My pregnant friend A. gave birth.
I’ve been dreading this moment so much, I’ve been avoiding her. I tried my best to ignore the ever-nearing date; as if ignoring her soon-to-come birth date, I could succeed in ignoring the fast approaching due date of my last lost, only a few weeks after hers.
However, the date came despite my best efforts. I first got a WhatsApp group message announcing the birth, with pictures, when I was on my way to a counselling session (great timing). I didn’t have time (or emotional strength at that moment) to call my friend, so I quickly texted my husband to call them and figure out if we should pick their toddler from daycare later on. We had previously agreed to look after their 3 year old son while they’re in the hospital for labour, since their families live abroad.
Mission accomplished, I put it into the back of my head again and went in for my therapy hour.
On the way out, eyes still swollen from crying (am I the only one who cries at every single counselling session?), I noticed a missed phone call from my friend’s husband. Not wanting to dealing with it just yet, I though I’d drive back home first. But, just before I entered the car I saw a text from my husband: “A. is going into surgery. Something went wrong after the labour.”. My heart immediately sank.
Guilt washed over me… My friend ever so perfect family story had suddenly – as these things always are – been tainted by painful trauma. Life changes in a second, I shouldn’t ever had assumed everything would be perfectly fine, I shouldn’t ever had assumed they would go through life without experiencing considerable pain. I felt small in my selfish shame and guilt. Why didn’t I call more often to ask her about her pregnancy? Why didn’t I sucked it up and listened to her pregnancy woes? What if the worse happens? All my so called ‘suffering’ is nothing close to this potential tragedy.
I hurriedly called her husband for details. Bleeding. Haemorrhage. Transfusion. Surgery. Baby is fine. “I’m coming over to the hospital right away”, I said. “There’s nothing you can do, it’s at the hands of the doctors now” “I can be there for you”, I replied. “I’m fine” (he wasn’t, really). “I’m coming anyways”.
Half an hour later I arrived at the hospital. The same one I visited several times during my last loss and where, ultimately, what was left from my baby was surgically removed from my womb. That maternity ward was, thus, no stranger to me.
Walking down those hallways, looking for the right room, I couldn’t help but remember the last time I walked that very same path.
It was during a very quiet weekend; the hospital seemed eerily empty. My husband and I walked for what felt like forever, looking for a nurse, doctor, anyone who could guide us the right way. But there were no one. Only empty corridors decorated with beautiful black-and-white pictures hanging in the walls: pictures of newborns and pictures of labour. Beautiful pictures that felt like painful, sharp knifes into my already too frail heart, from yet another lost baby.
That day, those empty corridors, the loneliness of the situation, it all felt so familiar. Because I had already lived that exactly situation in a dream.
I had this dream a few weeks (months?) after my third loss. In it, I was about 5 to 6 months pregnant, but I was in labour. We rushed to the hospital, but it was completely empty. No nurses or doctors in sight. Only empty room after empty room. We walked for some minutes, yelling for help, until I couldn’t anymore. The baby was coming. We entered a room and I proceeded to give birth, with only the help of my husband. Neither of us knew what we were doing, it just happened. The baby came out without crying. I thought to myself, ‘of course it didn’t survive, it’s too early’, but the pain didn’t subside. It was another baby. This one didn’t cry either. Without any strength left in me, I fell asleep immediately. When I woke up, I could hear baby noises. I looked over to my husband and he was holding a crying baby in his arm; another one, moving and about, was placed on a crib. ‘Give me her’, I said, at once. Holding her in my arms I couldn’t stop thinking how I had already failed as a mother. I didn’t have enough faith my babies would survive. I didn’t provide to them as soon as they’re born. I didn’t feed them right away, and now they might not make it because I’m such a horrible mother. I tried to breastfeed and while at it, I noticed how severely disabled our both girls were. But my love for them was no less.
