With Boundaries

The narrative of human life is most beautiful when told truthfully and without boundaries. -Shonda Rhimes

I am used to the occasional innocuous question, such as “How many children do you have?” I start. Stumble. Never answer the question the way I would like. Struggle between what I need (to recognize that I have had four children) and what the world needs (which is to pretend that everything is fine).

The past few days have been a constant bombardment of “what the world needs to hear.” It began in O’Hare airport as I was eating lunch in a restaurant before my flight to Denver for a conference. My reading of The New Yorker was interrupted by the words “Is this your first?” I looked up into the face of a man who looked like Santa Claus. His wife was seated across from him and they both waited expectantly for my answer. “Um, no,” I replied. I wanted to just leave it at that but I could tell by his expression that a follow-up question was coming, so I said “It’s my third.” I turned away, but another question called me back to the conversation: “When are you due?” “End of August. Mid August,” I replied, then correcting myself. I couldn’t even say the date. Every time I think the date, it feels so very far away. I turned firmly back to my magazine, determined to stop talking. And also to keep my head low so that they could not see the tears in the corners of my eyes.

At the conference, I was standing in front of sixty work customers. It happens once a year. Never happened while I was pregnant with Nelle (conference was right before I was pregnant) or Iris (conference was right after the loss). Only one customer in the room was aware of both losses and that only happened because of a long-term project I was working on at the time and needing to convey timing around an impending maternity leave, and then that the leave was no longer happening. No one else knew. And being now six months pregnant with no hope of hiding the pregnancy, I knew the questions that would be flung in my direction. My therapist wryly suggested that I wear a sign around my neck saying “Yes, I’m pregnant. 25 weeks. Yes, I know the gender. No, I’m not sharing that information.” I slept incredibly poorly the night before, running through all of the scenarios of questions in my mind.

The group was a mix of customers that I have known for years and years, and customers that I have never met. When I thought about how I would answer the various questions, I pictured two different types of responses, depending on who asked. With customers I didn’t know, it would be “It’s my third child.” With those I have known a long time, it would be “Well actually, I’ve had two stillborn babies.” I decided on a medical modification of the truth, because I still can’t get over the fact that Nelle is medically classified as stillborn and Iris a miscarriage when I went through Labor and Delivery for both. They were both born.

It took zero time for the questions to begin. “When are you due?” “Is this your first?” “Do you know what you’re having?” And “Congratulations!” Over and over, smile plastered on my face. Finally, a long-time customer that I have known for ten years asked if Theo and Quentin were excited about the baby. We were off to the side, away from the earshot of others at the time. I took a breath and replied “Well, actually I’ve had two stillborn babies in the past two years. So I think we’re all just hoping for a healthy baby.” Her face immediately fell into the “oh I’m sorry…” to which I quickly said that everything has been fine so far and I’m being closely monitored. That was it. That was the only time I managed to say anything other than the expected response.

I had another chance, but I couldn’t bring myself to say what I wanted. At dinner, I was at a table of six, with customers that I knew well. It was a more relaxed environment and we were talking about tattoos. Being bankers, they were talking about the conservative environments that they worked in and the need to have tattoos be covered. I said that I have one, on my back, easy to hide. Someone asked me what the tattoo was of and I replied “the birthdates of my children.” It was a perfect opportunity to elaborate. But I didn’t.

It was two days of staring at that invisible but much-felt boundary of what I need and what is expected. I have swallowed what I need in terms of acknowledging my babies to maintain the professional “line” of not making people uncomfortable. I’ve hated every minute of it. I’m exhausted by the energy it has required. I’m scared that if something happens and I lose the baby, that at this time next year, at the conference again, I’ll be greeted with questions of “how’s the baby?” at which point I’ll have no choice but a painful response.

I hadn’t used my heart rate monitor in a few days because I was feeling enough movement throughout the day that I hadn’t needed that assurance. But I brought it with me, just in case. A few minutes before I needed to head down on the first morning, I was anxiously waiting for a reassuring kick. When it did not come at that precise moment I needed it, I pulled out the monitor, scared, needing that sound before I faced the crowd. I used it again immediately before dinner, also needing that immediate knowledge that the heart was still beating. I sat for a few extra minutes to listen, rather than quickly packing up the device like I normally do. Today, back home, decidedly less movement. I know that movements are irregular at this point in pregnancy. My head knows that. My heart is shaking a bit.

