Learning Release: Lessons from loss and fulfillment

We might normally expect an article on infant loss to be written by someone a little closer to the issue (in age).  I turned 60 this past year, and let me tell you that although child and pregnancy loss gets “easier” (whatever that means) with time, it does not get any less important.  Maybe what I bring to the party is perspective.

To frame my story, you need to know a couple things about me.  First, I am a planner and a fixer.  Secondly, I am determined and I don’t mind hardship – I can always “power through.” Third and most importantly, I love Jesus and I believe God is good.  Not squishy cotton candy “good,” but deep down, dirty hands, where-your-heart-aches-like-you-can’t-breathe, walking beside you when you are alone in the darkest valley kind of “good.”

October 30 is the 32nd “homegoing” (death) anniversary for our second son.  His name was Darrin Marc (isn’t it cooler with a “c” instead of a “k?”)  He was my hard-fought-and won VBAC baby with a doting brother just 22 months older.  Each of my children have taught me many lessons that I have carried forward with me.  Darrin taught me that life can go terribly wrong, it is fragile, and even when you don’t WANT to live through the worst that can happen, sometimes you just wake up day after day and you go on.  He died at the age of two months when a previously undiagnosed lung disorder manifest, and what was supposed to be a concerning-but-brief diagnostic hospital stay turned south quickly, and we left the hospital with a blue teddy bear, a mountain of random paperwork and no baby.

No.

Baby. 

The walk to the car on the night before Halloween in Michigan cut with an icy breeze and the months that followed were dark and involved a lot of arguing with God about fairness and stuff like that. The only silver lining (if you can call it that) was my belief that the “worst” had happened and I was quite sure the universe (translation: “God”) had some kind of quota system for grief and hardship that would protect me in the future. 

At the same time, my two-year-old was busy teaching me that I needed to get up every day, put on pants and drink coffee.  Truth was I think he is the one who kept me alive by connecting me with life…even messy life with an energetic toddler, during a period that it was very tempting to take up residence in the corner of Darrin’s nursery and let go of unnecessary activities like eating and showering.

Since the passage of time in grief-land is different, it made sense to us to get pregnant again the next  summer.  I was due the following April.  My heart still hurt deeply of course, but it was joined with a big surge of hope and a certainty that my season of hardship was over and the universe (translation: “God”) owed me a good outcome.  But at the first 20-week ultrasound something was terribly wrong.  The tech clicked off the screen, grew strangely non-communicative and made an immediate appointment with my doctor.  How odd that in the drive across town, I turned over all the possibilities….Down’s Syndrome? Maybe Spina Bifida?  I was busy planning how we would power through.  Imagine how confused I was when my doctor took my hands and she said, “I wish I had anything else in the world to tell you…. But it appears your baby died about two weeks ago.”  It was kind of like a slow motion bolder was being pushed off the cliff by the Road Runner as I stood frozen below like the Cayote, but much less amusing and much more permeant. 

I was crushed.  I am not sure why, but he possibility of fetal death had not occurred to me in the 90 minutes since the tech shut off the ultrasound screen.  I spent Thanksgiving weekend (just 13 months after the death of my son) in the hospital with an induction, a quick and uncomfortable makeshift funeral in the delivery room, and another “Walk of Shame” out of the hospital, although this time with no teddy bear.  We named her Blair Michelle and the cause of the fetal demise was undetermined.  She taught me that life is really, REALLY fragile.  It is unfair, and worst of all, there is no quota of loss in the universe.  I also knew that all the planning, control and “powering through” that had previously been the hallmark of my life was most certainly an illusion.

I was still mostly sure that God was good.  But as time went on, it was hanging by a thread.

Fast forward to the next spring and I was preggers again for the fourth time (something which I had never struggled with.)  While you are counting the months on your fingers, let me assure you that there is no “right” time to get pregnant again, and there was no consistent reason for my losses.  “Unfortunate freak of nature” might be the term used by one of my puzzled doctors.  So yes, I was pregnant, nursing, or trying to get pregnant so far from 1986 to 1989.  Still with only one precious child “to show for it” (my mother’s words.)

Pardon my over-sharing, but when you have suffered loss, one of the most stressful things about pregnancy is wiping.  Yup, you heard that right!  Every time you pee or poop is a fresh new opportunity for fear to prey on your mind as you check for spotting.  Plenty of people (like my own daughter) spot during normal pregnancy.  I am not one of them.  I knew when I stopped at the church restroom, that this was the end of the line….again.  This time only 8 weeks into the pregnancy and no discernable fetal development.  For extra drama, I didn’t miscarry right away.  I wasn’t sure when it would happen but as fate works in my life, I miscarried a couple weeks later in the MIDDLE of leading a teen boys small group meeting at my home.  I was subbing as the bible study leader for my husband who was out of town and I was alone with 6 awkward teenaged boys who never suspected a thing!   This was at the same time an admirable accomplishment and kind of a grim, weird memory.

