‘It’s just first-time mom anxiety.’ I was insistent something was wrong. The hours were unnecessarily traumatic.’: Mom mourns loss of baby born sleeping, ‘He came to heal parts of my soul’

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“It’s early summer in South Carolina, rounding the corner to our first year here. My husband is traveling somewhere in the Middle East. I don’t complain about the heat or the humidity here at this duty station because I love it, unlike a lot of folks. This day though, sweat pours from my forehead inside our air-conditioned house. I rotate between cramps and nausea. I know what is happening because it has happened so many times before. This is the fourth time. I am miscarrying but not panicking. I notified no one because I had told no one. There is a strange familiarity that has crept into it to me now. I run my list of options for ‘just in case’ I need to go to the ER in my head before settling into my nest on the couch. Though I am in pain, I am calm as I resolve myself to never having kids and never trying again. The repeated losses are too hard, especially as we travel around.

Four years and three duty stations later, we somehow land back in South Carolina. It’s April of 2019. I laid on my couch reluctantly, head spinning, nauseous, hot, my hands shaking. I had just finished a heavy weightlifting workout, nothing out of the ordinary for me, a personal trainer and powerlifting coach. Because of that background, I replayed the last few days. Asking myself what I had eaten or not eaten, how much caffeine and water I had, what I had for breakfast that morning, and if I had changed anything with the supplements I take. I had gotten some samples of performance supplements and powders a few days earlier in the mail. It occurred to me likely what my body was experiencing was the result of a new pre-workout I had taken that morning. ‘That is not the one for me,’ I thought to myself as I laid on the couch with my cold water bottle pressed to my forehead. Eventually, this uneasy feeling passed and I hurried about the rest of my day, getting ready for work and driving the half-hour to the gym. It wouldn’t occur to me pregnancy was even on the table for another week or two.

Courtesy of Leah O.

It was an absolute shock it had happened again, especially considering my history of infertility with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). I know how absurd it sounds to say it was a shock but it truly was. My birth control had failed, an option we chose after the fourth miscarriage as the mental and physical toll had become too much for me. We had rebuilt our life to be centered on not having kids. We had mourned this but ultimately settled into peaceful acceptance. The day I saw the two pink lines, I can’t say I was shocked at the result though. I already knew. My body had been telling me for weeks. I think in hindsight, I waited so long to prove it with a test because I had to muster up the emotional and mental strength for what I knew would likely end shortly after a positive test anyway. Perhaps, as had happened before, I would make it to a single OB visit to hear there was no heartbeat again. Or perhaps, there would be a heartbeat but then a week or two later, the cramping would start again. It felt so familiarly heavy.

A week before I took the test, I ordered a Chick Fil A chicken sandwich combo meal. An honest luxury in my life that was so centered around fitness. I distinctly remember pitying the lady in the parking spot next to me because that chicken sandwich and my baby had an immediate disagreement all over the front of my shirt. This definitely confirmed to me what I already knew. I bought a test on the way home after throwing out the rest of my combo meal. Something strange was happening though. I felt peacefully optimistic that this time it would work out. My great grandmother had passed away in 2016 and it was her birthday that day. Though still very reluctant, I took it as a sign from my sweet Granny it was all going to be okay this time.

Courtesy of Leah O.

Weeks passed before I could get into the OB I chose. I was meticulous in choosing my provider. Having previous miscarriages, a renal impairment as a result of a birth defect, and only one remaining ovary from a large cyst as a teenager, I needed to be sure the office I chose was equipped for high-risk pregnancies and complications. I wanted a delivery hospital with a level-IV NICU. I wanted a provider that would listen to me and my concerns instead of scoffing like nearly every other provider I had in the past had done. I felt confident in my choice. That confidence quickly waned at the first appointment when the intake nurse commented on my weight, a familiar excuse that had been used so many times before. I had spent ten years losing 100 pounds, became a personal trainer, and methodically planned my meals and workouts. The weight issue was old and scabbed. Knowing that medical providers typically judge weight-related health by using the body mass index scale, an outdated measure that does not account for body composition, I tried to let this go. I said little as this nurse lectured me about being physically active and eating healthy even though I could clearly see the box of Twinkies on her desk. My OB seemed great, though. We talked a lot about weight gain and management as I told her my story of losing weight, becoming a trainer, and specifically working with women who had endocrine disorders like me. We talked about how weightlifting was not something I had to stop doing and about my history of depression. I was concerned if this pregnancy made it out of the first trimester, the hormones would tank me into a spiral given I had dealt with it before. She assured me we would address my concerns for it at the next appointment.

