I’m writing this tonight in the vain hope that getting the wildness down on paper will bring me some kind — any kind — of relief. I’m currently 35.6 weeks pregnant with our second (pot of gold) baby after Tinsley was stillborn at 32 weeks from an umbilical cord accident (UCA) in December 2017. Our first baby after loss (Henry, our rainbow), was born in December 2018.

I don’t remember it being this hard when I was pregnant with Henry.

Fear, anxiety, panic, repeat.

For the last month, I feel like I haven’t been able to breathe. Like I might jump out of my skin. Like I might tear off my limbs. Like a possessed giant is sitting on my chest, pushing all his weight onto my body, deliberately trying to crush it. It is a frighteningly physical experience. This beast will not leave me or soften his attack. Sometimes I actually worry I have died and am in some kind of alternative universe of hell. That is what each minute feels like — like my worst version of hell. Fear, anxiety, panic, repeat.

I muddle through the day in a storm of constant worry that I’ve come this far with this sweet child only to end up burying him beside his sister. I worry that I’ll become one of the rare 2x stillbirths moms. I imagine myself stranded on that island, just me and my two stillborn children. I wouldn’t wish this emotional torment on my worst enemy.

By the late afternoon, I’m terrorized by the imminent night, wondering frantically how I will survive those dark hours… Oh God, what will I need to do to make it through one more night? Rationally, I know I have more than one night to get through, but it’s all I can possibly fathom surviving. And the beast on my chest triples in size and strength, and suddenly I can’t take a breath deep enough for air to actually reach my lungs. I get on all fours and try to inhale slowly through my nose, exhale out through my mouth — but none of my breathing techniques work and I’m too short of breath to even cry out for help.

Wait, when was the last time I actually cried? I can’t remember.

The numbness set in a while ago. That could explain my headaches. It feels like someone has built a stone wall around the perimeter of my head, a strange stone wall that squeezes my brain periodically like someone wringing out a dirty sponge.

My teeth chatter with nervous anticipation as the sun goes down (Tinsley died during the night when I was sleeping). I squirm thinking about the long hours ahead of dozing and waking, dozing and waking, dozing and waking — each time waking accompanied by the agony of waiting for him to move… Will he move? Why hasn’t he moved yet? Is he still alive? Do I have to labor with another dead baby? Please no, it might actually kill me to do it again. I can’t do it again, please no… and then a tiny kick. Or maybe he shuffles and rumbles a lot — too much? Was that a final, jerky call for oxygen? Did I just feel his very last movement? Oh no, he has the hiccups again and hiccups can be a sign of fetal distress. I am drenched in sweat. Sometimes I grow freezing cold, sometimes I become feverish I have grown so hot.

And in the dozing, what dreams await me?

Suffocated babies, umbilical cords pouring out of my own belly button, losing my children in an enchanted forest where only the ugliest, most violent creatures call home…fear, anxiety, panic, repeat.

I try to kick my legs out of my hip sockets and I tug my hair and I scratch the back of my thighs without any deliberate thought to what my hands or legs are doing — and I do it all night long. I move restlessly from one room to another, trying to find anywhere the walls aren’t closing in on me. There are none. It is an eternal night.

I revisit the idea that I have died and been sentenced to hell — how else could I explain how slowly the clock moves, how stuck the calendar seems? I am obsessed with hating time. Always wishing it would move faster but also knowing it is dangerous to beg time to move more quickly than it should. It bucks a major spiritual principle of being grateful for the present moment, but I cannot help myself. I keep trying to jump in line to an ending (that might not even be happy).

And it’s not like I haven’t had things to do to keep busy, to distract me. I have a full-time job. I have three living children. We sold our house, packed our house, bought a new house, and unpacked the new house. Christmas is coming and there are presents to buy and wrap and a house to decorate. There has been no shortage of things to preoccupy me. And yet here I sit today, empty-handed and dumbfounded on how to move through this hell at a faster pace.

The last three weeks in particular, I have come as close to insanity as I hope I ever will, despite my efforts to calm down.

I have tried to meditate (hah), I share with my best loss mom friends who understand, I read pregnancy after loss books, I see a therapist, I watch Hallmark movies with only happy endings, I practice positive visualization of a happy labor and delivery, I read my pregnancy after loss affirmation cards, but nothing really helps. And, I’ve repeatedly offered myself to God, to put myself in His hands, but I cannot reach Him. The channel is beyond blocked. And the spiritual loneliness of that, the perceived abandonment, adds another layer to my hell. Anxiety, fear, panic, repeat.

And on another note, being pregnant after loss has somewhat stunted my involvement in my UCA Facebook group and work with the Star Legacy Foundation. By the third trimester, it’s just too hard to engage in the loss community when you’re expecting again (not that I need a reminder that my baby could die). Being separated from them contributes to my isolation. The entire month of October felt so terrible, like I was being pulled in two different directions — one to honor Tinsley and one to shield myself from making pregnancy after loss even harder by being surrounded by too much infant death.

In addition to all this, there is also the energy and the gumption this journey takes, when I’m at my absolute weakest, to advocate for myself and my child to those smug MFMs at the ultrasounds.

