months between your baby’s death and the process of trying to conceive, again. One summer Saturday was the worst, bringing tears and despair, revealing my darkest fears to my wife while we lay on our backs in a tent during a rainstorm, waiting for the clouds to blow past before making dinner of orzo and vegetables over our Jetboil. “I just can’t shake this feeling that it’ll take years to have a baby, and by then I’ll be sick or otherwise unable to enjoy it,” I told her. “I can’t break out of this fatalistic funk in which I’m too decrepit to teach my child to throw a baseball.”

Now that we have conceived our rainbow baby, I indulge in the good days of wild hope more regularly. On good days, I feel peaceful, believing that I will carry this pregnancy to term without complications and get to take home a living, smiling baby who can breastfeed on their own. On good days, I can worry about whether I’ll seem overprotective if we get a video baby monitor. I remember that a colleague just had twins at 47. Another adopted a baby at 45. No one will think less of me for being an older mom; I won’t be so old that I won’t be able to help my kid move into college, see my grandchild.

In the second trimester though, I found the grief and hope coexisting in my heart. My wife and I struggled to both continually honor or son Anderson’s memory while opening our hearts again to a new child, who is ours whether they make it to birth and beyond or not. We vacillate about telling others we are pregnant, torn between not wanting to get their hopes up and yet needing their support should something happen. As the second trimester began and progressed, we continued to try to celebrate this baby’s existence despite the fear and doubt.

Second Trimester Diary

Week Thirteen: We have another ultrasound to check for chromosomal anomalies, the nuchal fold test. It takes a while as we have to poke and prod him into the best position, but I love watching him squirm and salute us. There is a scary moment, though, when the tech says “don’t clean off your belly yet, I just want to check I have all the measurements” and leaves the room. She is probably only gone for ten minutes, but it feels like 20 to us as we wait anxiously, wondering if there is actually bad news and she needs a second opinion. When she returns she seems surprised when we fire off “is anything wrong?” (There isn’t.) I don’t want to be a crazy patient, and I don’t want to overreact. But I don’t want to underreact either.

Ander's butterfly garden.  Photo Copyright: Jane MacAlpine

Ander’s butterfly garden.
Photo Copyright: Jane MacAlpine

Week Fourteen: The wife and I continue to struggle about whom to tell and when. I’m terrified to tell people. I don’t even love having told my mom, because she can’t hide her excitement (she sends us name suggestions every day), and it just makes me terrified if I ever have to tell her bad news.

Week Fifteen: I think my boxing instructors are starting to notice that I’m appearing “lazier” than usual — the fatigue really hits me this week! I figure I’ll tell them soon, but mostly due to vanity; I don’t want to be perceived as lazy or cutting corners. I’ve started to modify some of the core activities for my own comfort, as I’m getting the first bits of obvious pudginess. I wear maternity pants once, but mostly because they are cute corduroys and make me feel good. I feel the baby fluttering for the first time.

Week Sixteen: All the results from genetic screening show that I’m low-risk for having a baby with a chromosomal issue. I had no reason to suspect otherwise, but it’s still good to hear. Because things are going so well, I’ve just been seeing the physician’s assistant. She’s very sweet, but I think part of the problem is that *I’m* too cheery when I see her. “Things are going great!” I’ll say. “I feel really good!” So the visits are short and positive and normal, which means I’m only seen every month, like a “normal” person. Since this is my second pregnancy, too, and I’m not at the centering-based, midwifery practice I was at last time, everything seems to have a different feel. While on one hand, I have no physical reason for the handholding, on the other, I think I need to be a better advocate. As this pregnancy progresses I’m getting more and more anxious that something will go wrong and it’ll be missed. I crave the extra reassurance.

Week Seventeen: I discover I have gained as much in this pregnancy so far as I lost in the last one. I feel like I’m in limbo. Most of my symptoms are gone, but I can’t feel the baby really move yet. It’s a very disconcerting place to be. I still check obsessively every time I use the bathroom to make sure I’m not bleeding, and vaginal discharge still freaks me out (even though I know it’s the normal type and completely okay — it’s just the sensation that freaks me out, especially if I can’t get to a bathroom quickly).

Week Eighteen: We try to file our taxes and realize we need a Social Security number for Anderson. I’m convinced I applied for one, and tear apart my files looking for it. I never lose anything, but it just isn’t there. I go to the Social Security office with birth and death certificate in hand, but they can’t even tell me if I had previously applied, let alone give me a number for him, which causes me to cry in front of the agent. I know I can file my taxes via paper with copies of the two certificates, but it feels like just one more thing he doesn’t get.

Week Nineteen: This is when the bleeding started again last time, marking the start of the abruption. The mood swings this week are intense. I have a breakdown when my mother starts enthusiastically suggesting things to do for my sister’s bachelorette party. I have to miss the wedding, and the “real” bachelorette, and my mother is planning the bridal shower, so I have been planning the “family” bachelorette party in May (which is the end of when I can really travel). I have everything planned, but when my mother starts suggesting activities and offering to buy the tickets, I start sobbing and trying to explain that this is the only thing I can do for my sister and I had all these great plans and she was taking over my special day. My mother is horrified to have upset me — of course, she had just been trying to help, thinking I was stressed from the pregnancy — darn pregnancy hormones!

