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Hope Over Fear: Navigating Pregnancy After Loss

Henry Ballou Gibbons Fournier, our second child, was born healthy and perfect on May 3, 2017 in our small town hospital. He was 6 pounds 6 ounces and 19 inches long, and we were instantly in love. The overwhelming feeling upon his arrival was relief. The previous 38 weeks were among the hardest I’ve ever experienced, and not because of the pregnancy itself, which was thankfully uncomplicated. (I took the heartburn and round ligament pain like a champ!) However, were it not for the incredible supports in our lives, from family and amazing friends to co-workers and our medical team, I don’t know how we would have gotten through those days of pregnancy after loss. Because while Henry is our second child, he is the first that we got to take home.

Henry’s birth story is his own, but it begins with his sister Maeve, who was stillborn in December 2015 after a textbook, easy, uneventful pregnancy. Following her birth, we knew we’d want to have another baby — not to replace her, because of course that will never happen, but to fill the spot in our aching hearts that needed and had planned on a baby to nurture. That spot is directly alongside Maeve’s space, which is extra special (in firstborn, she-made-me-a-mother ways). So after a summer cross-country road trip — during which we weren’t trying to get pregnant, but rather focus on taking care of each other — Michael and I headed back into our classrooms to begin our ninth year as teachers. Those first couple of weeks I noticed that either fourth graders had suddenly become way more exhausting and good at sucking away one’s patience and strength OR maybe I should pick up a pregnancy test. Okay, if I’m honest my husband picked one up for me, and in hindsight maybe I wasn’t my best self with him either! On September 19th, two pink lines immediately appeared. This was nearly nine months after losing Maeve, and we were so ready. I was, and am, keenly aware of how lucky we were to have gotten pregnant relatively quickly. Many women I know have struggled with infertility and secondary infertility following a late-term loss.

Smiling man and woman.
Michael and I hiking the 100th mile in memory of Maeve. We started using #maevesmiles to document all of the miles we hiked for her.

It wasn’t long after the positive test that the worries set in. So many couples wait to announce their pregnancies at the 13 week “safe zone.” I did this with both pregnancies, even though the second time around I obviously knew there was no such thing as a safe zone. The first trimester was actually my easiest in terms of anxiety. I worried a little bit about miscarriage, but I also had a 7-week ultrasound that showed a beautiful, beating heart and a plan to basically live at my doctor’s office. Well, not really, but appointments every other week helped, as did assurance that I could come in anytime — an offer that you’ll see I took full advantage of as the weeks went on. So I trusted my body, taught my students, took naps after work and developed my first of many mantras that would help me throughout this journey: different pregnancy, different outcome. I believed this would end with a breathing baby, and that was our only goal. Re-reading pregnancy books about the Bradley method and mindful birthing, I couldn’t help but feel cynical: my only birth plan was for my baby to be alive.

The second trimester was when things started to feel real. My journal from those weeks shows a woman trying so hard to make this a normal pregnancy. I even wrote, “I love being pregnant. I’d like to do this a couple more times!” And a page later, there’s a poem about waves of anxiety lashing into me, receding but not enough for me to catch my breath before the next one breaks. So, yeah. I had all the feelings. I felt his movement at 17 weeks (we knew he was a boy) and the beginning of those flutters marked the end of my calm “trust my body” vibes. Now that I could feel him, it was on me to pay attention. While it was way too early to have movement patterns, it wasn’t too early (in my mind) to pay attention. There’s a level of guilt I’ll always have that I missed something with Maeve, and that made me feel all the more obsessed with being on top of every little movement, twinge or ache. Unfortunately, pregnancy is many of those things, so my mind had a lot of material to work with. Thinking back to weeks 26 (when I felt like Henry really did have a movement pattern) to 38, I’m exhausted for my former self. Here are some things that happened as a result of the anxiety I felt:

  • I missed work one day because I had a full on anxiety attack upon waking and not feeling my usual kicks. After a glass of juice, lying on my side and a gut-wrenching ten minutes where I poked and prodded my belly, the poor little guy woke up, probably pissed off. Don’t worry — he got used to this eventually!
  • That same scene happened at least two other times between the hours of 2am and 4am. If I woke up to pee, I couldn’t go back to sleep until I felt kicks… Michael deserves a medal. So do I.
  • I used the “Count the Kicks” app to track movement and would do it three times a day. One busy school day, I got to 2pm and realized I hadn’t done any kick counts, and when I sat to do one there was nothing. Rational brain: he’s sleeping. Pregnancy after loss brain: he’s dead. I can’t emphasize how much reason and logic go out the window after experiencing a trauma and then putting yourself back into a very similar situation.
  • A midwife lent me a stethoscope to find a heartbeat at home. Note: they are actually hard to use and I don’t recommend this unless you, say, know how to use it,  but so sweet of her!
  • I went for extra monitoring at least three times, once for too much movement. Shout out to the nurses who dealt with me kindly and graciously!
  • My students nicknamed him “Baby Hot Dog.” This doesn’t have anything to do with anxiety, I just like it.
  • I stopped working at about 36 weeks because I needed to be 100% focused on baby’s movement.
  • I socialized less because I needed to be 100% focused on baby’s movement.
  • I had to be home at night, on the couch, because I needed to be 100% focused on baby’s movement.

Do you see a pattern?

