I have always been a mama. I have always been the go-to family babysitter, the nanny, the camp counselor. Of all the dreams I’ve had for my life, being a mother was the constant. I went to school to be a teacher and majored in Child Development because I figured I may not always teach, but some day I would be a mother and my degree would help me understand my future children. Growing up with my own mother being a stay-at-home mom who did it all, I idealized this role. I had no way of knowing how much I was risking losing my sense of self when those expectations of motherhood weren’t met.
When my partner and I decided to start a family, I knew the joy would come with aches and pains, heartburn, and stretch marks. I was ready for it all! It didn’t take long for the shine of that joy to tarnish. One week after our positive pregnancy test, I became seriously ill. I began vomiting excessively, I couldn’t eat or drink, and I was quickly becoming dehydrated and malnourished. My mother took me to the doctor and they immediately sent me to the ER. I was given IV hydration and anti nausea meds and sent for an ultrasound. At 5 weeks, all we could see was a little sac- but we were glad we could see something and all seemed to be ok. I was given the diagnosis of Hyperemesis Gravidarum and a regimen of anti-nausea meds that kept me from vomiting, but I was still struggling to eat regularly. We were to go back for another ultrasound in about 2 weeks to check that the pregnancy was still progressing well.
My partner and I were so excited to see the 7 week ultrasound. He hadn’t been there in the hospital for my first one, so this would be his first glimpse of our baby. I felt like I could handle the constant nausea, dizziness, and fatigue with these reminders that it was for a reason. I was growing a baby. It would be worth it. That second ultrasound was not the hopeful and sweet experience we were expecting. The tech almost immediately turned the screen away from us and didn’t point out the different parts of our little gummy bear baby like we thought she would. She printed off a few photos and worked very hard to not make eye contact with us. We asked if everything was ok. She informed us that she couldn’t discuss the ultrasound and the doctor would contact us with results. We looked at the shadowy photos she had printed once we got outside and tried to be reassured that we could see our baby, and to us it looked perfect.
A few days later, my OB called and informed us that there had been a twin that did not appear to be developing at the same rate. Identical twins that shared a sac. We were stunned. She said we should go back for another ultrasound in 2 more weeks, but usually in this case the cells break down and the underdeveloped twin will disappear- thus the name Vanishing Twin Syndrome. We wouldn’t have even known this was happening if I hadn’t been so ill and had early ultrasounds. We hadn’t been expecting twins. We didn’t know we wanted this- but we found out, fell in love, and lost it all in a single moment.
Somehow, we remained hopeful. Maybe the twin would still be there at the next ultrasound. Maybe it was just a weird ultrasound angle. Maybe they were wrong. Maybe we’d get lucky. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
It was gone. By the 9 week ultrasound, our second baby was gone.
Handling all of the stress, uncertainty, and grief of Vanishing Twin Syndrome sent me into a tailspin. As we shared this news with those around us, we realized what most people enduring loss come to know: people have no idea what to say. But the sentiment was largely the same; focus on the baby you still have.
I tried. I tried to be gracious and grateful and still enjoy my pregnancy. There was just always an undercurrent of sadness. I went through all the motions. I took the belly pictures, sent family updates, and made preparations. But I was still sick and starting to wonder why I had ever thought I could be a mother. Every milestone was shrouded in the grief and wondering what it would be like if I was having twins. How big would my belly pictures be if I was having twins? I should have been buying matching outfits. Seeing random people with twins out in the world made me angry and sad. That should have been me.
And I felt like I couldn’t talk about it. It makes people feel awkward and they don’t know what to say. How can I complain about losing a twin 3 weeks after finding out I was pregnant when people lose babies in their second and third trimesters? How could I complain when people deal with infant loss? Babies they named and buried and picked out headstones for. How could I complain when I STILL had a baby??
So I didn’t talk about the baby I lost. But I also stopped wanting to talk about the baby I was still carrying. I didn’t want to be out in public where strangers would look at my growing belly and their eyes would glitter with joy for me. I didn’t want to see their happiness when I felt like everything in me was crumbling. One evening, my partner and I were parked outside a restaurant where we were supposed to meet his family for dinner when I burst into tears and started having a panic attack. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make polite conversation. I couldn’t let people feel the kicks roiling around in my belly. He held my hand and calmed me down, and then lovingly told me it was time to get help. He could see what I couldn’t- the pain was too big for me to hold. I needed to process my grief before it drowned me.
