‘There’s a lot of fluid in there. I’m going to get your doctor.’ My heart sank, and I debated calling my husband, but just sat there, numb.’: Birth photographer shares her own stillbirth, encourages others to share

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Disclaimer: This story contains details and images of child loss that may be triggering for some. 

“In the summer of 2018, I landed my dream job: birth photographer. I had been snapping pictures of kids and families for years, but in July of 2018, I signed an official contract with a hospital to be their birth photographer. I went extremely part time, online only at my teaching job so I could focus on my family and snapping pictures of others. I assembled a team of photogs to cover the 24/7 on-call shifts needed for this gig, and was giddy over the fact that my dream, my passion of capturing births was coming true. I shared this exciting news on social media and had a community of support behind me as I started this new adventure.

A week after sharing that news, my husband and I decided to share our other big news: we were expecting baby #4. The summer of 2018 was shaping up to be a very busy and exciting one. We were so thrilled to be adding another kiddo to our crew — seemingly keeping in line with the every two years baby plan path we’d been on. I spent the end of my summer and early fall doing what I knew how to do best: taking pictures. A lot of families, but a whole lot of babies, and many of them during their first moments’ entrance into this great big world of ours. It was exciting and thrilling and such a rush — absolutely 100% the job I always had dreamed it would be.

Birth photographer smiles in mirror selfie with professional camera
Alexandria Mooney Photography

However, part of this job with the hospital was to cover any losses that came through as well — I was adamant in signing this contract that myself and my team would cover these requested photos at no cost to the parents… these would be something we would do as requested and for no charge. These types of photo requests don’t happen often I found, but when they did, they were such an incredibly memory keeper for the parents that I wanted to make sure we covered them the absolute best we could.

Being pregnant myself, I never thought twice about doing any of the loss photos that came across my plate — I know how special photos are to families, and knew that these, probably their only photos they’ll have of their little one, would be even more so. Just like when I’m snapping a birth, when I was photographing a loss, I was in the zone: nothing else mattered, nothing else broke my focus — my main goal was capturing as beautifully and story-tellingly as I could what was in front of me. I felt for these parents and their unimaginable loss; I wanted to cry with them as they held their little one all snuggled up in those blue and pink hospital blankets. But I knew the sadness I was experiencing as the photographer was nothing compared to what these parents were, so I kept my composure and snapped on.

Then suddenly, that all changed.

I found myself on the opposite side of the lens — instead of being the photog walking in to greet these parents and capture their little one’s legacy, I was the parent lying in the recovery bed snuggling a baby that would never wake up.

Pregnant birth photographer sits in hospital bed hugging nurse
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

As elated as we were in the summer to add #4 to our family, something felt off to me with this pregnancy. I can’t really pinpoint what it was, but it started out with having basically zero pregnancy symptoms… something that with my last two pregnancies had me down for the count for the first 15+ weeks. As the weeks grew deeper and my belly seemed to grow exponentially quicker, I never felt any movement; not even the teeniest of tiniest flutters. Week 10 turned to 15 turned to 19 and still, nothing. I headed off to my 19-week anatomy scan solo, letting my night shift working husband sleep, praying it was just a super thick anterior placenta that was causing the lack of movement. But deep down, I knew something was off.

As the ultrasound tech squeezed the warm gel over my belly, I told her we didn’t want to know the gender, and I suspected a finicky placenta since I hadn’t felt any movement. I watched her face melt as she scanned my belly for maybe three minutes before she turned off the screen and told me, ‘There is a lot of fluid in there… baby has a lot of edema. I am going to get your doctor.’ My heart sank, and I debated calling my husband Mike, but just sat there, numb, and decided to wait and see what my doctor said. She is the kindest, sweetest, most amazing doctor I have ever been under the care of and I trusted her dearly, so I knew she’d have something good to say. She always did.

She did not this time.

