My first pregnancy was going beautifully…until it wasn’t. We were doing things in the traditional order: we married, bought our first house and, after nearly a year of trying, were expecting our first child. I was ecstatic. I had always looked forward to being a mother. After years of praying that I wasn’t pregnant before the right time, it felt like a cruel joke that conceiving was difficult. At least, that’s how it seemed when everyone around me was having babies so easily.
For the first few months, instead of “morning sickness,” I often felt hungover but endured it gladly. We took monthly pictures of my profile, with me pulling my shirt tightly in the back to reveal my growing baby bump. I loved every minute of the pregnancy. As someone who always “watched my weight,” I revelled in the permission to eat like a regular person because, after all, I was also feeding my baby. This was complicated by healthcare providers who commented on my monthly weight gain as if I was doing something wrong. I didn’t know I had an eating disorder—I wouldn’t be formally diagnosed for many years—but those comments bothered me. Being highly motivated to do everything correctly, I didn’t restrict food intake. However, warnings that “losing the baby weight will be harder if you gain too much,” impacted my joy.
My due date was circled on the calendar from the beginning. That date was the beacon shining in front of me, the date when I would meet our baby. As a first-time mother, I assumed and hoped the due date was the date. I was aware that babies arrive early and late, but I didn’t dwell on that. Two years prior, the first child of close friends had been born prematurely and hadn’t survived, which had been devastating. I was keenly aware of this as my pregnancy approached the same stage of gestation, praying our baby would be okay. When I made it through that stage, I felt like I could exhale and relax.
At nearly 33 weeks, I went into premature labour. It was 1982 before medical advances were such that babies that small were allowed to be delivered. The doctors believed that our baby was in the best incubator—me—and gave intravenous medication to stop labour from progressing. Hooked up to a fetal monitor, I lay in the hospital for days, listening to the rhythmic beating of the tiny heart. At one point, I was taken off the IV meds and given the same medication orally. Contractions began again, and I was put back on the IV. I felt that my baby wanted to be born—why else would the contractions keep coming? – but I listened to the medical experts who certainly knew more than I did.
After five days in hospital, I was sent home on oral medication and was ordered to be on bed rest. What I recall most from those days was overwhelming fear and stress. I was, first and foremost, afraid for the baby. I felt an immense responsibility for keeping my baby safe and alive. I worried about every little thing as I lay there, doing nothing. I was also worried about not being able to work. We didn’t have high-paying jobs, and depended on my income, as much as my husband’s, to pay the bills. How could we afford for me to be on bed rest for the next seven weeks? How could I afford to take maternity leave after so long without a paycheck?
After being home for a few days, I was instructed to go to the clinic to see how things were going. I made an appointment with a doctor I didn’t know simply because he had an opening in his schedule. He listened with the Doptone instrument for the steady beat of our baby’s heart, the sound that had been my constant companion in the hospital. There was nothing.
The doctor grabbed a traditional prenatal stethoscope to listen, nervously saying, “Sometimes those machines don’t work.” His facial expression betrayed the calmness he was trying hard to convey. I knew at that moment that something was wrong. The baby hadn’t been as active for the past day, but I’d assumed that since I was less active, the baby was too.
We were advised to go to the hospital for an ultrasound, presumably to find the elusive heartbeat. The doctor, who I came to believe was a gift from God that day, said he would be on call at the hospital that night. Even though we had just met, we felt comforted knowing he’d be there.
We rode silently the entire drive there, both of us afraid to voice our fears. The ultrasound confirmed the unthinkable—there was no heartbeat. Our sweet baby had died.
I stopped taking the medication to delay labour and our baby boy was born nine hours later in a still, silent delivery. He was a big boy for his gestational age, weighing 4 lb. 10.5 oz and measuring 19.5 inches. We gave him the boy’s name we’d chosen – Adam. He was beautiful and looked like he was sleeping peacefully. I had declined to take any pain medication during the labour and delivery because I wanted to be as alert as possible when my baby was placed in my arms. I wanted to remember every tiny detail about him before saying goodbye forever.
A kind nurse offered to take pictures of Adam so we would have a keepsake. At the time, I remember feeling a little uncertain about that, but I decided to go ahead. It wasn’t like today, where families can have professional photographs taken to remember their little ones as well as footprints and locks of hair. I’m glad to have the two Polaroid photos from that night, as it’s all I have of Adam. Looking at my 26-year-old self, holding my son, it’s sometimes still difficult to believe it happened.
In the labour and delivery room, holding my newborn, yet still, son, I looked out the window into the night sky and saw an exceptionally bright star. At that moment, I took that to mean that Adam was in heaven and safe, and this brought me great comfort. To this day, when I look at the stars, I think of my little boy.
We had a small graveside funeral service for him at a cemetery that has a section called Babyland. My husband and my father made the funeral arrangements while I was still in the hospital. My father gave the funeral home his own baptismal gown in which Adam would be buried since we had nothing special for the occasion. There hadn’t been any baby showers yet, so we only had a few tiny tee shirts that I’d purchased during the pregnancy. I’m forever grateful to my father for that small kindness.
The doctor who delivered Adam insisted that I take the typical six-week maternity leave because even though I didn’t bring a baby home, I still had a baby; I was still a new mother. Instead of six weeks, I took four.
During that time and for a long time after, I grieved for my son, thinking, as I lifted a five lb. bag of flour from a grocery shelf, that Adam had almost weighed that much. Sometimes, I’d let the bag linger in my arms for a second or two to remember how he felt that night. I’d also look at the birth announcements published in the newspaper, and if there was a baby who had been born close to Adam’s size, a baby who had lived, I felt my baby’s birth was validated. I never shared these moments with anyone, possibly because I feared people would question my sanity. I know now that those were perfectly normal ways to mourn and remember.
The experience of a stillbirth alone would be a major influence on anyone’s life, but it created a ripple effect of experiences in my life that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Of course, I would have much rather had Adam to love and care for, but his little life has touched many others in many ways.
Shortly after Adam died, I attended a support group for pregnancy and infant loss. There, I became friends with a woman whose baby also had been stillborn. She became a huge source of support for me as I journeyed through my grief. After my next baby was born, a healthy little girl, we worked with her husband, a real estate broker and a builder, and built a house in a suburb of the city we had lived in. We chose that area simply because that’s where my friend lived and where her husband built most of his homes. It’s not a decision we would have made had I not made a friend in the support group.
After Adam’s death, I met another woman who had had a stillborn child and who had started an organisation to help newly bereaved parents cope with the loss of their children. I became a volunteer outreach parent and was able to help other families deal with their heartbreaking losses. Over the years, I’ve had the honour of connecting with others who have had a similar loss. Adam has inspired me to continue to celebrate his life by helping others celebrate their babies — celebrations that others often don’t understand.
One of the most beautiful outcomes of losing my son is that I’ve never taken my two healthy daughters for granted. After we had Adam, we struggled with infertility, intensifying the longing for a child. I don’t think I would have felt differently if Adam had lived because he was so precious to me, but losing him made my daughters much more precious. The pain of his death made the joy of their births exponentially greater.
Several months after Adam died, friends offered to plant a tree in his memory. We opted to plant the tree in Babyland, near Adam. We chose a flowering crabapple tree which started as a puny, spindly thing that has grown and blossomed into a magnificent tree. The most beautiful thing about this tree is that the parents and families of other babies often hang decorations from it to honour their babies who lie there. I’ve grown to think of those babies as Adam’s little friends. Every time I visit Adam, I walk over to his tree to see how people remember their babies and in that moment I realize this is not only Adam’s tree; it belongs to everyone.