Each one telling me something different, each one placating me, each one annoyed that I have the audacity to request a color doppler or a full-length examination of the cord, each one offering platitudes and lame metaphors around the likelihood of another fetal demise by UCA, each one dismissive of the research I present, each one deaf to any information I bring that could help save my baby’s life.

Of course, I still take whatever they’re willing to give me, and we proceed with NSTs and BPPs and weekly check-ins. I follow a standard protocol whose effectiveness I question but am unable to alter. The repeated experience of never feeling heard by the MFMs but always feeling judged grates at my self-esteem and chips away at any confidence I have left in my own maternal intuition. I realize they are just trying to do their job, but I am trying to do mine, too — and my job is to protect this child. I have failed at that before (it doesn’t matter that Tinsley dying “wasn’t my fault.” It happened within my own body. Her death lives in my bones).

Ever since I saw the double lines telling me life had begun to grow within me, I haven’t really felt a part of this world.

I’ve been living in my own world, my own hell, punctuated with very few, very brief escapes and relief. This myopic, obsessive world of mine is a scary place. And I know I will feel differently when WHEN WHEN WHEN he is born alive. But right now it is hard to imagine anything that could make this pain, this self-inflicted suffering, worth it. And as I type that, I wonder if I’ve jinxed myself, if now he will definitely die because I said that. Because I’m irrational and scared and trapped and have fallen madly in love with a baby that I desperately want to take home and take care of and watch grow and grow and grow.

But there is nothing more I can do to ensure he gets here safely, other than pay attention to my body, pay attention to him and his movements, and wait…and wait…and wait. Fear, anxiety, panic, repeat.

***

Three weeks later…

And of course, the pain and suffering was worth it. George is two weeks old today. He was born on December 2, 2020, at 36 weeks, 1 day, weighing a very respectable 5 lb 11 oz. He came out with a double nuchal cord wrap around his neck, which made me almost vomit. Other than a little jaundice and glucose issues, needing one night in the NICU, he was perfect. He is perfect. The labor and delivery included a lot of PTSD flashbacks to Tinsley’s labor and delivery, which I also experienced with Henry. I don’t think loss moms can avoid that. The body absolutely keeps the score.

Kathy Gardner with newborn George - Fear, Anxiety, Panic, Repeat: Pregnancy After Loss Journey to Hell

Author’s Personal Collection/Kathy Gardner

The huge giant, that unrelenting beast, who had been sitting on my chest for so many months is gone. He departed quickly upon George’s arrival.

Unlike my first couple weeks with Henry, where I was obsessively checking his breathing, and kissing him my “last kisses” each time I put him down for a nap (convinced he would die in his sleep), my worry that George is going to die is more manageable. Maybe I exhausted all my energy worrying about him dying during the pregnancy.

These two weeks have flown by. I do not hate time anymore — in fact, I’m wishing I had more of it now. There are four kids in the house that need me (two doing remote learning, one potty training, and of course, a newborn). I am sure that certain chaos, emotional breakdowns, temper tantrums (theirs and mine), extreme exhaustion, and challenging moments will greet us this winter, as will moments of happiness, silliness, togetherness, and laughter.

Newborn - Fear, Anxiety, Panic, Repeat: Pregnancy After Loss Journey to Hell

Author’s Personal Collection/Kathy Gardner

Compared to the last nine months, though, and barring any tragedies (I am always looking for them out of the corner of my eye), I think the whole family is headed for much calmer waters. I would be delusional if I didn’t see the strain that my emotional distress during pregnancy after loss has put on my marriage, my husband, and my children. Perhaps they would not have named my four horsemen (fear, anxiety, panic, repeat), but they could all feel them galloping through the house. And, they have all noticed that they have left. It’s like we all have more oxygen to breathe, more space to breathe in, more joy in the in-between.

Maybe in a couple of years, I will revisit this writing and not recognize a word of the person who wrote it.

Maybe it will still be fresh in my mind and send shivers down my spine. Maybe it will just be a tickle in the back of my throat, ever reminding me that I am capable of surviving hell.

If you are reading this but have not experienced pregnancy after loss and think this all sounds a bit exaggerated and even ridiculous, I am grateful. It means your child hasn’t gone directly from your warm body and into the ground.

If you have experienced pregnancy after loss, or are on the journey right now, I am sorry that you probably found yourself nodding along, identifying with parts of my ride. And I am so sorry that your child died. I hope that you have, or soon will have, the happy ending that every single cell in your body is longing for. My heart is with every mother who has chosen to try again, has chosen love over fear, has looked into the depths of hell and said, “Yes, I’ll buy that ticket.”

Pregnancy after loss for me this time was an unusual kind of hell.

If it is hellish for you, too, then I pray that my words have helped you feel less alone in your madness. I pray that you know how strong you are, no matter how weak and tired you feel. I pray that you know time is not playing tricks on you and that you’re not crazy to feel however it is that you feel. If you are stuck in the cycle of anxiety, fear, panic, repeat, I pray that you just keep going.

And I pray that your precious baby will soon be safely in your arms.

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