Mourning a Pregnancy I Never Had
My wife and I always joke that we got married so we could have children. Emphasis on joke because we love each other, share values, respect each other and are great partners – all better reasons to get married than just to have a baby. One of those shared values was being married before becoming parents and it was a part of marriage we were excited for! I couldn’t wait to be pregnant and become a Mom.
We were married for six months or so before we started trying and it took 5 IUI’s over 5 months to conceive. I did a lot of daydreaming and visualizing in that (almost) year, especially when it looked like another cycle had failed. Holding onto my dreams is the only way I know how to keep going. I visualize success, joy and relief when I need it. It sounds spiritual but it’s mostly survival. I spent my career with families: literally witnessing and supporting women when they became mothers. It gave me years to observe the beautiful nuance of Motherhood and lots of material to add into those daydreams.
Visualizing the Golden Hour was a daydream on repeat. I pictured meeting our baby and spending the first hour as a family of three together probably once a day in that year. I put a sweet, sleeping newborn in my arms, my smiling wife in awe next to us. I boosted the volume of my generally flat hair and added a golden, hazy, Instagram-worth filter over the whole scene. Time slowed to quarter-speed and beautiful music played in the background. I could have moved into that daydream – and then suddenly, I was about to; I was pregnant.
Enter the sound of a record (whatever song you were imagining in my daydream just abruptly ended) scratching. Two sacs, two heartbeats, two little sour patch kids wiggling on the screen. At 6 weeks and 5 days pregnant I was having twins. I wasn’t going to be holding one baby after delivery. I might not be holding any babies, I immediately realized, knowing that 60% of twins in America are born preterm. Premature birth means immediate intervention, the babies going to a neonatologist’s arms instead of mine. Twin pregnancies carry significant risks to mothers and babies – Moms are twice as likely to develop preeclampsia and/or anemia, increased risks for gestational diabetes and postpartum hemorrhage and babies are twice as likely to be born with birth defects and at low birth weights which can lead to hosts of other issues. I also knew that the midwifery practices in DC were unlikely to view me as a good candidate for their practice and most OBs require twin moms to have an epidural given the higher likelihood that a c-section is suddenly necessary. I had imagined a midwife-attended, med free birth. Breastfeeding had been a dream of mine too, though I championed “fed is best” for my entire career and truly, firmly want Mothers to feed their babies in whichever way works best for their family, without reservation. Breastfeeding is a value in my family, and I wanted to align to that value. A Japanese study in 2006 showed that while 44.7% of singleton infants were exclusively breastfeed at 6mos, only 4.1% of twins or triplets were. I realistically knew that the chances that I could exclusively breastfeed were slim as a first-time mom, first-time breastfeeder, mother of multiples and likely preemies. I cursed out loud looking at the screen, left the doctors office in shock and cried for the better part of two days, thinking of all the things that were already going wrong and convinced that more would.
I attempted to continue working but was diagnosed with Hyperemesis gravidarum. After two weeks of throwing up before and after every client visit (sometimes on the curb outside their home), and losing 12lbs even while I was on medication for vomiting, my doctor signed paperwork for me to take medical leave. I had a very physical job and worked with newborns and women in poverty – a puking woman who ethically couldn’t eat, drink or share pregnancy news with them wasn’t going to make anyone comfortable. Plus, I had debilitating headaches from dehydration and driving (which I did all day to various appointments and homes) made my symptoms worse! I wasn’t taking care of myself, my babies or my clients. I was depressed and despondent, wondering what I’d done to my life and simultaneously worrying about the twin’s growth – a 60lb weight gain is recommended for twin pregnancies and I couldn’t even gain 1.
I was in such a negative head space from the experience of HG that anything that reminded me of my reality brought me to tears immediately. Hello, hormones. Seeing a woman pushing a single stroller down the street made me sad and jealous. I envisioned that future and fell in love with that future and didn’t know how to be excited about mine. I finally stopped puking around 21 weeks and the nausea stopped around week 23, which helped my mental state immensely. I threw myself into preparing for the reality that was about to be mine because though I had sad feelings, I am nothing if not practical. We got the works: a double stroller, two cribs, tiny socks, so many burp cloths, yellow paint for the nursery walls and a rocker that I sat down in during a LONG trip to Pottery Barn Kids and didn’t get out of until we’d paid for it 😉
Trying to encompass the multitude of complex emotions a pregnant woman experiences in writing is like trying to describe the magnitude of the universe to an English major so it’s difficult to acknowledge how badly I felt and share it because I was also excited and those memories stick out too. I loved my babies from the beginning; they had names, I could tell who was who when they moved. I loved that she posted up in one spot and hung out, determined to make the best of her cramped space (ever practical, just like me) and he looked like Elmer Fudd. He had the cutest profile in utero, you guys.
I had always planned to leave my work when the time came to give birth. I’m passionate about child development & infant mental health and was equally passionate about my clients not suffering for what was to be my intense lack of sleep and energy so staying home was the right choice for me, personally and professionally. I did not, however, expect my doctor to order me to put in my notice at my 28 week appointment. I was continuing to dilate, and he wanted me to be at home taking it much easier than I was. I went into work, told my boss, wrote a farewell email to my department and packed my things. Leaving my work suddenly, with no warning or ceremony was another experience that was out my control and I had to succumb to.
