I was 16 weeks pregnant when I learned my fifth baby was no longer viable. I then headed to the hospital for the most difficult delivery of my life. I wanted to tell my story so others would feel less alone.

By Nicole Roder
October 08, 2019
Illustration by Parents Staff; Adobe Stock (1)

Exactly three years ago this week, I went to see my midwife for my 16-week prenatal exam. My husband and I were expecting our fifth child. This had come as a huge and welcome surprise. Our older kids, ages 8, 7, and 5, at the time, were overjoyed at the thought of having another baby to coo over. Our youngest was just over 1 years old and had absolutely no idea what he was in for. It was almost hilarious to imagine him as a big brother.

A few days before, I'd been playing with one of those at-home dopplers. You know the ones where you rub the wand over your belly to listen to your baby's heartbeat. Only that night, I couldn't find it. I searched frantically all over my belly. Maybe I wasn't looking in the right spot? I made my husband try. He couldn't find it either.

After about an hour of this, I called my midwife in a panic. It was after hours and I felt a bit guilty about using their emergency line, but I knew she'd understand. She told me not to worry. At-home dopplers weren't anywhere near as accurate as the kind they used in the exam room. It might have just been too early to pick it up with that machine.

Still, I knew something was wrong. Call it mother's intuition. I wanted to drive to the hospital right that minute and demand that they check the heartbeat. But it was late, and everyone was telling me I was overreacting, so I pushed down that little voice in my head and went to bed.

The day of my prenatal exam came. The three big kids were in school, and I took Gianni, my youngest, to the midwife's office. She pulled out her sophisticated doppler wand and told me, "Let's see that beautiful heartbeat." She waved the wand over my belly, but that traitorous machine was also stone-cold silent.

"Well we have the ultrasound machine here, so we might as well use it," said my midwife. But that, too, was mute. Still, on the screen, an image of a baby appeared, but even my non-medically trained eye could see that there was no life left in him. He'd curled up into a ball. The image didn't move, didn't make a sound, but it communicated so much. My baby had died.

After several minutes of my sobbing and her consoling, my midwife left Gianni and me alone in the exam room. I'd forgotten he was there, waiting in his stroller and watching me cry. A nurse came in to retrieve the ultrasound machine from the small room, and she moved his stroller an inch to get it past. His little 1-year-old brain couldn't process what was happening, but he knew that something terrible had happened to make me cry. I think he must've thought the nurse was taking him away from me, because he burst into tears just then.

I jumped off the exam table and scooped him up. "Shhh. It's OK. It's OK, Baby. Nobody's ever going to take you away from me." I was reassuring myself just as much as him.

A few days later, I checked into the hospital for an induction. This was the same hospital where I'd delivered my other four babies. I had memories of walking those halls, my contractions going harder and stronger, and other patients' visitors smiling and waving. Memories of me squeezing my husband's hand, watching my baby's head crown through a mirror as I pushed with all my might. I was in pain, sure, but it was exciting pain. It was "time to meet the baby" pain.

This time, my labor was another universe of pain even though my contractions were milder physically. But I soldiered on.

In between the contractions, I thought I should call my pastor. I didn't know if it was possible to baptize a baby after he'd died, but I wanted to try. He must've heard the pain in my voice, so within minutes he hopped in his car and drove to the hospital to baptize our baby.

Having a priest in the room changes the birth experience quite a bit. There was a lot of quiet. A lot of calm. And it was odd being quiet and calm while simultaneously laboring through childbirth and losing a child. It both comforted me and underlined the abnormality of the situation.

My husband cried the whole time. Grief has always hit him hard, and losing a child is the absolute worst kind of grief I can imagine. But I didn't cry. Not from the contractions. Not from the heartbreak. Not even from the sight of my little baby boy, lifeless and cradled in my hand. And I felt guilty about that. That I couldn't shed tears for my lost child.

Later, therapists would tell me that it was completely normal not to cry, especially when my husband was so tearful. Many couples balance each other out that way. Still, I couldn't help feeling guilt over the fact that I couldn't give my baby my tears. I felt sad. I felt hollow. But I couldn't cry.

It wasn't until days later that my guilt subsided, and I realized I'd given my baby a gift. My cousin called. She'd heard about my loss and wanted to share her own experience with me. She'd lost a baby in almost exactly the same way. She was 16 weeks pregnant. She was induced in the hospital. And she'd labored while her husband cried enough for the both of them.

"I looked at my labor as my gift to him," she said. "I couldn't give him a life. I couldn't give him all the things that go with a life. But I could give him this. I could give him a dignified birth."

Yes. A dignified birth. That's what I gave my baby, too. And I'm grateful to have had the opportunity.

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