What If You Never Hold Your Baby? Are You Still A Mother?

fetal feet

Content Notice: infant loss, pregnancy loss, miscarriage


I didn't hold her in my arms. For a long time, this feeling of deprivation laid just under the surface of my sadness, a reminder of what I'd lost, what I only knew I had because of incredible technology and the few fluttering kicks I felt before she died. For a long time I didn't feel like I could be called a mother. Is a woman a mother if she never even touches her baby?

I named her Jordan Taylor. I didn't tell anyone her name for a long time because when your baby dies everyone around you wants to forget they ever existed in the first place.

When your baby dies, people want to make you feel better; they want you to move on, to try again, think about how you'll see her in heaven or in another form in another life. People want you to stop wiping your tears and blowing your nose and making a pile of tissues around you that they have to see. The weeping makes them uncomfortable. They do things to try to soothe you — they send cards and flowers and scriptures about life that don't help at all, they send glass vases, the ones made to look like crystal, full of flowers that are supposed to cheer you up, but can't. None of the things work.

What is there that can soothe a shattered heart?

They call the florist and recite a card over the phone or type it in the little box on the internet. They type a sentence and delete, and type and delete until they decide “I'm sorry for your loss” is really the only thing that's safe to say. They send the flowers to remind you of the beauty of nature, of life.

Why do we send flowers when life ceases to exist? They arrive, vibrant and lively, imported from a hothouse in Chile where they are grown in bulk — just rows and rows of flowers that all look like each other. Someone puts them on a shelf, or table, or mantelpiece. Or, if you're like me, and just can't manage to pull your broken self from bed, they sit on your nightstand — holding vigil next to the stack of pregnancy and birth books you've been poring over since you saw the tiny pink plus sign that would change your life.

Eventually, they too die, stems slimy, smelling like algae or whatever it is that grows inside a crystal-but-actually-glass vase when you're too busy steeped in your grief to remember they exist. They dry until they crumble, and eventually, you'll have to throw them away. When you dump the stinking water and crumbling petals and maybe even the vase into the outside trash, because they smell too bad to be inside, you'll be reminded again how fragile and fleeting life is, how something spectacularly beautiful can be nothing but trash a week later.

People will forget you ever had a baby.

But you won't.

The sorrow of losing your child will lie right under the surface, sometimes it will make a crack in you and escape through tears and sobs into your empty hands.

I didn't hold her. The doctor told us that we should have her taken out surgically. It's not an abortion, he said. It's an evacuation, he said. An evacuation. Like your uterus is some kind of flaming disaster zone they have to pull your dead child out of. Before it dies again? Before you see it and hold it and have to remember forever its tiny feet, its tiny hands? The way its eyes are closed but right under the surface looking back at you. Are they blue? Brown? How will I remember them if I don't know?

What if I forget?

The day they evacuated her, which is just a nice way to say sucked out, I was listening to radio on the way to the surgical center where they do that kind of thing. It's not an abortion clinic, it's something else, but just as drab and lifeless. I don't remember the song that was playing. It poured out of the console, filling the silent space between him and me.

What is there to say when you're on your way to have your dead baby sucked out of you.

When I woke up, my throat hurt from the tube they'd shoved in it right after they told me to count to 10, right before they started the sucking machine. I'm a nurse. I know they shove the tube in. I've seen the tube shoved in. I've shoved the tube in. It doesn't glide in, it's forced, your baby doesn't glide out, it too is forced.

I knew she was a girl. I knew she was inside me once. I knew she wasn't inside me anymore. 

When I woke up, just for a second I thought it was a nightmare, but just for a second. Until a nurse that had brown hair put a spoon full of the kind of ice you can only get in a hospital, or at Sonic, in an absurdly large soda, into my mouth, the cold in my burning throat, the bright light blinding me, the blood pressure cuff squeezing and squeezing my arm.

They send you home when your baby gets sucked out of you. You just have to be stable, whatever that means. What is stable when your baby is in what amounts to a vacuum canister? They just send you home. Just like that. With a bag full of giant maxi pads and an empty body and an aching heart.

I didn't immediately regret not letting her come in her own time; it took me my own time to feel the weight of her body I never held. My doctor told me he wouldn't want his wife to “go through that,” like there was something worse than going through the death of my baby. Like seeing her would have hurt more than knowing she was medical waste, stem cell research material. I listened to him because I hurt too much to think.

This is the most pain I've ever felt.

Even now, as I put it to paper, 23 years later, it's the most pain I've ever felt.