Pregnant birth photographer stands outside holding her stomach beside her husband
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

My wonderful OB came back in with the ultrasound tech and they scanned me for another few minutes. She pointed out the heartbeat, which was pretty fast at 160+ beats per minute, and told us we were having a little boy. She also told us he had something called hydrops fetalis inside his chest and abdomen, two massive cystic hygromas on the back of his neck, and severe skin edema over the majority of his body. The fluid was putting some major stress and pressure on his internal organs.

The next few weeks were a complete blur. Our little guy had a lot of fluid all over the inside of his body and some pretty serious issues resulting from it. He was in heart failure. We were given a fatal prognosis and told we only had a few weeks left with him. Despite this, we didn’t give up hope; Mike and I went to countless appointments, ultrasounds, underwent an amniocentsis, tons of blood tests, all the while our little guy was hanging on, fighting as hard as he could in there while we fought for him out here.

We named our son Clark William — Clark after Clark Gable, my grandma Goose’s (who passed away last November) most favorite actor from her most favorite movie, Gone With the Wind and William after Mike’s dad; his middle name.

Ultrasound picture of birth photographer's baby
Courtesy of Alexandria Mooney

As Clark fought on, we shared his story online, posting updates for our friends and family on social media. It felt good to share his story and feel the love from our family, friends, and community from near and far. As we waited for answers, we were showered with messages, food, goodies, and the most perfect TinySuperheroes cape from all of our friends… some of them internet buddies I had never met in person.

And then, all of a sudden, Clark was gone.

After a restless night of sleep, due to some severe itching, and a frantic text to my OB early on a Sunday morning, Mike and I headed to labor and delivery for bloodwork and we discovered our little guy no longer had a heartbeat. We were completely devastated — we anticipated this coming, but nothing could have prepared us for the overwhelming and crushing feeling of losing our child — a child that was still cozily nestled inside of me.

Pregnant birth photographer stands outside with husband as they both touch her stomach
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

After coordinating schedules with the high-risk OB as well as my own OB, it was decided Clark would be born via C-section the next day, Monday, October 29th…which ironically was my grandma Goose’s birthday, the same grandma Clark was named after.

The next 36 hours after finding out our Clark was gone was a whirlwind of contacting family and friends, telling our three big kiddos about their little brother, and squeezing in a last-minute maternity shoot with our amazing photographer Victoria, who was also going to be there to capture Clark’s birth.

As a loss photographer myself, I always come after baby has been born to photograph the baby and family. I’ve never been requested for the actual birth. We had planned on having Victoria capture our little guy’s arrival in late February, but never considered having her capture his sleeping arrival 4 months early… but she said she’d be there, no matter what. And we wanted her there — we wanted to capture our Clark’s story exactly how we would have if the circumstances were different.

Pregnant woman who had c section looks over at newborn in heart failure crying
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

Clark is our son, however short his time was with us, and he has made a tremendous impact on our lives. We had been sharing his story his entire life and weren’t going to stop now. We wanted his entire arrival documented, smiles and tears and everything in between.

Why is there such a stigma against sharing stories about sadness and loss? Why don’t we talk about these? Is it because we feel embarrassed, guilt, or a host of other self-blaming reasons? I don’t know.  But I refuse to fall into that stigma. I want to share Clark’s story — our story — and I want others to know they can proudly share theirs too. You are not alone.

Woman who just gave birth to son with heart failure holds him in her arm as he is wrapped in blankets
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

My first three children were born via C-section, and even at 22 weeks gestation with Clark, that was his birth route too. His fluid levels were having him measure quite large, and with my history of why I needed to have a C-section, it was decided the safest thing for me would be a repeat fourth C-section — 4 months earlier than I was anticipating.

We got to the hospital in the late afternoon on October 29th and began C-section prep — something I am very familiar with both with myself and snapping them for others. They placed a leaf on our door, signifying a loss, and there was no happy anticipation over if the baby was a boy or a girl, no last-minute arguing over our top name contenders, and no cheerful post-birth plans for how long we’d be in recovery before going over to the mother-baby floor for days of newborn snuggles.

