Disclaimer: This story includes images of child loss that may be triggering to some.
“‘Is this your first?’ is the standard question every woman with an infant seat is asked. Many see me as a mother of one, but I’m a mother of two. You see, my first baby died. My beautiful, loved, and longed-for daughter, Juniper. All of the firsts I was looking forward to experiencing with her were ripped from my hands. I spent 9 months preparing for my daily life to change in almost every way imaginable. My social life, career, and relationships were all supposed to take a back seat, to slide down the priority list, to be ruled by a new baby who was to take over my life. And then unexpectedly, at full term, Juniper died. Just days before my scheduled induction due to complications with IUGR (intrauterine growth restriction), following a closely monitored pregnancy, we heard the words no one ever wants to or expects to hear: ‘I’m sorry there is no heartbeat.’
Life gives you no choice but to keep going, even when your heart has been ripped out from you. Many people do not realize that even though your baby has died, you still have to give birth. In the hospital for Juniper’s labor and delivery, I wanted to preserve the most normalcy I could, even in incredibly not normal circumstances. I desired to be acknowledged, just like any other first-time mama who had just given birth. Sure, I wasn’t trying to get my baby to latch, but I wondered what it’d be like if I was. I spent 9 months preparing to mother a living baby and here I was left to mother nothing but myself. I held Juniper as much as I could in the hospital, it was the one ‘perk’ of motherhood death couldn’t take from me. I proudly showed her off to the nurses. Her death didn’t take away the pride her existence gave me. We took photos and had a dedication ceremony. We tried to fit a lifetime of memories into the only 24 hours we would have together.
Most new moms get to leave the hospital with an adult diaper on, raging hormones, and a squishy little baby to make it all worth it. Less than 24 hours after giving birth, I left with the adult diaper, raging hormones, and empty arms. Many people were ignorant of my postpartum recovery, not wanting to think of the additional trauma I was going through on top of grieving the death of my firstborn. I felt like I wasn’t acknowledged as a mom, and without a baby in my arms, society deemed me unfit for that title. I was asked, ‘When are you going to try again?’ while I was still unable to wipe after going to the bathroom. It felt like Juniper was being reduced to nothing but a ‘try,’ and that my entire pregnancy, postpartum, and now mothering experience was being dismissed into nothing.
But I was a mom. Being treated as anything less hurt my heart. I was a mom to my first baby, even if you couldn’t see her. I found it necessary to become vocal about Juniper. She deserved to be included in my days. I had an ache to push a stroller, go to storytime and talk about mom things. But I didn’t have a baby in my arms to do those things for.
Flash forward a few months after Juniper was born, we found out I was pregnant again and due just days away from Juniper’s due date a year later. Talk about a mindf*ck. I was excited and scared and felt like I was in parenting purgatory. I was preparing a nursery again, deciding where to keep the ashes of my first baby, as the changing table didn’t feel like the best spot anymore. As my belly grew, I began being asked the ‘Is this your first?’ question by anyone, from the cashier at Target to the waitress while out for dinner. My answer was, ‘No, this is my second. My first child died.’ You could tell by the uncomfortable look on their faces that my response was always unexpected, met with pity and also toxic positivity. Somehow I was supposed to be guaranteed that this baby would live and just be happy. I was ‘finally’ going to be a mother. I already WAS a mother, even if you couldn’t see the baby that made me one. Even if I wasn’t changing diapers or going on playdates, I was carrying the weight of grief for my first daughter daily, picturing what she would look like, knowing exactly how old she would be.
Our second daughter, Coral, was born wonderfully alive just two days before Juniper’s first birthday. We got to experience the joy of walking out of the hospital with a car seat, with congratulations balloons, with smiles, for the first time. And so began our life of firsts with our second child. Friends and family came to visit with baby gifts in hand. I snuck away to nurse Coral like I had anticipated doing with Juniper. We went to Target and people were drawn to the tiny baby in her car seat, asking, ‘How old is she?’ I got to finally use the changing table in the nursery to change diapers rather than organize my memorial necklaces and sympathy cards. It was monumental when I took Coral somewhere for the first time by myself. Every bit of my daily life finally was touched by the continued living of a baby and her earthly needs.
I started settling into parenting a living baby. Mom and baby classes were on my radar, but I was SO anxious about attending. I did not want, for even a millisecond, to be labeled as a ‘first-time mom.’ I had just given birth a second time in less than a year, but for the past year, I attended grief groups. How was I supposed to fit into a new mom group? Here I was thinking about leaving the house at 2 weeks postpartum but this time with a baby in tow. I was a breastfeeding mother for the first time, my body finally getting to do what it ached to do a year prior. I had dealt with the engorgement of my milk coming in with Juniper but did everything in my power to suppress it. Now I was doing the opposite because my second baby actually needed the milk.
I embraced so many parts of new parenting that many probably dislike. I loved feeling clumsy with the car seat, figuring out the best way to maneuver around people and tables. I approached the task of nursing in public proudly. When Coral would cry in the backseat, I was grateful to know that she was alive and breathing. I will always remember the first time I changed her diaper in a public location–at a Noodles & Company. I carried my baby, diaper, and wipes to the bathroom and I’m sure everyone I passed wondered about the stupid smile on my face. Public restrooms and their baby changing tables haunted me after Junie died. Who knew that changing a diaper could be such a big deal? This is an experience I will always remember vividly.
There are no words to describe what it feels like to have your baby die, and the life you’re forced to continue to live that follows. And when it is your first child, you feel ridiculously out of place. You’re a parent but yet you’re not. You’re an invisible parent. You have a child, but you’re not making play dates or scheduling your days around naps like all the other parents. Then if you’re lucky to get pregnant again and bring your second child home, it’s your first time bringing a child home. You enter a new dimension of parenting your second child for the first time. I call this being a second first-time mom. I’m parenting a living baby for the first time, but she’s my second child.
Experiencing things for the first time with Coral is a constant reminder that we should’ve done these same things with Juniper, just a year prior. Parenting after loss, especially bringing home a living baby exactly a year after we were supposed to bring home our first daughter, is the epitome of bittersweet. Going to my postpartum checkup and wondering when my baby would get hungry was vastly different than discussing autopsy results.
The first time Coral giggled, I sat there and cried. Her laugh was one of the most amazing sounds I’d ever heard. But then it made me wonder what Juniper would’ve found funny. And if I’m lucky, this is what the rest of my life will look like. Always loving, always missing.”
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