I heard a phrase once that stuck with me so much. "She was stillborn, but she was still born."
What an incredible reminder.
Lily was stillborn. Born still. Born sleeping. But she was born. I have had the opportunity and blessing to give birth to three other children besides Lily, and trust me when I say, Lily was born. Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of having a stillborn baby is that their birth is forever overshadowed by their death. As mothers, we crave to tell the stories of our baby's arrival. We yearn to share the details of each contraction, each incredible moment, each tiny finger and each tiny toe. But when our babies die before they have had the chance to be born, we are forever robbed of the opportunity to tell our birth story, because no one wants to hear it.
I remember talking to someone once about epidurals. I mentioned that I did not get a good one when I had my twins, but I had an excellent one with Lily. The look on this person's face, the shock that I had mentioned one detail of my birth story with Lily, they thought I was insane. I could read it all over their face. What had previously been an easy going, light-hearted conversation about having babies halted immediately at the very mention of my stillbirth.
Here is what I would like the rest of the world to know: Yes, it was a stillbirth. But it was still a birth.
Yes, Lily died. But Lily was also born. I went through what all mothers go through when they give birth to their babies. I felt each contraction and savored each measly ice chip. I endured forced contractions for hours and hours because I wanted to feel every single ounce of pain this birth brought me, because it helped distract me from the pain they do not have any drugs to numb. I had amazing nurses and an amazing husband who coached me through the hardest day of my entire life. I allowed those amazing nurses and that amazing husband to encourage me into getting an epidural so I could sleep after twenty hours of labor. I sat on the end of my bed and sobbed while the anesthesiologist told me it would only hurt for a second, because I knew that wasn't true. I finally slept, until I was awoken by Lily, who had already died but still needed to be born. And I pushed that tiny little girl into this world, and listened as the only cries we heard were my own. I watched the nurses wrap her in a blanket she was far too small for, and smiled when they told me she was perfect. I felt like a new mommy when they had to teach me how to hold a baby so small, and my husband and I marveled over the daughter I had just given birth to.
There is a movie called "Return To Zero" in which the father of a stillborn baby boy mentions the irony of how his son's tombstone would have his date of death before his date of birth. Who has ever heard of such a thing?
Our babies died before they were born. But they were born. Don't you see? Our babies didn't just die! THEY WERE BORN TOO!!!!
If I could help anyone on the outside of this isolating bubble to understand one thing, it would be that. Thank you for grieving with us over the death of our child. But please do not forget that our child was also born. We have a story to tell. Albeit a very sad one, but we cannot control that. Do not shy away from listening to our very special story. Do not trivialize our baby's birth simply because they happened to die first. If you get the sense that we want to share our story, our pictures, our life changing experience of giving birth to a baby, please do not shut us down. Encourage us, listen to us, validate us.
I had two very distinct, very different, and equally impacting interactions in the weeks that followed Lily's birth. The first one is not uncommon, and I imagine many mothers of babies born still have had very similar experiences. I was talking to a small group of mothers who were telling their birth stories, and like mothers do, we were sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly parts of having our babies. I talked about my twins, and had the absolute attention of everyone at that table. They asked questions, wanted me to elaborate, laughed at some parts and winced at others. And then I mentioned a small detail about my birth with Lily, something very unimportant like the food they allowed me to eat when I was in labor with her, and no one, not one person, knew what to say. As if the very mention of Lily's birth was totally against the rules and I had in one fell swoop ruined what had been a very interesting conversation. I wanted to say, "I'm sorry, I forgot I wasn't allowed to talk about the birth of my daughter because she had the audacity to die first." But I didn't. But one day, I just might.
The second one was not long after I had Lily. A friend was bringing us dinner, and while she was there, she noticed a small album on my coffee table that had Lily's name on it. She asked me, "Oh Karen, are those pictures of Lily's birth? Would you like to share those with me? I would love to see them."
This friend did so many things with that one interaction. She mentioned Lily's birth instead of referring only to her death. She noticed that I obviously cherished those photographs and memories because I very proudly displayed them where anyone could see them, and she took that as a cue to ask me to share. She gave me the opportunity to share my daughter with someone, and, as a mother, who wouldn't want that? She validated that Lily mattered, that her birth was significant, that she was worth sharing, and that I had every right to share her. She put whatever anxiety she may have had over looking at some very sad pictures aside and put my needs first.
A friend once reminded me that we must educate others with grace. I cannot expect people to know what to do or what to say about the birth and death of my daughter. But I can tell them. And I can show them grace when they fall short. So this is my attempt to educate with grace. If you take one thing away from reading this, please take away this:
The death of my daughter does not negate the birth of her. Her date of birth and her date of death were backwards, but they were. They happened. She died, yes, but she was also born. And that is something to be cherished.
If you ever want to see a mother, any mother, glow, ask her about her child. Compliment her on them. Use their name. Tell her she has such a special story and that her child is so blessed to have her as a mother, because no one would love them like she so obviously does. It doesn't matter if her child lived or died, because her child is still her child. When a child dies, our mothering of them does not. We continue to love them, to cherish their story, no matter how short it may be. Our memories of them do not disappear, and their existence is not erased simply because it has ceased here on earth.
We are still mothers. They were still born. We would be honored to share their story with you. And trust me when I say, you would be honored to hear it.