Despite my strange optimism this time, I was still so shocked there was a heartbeat on the sonogram.

Courtesy of Leah O.

I kept repeating, ‘But are you sure?’ over and over again. She responded with a funny look on her face as she replied, ‘I am absolutely sure. I am also absolutely sure that you are almost out of the first trimester too!’ Dumbfounded, I looked at my husband across the room. He knowingly gave me a shrug. I had been so sure we were only six, maybe eight weeks in. Wow. We left that day in total shock of so many things. The heaviest of all was we were nearly out of the ‘danger zone,’ a milestone we never had before. Two weeks later, having told those closest to us but not officially announcing yet, I found myself sobbing in the office to the nurse practitioner on staff at the OB office. The hormones had spiraled me deep into prenatal depression and I could not seem to get out of it. I did not know it at the time but the decision to both go on SSRI medication and to be so open about my struggles would be one that would haunt me for a long time.

We filled most of our mornings, evenings, and weekends together talking about all things baby. We made registries and lists of names. We laughed at each other when one of us came up with a name the other one found ludicrous. We teased our beautiful dog (and first ‘baby’) about no longer being an only child. We rearranged furniture to accommodate the nursery furniture we ordered. When you move around as much as we do, it’s important to ensure any furniture items you buy can be versatile in different spaces. I special ordered a ‘Mama’ shirt from a boutique that no longer carried it anymore but did one more just for me. So many years had passed me by as I watched through the screen of my phone at all my friends announcing their pregnancies, over and over again. This time, it would finally be us and I needed it to be perfect. These weeks were also filled with so much mental turmoil for me. I wanted to be so happy and carefree but prenatal depression robbed me of so much of that. Some days, the combination of that and the physical toll of pregnancy were enough to drain me. I envied other people who seemed to love pregnancy, because to my shame, I hated it. I would make three separate trips to the Emergency Room for bleeding complications. Each time being sent home and told, ‘You just have first-time mom anxiety.’

Courtesy of Leah O.

In an effort to clear my head, we planned a weekend trip close to the end of July. It was a short two-hour drive from our home. We spent the weekend there walking around parks, taking in new scenery, and having deep discussions about what our parenthood meant to each of us. I had a lavender soda mid-day at a local bakery, partially to cool off from the extreme heat and partially to rest my tired body. It was difficult for me to accept the changes that were happening physically. So much of my identity for ten years had been tied to my weight in some way. Too fat to get pregnant, then too fat to have a healthy pregnancy, then still too fat for this pregnancy even after having lost so much weight. My fertility, self-worth, and body image were so closely intertwined, it was difficult to battle with on top of the prenatal depression.

Courtesy of Leah O.

That night, I asked my husband to get more pillows from the front desk. I felt so uncomfortable. At home, I had a pregnancy pillow that would alleviate a lot of the pressure I continually felt but I couldn’t seem to replicate that with the hotel pillows. That feeling combined with the history of being told I was too heavy would solidify my irrational fears. They were right and that is why I felt so uncomfortable. The following week, I would see the OB to be told the discomfort I was feeling was likely because of my body weight and the stretching of my uterus to accommodate my sweet boy. I made two trips to the ER to be told the same thing and that ‘first-time mom anxiety.’ I was irrationally insistent something was wrong but the diagnosis of prenatal depression a few weeks earlier just kept being brought back up. On July 26th, 2019, I drove myself back to the Emergency Room. My water broke as I walked through the double doors into the waiting room. My sweet baby had a strong heartbeat but they were sorry, there was nothing to be done to save him now. Eliot Kian was delivered 26 hours later at 20 weeks, silent, small, and beautifully perfect. He had his dad’s hilariously long, narrow flipper-like feet and his mom’s nose. A true carbon copy of the two of us.

Courtesy of Leah O.

The hours I spent in labor with Eliot were unnecessarily traumatic and included me wearing a fetal heartbeat monitor, even though his strong heartbeat continued to fade over time. I am still unsure why this decision was made, though I am not here to bash any medical professional. The months following this loss are difficult to recall for me. The physical complications and loss of blood for me, the shock, the trauma, the grief, and the insistence I stay medicated combined have left me with large gaps in my memory. I left the hospital two days after my son was born with a stuffed teddy bear, a folder of bible scriptures, and the ‘reassurance’ I could try again in a few months. No real support or networks were given to me that day and no postpartum appointments were scheduled.

Courtesy of Leah O.