I spent the next 6 weeks in the house alone from 6am-6pm. A grocery store run was a big trip and I wasn’t supposed to walk any further than the mailbox. Frankly, I don’t really remember much about how I passed the time. It was a quiet, hard experience. I worried about my babies coming early, I craved social interaction, I was stressed about losing my paycheck two months earlier than planned. When I got overwhelmed about having to care for two newborns, I would look up families on Instagram who had triplets or two set of twins and say to myself, “They’re doing it so we definitely can.” It worked most times.
34 weeks was a mantra for me after my preterm labor scare – at 34 weeks they’d be likely to weigh more than 1800 grams, a number that meant little to me but apparently means a lot in the NICU. The twins were born at 33 weeks and 3 days. My water broke in the middle of the night and before the adrenaline of labor hit, I thought, “They’re too early. We need at least 4 more days.” Luckily, the adrenaline rush came and to be completely transparent I describe my birth as perfect. I was 5cm when we walked into the hospital and 8 hours later I was pushing. I had maybe 3 excruciating contractions before my mandatory epidural was placed and my OB didn’t think we’d need to deliver in the OR which is common in twin vaginal deliveries, in case Baby B needs to be delivered via emergency-C. My daughter did come up to me in the birth, right in the curve of my waist, because my OB was performing an external version (literally pushing on my belly hard enough to turn Baby B who was sideways) and the NICU team evaluated her from there. 2 years later, I still smile thinking about how she came up to me, a small sliver of the dream I envisioned. She cried, I watched the neonatologists face to see if they were concerned and then it was time to push again. 4 minutes later, a tiny, silent baby was out. They were moved to the NICU as soon as Ben was born because he needed more serious intervention. I hemorrhaged, though my doctors were so calm I didn’t realize it was a hemorrhage until I put the pieces together months later. I was transferred to a postpartum room and waited anxiously to go see them. I held my babies in the NICU about 9 hours after their birth and really looked at both of my babies for the first time. Their birth happened so quickly and I was so focused on the doctors faces, looking for signs of worry, and focused on pushing that I really hadn’t seen them. They were tiny, so tiny, and darling.
Though the twins were only in the NICU for 3 weeks, it was the hardest 3 weeks of my life. I was recovering from birth, pumping every 3 hours around the clock, rushing to get to the hospital before their 8am feed and staying until after their 5pm feed, living off of PB&J protein boxes from the Starbucks in the hospital lobby. Our NICU did not allow for any food or drink, even water so I would feed twins for 30 mins each, go pump for 20 and then come back to their beds to hold whomever was more calm, or more fussy or not settling or not under the jaundice lights for as long as possible and then 20 minutes before their next feed I’d run downstairs, scarf the aforementioned protein pack, gulp 2 venti waters and then head back upstairs for their next feed. Mentally, I was so sad. I missed my babies all the time. They weren’t in my tummy and they weren’t in their beds. Logically, they were exactly where they needed to be but there’s no logic in emotion. I rubbed my postpartum bump in bed, wishing they were in there, bouncing around or that I could settle for the satisfaction of looking at them sleeping in their bassinets which lay empty next to my bed. My need to be near them was visceral and not getting to be was another situation that I had to figure out quickly how to cope with in order to stay on task and schedule (imperative for twins, even more so when leaving 5 mins late for the hospital means missing a feeding or bath).
The immediate flurry of NICU life and then twin life kept me to busy that again, I repressed all my sadness and jealousy in order to focus on the tasks at hand – so many diapers and so much crying! In hard moments, of which there were many, my brain immediately converted any feelings of overwhelmed-ness to loss of control, having felt out of control for the better part of two years. The crying and isolation intensified the disbelief that this was my reality. Unfortunately, their very real presence during those feelings exacerbated the guilt and shame I felt in the part of me that couldn’t help but wonder if I’d gotten pregnant with one baby would it be like this?
It wasn’t until about 6 months postpartum that I realized just how impactful the trauma and stress of my pregnancy and the NICU were and that it wasn’t going away. Babies don’t ever go according to plan and every parent knows that you must accept you have very little control. I just couldn’t accept it and it made me angry. I believe in mothering the mother, that your children determine the kind of parent you are (past overarching values, etc.) and that parents are exactly who their children need but believing those things on a macro level while they weren’t ringing true for me was infuriating. I spent every day feeling like I was playing a part and doing it poorly.
I was around a year postpartum that I decided to see a therapist. I knew I’d never process any of the experiences I’d had if I didn’t dedicate the time to saying it all out loud. I don’t remember if she or I was the one to use “mourn” to describe my processing but damn, it was spot on. She and I worked over the next 6 months to say goodbye to the dreams I’d had before I became pregnant, accept the experiences I did have and forgive myself for the resulting chaos that their co-existence had caused.
I didn’t get my med-free birth. I didn’t get a hazy, oxytocin filled Golden Hour or the cozy lunches with friends on maternity leave. I can say that all now without wincing because I’ve said goodbye to those dreams and forgiven myself for holding onto them. And now, 2 years postpartum I know that I got something better: my children: exactly who they are, separately and together; exactly who I’d give it all up for again. That’s the kind of love that Mothering the Mother can grow and now that I mother myself and make space to be mothered, the twins and I have.