Today, my body is tired. Physically, I am tired from the exertion of being on my feet and in front of customers for two days. Emotionally, I am tired from the drain. This morning, I wanted nothing more than a piece of tiramisu; I don’t know why. Not wanting the effort of going to an actual restaurant, I went to Whole Foods. They only had an entire cake of tiramisu, not just a slice. I wound up with carrot cake. The elegance of tiramisu replaced by the rather ordinary and earthy carrot cake.

The Ocean

“Grief is like the ocean, it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing.  Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming.  All we can do is learn to swim.”  -Vicki Harrison

One year ago today, I was looking at the ocean.

We were in Hawaii, celebrating the marriage of my uncles.  I was 10 weeks pregnant with Nelle.  I announced upon our arrival to our family present that we were having a baby girl.  In the morning, discombobulated by the time zone change, we walked along the beach and watched the sun rise over the ocean.  Later that day, I swam in the ocean for the first time, maternity suit flowing around my swelling abdomen.

A year ago, I never could have imagined that I would be here right now.  I would have thought that I would be holding a five-month-old baby.  I never thought that the vacation of our dreams would now be a reminder of where I was then, and where I am now.  I can’t escape it.  Every photo bears the signs of my pregnancy, hidden under the clothes I carefully chose.

I read an article recently about the misconceptions of grieving in western culture.  One expectation was: the grieving need about a year to heal.  Nelle was born on September 4, so here I am, not even 10 months past that first staggering loss.  The article also said: People say year two is harder than year one. There is the shock, end of life arrangements and other business matters that often consume the first year and the grieving do not have the time actually to sit back and take the time to grieve.  While pregnancy loss is very different in the “business matters” sense, I am hitting those “memories” entering of “where I was a year ago” that are not constantly invading my space.

A year ago,  I was looking at the ocean.  Now I am learning to stay afloat in the ocean of grief.

Grief is like the rain.  Soft.  Hard.  Warm.  Cold.  Sometimes torrential and unrelenting.  Sometimes so furious that we cannot see through the downpour.  Sometimes it brings hail.  Pelting, it causes permanent indentations in metal.  We stay inside and watch the damaging shards of ice.

Sometimes it turns to snow, icy and unforgiving.

Sometimes it is light and warm, a gentle reminder that it is necessary to grow.

A little fall of rain
Can hardly hurt me now
…And rain will make the flowers grow.
-From Les Miserables

What I Would Be Doing

I would be seven months pregnant right now. Or have a four month old baby.

When we first learned that Nelle was growth-restricted, without knowing the cause, the doctor told us that one option we might have to explore would be inducing early – very early, as soon as she could be viable outside of the womb.  But without knowing the cause, she might have a better chance on the outside.  I was 20 weeks at the time, and briefly we talked that induction could happen as early as 28 weeks, if they could not figure it out. It scared me to deliver that early, but I have known many premature babies that were fine. I thought “Maybe only 8 more weeks. Then we can get her out.”

At 21 weeks, 1 day she was gone and I delivered her.

Even with no indication that anything was wrong with Iris, with each passing week, I kept thinking “If there’s a problem, I only need to make it to 28 weeks or so.  Then she can be viable.”  I only made it to 16 weeks, 1 day.

Not only do I look at every day with what “should have been” but I am starting to receive reminders of where I was at this time last year. I was a few weeks pregnant.  I was starting to tell people.  After losing each of my girls, I went back through my Facebook profile and deleted every reference to my pregnancies. But the likelihood is that I did not catch everything and On This Day will remind me. My writing from a year ago will remind me.

I was sorting through old bras this morning in my drawer and came across a maternity/nursing bra that I had missed packing away. I thought “SERIOUSLY?”

By accident the other day, I found a t-shirt stuffed in the front pocket of my suitcase.  It was from our trip to Hawaii last summer, never worn.  I bought it after we had checked out of the condo and were on our way to the airport to fly home.  I was 11 weeks pregnant at the time, and the t-shirt didn’t fit; I bought it for future use. Then completely forgot about it.  Now I look at it, and remember that trip. I see all of the photos of our smiling faces and I am juxtaposed with happiness, and now pain as I look at my figure, knowing I was pregnant. I can never erase that aspect from the pictures.

So where I “should be” is so different from where I am and never expected to be.  I should be in a different place. Instead I am writing.