It's her birthday today. Her death day was sometime between when I felt her kick and when the obstetrician's office told me over the phone that even at 21 weeks some women don't feel the flutters of tiny legs. Years later I'd feel the flutters of my babies over and over, five more times, five reminders that I felt her on Mother's Day. Just Mother's Day. In the car on the way to visit my mother-in-law with the seatbelt low against my lap, just like they tell you to place it, and the sugary sweetness of an orange soda from McDonald's pumping through my veins - before they removed the fizz from that soda and replaced it with something that was just syrup and food coloring.

Ironically, (or maybe not ironically?) it was in the McDonald's drive-thru that I first thought I might be pregnant. My husband, her father, was scowling at me from the driver's side as I sat in the passenger side looking across him at the menu, crying because I just couldn't decide what I wanted.

I got chicken nuggets. And an orange soda. And an apple pie; this was when they still deep fried them, and they were probably full of trans fat, but no one knew what trans fat was so it didn't matter.

After she died, I just didn't want McDonald's orange soda anymore. When they replaced it, I didn't care. I don't remember, but I was probably grateful.

Later, I’d be angry that the obstetrician's office blew me off. Because I needed someone to blame. Because if I had gone into the office, maybe she'd be alive.

At my follow-up appointment, he told me it wasn't my fault.

He told me there was nothing we could have done. He told me it happens sometimes. But it had never happened to me, so none of that mattered.

He left the room to get his nurse; I guess because he needed a second person there to watch me sob while he did an internal exam to make sure everything was “ok.” What even is “ok?” I guess, so he could tell me I was ok? Like maybe if he said it, it would be true.

He left my chart open. This was when doctors still used pens and nurses still tried to decipher the chicken scratch that comes with writing notes all day. I don't know why I looked at it. I knew she was a girl. I knew she was inside me once. I knew she wasn't inside me anymore. I didn't know where she was because they don't just let you take your dead baby home to put under a cherry tree in your backyard.

The chart described her tiny body. The length of her femur in centimeters. The size of her itty bitty foot in millimeters. I was both glad and sad that I was hysterical enough that I couldn't remember the metric to inch conversion. I didn't want to think about her little thigh, just a couple of inches long.

Later, after he'd peered inside my vacant body, and after I'd cried and he'd hugged me and told me he'd deliver my baby someday, I went home. I was alone. I was alone because we were basically poor and when you're basically poor your husband can't miss work. You can barely afford the two days he took to hold you while you cried, still pregnant but with a baby that you'd never hold.

So I was alone.

I found a ruler and pictured her tiny foot against it. Ten millimeters. Less than an inch. Does a baby with a foot that small still count as a baby? I cried again.

The summer after she died, I went to the fair. It was hot because it was August and central California in August is about as miserably hot as anywhere except maybe Death Valley.

There was a pro-life group there. They weren't picketing or yelling. The booth was staffed by a couple of grey-haired little harmless looking grandmothers. They were giving away pamphlets, not the kind with dismembered fetuses though, thankfully. They were also giving away tiny silicone babies, models of a fetus at 12 weeks gestation, illustrating very plainly that a fetus at 12 weeks gestation is, for all intents and purposes, a baby. It's not a blob of unrecognizable flesh and uncalcified bone; it's a little person with fingers and a nose and tiny toes less than an inch long.

They had a plastic bowl full of buttons that said something like “abortion stops a beating heart” or “life begins at conception,” salt in my still fresh wound. They had a second bowl of tiny silver feet. The feet were under an inch. And I wept. Right there at the dusty fairground in the blazing heat of summer, I wept into my hands. They probably thought I was grieving my abortion, regretting my poor decision.

I put the tiny feet on the front of my rayon sundress, hiding what felt like a still slightly swollen belly. I think now that maybe it wasn't swollen at all, except when I put my hands over it to remember where she'd been for five months. I wore the tiny feet for years. Sometimes I'd pin them inside my purse. Sometimes I just couldn't answer another question and watch another face fall when I told them my baby was dead.

When you're wearing tiny baby feet, strangers just assume you're pro-life. No one assumes those feet are the same size of your baby you never held. No one knows that you only know that because you saw it in a medical chart you probably weren't supposed to read.

Eventually, I stopped wearing the feet, probably because I eventually had a baby that I pushed out of my body in a birthing room in a hospital where a blonde nurse held my hand and told me my baby was going to be fine. That baby slid into to the world in seven mighty pushes — all wails and black hair.

That baby was my second daughter. My second daughter. She cried on my chest as I looked at her tiny feet measured in inches and stamped in black ink on a birth certificate. She's 21 now. The oldest. The oldest alive.

I held her. And I wept.

I wept because she was alive and because her sister wasn't. I wept because she was mine, because they were both mine. Even the one I never held.

Jordan Taylor. Happy birthday my sweet tiny baby. I don't know where they put you; I still cry about that. But I do know that you're around me. Even though they took you, there are parts of you floating around me, even in me, because energy never ceases, it only changes.

And you, my baby, changed me.

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