Despite the mental difficulties, my pregnancy with Henry was beautiful and I look back on it fondly. As I grew rounder, I spent so much time with him, getting to know his likes (carrot cake, walks outside, his dad’s hand on my belly) and his dislikes (me waking him up too much). I got to read to him, talk to him, sing to him, introduce him to The Mindy Project, and take him for long, slow walks in the sunshine. I journaled daily. I was forced into developing good self-care. I looked forward to my now twice weekly (yes, you read that right) appointments with my OB. He met us where we were at and offered so much reassurance. During the hardest weeks of my life, the appointments with him were respites from my worries. He worried alongside us — and acknowledged this, which felt so incredibly kind — but also seemed to be about a dozen steps ahead of us the whole time. This allowed my busy mind a chance to take time off. Oh, and Bri! Our amazing nurse, who we had for nearly every single appointment, was pretty much my favorite person. She actually still is.

She saw me at my craziest and most vulnerable and was always calm, ready to make me laugh, had answers to and plans for all of my many, many questions, and was just an all-around rockstar. She liked my students’ nickname and so she always referred to Henry as Baby Hot Dog at our visits. She answered crazy texts at 7am and I don’t think anyone advocated so hard for me in my life. She went far beyond her professional obligations to make us feel safe, and she was there when we scheduled Baby Hot Dog’s induction, which I think was mostly because 1) at 38 weeks it would be safe for him to come and 2) my mental state really couldn’t handle being pregnant any longer. She knew this better than anyone else, other than our doctor. We were told at our routine 38-week appointment to pack our bags and return to the hospital within a few hours.

Woman holding newborn.
Finally holding Henry in my arms.

We hoped so, so hard that we’d get to take him home.

Thus began a long, slow induction that started on a Monday night and didn’t really get interesting until Tuesday night. I had thought my worries would lessen during labor because we were in the hospital and in capable hands, but if anything being so close to the finish line made me that much more anxious about getting him out safely. Henry was monitored throughout and as exhausted as I was, I trusted that my body was going to do what it had to do. If I willed it, he would get here safely. While I gave birth to his sister a year and a half earlier, that experience was physically and emotionally so different. We were induced right after learning she had died, and I was on all the drugs offered. This time around, I hoped for a natural and, in many ways, a redemptive birthing experience.

Michael and I talked and listened to music and chatted with the amazing nurses until my contractions picked up. We walked what must’ve been miles up and down the hallways. I sat on a ball until that didn’t feel good anymore, then squatted through every big contraction, using poor Michael’s arm to essentially hang from because nothing else felt good. This was impressive, by the way, as I was hooked up to monitors and couldn’t really go too far. The nurse commented that Michael would probably be in pain the next day, though I can’t imagine his recovery was more challenging than mine! Between contractions, I truly rested, breathing deeply and knowing that each intense burst was bringing us closer to meeting our son. Pushing lasted a while because Henry must’ve been pretty cozy in there, but I knew it would end and that it was up to me to get him out. I’m eternally grateful to our nurse, Catherine, who basically coached us through the whole thing. Henry came out — with just a few tiny cries, but enough to know he was okay — and then Michael cut the cord and Henry was immediately on my chest. In that moment, I took what felt like my first gulp of air after holding my breath for 38 weeks. He was here, in my arms. As if this moment wasn’t magical enough, Catherine re-entered the delivery room with a milkshake for me! Nothing will ever compare to that moment: having our fresh, sweet, youngest baby in one hand and a milkshake in the other, as the sun rose early on that Wednesday morning. For the first time in a long time, my heart was full.

I can’t reflect on Henry’s birth without focusing on the initial postpartum period in the hospital. The stark contrast from leaving the hospital without Maeve, in a silent car, to being cozy in a family bed with Henry for a few days of getting to know each other will always be etched in my mind. We are so fortunate that Henry was born in our small town hospital, where we were the only people having a baby that day. And for three days, we were the only patients in the maternity ward. Seriously! We had all the attention, all the milkshakes, all the 24/7 support for breastfeeding, swaddling, catching up on sleep, being fed, etc. We were so lucky. And we were so aware of how lucky we were. We cherished every minute of that hospital stay. On the day we had to leave, our nurse Ellen told us there was no rush and that we could stay as long as we needed. I think most people are ready to get out of the hospital, but we took Ellen up on this offer and totally sat back down in our big comfy bed and ordered lunch. I had a club sandwich while I stared at Henry, and washed it down with one of those famous hospital milkshakes.

We left the hospital that afternoon with Henry screaming away in his carseat as we drove (well-below the speed limit) all the way home, just the way we had hoped and hoped and hoped.

Caroline Fournier is an elementary school teacher in Bar Harbor, Maine. She, her husband, baby boy, and dog are usually exploring Acadia National Park. Otherwise she’s writing, parenting, making coffee, reheating said coffee, taking care of pet chickens or rewatching the entire “Office,” in no particular order. You can follow her on Instagram @maevesmiles.

Join the Mommy Brain private community where members can have open and honest discussions about all the parts of motherhood, whether that’s parent/child-related, self-care, life after becoming a mom, divorce, career changes, intimacy with your partner — there are many layers to who we are as women and as mothers. This is the space to talk about it all!

*Story photos provided by author. Cover photo by Julie Johnson via Unsplash.

By Mommy Brain, February 21, 2018
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