Week Twenty: The tech at our Level Two ultrasound knows our history and is clearly very experienced and very calm and sweet. She keeps pointing out things reassuringly (look, there’s his brain, it looks perfect; look, nice long legs and big feet, etc.). A maternal/fetal medicine specialist meets with us, and the only potential complication he mentions is that my placenta is lying a little low. He said normally he wouldn’t even mention it, but there is a 50/50 chance I could have some spotting or bleeding and he wants to assure me that if it were to happen, it would most likely be the placenta’s location near the cervix and not indication of a threatening abruption, as otherwise there are no visible clots or any other indication that the placenta is compromised. However, then he mentions that they found an echogenic intracadiac focus during the ultrasound, which doubles my risk of having a baby with Down Syndrome. But, since I tested low-risk on my earlier scans (less than 1 in 5,000 chance) and since the ultrasound showed no other fetal abnormalities that may signal a chromosomal issue, my risk is still around 1 in 2,000 so still so insignificant that he didn’t think it initially even worth mentioning. I’m not sure I’m glad he did or not.

Week Twenty-one: I’ve started to realize that I just might have a full-term baby. With Ander, we knew he’d be at least a bit early. I had been reading preemie and micropreemie blogs, preparing for RSV lockdowns, occupational therapy, learning disabilities, accommodations, worrying about every little cough and sniffle. Now I’m starting to realize I might have a baby without the stress and strain of the constant worry of a micropreemie. It’s almost too much to think about!

Week Twenty-two: We talk names. I struggle with the fact that we named our son Anderson, as that was the only name we both loved and agreed on. This child feels like they will get a “second best” name, and yet this is the name we’ll hopefully get to use for years. We do the March of Dimes walk in Anderson’s memory.

Week Twenty-three: My grandmother dies at 87. She will never meet my children. This is the week I went into labor with Ander and was placed on hospital bed rest. Despite these two triggers, we decided that we will stop going to our monthly bereavement group now that I’ve started to show. We are the furthest ahead in our grief journey in the group, and the others are just starting to maybe thinking about talking about trying to conceive, and we get new people all the time. I can only imagine how I would feel if I had just lost a baby and went to this group for the first time and there was a pregnant lady there. Horrible.

Week Twenty-four: The legal limit of viability in Illinois, the gestational age where the doctors will take heroic measures to save your baby. The week Anderson was born. I made it. From here on, I’m in uncharted territory.

Week Twenty-five: To give you a sense of my recent paranoia, here is what I Googled just this weekend: Can my maternity support belt be too tight? (Verdict: no.) Am I leaking amniotic fluid? (Verdict: no.) Am I having Braxton Hicks contractions, or is it the baby balling up? (Verdict: probably the former, but it’s totally normal). Should I be concerned that my fundal height didn’t change from 20 to 22 weeks? (Verdict: no. It’s still within the realm of normal and even a full bladder could affect the measurement).

Week Twenty-six: My hips, thighs and back are sore. I’ve definitely popped and I LOVE looking pregnant. Most times and most days, I love everything about being pregnant, especially the movement. My wife is so excited. She hosts an end-of-year BBQ at our house for her grad students, and they decorate onesies for the baby. Part of me is a bit hesitant, as it still feels too soon to be “celebrating,” but the other part of me is ecstatic and embracing all the fun parts that I didn’t get last time. I am scared a lot, but I’m also excited and hopeful a lot. We started getting gifts, and it’s a little frightening at the same time that it’s thrilling. One part of me can’t wait to rip into the box, while the other part of me is wondering how we’d go about returning all these gifts if we had to. I have moments when I panic and just ask Ander over and over to take care of his sibling. Some days I don’t think the fear and anxiety will ever end!

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.

22 Comments

  1. As someone who had never been interested in having children, and has mostly been excluded from all baby related conversations in life, I was so out of my depth when my sister became pregnant, and then lost her baby, and then became pregnant again. How to offer her meaningful support without invading her and her husbands grief space, how to help her not feel invalidated as a parent without an obvious child (especially on days where we revolve around family) has been something that I needed help navigating, and the heteronormative blogs made me feel so uncomfortable… so thank-you to you and the other pregnancy related contributors for gifting me with the ability to grow my knowledge and gain some insight into what my sister is going through.

    • You clearly care about your sister to have thought so much about how to help her! My words of wisdom – if your sister’s baby had a name, use it, often. Send notes just to say you’re thinking of them on birthdays, death days, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, other holidays, etc. It’s so easy to do, and yet most people don’t, because they don’t want to “remind” the grieving parents about their lost child. Trust me – we’re much more worried that others will FORGET. The easiest and best thing you can do for your sister and her husband is promise you won’t forget that they are parents and that they had a child. Simply saying “I’m sure today is hard for you. I wish (baby) were here with us too” goes SUCH a long way!

  2. You write so beautifully and I feel so much while reading your posts! Wishing you so much health and happiness going forward, and looking forward to the next installment.

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