I woke up from that dream crying. I could never forget it, because it sums up all my fears and feelings so well. The loneliness. No one we can rely on but ourselves. Doctors never there when we need them. Battling on uncharted territory, not having a clue what we are doing. The ever present guilt and shame. The feelings of ‘I could or should have done it differently’, ‘I could have avoided this’. And of course, the realisation that, no matter how many times people tell me ‘it’s better this way, the baby was defective’, it doesn’t change the fact that I love them. All of them.
I finally found the room. My eyes went straight to the bed, where the baby was peacefully sleeping. My friend’s husband was looking pale and worried. I hugged him tight. I could feel his hands trembling and his chest pounding. I felt his pain and hold him tighter. He pushed me away.
“How is she? Any news?” “She’s still in surgery, but they said she’s fine. It seems the bleeding has stopped. They’ll let me know more later”. Great news.
Our attention steered back to the baby lying on the bed. We both sat by it with nothing to do but wait.
I wanted to say the right thing. So many times I’d been angry at my friends and family for saying what I considered wrong, hurtful comments. Why were they wrong? They belittled my pain, they offered me empty, meaningless promises. I couldn’t do that. I wasn’t going to say “everything is going to be fine”, because I didn’t know that and I couldn’t know that. I wasn’t going to say “don’t worry”, because of course he was worried and had every reason to be. So I said, “You must have been so scared”. Probably not a comment worth of any empathy prizes; just sincere enough to mean ‘I see your pain’. “When they took her away, I’ve never been more scared in my life. It all happened so fast.” I simply listened. I could see he needed to vent, but was holding back.
I was also surprised by how confident I was that everything was going to turn out fine. Every time someone tells me, “I know it will happen to you, I just know you will have a baby”, I want to scream at them. How?? How can they possibly know that? How can they be so confident? There are no guarantees.
There were no guarantees for my friend either. Yet, I felt so sure it would be fine, the words “everything will be ok” kept wanting to jump out of my mouth. Stubbornly, I didn’t allow them to. How is it that we feel so much more faith, confidence, when it’s somebody else’s problem? Where does that come from?
He told me a bit about how it all happened. Quick, uneventful labour. Everything was looking great, but the pain was increasing. She was bleeding heavily but the blood was stuck in the womb. Nurses and doctors didn’t notice until 2 hours later. She lost almost 3 litres.
Waiting for hours on end, all we could do was talk. Talk about what happened and about the future, but also just chat about silly things, distracting ourselves from fear.
Each time we fell silent, our eyes would turn to the sleeping, perfect, beautiful, baby girl.
She was one of the main reasons I was dreading this day. I was afraid of the moment I would come to the hospital to visit my friend. In my mind, we would find them perfectly happy and she would hand me the baby over to hold. And that was my biggest fear.
Last time I visited a newborn was during Christmas break. I was dreading it too. My loss was too fresh still and the baby was the son of my husband’s cousin, whom I don’t know very well.
Arriving to their house, the first thing I noticed was how his wife, the young mother, had just transformed in front of my eyes. Becoming a mother does that to many women. The shy girl, always hiding in the corners at social events was now a confident, full-grown woman, eagerly sharing every detail of her birth and first days.
I sat there for hours listening to those painful conversations about labour, breastfeeding and baby care. All of the while, fearing the moment they would hand the baby over to my arms. Fearing the feelings I always get when holding such a small baby. My soul warms and my heart melts in such way I can hardly breath. My whole body aches for a baby like that. A baby of mine, I can love and care for. But usually the baby is swiftly taken away, leaving me feeling even more empty.
That day, however, the baby never made to my arms. We left shortly after, but instead of feeling relief I was feeling even greater longing. I just wanted to hold it for a few minutes, look at his tiny hands and let my soul warm up. But it was over. No baby for me. Not even for a minute.
Now I was dreading holding my friend’s baby. But it was a different kind of fear. I was afraid I couldn’t hold it together. I was afraid I would loose it in big sobs and loud tears, as soon as that baby reached my arms. Because I should be giving birth to my own baby soon. I should be holding my baby. I should have my soul warm up indefinitely.
