Tragedy doesn't happen in a vacuum. This isn't much of a bumper sticker, but it's an important lesson I've learned. When something bad happens, a person is in the middle of living her life with all of her established beliefs and previous life experiences. I was in the middle of living out my fantasy of having two kids, two years apart when my son died at 39 weeks. He was a full term 7 pound, 1 ounce baby who had become tangled in the umbilical cord. The cord went up from his belly, around his neck, down his back, up through his legs and around his soft middle. I was healthy, he was healthy, but my caregivers were not looking for and did not catch that it was impossible for my son to safely leave my body without significant help. When he dropped to be born, he accidentally cut off his oxygen supply.
Milan's death shocked everyone, including me. I was not the mom to worry about. I was the obnoxiously healthy mom who drank kale smoothies daily and exercised five to six times a week. I had signed up for a CSA in Chelsea, on the far Westside of Manhattan, so we could eat farm fresh vegetables and I lugged the produce home on the subway, so dedicated was I to healthy eating. It was my second pregnancy after a successful first that had ended in me delivering a 9 pound, 4 ounce baby in a cabin in the woods of Tennessee without drugs. For my second pregnancy, I was concerned about the delivery because now I knew how much it hurt, but I thought I had pregnancy down pat. My Upper West Side doctor seemed to agree I had nothing to worry about. She didn't even measure my belly, which I asked about. I should have questioned more.
I became the mom Googling "stillbirth" with a dead baby in my very round belly. I learned about what had killed my son after it happened, I never heard of a "cord accident" until it was too late. There was a terrible yet magical quality over the following weeks after my son died. It didn't seem real that I could bury my baby less than 24 hours after he was born in a pine coffin that had been made for just us. How did they build it so fast?
The pain of birthing a dead baby paled in comparison to the pain of going home without a baby. There is nothing like telling someone the baby has died when they ask about the baby. There is nothing like watching someone transition from joyful expectation to pure horror. Yes, you're right, a baby is supposed to be the start of life, it's unnatural for a baby to die. I'm sorry my life has hurt you. I'm sorry I hurt so much, I don't know why this is happening to me. Why did my baby die?
So here we are at the heart of it; Why? Why my baby? Why did my baby die?
You think we would have slept. There was no baby to soothe at 2:00 am and we were exhausted. But we didn't sleep. My breasts wept milk and I ached for my baby. My body didn't understand that the baby had died. Week after week, I lay in sheets wet with milk and woke up looking for my child to feed him. I'd get up in the middle of the night and sob, asking God, "What have I done to offend you?" Did God hate me? Why was I the unlucky one?
I may have been the only one asking, but not the only one to make the connection. Far flung cousins made comments on Facebook about how unfair it was that someone who had already suffered should have to suffer again. Tragedy doesn't happen in a vacuum.
They knew what the neighbors did not; that my beautiful, talented, generous and kind mother killed herself five years before the death of my son. Which is why I was up in the middle of the night asking if God hated me. My mom was an extraordinary person and she was also depressed; she was often neglectful and nearly always critical of herself and others, certainly of me. And she had left me. There are mothers with cancer who are fighting for their lives so they can stay with their children. I think of these brave moms all the time. I wish my mother had wanted to stick around to be with me, see my life unfold and to meet her grandkids. I wish I was a good enough reason for her to stay.
About three months after Milan died, I started gathering more information about stillbirth. My doctor had responded to my son's death by saying, "This never happens," which made me feel like there was something wrong with me. Was I really all alone in this? I went on the CDC website and dug for facts. No, it's not just me; according to the most recent numbers published, there are nearly 26,000 stillbirths every year in the U.S. which breaks down into 1 in 160 births.
Holy crap! I still don't understand why more people don't read this number and exclaim something like HOLY CRAP. That's a lot of babies dying and I'd never discussed the possibility of stillbirth with any doctor, nurse or midwife I'd ever seen.
