As my heart raced, I tried to distract myself with landmarks on the way to my appointment. A metropolitan skyline. A minor league baseball field. A high bridge under construction that stretches over a raging river. The exercise wasn’t working. I was a nervous wreck.

When we arrived in the parking lot, I felt like fainting. I was so scared not to make it to the other side of the clinic–the side where you get a follow-up appointment and smiles from the receptionist on duty. Due to the lack of other locations conducting ultrasounds, I was back where my nightmare began. Where I found out my first baby didn’t have a heartbeat. It was like a day date with grief. Unbeknownst to me, grief invited their pal PTSD and was having a great time catching up as I stared blankly at the wall waiting for my name to be called. I would have welcomed the opportunity to pee and escape the seemingly calmer patients. Except, I was instructed to keep a full bladder for the ultrasound. I constantly readjusted my body to find the ideal angle to not wet my pants.

Finally, a nurse called, “Diane?” Likely wondering what business a geriatric “Diane” had scheduling an ultrasound. But then there was 30-something me bouncing off the walls with nervous energy. We headed back to the room, and I had an out-of-body experience. I floated there, not able to ground myself whatsoever. I mumbled something about our previous pregnancy loss, and the technician said that she hoped for good news for us today. Then we entered the dark room, and I ascended to the leather examination chair.

Without any fanfare, the tech flipped on the machine, squirted some lube on my stomach, and began the scan.

She wasted time measuring all of my lady parts: ovaries, cervix, and uterus. Ultimately delaying the big question — is the baby alive or dead like last time? When it came time to locate the fetus, she determined that I wasn’t far enough along to see it externally. I hardly believed this and assumed it was code for, “You’re about to get really bad news.” Sensing my fear, the tech reassured me it was normal at this stage. Getting a break to urinate was a welcomed relief, anyway.

An ultrasound wand is available to check on things internally, as in, through your vagina. The tool resembles a handheld vibrator. My cheeks flushed red, and I remembered that I was indeed alive and still subject to embarrassment. As she shifted the wand around, looking for the baby, I held my husband’s hand. The show of affection felt strange while this circus was unfolding beneath the sheet. She finally zoomed in on what she thought was the fetus. Sure enough, a tiny bean flickered back at us. Suddenly, I felt immense relief. Like I was breathing for the first time all day. A few tears escaped from my eyes over the utter shock. We were leaving today as parents of a baby growing inside my stomach. It was confirmed that the baby’s heartbeat was strong, and things seemed to be right on track.

I basked in the glory of this news all the way to the parking lot. By the time I got into my car, I wanted another ultrasound to confirm the baby was still okay. Of course, that wouldn’t happen again for weeks. I leaned into any hope I could muster while not getting too excited just in case it didn’t work out. When I finally saw my OBGYN, I was an anxious mess. She took pity on my frazzled state and agreed to always let me see or hear the baby at my check-ups going forward. Prior to being able to hear the baby’s heartbeat externally, it’s not customary to get an ultrasound. Yet she’d find a low-grade ultrasound machine to roll into a regular examination space, and we watched the blurred bean grow bigger each time. It was comforting and exactly what I needed.

I also started a ritual of playing the This is Us soundtrack to and from appointments, as it felt like our lucky charm to parenthood.

I would have done anything to better my odds of making it to the point where the baby could live outside of my womb. I still didn’t have a lot of faith that my body could really nurture and birth a child. So I kept my head down and stayed quiet. There was no way I was making a big pregnancy announcement. We weren’t finding out the sex, so that made it easier. No rocket to shoot off or giant balloon to puncture. People didn’t seem as interested in a genderless baby. Still, I was itching to tell family and friends our big news as I neared the “safety” of 12 weeks pregnant.

Finding the Light Within: A Pregnancy After Loss Story

Author’s Personal Collection/Diane Senjem

I finally blurted the news to my mom one day when I couldn’t keep the secret to myself any longer. She already knew it in her heart but expressed excitement for us. And life moved on with us randomly filling people in along the way. Leading up to the 20-week anatomy scan, I was a nervous wreck again. We opted not to do early genetic testing, and I feared something could be wrong with the baby so late in the process. Luckily, everything looked fine, and I finally decided to share our pregnancy on social media. As silly as this action was, it was so healing for me. I was proud of the baby and me for making it this far.

Next came the really fun stuff I pined to do for so long: painting the nursery, taking prenatal yoga classes, and attending my baby showers. Completely embracing the new human about to enter our lives. Of course, I fell victim to some unsolicited advice: must nurse, use cloth diapers, and have a vaginal delivery. I knew I wanted to try nursing, was definitely not choosing cloth diapers, and would roll with the punches of birth and delivery. There was immense pressure to do it all “by the book,” except there wasn’t a single book. There were many books per school of thought. So I borrowed the ones that worked for us, coupled with the things we felt our own families did well. I tried to drown out the rest, but it occasionally leaked in any way, like at my weekly prenatal check-ups.