We had not yet told anyone we were pregnant because I was a bit tired of the way people pitied us.  I thought this might help if “anything happened,” but unfortunately this kept the grief and loss bottled up in an unexpected way. We never picked a name.  I was worn out and empty.  This pregnancy reminded me beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no quota of grief or hardship or loss.  Life is fragile and most importantly, I finally embraced the realization that I absolutely do not own my children.  Their outcomes are not owned by me, or by a random “universe,” but by a powerful God, whom I absolutely do not understand, but who loves me and loves them with a greatness and mystery that is far beyond my imagination. 

For whatever reason, I still chose to believe that God was good, though I am not sure why.  It was very much a choice and not a watered-down belief drawn from Sunday School platitudes.  This was the God who had walked with me so far, and I developed an unexpected connection to Mary the mother of Jesus.  I never thought much about her beyond Christmas, I suppose because I am not Catholic, but her story began to consume my thoughts.  She had her baby in dangerous circumstances, kept her secrets hidden because no one would understand anyway, and then had to stand helplessly and watch her son die horrifically.  No matter how we dress it up, until the resurrection, I don’t think she understood.  Angels and shepherds aside, she didn’t have the perspective of history at the time and probably lived most of Jesus’ life without an audible voice of Father God while she was “considering these things in her heart.”

Oh yeah, I also learned from this pregnancy the profound lesson that “sometimes life just sucks – a lot,” even when you have a Very Good God.  He owes me nothing.

My path of healing is still ongoing and contains stories for another time.  But after all, here is where I landed 32 years later.  I am still a fixer and I still power through, but I know in a deep way that so many areas of my life are outside of my control.  The fragility of life which had frightened and crushed me somehow became my comfort.  It was an unexpected release. 

When my fifth child – my “rainbow baby” – was born in 1991, I knew I was not in control.  There was no illusion that I could fix all problems or that anything was promised to me in life. I knew that every afternoon on the playground, every conversation, every school dance…they were all precious and not one day was promised to me or my family in the future.  She taught me to sit still for a bit; to take time and to live in the moment and I believe this benefitted both of my children. 

I was the planner and fixer that learned to make time stand still and just take it in.  I took time when I didn’t feel like I had it.  It didn’t change my disposition, but it changed my perspective.  I actually worry less (strangely) because I realize how much is out of my control.  My two adult children still text me when they travel because I like to know when they are home safe, but it doesn’t consume me.  I am still concerned about my grandkids and their safety, so I tend to buy gifts like bike helmets and life jackets.  I hope they date nice boys someday and make good decisions, but when that time comes, I know that all I have is the knowledge that there is a heavenly Father who loves them infinitely more than I do, and He is the one that will take care of their bumps, bruises and catastrophes.  Right now, I can indulge in tickle fights, fairy gardens and hide-and-seek.

These girls have lessons to teach me too.  The first lesson is pure joy that comes with release and perspective!

Fresh Voices on Infant Loss Awareness Month

October is not my favorite month.

Don’t get me wrong. I love fall and I absolutely love getting relief from the sticky North Carolina heat.  But it is also a mash of emotions because in a two week period we have my first precious son’s birth day, the anniversary of my second son’s death, the birthday of my rainbow baby (my fifth child) and Halloween festivities right in the middle just to mess with our family dynamics when the kids were little!

That was all a very long time ago, and I plan to publish a blog in a couple weeks that tells my story of loss and fulfillment more fully. For right now I think we need fresh young voices who are speaking in the middle of their experiences; not only speaking out of their pain, but speaking with joy, determination and wisdom about walking through their challenging season of parenthood – a journey of loss and hope.  Take a moment to read the wise words of this young woman on miscarriage, loss, when to announce your pregnancy and waiting on your “Rainbow Baby.” 

Whether or not you share these particular struggles – I think you will love the wisdom and joy you hear from Kathryn Ball:

The Best Advice I Ever Gave as a Birth Center Nurse:

Leah Dunlap, RN

The postpartum period is a time of awe, of new beginnings and of immense change.  It is a blessing, no doubt, but also, as with anything worthwhile, it can be a struggle.  Whether an experienced mom who’s been there and done that, or a completely brand-new mother, there is a piece of advice that I made sure to add to my list of discharge instructions.  One that I prayed would be heeded, one that I wish had been given to me after each of my three blessings were birthed.  After going through my usual speech for feeding frequently, latch success, monitoring number of wet and poopy diapers, checking for too much bleeding, and signs of infection or blood clot, I told every mother: 

Give yourself grace.  And lots of it. 

This is a time of change like no other, for both you and your baby.  For your husband or partner, for your other children.  You will expect yourself as a new mom to feel like those ads and media posts that portray all new mothers – glowing, well-rested, and perfectly in love with motherhood.  Most likely, this won’t be you.  And that’s ok.   

