Last year, I celebrated Mother’s Day with my two sweet girls, Hannah and Gretchen, then ages 4 years and 23 months. I was also awaiting the arrival of my unborn son, Caleb, whom I had been carrying for about 33 weeks at the time. This Mother’s Day will be very different. My two sweet girls are a year older, but my son is not. He died in my womb the very next month.
When I was 37 weeks pregnant, my placenta completely detached from my uterus, killing Caleb within minutes. What happened to me is called a placental abruption. I had no risk factors. My placental abruption was “invisible.” I neither bled nor had intense pain, the usual symptoms. The only reason we went to the hospital that night of Father’s Day 2017 was because I awoke around midnight and felt uncomfortable. Caleb also wasn’t moving, but that did not worry me too much because I had done a successful kick count three hours before and he usually didn’t move too much at night. Looking back now, the discomfort felt like when Caleb would push his butt hard on my ribs (which he did often), but it was constant. I knew something was off, but I never thought he could have died. I was two weeks away from our scheduled delivery.
We got to the labor and delivery unit at the hospital and eventually were put in a room. Coincidentally, it was the same room I had been in before delivering my first daughter. I had also been in it when we had a scare when pregnant with my second daughter ― pain from a bladder infection, pain that was much worse than what I was experiencing with Caleb. We weren’t in the room for long before the nurse put the monitor on my belly and couldn’t find Caleb’s heartbeat. The nurse called in another nurse to help, and she couldn’t find it either. We had some hope when they ordered an ultrasound, but the technician was clearly not in a rush. I remember asking my main nurse if the inability to find a heartbeat ever turned out OK. Her long pause before “maybe he’s just turned funny” told me the answer was no. At one point, while still waiting for the ultrasound, I started to scream and cry, prompting all of the nurses to come back in the room. The ultrasound finally happened, although the technician and nurses still wouldn’t tell us anything.
Finally, around 5 a.m., the on-call doctor officially informed us that my placenta had detached and Caleb had died. Because I was bleeding internally, I had to deliver Caleb immediately and without an epidural. That was a first for me. Soon after he delivered the news, my water broke, also the first time that ever happened naturally, and the contractions started. My regular doctor arrived and took over. She drugged me, but my body still knew how to deliver a baby.
“When asked how many children I have, I’m rarely happy with how I answer. I usually don’t want to bring up Caleb to a stranger, but I also don’t want to negate his existence.”
Caleb Marcus Lens was born on June 19, 2017, at 6:09 a.m. He was 5 pounds, 15.8 ounces, and 19.25 inches long. He was our least hairy child; he had less hair on his head than both of our daughters did. He looked just like my younger daughter. The nurses wrapped him in a blanket and were very supportive of our spending time with him. It was mid- or later afternoon when we gave him our last kisses and said goodbye. We had a beautiful funeral for him a week later.
It’s been over 10 months since his birth and death, and I’m still adjusting to this new normal ― of being a parent to a child who died. Now I have to figure out how to celebrate Mother’s Day without one of my children.
We recently moved to a new city, a city where no one saw me very pregnant and then wondered why I wasn’t carrying a baby car seat. Because of our young, living children, we encounter other families all the time. When asked how many children I have, I’m rarely happy with how I answer. I usually don’t want to bring up Caleb to a stranger, but I also don’t want to negate his existence. I can pretty easily say we “have two girls at home,” which doesn’t explicitly exclude Caleb.
But why don’t I also say, “We also have a son who passed away”? In class a few weeks ago, I told one of my students that it’s easy for me to remember her name because she has the same name as my older daughter. Why didn’t I say the same for the student named Caleb? I want to share that I also have a son — a sweet, beautiful boy who I loved to talk and sing to and who used to kick me excitedly when he heard his sisters’ voices. But, I also don’t want to have to comfort the person I’m telling about Caleb, the person who will inevitably apologize for inadvertently asking a question relevant to my dead son. I’m also afraid to encounter any dismissive comments that may imply that my loss is somehow less devastating because Caleb died before, instead of after, birth.
Public acknowledgment is very related to Mother’s Day for me. On Mother’s Day, at the church we used to attend in Texas, the priest would ask mothers to come up to the front of church based on how many children they have. I had been attending that Mass every year I was lucky enough to be a mom. I went up to the front when I had one child (with sadness the year we were struggling to conceive our second), and then when I had two children. Of all places, a Catholic church, I should feel comfortable going up to the front this year when he asked for mothers of three children. I would like to think that I would have done so. But what I really feel is relief that I won’t be there this year.
At the same time that I’m having difficulty adjusting to my new normal, I also realize how extremely lucky I am. I do have two living children to hug and kiss on Mother’s Day. The need to try to make their lives as normal as possible despite their baby brother’s death helped us get through those first weeks and months, even though we also had to help them begin to process. Caleb’s death has given me extreme gratitude for my girls; I fully realize that I have it better than many.
“It took some time, but I am now able to look back on the day of Caleb’s birth and see it differently. It was not just the saddest day of my life, it was also one of the three happiest days.”
But parenting is also very different. I don’t think jokes about “selling my kids” are funny. I don’t think parents’ tweets complaining about their kids are funny. I don’t want to vacation away from them. After Caleb died, so many people offered to babysit out girls. It was a nice gesture, but time away from my girls was the last thing I wanted. When one (or both) of my girls annoy me, I can’t just feel annoyed. Instead, I get to feel guilty. I should be thankful they are here and living and even able to annoy me. Although I am thankful for the gratitude, it can also be exhausting.
I like to think I’m still hopeful for the future. It took some time, but I am now able to look back on the day of Caleb’s birth and see it differently. It was not just the saddest day of my life, it was also one of the three happiest days. It was the only day that I’ll ever hold Caleb in my arms. I am forever grateful that I asked to hold him skin-to-skin that day, the same thing I did with his sisters. I look back and feel such intense joy that I got to hold him that way.
That change in my thought helps me be hopeful for the future. Things will never go back to the way they were before Caleb died. But happiness is still possible, even if it’s tinged with a bit of sadness. That is exactly how I feel when I see how much my girls love each other — I’m so happy and grateful, but also sad because Caleb isn’t with them. I’m also hopeful that I will one day figure out a way for him to be part of my public life. My older daughter often draws family pictures at school, and she always includes Baby Caleb. I hope to someday be able to do the same when I talk about my family.
Still, Mother’s Day will be especially hard for me. And, honestly, I expect that every Mother’s Day after this first monumental one will be hard. I will try my best to be present, celebrate with my girls and specifically remember the third child that makes me a mom. I recently learned a story about the origin for Mother’s Day — that it was created to recognize the pain of grieving mothers who had lost their sons in the Civil War. I find that very comforting, that the day was an acknowledgment of mothers whose children had died.
I hope to feel that same comfort this Mother’s Day, a day I am already specifically planning out hour-by-hour in hopes of minimizing my pain. To all mothers like me — those who have buried a child — I wish you comfort, peace and acknowledgment on Mother’s Day.
Jill Wieber Lens is an associate professor of law at the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville) School of Law, where she teaches torts, remedies and related subjects. She received her B.A. from University of Wisconsin-Madison and her J.D. from the University of Iowa College of Law.