Sitting there besides her, caressing her tiny head, touching her cute little fingers, I realised I wouldn’t loose it. All these feelings I’ve feared for so long were simply not there. I don’t know why, maybe due to the special circumstances of the labour, fearing for the life of my friend. Or maybe because my heart is so bruised, I’ve now created a stone cover to protect it; I don’t let it melt so easily anymore. I don’t allow myself these feelings I may never get to experience.
Finally, after many hours, they told us A. is fine. She lost a lot of blood but is now stable. She’s weak but will recover. We would be able to see her soon.
More time passed and the nurse came to take my friend’s husband and her baby to see her. I stayed in the labour room by myself, waiting. Looking around the great facilities I may never need: labour bathtub, bed and all sorts of medical instruments. My labours were usually at home, by myself, in the toilet. Yes, I do dare call it labour, after I’ve felt contractions for over 14 hours.
At the same time, I was communicating with my husband. Sending him news and arranging for him to pick up A.’s son from daycare, along with everything he needs to stay at our place for some days. Two to five days is what the nurse mentioned.
A very long while passed until they came back to pick me up. We walked down to the recovery room, the same one where I recovered from my D&E, past the same theatre I was operated on.
As soon as I saw my friend, pale, eyes welling up, somewhat still confused by the anaesthetics, I bent down and kissed her face. And I caressed her hair and looked deep into her eyes and said how happy I was to see her. “I was so afraid, it was so close” she uttered, tears rolling down her face. “How is my son, is he scared, I’m so afraid for him”, she said. “He’s perfectly fine and have even already had dinner. My husband is looking after him. We will continue looking after him until you’re back home, feeling strong”, “Are you sure? It can take many days”. “Don’t worry, we will take great care of him for as long as needed”, I assured her. It seemed as if a great weight was lifted off her shoulders. All she needed was reassurance about her son. “Thank you so much, I’m so glad you’re here”, she said.
I hadn’t stopped caressing her yet. I remembered too well how awful I felt after my ectopic surgery. The overwhelming feeling of gratitude for being alive, mixed in with all these questions, all this confusion about what had happened and why. I could see all the same feelings in her eyes. Trauma is trauma, and it looks so familiar. We talked a bit, and I made sure not to dismiss her worries and questions. If I have learned anything from these years of pain is to respect people’s feelings, no matter how uncomfortable they are.
Then I went back home, so she could rest. And so I could rest. But there was a 3 year old toddler at my house, in need of attention and distraction. For the next few days he was entirely dependent on us for care and protection.
Looking after young children never scared me. I have many younger cousins and I would babysit them all the time, growing up. I’d play with them, feed them, bathe them and even taught some of them to ride bikes, roller skate, dance and much more. I always loved looking after children, and I’ve always been quite good at it, so all my aunts and uncles would come to me when they needed a break.
We started trying for a baby a few months after A.’s son was born. During his first months of life I was my old self, and I enjoyed helping her take care of him. He liked me very much. A. would even joke sometimes that she was jealous he loved me more than he loved her. I was, for a brief moment, his favourite auntie.
And then everything started to go wrong. And being around babies became more and more painful. So I stopped playing with him and started avoiding him. I would still help my friend when she needed, but I wouldn’t play with him for my own enjoyment.
As we grew more and more apart, I started to feel somewhat uncomfortable around him. He was (and is) a perfect reminder of how long I’ve been failing at trying to conceive a living child. And in his eyes, slightly afraid when looking back at me, I could see reflected the image of the woman I was becoming: broken, tired, sad, bitter. Everything I never intended to be. Everything I wanted to pretend was only temporary, but was still there, each time I looked into his eyes.
Now, he needed me, my friend needed me, and in comparison, any pain I had was insignificant.
My intention was to make him have so much fun, he wouldn’t spend much time wondering where his parents were and why it was taking so long. And so I did.
We took him to ride his bike around our street, we took him to the park, we cooked him his favourite meals and we let him watch cartoons for as long as he wanted (not too long).