Was there anyone doing anything to stop stillbirths? I wanted to find people who essentially said, "Your baby died and I'm going to do something about it because that's NOT ok." This may be a good time to mention that my doctor had lied. Not to me, to herself. Not only does stillbirth happen, but I came to learn that she had a patient the very year before whose baby was born still. Pretending stillbirth doesn't happen doesn't protect babies from harm. What protects babies?
Kick counts! Yes, simple but true, blissfully true. I kept searching and found Healthy Birth Day, a stillbirth and infant death prevention group, that runs a tremendously successful public health campaign called Count the Kicks. Research has shown that tracking a baby's movements daily can help a mother notice if her baby is in distress. Much more research needs to be done on the causes of stillbirth, but as for prevention, we're off to a great start. In the campaign's originating state, the stillbirth rate has dropped by 26 percent since the Count the Kicks launch in 2005.
Finding people doing something about what killed my son changed my personal story. I'd felt isolated, I was the only one I knew whose child had died like mine. And I'd grown up feeling like something was wrong with me so clearly my baby had died because, yup, there was something wrong with me. But now I wasn't alone, I knew other moms whose children had died, moms I thought were heroes. The moms who founded Healthy Birth Day had lost children and went on to help save the lives of other people's babies. This had really happened! And I wasn't alone in the world! I didn't believe that God had taken their babies on purpose to punish them and thinking kindly of other mothers helped me be more kind to myself. I'd felt powerless, but by using my skills to contribute to a group of people dedicated to preventing what killed my son, I've been able to honor Milan and even to feel like I'm parenting him.
So this is what I've come to: It took my son dying to identify that I felt unloved in a deep way. I felt unloved by God and it was a belief formed by a little girl whose mother wasn't always able to give her the care and attention she deserved. And I realized that my mother didn't leave me, she left herself. It sucks to be collateral damage, but I know she really did love me. The depression was simply stronger than the love she was as capable of feeling.
It took connecting with other people to prove to me that my son didn't die because there's something wrong with me, he died because the umbilical cord was wrapped around him. My son's death forced me to go through the necessary process of developing awareness of those hurt little girl beliefs. Will I ever be good enough? Yes, I've always been good enough to be loved for who I am. My son taught me that.
Not everyone who has had a stillbirth questions if God loves them. It's what came up for me because I struggled to feel loved. Frankly, sometimes I still do. But having a stillborn and going through the pain has helped me to become more open to receiving love.
I've come to believe that I got just the baby I needed to become the person I want to be. I would have never in a million years asked to have a stillborn, but I believe God gave me Milan, he was not taken. My dead son isn't a punishment, he's a gift. And I am grateful.
The best part is that in my lifetime, I will get to see thousands of lives saved. We are on the cusp of something huge. Moms all over the country are helping each other protect their babies by spreading awareness of Count the Kicks; as more people know what to do, more lives will be saved. We mothers who have lost babies honor our children by helping others avoid the same pain. Because my son died, I have to help other babies live. This is why my baby; he guides me to do good.
Karina Bennett is a director and producer. She is co-owner of MagicBullet Media, a creative agency that works with major brands to create content for online and broadcast needs. Karina has made several online videos promoting Count the Kicks and has just completed filming a Count the Kicks spot for national broadcast. She lives with her husband and two living children in Montclair, New Jersey.
The public health campaign Count the Kicks teaches expectant parents the importance of monitoring their unborn babies' movements during the third trimester of pregnancy with the goal of improving the chances of delivering a healthy baby. Scientific studies indicate kick counting, a daily record of a baby's movements (kicks, rolls, punches, jabs) during the third trimester, is an easy, free and reliable way to monitor a baby's well-being in addition to regular prenatal visits.
Count The Kicks has recently gone global thanks to a new kick counting app found in the iTunes and Google Play online stores. Through their non-profit organization Healthy Birth Day, the Count the Kicks founding moms have created a network of supportive hospitals, doctors and advocates who are spreading the Count the Kicks message. Prior to the development of Count the Kicks, the five founding moms helped get Iowa's Stillbirth Registry law enacted and they now have Count the Kicks ambassadors in thirteen states, including Karina Bennett.