My wonderful OB, who I just love dearly, came to assist the high-risk doc in my C-section, and I was beyond grateful she was there. She has been my medical rock for this entire pregnancy (and all prior), and I would truly be lost without her.

The time came to go back to the OR — and my head was swimming with emotions. I felt lifeless as I leaned into my OB as the anesthesiologist placed my spinal. I was laid back, familiar blue drape raised, tears streaming down the side of my face as Mike came in and I squeezed his hand as hard as I could. The tears flowed harder and harder as the minutes drew on, closer to us meeting our son who we’d say hello and see you later at the same time.

And he was out. There was no big ‘it’s a boy!’ announcement, no suctioning his little mouth out, no teeny tiny baby cries. It was silent. I craned my neck and watched as our sweet boy was brought over to the warmer, which wasn’t even turned on. I watched as the nurses put a hat on him and cleaned him up a bit and swaddled him up. I was forever squeezing Mike’s hand, the anesthesiologist gently wiping the tears away from my eyes as I couldn’t take them off of my little boy. I told Mike to go over and see him, and my wonderful photographer put her camera down and sat and cried with me; held my hand as we watched Mike hold Clark’s over in the warmer.

Father stands in hospital with arms around newborn son in heart failure
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

The nurse got him swaddled up tightly and brought him over to Mike who was back seated next to me. I got to see his face — his sweet little button nose, chubby cheeks, and chin that was the spitting image of Mike’s. I held his little hand — a hand that not even a week before was waving at us on the ultrasound screen. I closed my eyes tightly and cried, hoping that this was all a bad dream; that my sweet boy was still nestled inside of me growing away instead of laying lifeless in my husband’s arms. I opened my eyes and was back in the operating room, drape dropped, C-section over, and about to be moved back to my recovery room.

I snuggled Clark the entire way back to my room — my son, a whopping almost 3 pounds at 22 weeks along, peacefully sleeping in my arms as I was rolled past the labor and delivery suites where other woman were laboring, soon to welcome their very much awake children.

Woman lays in hospital bed with hand on her head as newborn son lying in her arm will soon die
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

The next hour was a whirlwind — our priest came and baptized sweet Clark for us, my parents came to snuggle their newest grandson, and my wonderful in-laws came to meet their eighth grandchild while also bringing our three big kiddos up to meet their little brother. Mike and I debated bringing the kids up, but we decided that yes, they absolutely needed to meet their little brother who we had been non-stop talking about for the past several weeks. They weren’t fazed at all by his appearance — they instead wanted to see his little hands and feet and argued over who got to hold him first. They wanted pictures with his TinySuperheroes cape. We snapped a family of 6 picture, our one and only one, and then bid everyone farewell.

Woman lays in hospital bed holding her newborn that will soon die with her mother standing beside her
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography
Father sits in hospital room with newborn who will son die in his arms for his three other children to see
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

Mike and I got to spend some alone time with him before we said goodnight. Clark got to stay as long as we stayed in the hospital before the medical examiner came to get him, so we knew we’d get some more time with him before we headed home. It was the hardest day of our lives, but also one of the best. Because our son, our fourth child was born on that day, and despite him being born sleeping, it was still a day we will celebrate because it’s his day. It’s his birthday.

We have not stopped talking about or sharing his story since that day. We are fiercely in love with our son, so honored he chose us to be his parents, and proud to share his story. Yes, it’s a story of loss, but it’s also a story of love. A love for someone with a tragic ending, but love nonetheless. A love that is often silenced or not talked about, because it is not the happy ending we are so familiar with hearing. It’s a love that should be and needs to be shared. Because I hope at the very least one other person, perhaps going through this very same thing, reads this and gets something out of what I’m saying. Because it’s okay to share and talk about. It. is. okay.”

Mother lays in hospital bed with newborn who will die and young daughter with husband and other two kids standing beside her
Victoria Allen/Fresh Pine Photography

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alexandria Mooney of Alexandria Mooney Photography in St. Louis, Missouri. Submit your own story or videos here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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