I searched the corners of the internet for support groups, blogs, magazines, organizations — literally anything that made me feel like the emotions I was having were normal. I could not relate to the ones I found about love, light, hope, rainbow babies, or the support groups for fatal fetal diagnosis. I fit none of those. I felt extreme despair, rage, and envy. How could this have happened? Was it my fault? Should I have advocated harder, more? Changed providers? Taken a different prenatal vitamin? Not exercised? Not traveled? Not taken an antidepressant? I found little that made me feel less alone so I started my own blog, Not A Hugger in October. A place to be open, honest, more vulnerable than I ever had been, and one I hoped would reach other grieving parents by just putting words to these ugly emotions I was grappling with.

At the beginning of July this year, I started a series called 31 Days of Grief: Lessons in Grieving my Son, on my Instagram page. Baby loss is such a taboo subject in our society, even now in 2020, that bereaved parents often feel so left out of. Navigating grief and trauma with invisible parenthood is and continues to be the most difficult experience to date of my life. It is my hope that over time, a network of these loss communities that normalize grief and the emotions that come with it can be built.

Courtesy of Leah O.

As this first year of grief comes to a close for me, I have learned so many things about myself and about our society as a whole. I have learned, among many other issues, there are some disparities in the postpartum care for mothers who experience loss and that makes the cracks we can fall through that much bigger. I have learned the effects of baby loss often times have severe psychological repercussions like PTSD that are rarely talked about. I have also learned most of us are never taught about grief and because of that, we have no idea how to deal with ourselves through it, nor do we know as a society how to deal with others who may be experiencing grief. I have also learned because we do not understand or recognize grief in our society it can sometimes appear as those the bereaved are just not ‘moving on’ or healing. Grief is a nonlinear, cataclysmic shift in our very being that is physical, emotional, and psychological.

My blog will likely never reach millions or anything like that but it has given me the most beautiful community of loss parents. I believe sharing our experiences is the fabric of human connections. I know I can’t change the whole world or the norms that surround the way society treats what we are conditioned to believe are ‘negative’ emotions. I just want my Not A Hugger community to be a place where all emotions experienced are normalized and that’s why I continue to write.

Courtesy of Leah O.

The biggest lesson of all for me has come through the lens of toxic positivity. This idea we have in society to gloss over truly complex emotions and appear happier than we are instead of being honest with ourselves and others about our emotions. Losing Eliot for me was the loss of so many things and extremely emotionally complicated. I never grieved my previous losses because I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know I had the space to grieve them. I believed if I just kept a positive attitude, it would all work out.

This year for Eliot’s first birthday, I put out a virtual ‘Eliot Rocks!’ Party invitation. There is so much symbolism behind this. Idioms and colloquiums like ‘Rock between a hard place’ have defined this part of my life. The life cycle of a rock is a great metaphor for grief and loss. It may change but parts of it are with you forever. Before I knew I was pregnant, I would often tell my husband I felt like I had a rock in my stomach. I did; it was Eliot. The weight of this grief has often held me down, like a rock. Many people have criticized me for writing and being so open about my grief (re: they have thrown stones). Looking back, I managed to use those stones for stepping to the next place on this journey.

Courtesy of Leah O.
Courtesy of Leah O.

I have spent many of the last few months of this first year hiking nearly every day, a funny thing to my once powerlifter self. Somehow I found solace there. Some hikes have been many miles at a time and others have been shortened by my overwhelming emotions. I have on more than one occasion sat down in the middle of the trail and sobbed. I won’t say this has healed me but has helped. The idea for me behind Eliot Rocks was to just encourage people to get outside, get active, and remember my sweet boy along the way. We were overwhelmed with the amount of #EliotRocks. Beautiful rocks from Denmark, Scotland, Australia, Canada, Kuwait, and every corner of the United States from Maine to Ka’ena Point, Hawaii.

Courtesy of Leah O.
Courtesy of Leah O.

I will never be grateful Eliot isn’t here in my lap as I type this now but after many dark days and nights, lots of loss community support, writing, and therapy, I can say now I am forever grateful he lived. He is the sun and he is my son. He came to heal parts of my broken soul I never knew needed healing at all. Most of all, when I feel shame about the emotions my grief for him bring, I have learned to remind myself grief is really just all the love I have for my son. Sometimes that shows up as anger, despair, irritability, sadness, or envy but regardless of how it presents, it’s all just love.”

Courtesy of Leah O.

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Leah O. You can follow their journey on Instagram, Facebook, and their blog. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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