So I went to therapy. And suddenly I was able to talk about my pain and grief and receive validation that my loss WAS a loss. That I had every right to be angry and sad. Giving myself permission to feel those things was a turning point for me. I started to look forward to the arrival of our baby and feel hopeful.
In July of 2013, I was induced to bring our little boy into the world. It was a hard and traumatic labor. I was exhausted and in pain, but ready to bring my baby home. Unfortunately, the perinatal depression I experienced put me at higher risk for postpartum depression. The difficulty of breastfeeding a colicky baby, sleep deprivation, and resurgent feelings of missing my second baby made PPD a reality.
I did not return to therapy. I didn’t know how to do that when I could barely leave the house with my crying baby. I needed pillows and nipple shields and pumps to feed my baby. That was my logistical reason for not going back. My secret fear was that someone would realize I wasn’t good at being a mom, would realize I was in over my head, and would take my baby from me. That is textbook postpartum depression. But when you are in it, you can’t see that. So my baby and I both cried a lot as we tried to figure each other out. And I’m lucky, because we made it out of that PPD fog ok. At some point, he started crying less, feeding got a bit easier, and we found some joy. But I wish someone would have held my hand again and lovingly told me that it didn’t have to be that way. I should have gotten help again.
When our little boy was about 18 months old, I had healed enough from the physical pain of his birth and the emotional pain of the perinatal and postpartum depression to consider whether we wanted to have a second child. Despite all our struggles we knew we wanted another baby. It took us longer to get pregnant the second time, but in May of 2015 I found out I was pregnant again. I immediately went out and bought my son a Big Brother shirt to wear so we could surprise my partner when he got home from work. I bought a book about being a big brother and had my son ask his grandparents to read it to surprise them with our news. Once again, we were thrilled! My friend and my sister-in-law were both also pregnant, and we were all excited to be going through pregnancy together. I was already starting to get sick again, but I was prepared this time. I was managing being sick and caring for a toddler.
But once again, we suffered an early loss. We went to the hospital in case there was anything that could be done, but I knew. On the drive there I was already saying my goodbyes to this baby and the life I thought we would have together. I hid the big brother shirt and book. I couldn’t look at them. I was bleeding- a constant reminder of my loss, and also still nauseous- a constant reminder of the pregnancy I should have been nurturing. With our first loss, I didn’t know how to still be pregnant. With the second, I didn’t know how to be left with nothing. My body felt broken. I felt like a failure. I didn’t know how to be around my pregnant friend and sister-in-law. I began to isolate again.
I have two very dear friends who were my lifeline during that time. They showed up for me in exactly the way I needed and got me out of my isolation and depression before I had the chance to really lose myself again. Instead of saying “let me know if there’s anything I can do,” they just DID. I didn’t have to ask for help, they just knew where and how to help. This time, people knew I needed help because I didn’t feel I had to mask my grief like I did the first time.
Three months later, I was pregnant again. I was the sickest I had ever been with this pregnancy. I had to be on IV fluids and anti nausea meds at home, but I had family and friends show up for us and help me care for my toddler. We made it through the first trimester, and as my nausea started to decrease I found myself finally enjoying pregnancy. My rainbow baby gave me the opportunity to find myself again. I was determined to have a different birth experience than the first time. I found my voice and learned how to advocate for what I needed. The pregnancy and birth of my feisty little girl also strengthened and empowered me.
The grief and trauma of pregnancy, pregnancy loss, and birth made me doubt everything about myself, especially my role as a mother. I do not subscribe to the idea that everything happens for a reason. Awful things just happen sometimes and it’s unfair. But I do believe in silver linings. At this point, with a 9 year old and 6 year old, I can say that I am proud of who I am as a mother. And I wish I never had to go through the things we did, but since it did happen, I am glad I was able to learn from the experience and grow as a person because of it. I am glad that I did not listen to the voice of postpartum depression that made me doubt my value as a mother. It was so wrong. Finding myself has meant learning I am more than my role as a mother, but I am also exactly the mother my kids need. All four of my babies will always be a part of me. I will always hold the two in my heart that I didn’t get to hold in my arms. I will always honor them and our short time together. I hope sharing our story honors those who have gone through something similar. The isolation in that grief can be suffocating. Please know you are not alone, your loss is valid, and your baby is loved.
Photos taken by Justina Thorsen from Keepsake Reflections.
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