Your other children (and maybe even your husband) will still need the same level of attention, despite the new life that needs you at every waking moment and your exhausted body trying to recover from a marathon event.  You won’t be able to give this to them always.  And that’s ok. 

You will need more rest, the dishes will pile up, the laundry will be undone.  You need more calories if you are breastfeeding, despite how desperately you want to return to the previous, non-pregnant version of yourself.  Have an extra lactation cookie, nap when your baby sleeps, let the housework be for now.  It’s ok. 

At one moment, you will feel overwhelmed with joy and love, only to have the next moment filled with tears and self-doubt as you question, “who thought it would be a good idea for me to be responsible for another human life?!”…and that’s ok. 

So, please, whether you are expecting, hope to be expecting, or maybe you’ve just given birth and are wading through the postpartum hormone swings as you navigate motherhood…remember to give yourself and your loved ones grace during this time of change.  Take time for yourself as you are able, get fresh air and sunshine, connect with other new mothers in the same boat, eat well, and snatch up every second of nap time that you can.  And  most importantly, give yourself grace during those difficult moments when you can’t be everything you want to be. 

*If you are concerned that you are experiencing post partum depression or anxiety (also called Post-partum Mood and Affect Disorder or PMADS) please contact your medical provider immediately. 

Guest blogger Leah Dunlap is a registered nurse with 13 years experience, including most recently the privilege of serving as a birth center nurse for three years. She also enjoys a blessed life on her farm with her husband and 3 children ages 5, 9, and 12.

Wizard of Oz and Childbirth Ed

When I was little (long, long time ago) we had a couple TV channels and that was about it.  No VCR, no DVR, no on-demand anything.

(Wow!  I am now one of those people who says that!)

Anyhow, once a year the Wizard of Oz would come on and it was a source of great excitement in our family.  My parents were older and remembered the original release in the theaters.  If you have not seen or loved that movie, I am not sure that we can be friends.  Go watch it now, and then we can talk.

As I was saying, if you remember the basics, the main characters all had a specific need – Scarecrow needed a brain, the Tin Woodman, a heart, the Lion lacked courage and Dorothy wanted to go home in the worst way!.  They undertook a dangerous journey to follow the yellow brick road, go toe to toe with the Wicked Witch, and get to the Wizard who held the power to give them all the things they needed.

Sort of like some people who feel uncertain about childbirth attend a class in hope that there will be a magical piece of information or a chart or video that will suddenly make them ready to face this monumental task.  Here is the hitch in the story – the twist in plot that makes the whole thing work: The Wizard was not a wizard at all and he really had no power.  He was just faking it.

Sure, he was a fake and a sham, but he was also a brilliant salesman.  He sent them on another mission to kill the wicked witch (a very convenient advantage for everyone, by the way) and, surprise, surprise, in the process they found what they needed within them – Heart, Courage, Brains and Dorothy eventually found her way to a home that she never knew she loved.

The wizard used the journey to bring out and develop the assets they needed most.

A good childbirth class will give you evidence based information and strategies, and hopefully some referrals to the resources you need.  A great childbirth class will lead you on a journey to find not only information for your brain, but heart and courage as well, and like Dorothy, you will find yourself coming home to a family full of love!

My Love-Hate Relationship With On-line Learning

I find myself this morning putting the finishing touches on a somewhat rough, but hopefully useful, childbirth class that is alarmingly brief.  Just 2 short months ago I was defending vehemently that out of all the passive and distance ed classes offered through every possible electronic platform these days, the one class….the sacred class…that should never be offered on line, was childbirth training.  It is hands-on,  it needs time and breath, it is about relationship. It is about humor and uncomfortable questions and relationship!

And yet here I am.  COVID-19 has changed everything in a blink of an eye.  As a public health professional who retired  just a month ago, it snuck up on us while in full view.  We saw it coming and we have run exercises for this, but I don’t know that anyone would have guessed at the strength of the necessary restrictions that would quietly change every aspect of our daily routines in ways that we hadn’t imagined.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

And here I am talking to people I have never met on the other side of my recorded computer screen, trying to form a relationship and straining to think about how to communicate strategies without my hands, without looking in their eyes and without knowing their history.  Did they have a difficult first birth?  Do they use the word, “terrified?”  Do they have experience doing something physically challenging?  I don’t know, so I have to speak in generalities and hope that somewhere in a spray of words I hit the mark.

Yet, these are different times, and different times call for different measures.  It calls for taking control of your own learning…looking inside yourself and taking what I can offer  as your starting line and running with it.  The truth is, it has always been about you.  YOU must do your own research, and use your own discernment (What?? Not every website or link is legit?!)  You must find the strength and confidence inside to face this journey as a family-in-the-making.  The truth is that you had always been in the drivers seat on this journey, so here we go!