When I lost my baby girl, I had just reached the 20-week mark in my pregnancy. When she died less than an hour after her birth, she weighed barely more than a banana.
One week earlier, my husband Joe and I saw her during an ultrasound.
“She looks great,” the doctor assured us, as we gazed dreamily at the fuzzy images on the machine.
After we left the St. Petersburg, Florida, clinic, I breathed a sigh of relief. We were almost halfway through the second trimester. Our daughter was growing normally.
This was real ― we were having a baby.
Until suddenly ... we weren’t.
I noticed the back pain the following Tuesday evening.
It will go away, I told myself, as I tried to divert my attention by correcting my third grade students’ math papers. I felt slightly under the weather ― headache, general malaise, and a sense that something wasn’t quite right. But I chalked it up to being a teacher in a school full of germs.
As the afternoon melted into evening, my discomfort gradually intensified. Eventually, I couldn’t walk upstairs without hunching over. When I finally called my doctor’s after hours emergency line, around 10 p.m., the nurse stated what was pretty obvious: I needed to go to the emergency room. Stat.
“You could have a kidney infection,” she said, after I described my worsening back pain.
A dose of antibiotics will fix this in no time, I thought hopefully.
But the nurse continued, “Or, you might be in labor.” She spoke in a kind, yet matter-of-fact way.
We left for the hospital. As Joe drove, I took deep breaths and stared out the rain-streaked passenger side window, praying the nurse was wrong. Colors from the stoplights whizzed by: a kaleidoscope in red, yellow and green. As we sped off into the black Florida night, my life suddenly felt like that kaleidoscope, spinning and spinning, out of control.
The nurse’s phone diagnosis was, unfortunately, spot-on. Five hours later, after an agonizing natural labor (with only morphine for pain), I delivered our baby girl. Despite my pleading with the medical staff to try anything and everything to keep her alive, her lungs were simply not developed enough, and we were told she would not survive.
“Can’t you give her steroids?” I had yelled during the delivery, frantically shouting out various fixes that I vaguely remembered from Lifetime movies. Except in those situations, each story had a storybook ending, with the baby surviving and everyone living happily ever after.
The nurses asked if I wanted to hold her.
“No,” I answered, which probably made me sound like a horrible person.
In my defense, I was delirious from lack of sleep and the morphine. But more than anything, I was terrified. How would it feel, touching her while knowing that she would die? I didn’t want to face it.
Thankfully, my husband and I finally took the nurses’ advice and held her. She was wrapped in a pink knitted Barbie-size blanket. Her skin looked like tissue paper ― translucent and fragile. Her face, not fully formed, resembled an alien. She moved her arm once.
We named her Kathryn, after my mom, who had died one year earlier.
The next day, as I put my clothes back on to go home, I was momentarily surprised by my flat stomach.
At the start of my pregnancy, an undercurrent of worry constantly lurked in the shadows. Would I make it through the first trimester? I knew 10-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Just get through the first 12 weeks, I told myself.
Exceptionally paranoid, I strictly followed all the pregnancy advice I received from my doctor and the numerous baby books I read. I switched to decaf coffee (a big change for me), stopped eating sushi and eliminated lunchmeat from my diet (goodbye to my usual turkey sandwich lunch at school). I even stopped running, despite it being deemed safe. During my last jog through the cobblestone streets of my neighborhood, I just couldn’t stop imagining my baby bouncing around inside of me ― jolted by every step ― and decided it was better to be safe than sorry.
One morning, when I was about nine weeks pregnant, I spotted blood in my underwear and froze.
This is it, I thought. It’s over. But after a panicked visit to my doctor’s office, she reassured me that everything was fine.
“Bleeding is a lot more common than people think,” she said.
Once I made it to the second trimester, I naively thought that everything would be OK.
Back at home after the delivery, I existed in a foggy haze of grief. How could this have happened? I felt like I was swimming underwater and could never surface for air. Days earlier, I felt Kathryn kick for the first time. Now, all I had left of her were our matching hospital bands, the pink Barbie blanket and a Polaroid photo of her given to us at discharge.
Two days after her birth, my milk came in. My breasts felt like rocks and were painful to touch. My best friend, Katie, suggested putting cabbage leaves on them, to ease the discomfort until my body realized that my milk was not actually needed.
Not needed. Shouldn’t the doctors have warned me about this? It felt like a twisted trick played by Mother Nature.