We also took him for great walks in the woods behind our house. He never tried that before, exploring nature: climbing trees, walking through the steep pathways and playing in the small stream of water (all perfectly safe, I must add). He loved it. Watching my husband looking after him, holding his hand while crossing the stream through stepping stones, teaching him to climb, and at the same time, watching his fun and excitement for these activities, felt like a double sword. Sometimes it’d fill myself with the reassurance that we would be great parents, that our ideas on how to have fun as a family and teach great things to our children someday would really work. I now had some proof. But at the same time, if it never materialises, it will be so painful to miss seeing my husband become this amazing dad I know he can be.
While he was staying with us, we took him to the hospital a few times so he could see his parents and little sister. He didn’t quite understand what was going on, but I knew my friend needed to see him and be sure he was fine and happy.
During the weekend we took him to a theme park, one he loves. We went on many rides, some he had never tried before and he had so much fun. While we were there, I could see how other people looked at us and treated us, assuming we’re his parents. People were so much nicer and approachable, but I couldn’t help but feel like an imposter. No, I’m not his mother. No, I don’t know what I’m doing (as in, I don’t normally care for toddlers on daily basis).
Most of the time, taking care of him felt quite easy and natural. We didn’t have any big issues, huge tantrums or anything of the sort. My friend kept saying what a handful he is, but we handled it quite well, I think.
The worse part was sleeping. Not because of him, per se. We would put him to bed between 7.30 to 8.00 pm and he slept very well until 7.00 am the next morning, every single day. But I couldn’t stop worrying. Incessantly and obsessively worrying something bad would happen during the night, either to him or to my friend. And so I couldn’t sleep very well.
We also admittedly missed our routine. Without noticing much, we have created our own self-care routine, with exercising, diet and other activities, and it was all put on pause while he was with us.
Back to normal life
After 5 days at the hospital, A. was feeling better and ready to go back home. We packed everything up again and took her son back to her. I was tired and in need of a quiet evening.
The first days after he left, we missed him a lot. We’re just getting used to having him around all the time, starting a new routine. And now we were back in our quiet, empty house.
I was still worried about my friend’s health and started baking 3 batches of lactation cookies for her, and talking to her every day.
A couple of days ago, we finally had the conversation I was hoping for.
“How are you feeling today?”, I started.
“I’m doing fine physically, but mentally I can feel more and more what happened. I have so many questions in my head”, she started.
“It was a traumatic experience. It will take time for you to process everything. If you want to talk about it, I’m here”, I replied.
“I don’t think I’m ready yet, but I have a lot of questions. Could I have done something differently? Did the nurses and doctors do everything right? How close was I to not making it? I looked up in the internet, but according to what I found, I should be dead”
“I understand all the questions. I think it’s a good idea to talk to a doctor when you’re ready”
“Yeah, I’ll do it. But instead of being happy we’re both alive, I keep thinking what went wrong and what could be done differently”
“It’s normal to think like this. You shouldn’t force yourself to feel happy. You need to feel what you feel. Really, the worse you can do is to try and force yourself to snap out of it”, I tried to make some suggestions based on my own experiences. “Just take it easy. It was so scary and it brought so many emotions…”
“And how are you? I can only imagine how hard it was for you, taking care of our son, visiting at the hospital…”
“It’s not always easy. Some days are easier than others”
“I wish we could help you somehow. I didn’t want to ask you for help, but we had no other choice. And you really saved us. We will always be grateful for that. Especially knowing how hard it was for you”
I was really taken by surprise by her words. I wasn’t expecting it, but was so grateful for her recognition for my efforts. “Thank you. It’s not easy for me but at that moment you were in greater need and I of course wanted to help as much as I could. It’s nice to hear you have considered my feelings. I’m just glad you and your daughter are both fine. You’ve helped me so many times as well, that’s what friends are for”
“Somehow I don’t think we were able to help you much but if one day there is anything we can do for you just let us know”
I thought about leaving the conversation at that, but in light of NIAW’s #StartAsking campaign, I decided I should speak up a little more. “There’s nothing to be done but to talk to us, to listen and be there. That helps much more than you imagine”.
I hope we can both use our experiences to show more empathy towards one another, as different as our situations may seem… And strengthen our friendship even more.