Around this time, I felt like my helpful practitioner was now a little too invasive.

She had me undergoing weekly ultrasounds, because research showed that overweight women statistically have more pregnancy complications than those in a normal BMI range. These appointments were difficult to attend with a full-time job and costly after I reached the maximum allowed by our health plan. For 5-10 minutes, a technician monitored the baby’s: movement, breathing, muscle tone, amniotic fluid, and heartbeat. Then they gave the exam a passing score and sent me on my way. I saw my favorite grandpa doctor one week, and he confirmed my thinking — the extra ultrasounds were essentially useless. It was unlikely that they’d be able to catch an issue during one of these snapshots in time, and no guarantee they could correct it even if they did. I appreciated his honesty but also felt frustrated by the health system driven by fear of liability. He suggested I look into the midwife team that worked in the same practice. By the following week, I was sitting at their orientation, 38 weeks pregnant.

I had gained much more confidence and no longer wanted to explore every potential issue. I had made peace with things being mostly out of my control and wanted to focus my attention on all the things going right. I felt guilty for abandoning my overly concerned OBGYN, but I knew my odds of fewer interventions during labor were better going this other route. Plus, there was little chance I’d actually have her anyway on a large team of rotating doctors. The midwives were kind, gentle, and crunchy enough to help me define my wishes on my own terms. One thing I desperately wanted was to go into labor naturally.

Around 41 weeks, my wish came true.

It started by feeling really crummy for an entire day. By the middle of that night, I was pretty certain my contractions were five minutes apart, and I woke my husband to head to the hospital. In the car, I started to wonder if I had waited too long. It was really starting to hurt. At the check-in desk, we filled out some paperwork, and they asked who we wanted to see OBGYNs or midwives. It seemed like a simple answer until I realized my former OBGYN happened to be on call that night. It was a one-in-20 chance, so I awkwardly deliberated until the receptionist stated that she had an attending physician making most of her rounds, and I was back firmly on midwife turf.

When I finally got to an exam room, the admitting midwife assured me I had a long way to go but that I would be staying. She estimated that I was four centimeters dilated. I started spewing my hopes of an unmedicated birth, and she listened on with a smug grin. Finally, she asked me, “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?” “Kayaking about 12 miles last summer,” I lamely responded. She anticipated unmedicated birth to be about ten times harder than that. Game on, I thought. Never one to back down from a challenge.

We got settled in a room, and an angelic-like nurse made me so comfortable that I no longer felt like I was in labor. The trick seemed to be Tylenol, Unisom, and a heating pad. I took a nap and continued to seek her recommendations when things felt dicey. At some point, regardless of the position or tool, I just felt like shit. I considered requesting the epidural, but I was so close to actual delivery that I kept going. My husband found an “Island” playlist and swayed with me to Bob Marley and 311 as I rode out the worst pain. My mom finally joined us to catch me in my most raggaged state.

And suddenly, I was approved to push.

I started with the most futile attempts, like the baby would come out with as much effort as it takes to pass gas. A push bar finally arrived, and thus began the most intense workout of my life. An hour and a half of assisted sit-ups, with my legs sprawled up against the bar. As much as I wanted to give up, I was making progress, and everyone could see the baby’s hair poking out. Around this time, with my permission, a medical student joined my entourage of support. She wanted to observe a patient going through an unmedicated labor for the first time. She offered the best affirmations and served as our unofficial photographer. Just when I thought I couldn’t push any longer, the baby came out. A flood of relief came over me after hearing cries and learning I had a daughter. She was small at six pounds, three ounces but healthy.

Diane's rainbow baby - Finding the Light Within: A Pregnancy After Loss Story

Author’s Personal Collection/Diane Senjem

She looked exactly like her dad, down to the long legs. Afterward, we soaked in weeks of newborn cuddles and made our way through typical challenges many new parents face. Passing the Bilirubin screening, overcoming feeding struggles, and carving out at least small amounts of sleep each night. Looking back at this time, I wish I had worried less and enjoyed it more. I was so consumed with doing everything right that I lost sight of the miracle of our baby girl.

She’ll be five in a few months and entering kindergarten next year. She’s still tall and lean, and I wonder now if she was eating the right amount of food (for her) as an infant all along. I don’t regret heeding our practitioner’s advice at the time, but I am grateful for a pediatrician now that embraces our children for who they are and relies less on medical standards. Life hasn’t slowed down for one moment with this sweet girl and her little sister. It’s not lost on me that not all stories have a happy ending. Even on the hardest parenting days, I try to remember how insanely wonderful it is to tuck them into bed each night. Despite all my fears, I carried and birthed two amazing kids. I hope all expecting moms overcoming a loss will find the light within themselves that they can do it too.

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