Good Grief

My story is complicated and heavy, and, truth be told, I’m still in the thick of it.

I’m two for two with getting pregnant, two for two with birthing micro-preemies via emergency C-section, and, tragically, one for two with my babies surviving.

While not technically “infertile,” my body won’t carry a baby to term. There should be a word for this malady, but I’m not aware of one. Getting pregnant, no problem. Staying pregnant, no such luck. But the root problem is the same — my body won’t do something that I feel as though it was intended to do. And that is heartbreaking.

My first son, Oliver, was born at 28 weeks due to a condition I developed called HELLP syndrome. During my second trimester, and after a fairly textbook pregnancy to that point, I began experiencing severe shoulder pain, of all things. After a few confusing conversations with my OB, off-and-on intense pain, several sleepless nights, and mounting anxiety, I found myself in the hospital having an emergency C-section nearly three months before my baby was due. He weighed 2 lbs. ½ oz. and had a long stay in the NICU. This experience was gut-wrenching (literally and figuratively), and I’d never felt so fragile. What I didn’t realize then was that, in the not too distant future, I would come to view this experience as a cakewalk compared to what I would face with my second son.

Leo came even earlier, at 25 weeks and weighing half as much as his big brother — 15.8 ounces, or just shy of 1 pound, to be exact. My body failed me and my baby once again. Despite seeking out specialized doctors and receiving a green light that a second pregnancy was a responsible decision, we fell into the dreaded “worst-case scenario” bucket once again — only this time it was worse. In addition to a second emergency C-section and tragically premature infant son, I somehow contracted an infectious disease 24 hours after delivery called C. diff. It’s highly contagious and prevented me from spending time with the people I loved when I needed them most — including my baby, who I’d never even get to hold until he was dying in my arms.

Leo put up an incredible fight for a tiny human who weighed less than a bottle of water, and lived miraculously for nearly a month. Then he died due to complications from his prematurity and under-developed organs, and I became what felt like a different person. I had a new, unwanted identity that made everything in my life substantially more complicated. I was a mother who had lost a child and joined a club that nobody wants to join. At first I was so sad and filled with grief that I relied on daily routines to get me from one day to the next, functioning like a robot on autopilot. But then the anger set in and I realized that I much preferred being sad to angry. It felt easier and less exhausting.

Losing Leo broke me in ways I didn’t even know that I was capable of being broken. Grief set in and I began navigating life with a new set of eyes. In addition to grieving the loss of my son, I was also grieving the fact that my doctors had strongly advised against pursuing future pregnancies. Chalking it up to an undiagnosed autoimmune response to pregnancy, it was clear that future pregnancies would result in a similar outcome (likely worse) and would pose substantial threat to both the baby and my own body. So that was it — my pregnancy chapter had closed, tragically and abruptly. I was devastated.

I could hardly stand the loss of control that I felt. I needed purpose. One of the only places I found strength was in focusing on how we’d grow our family. I frequently thought about my Thanksgiving table and what it would look like 20 years down the road. I knew that we needed to fill more seats around that idyllic table that encompassed all of my hopes and dreams. Soon after, we started down the path of gestational surrogacy after my angelic sister-in-law offered to carry a baby for our family. Her offer alone was a gift that saved me and provided purpose and hope when I so desperately needed it.

As we both began fertility treatments across the country from one another, the imagery of that Thanksgiving table kept me going when I felt that I didn’t have anything left. I’ll never forget what it felt like sitting in the waiting room of a fertility clinic for the first time. It was emotional and overwhelming, sitting in a room with people who were strangers to me, but whom I felt connected to because we all wanted something so wonderful, but couldn’t achieve it on our own. Another club I never thought I’d join. Each time I went into the clinic I made it a deliberate point to silently honor the women and men who were sitting in the chairs next to me. We were all there fighting for a family in some way or another. Many couples undergo the rollercoaster of fertility treatments much longer than we did, but after two egg retrievals to get viable embryos, a failed IVF transfer, and multiple canceled cycles due to poor response, we finally received the miraculous news that we were pregnant. Our successful transfer took place on the one-year anniversary of my son Leo’s death. The coincidence still gives me goosebumps.

Our baby girl is due in the coming weeks. We are technically more “pregnant” than we have ever been before and are hoping and praying that this time we’ll bring a baby home from the hospital rather than leave defeated and heartbroken with empty arms. As wonderful as this is, there’s one emotion that I’m still trying to make sense of. I’m afraid that once I meet our miracle baby, that my sadness, the only emotion that connects me to Leo, will be replaced with happiness. I’m afraid that this grief that has felt like the weight of the world on my shoulders might actually lift just a bit. I feel a desire to honor my grief and hang on to it for a bit longer. Because the fight to get here has been so exhausting, and I think the fact that we’ve hung in there is honorable.

Leo’s short life changed our family forever. More than anyone else, I have him to thank for this new baby joining our family. His brief life led us down a path that we never would have explored, and as difficult as it has been, the ending is turning out to be beautiful.

As I prepare to hold my new baby for the first time and begin to wrap my head around the fact that we have actually made it, I hope that I can make sense of two opposing emotions existing in the same moment. That being both happy and sad will appropriately pay respect to the life of my baby that I lost and to the new life that just began.

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