Like most people who live in the Midwest, the green of spring makes me excited to finally say goodbye to winter and hello to some color and fresh air. But spring also brings painful memories, memories that always lie just below the surface, into sharper focus.
Eleven years ago, my husband and I were expecting our first child. It was springtime -- the flowers were blooming and everything was pretty and fresh. As a speech pathologist in an elementary school building, I found myself outside for recess duty. The baby would kick when she would hear the children's laughter and squeals of delight.
With springtime came spring cleaning, coupled with the "nesting" every pregnant woman seems compelled to do. We had washed every little onesie, tucked every newborn diaper neatly into its bin and hung every tiny outfit on matching hangers. The nursery was finished; the baby shower was a week away. Everything was planned. Everything was perfect.
But the baby stopped moving.
I wasn't going to be THAT mom -- the mom that called the doctor to question, complain and worry about every little thing. After all, I had read all the books, followed all the rules. I had planned for everything... except this.
On a beautiful, Sunday afternoon, my mother encouraged me to call the doctor. He told me to go to the hospital to be monitored. I was excited about the possibility of seeing my baby on an ultrasound again. We headed to the hospital with naive anticipation.
The nurses couldn't find a heartbeat.
They reassured me, and still I didn't worry. They phoned the ultrasound tech on call that weekend. I hated to bother the tech by making her come into work on that beautiful day to look at our baby, just to tell us she was "just sleepy." But she came.
She delivered the news almost instantly. "I can tell you right now there is no heartbeat."
"My baby!" I screamed. My husband put his head on my chest and cried.
Grace Biondi was stillborn at 32 weeks on a rainy Monday morning. I felt like the sky's tears couldn't match my own. We baptized Grace, crammed a lifetime of stories into a few hours, kissed her and said goodbye. Tests would later reveal that I had a large, undetected blood clot in my placenta. And with that, a lifetime's journey and mission began.
I wanted to turn back time; but time moved forward anyway, taking me with it.
I returned home from the hospital, still wearing maternity clothes, waiting for my milk to come in and clutching a box with a few pictures and mementos... but no baby. My arms ached to hold her. The empty nursery caused a pain in my heart each time I walked by.
I worried that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn't "normal." My feelings turned to guilt and anger, emotions foreign to the "me" I had been before Grace. The emotions became so intensely negative that I wondered if I was becoming a bad person. I wondered if I was being punished because I actually was a bad person.
But time continued to march on. It always does. The pain changed. It changed me, strangely, for the better.
We went on to have three healthy children. We even found our way to happiness again, yet a portion of that pain is always there. A certain sound, a certain time of year or a certain smell can bring an onset of tears that are hastily wiped away. Even 11 years later, I can still close my eyes and replay my entire hospital stay, from beginning to end, in my mind like a movie. I can tell you what the doctors wore; I can tell you what picture hung in the room. I can tell you what was said, who said it and where they were standing in the room. When you come home from the hospital with empty arms, you have nothing but time to replay those images over and over again until they become cemented in your mind. It's like a bad movie. Ironically, I don't recall near the detail of my subsequent and happier birth experiences.
The feelings of despair and helplessness can be overwhelming and lonely. But my story -- OUR story -- does not end there. The sadness was just the beginning.
In my journey I met four other incredible women who all lost daughters to stillbirth or infant death within months of each other and within months of me. The birth of our friendship was the birth of a cause.
We met in coffee shops around our hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, at first just sharing our stories of grief. While I wished this type of grief on no one else, the presence of these moms was what reminded me that I was not alone. Others were surviving, and I would, too.
It wasn't long before those stories turned into a mission and the nonprofit, Healthy Birth Day, was born. Our mission is to prevent stillbirth and infant death through education, advocacy and support. Our efforts have included passing legislation to create a stillbirth registry in the state of Iowa. The registry collects and analyzes information on each stillbirth in the state to help determine the causes of stillbirth.
Our primary initiative, Count the Kicks, is a public health campaign that teaches expectant parents about monitoring their baby's movements in the last trimester of pregnancy. Count the Kicks was inspired by research done in Norway where they educated expectant mothers to monitor their baby's movements and reduced the overall stillbirth rate by one-third. Hearing Count the Kicks success stories like these never gets old:
"I was told that our little Cooper James would not have made it through the day had I not be counting the kicks and paying attention to his movement."
- Tracie, Cooper's mom
"Because of your campaign I was more aware of her movement and able to bring attention to a problem, which saved her life!"
-Erica, Chesney's mom
"Friends and family tried to reassure me that it was normal to experience less movement at the end of pregnancy. This isn't true! Kick counting saved my son."
- Amanda, Preston's Mom
Focusing on stillbirth and infant death prevention has helped me heal. It helped me turn the powerful feelings of grief, into passion and action. In addition, the time and efforts that I put into this organization are when I get to be Grace's mother. There is something very healing and empowering in that. But underlying our organization, creating the foundation for its programs and mission, is a deep and powerful friendship. Jan Caruthers, Janet Petersen, Kate Safris and Tiffan Yamen have helped make me who I am today. Our friendship gave me hope in a time when I felt none. This friendship is a gift given to us by our daughters, and in turn, Healthy Birth Day is their legacy.
We invite you along for this incredible journey. You will get to know us, our programs and our mission. You will read stories of hope, strength and miracles. We want every mother to know about Count the Kicks. We want this knowledge to be as universal as taking prenatal vitamins and putting a baby "back to sleep."
Grace has given me so many gifts it's hard to name them all: a wonderful marriage, awareness of the kindness of others, appreciation for old friends, the joy of new friends, the ability to revel in simply joys, to truly see the important things in life and the great gift of three healthy children, each specially hand-picked just for us by their big sister. I know Grace made me a better person and a better mother... and I know that spring will always be bittersweet.
This is a story about the power of women, of friendship, and of a coffee shop... Join us.