Katie had flown in from Massachusetts. She slept in the spare bedroom alongside the early baby gifts ― the days of the week onesies, a stuffed yellow duck, a silver rattle ― bestowed upon us by well-meaning family and friends. Each time I saw them, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach, but I couldn’t bring myself to part with them either.
After Katie left, I spent my days obsessively searching the Internet for clues ― any minuscule piece of evidence that I had not done anything to cause the early labor. I wanted to find other stories similar to mine (comfort in shared grief) and to discover an explanation for why this had happened. I also wanted a glimmer of hope that this would not reoccur if I got pregnant again. The thought of another loss of this magnitude seemed unimaginable. More than anything, I wanted to be a mom to a healthy baby.
“It was a freak accident,” the doctor told me the day after the delivery, as I lay in the hospital bed, the TV humming in the background.
But how could he be so sure?
During the weeks after Kathryn’s birth, I felt trapped in my house but couldn’t imagine going back to my third grade classroom after the two-month medical leave I had taken was finished. When a package of handmade “get well” cards arrived from my students, all I could think was, I was pregnant the last time that I saw them ... and now I’m not.
I couldn’t bear to face my class or the co-worker at my school who was two months ahead of me with her pregnancy. We were supposed to go to prenatal yoga together, and I had imagined us becoming close friends and someday taking our babies to the park together. Would she avoid me now? Would I burst into tears at moment I saw her?
I cried constantly, even on my daily trips to Starbucks. Sometimes, I walked the one-fourth mile in tears, composing myself before entering, only to resume crying again once I was back outside, the hot sun beating on my back.
To take my mind off Kathryn, my husband suggested taking walks around our palm-tree-lined neighborhood. On many occasions, we inevitably saw pregnant women. To lighten the mood, I had taken up the habit of covertly cursing at them.
“Fucking bitch,” I would whisper to Joe, after we passed another expecting mother. This gave me a smile, yet there was still a vast emptiness inside me. What I really wanted was to be just like them, strolling hand in hand with my husband as we discussed baby names, gift registries and Lamaze classes.
Why were their babies still alive and mine wasn’t?
Despite my enormous pain, my experience connected me to others in a new way. Although I felt lonely, I was not alone. Colleagues and acquaintances reached out to recount their own failed pregnancy stories. One co-worker drove to my house with a handmade card and a potted lemon tree. She sat with me, crying, and shared her story of her full-term, stillborn son. Another called and told me about her multiple miscarriages. A parent at my school opened up about her 19-week pregnancy loss.
My principal, Gaye, sent a card with a picture of yellow daffodils on the cover and a note that read, “Daffodils have always made me smile in the darkest of times. I thought I’d wish some daffodils’ power on you.”
She also delivered a large, rectangular box, covered in pink satin. “To keep special items in,” she had written. Although I found her gesture thoughtful, I shoved the box aside, not wanting to remember anything about those moments. I wished that I could close my eyes and wake up in a few months, pregnant again and on the path toward a healthy delivery. Like a bear hibernating in winter, I just wanted to sleep and sleep and wake up when everything around me had changed for the better.
It’s been 16 years since Kathryn’s birth ― and death. I have two more children, ages 13 and 15, and I am thankful for them beyond words.
Recently, I opened the pink box Gaye gave me all those years ago. Inside, I found her note in her loopy handwriting, a card from one of the aforementioned co-workers and numerous other heartfelt messages. I also found the Polaroids of Kathryn taken by the nursing staff and the hospital bands and pink blanket.
Although more women have been sharing their miscarriages and stillbirths, including celebrities like Meghan Markle, Chrissy Teigen and Michelle Obama, many families still suffer silently through their grief. I was lucky to have the support of friends, family, and colleagues, including the women who graciously told me about their own losses. Not everyone does.
Even though I have two more children, Kathryn will always be my first child. She is a part of my life to honor, not hide away. Devastatingly, these losses happen. But telling our stories can make us feel less alone.
When Kathryn died, all I wanted was to forget and move on. Although I couldn’t see it then, Gaye was right: I did need something to hold special items in. I didn’t ― and still don’t ― want to forget those moments. If I did, it would be like saying Kathryn never existed. For five months, she grew inside me. I felt her kick. Heard her heartbeat. She was alive.
Lisa Mazinas is an elementary reading specialist who writes on themes of loss, parenting, mental health and education. Her work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Sun Magazine. She is currently working on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @lmazinas.