Owen’s life brought me a lot a of joy. Carrying him and fretting over him was stressful and heartbreaking, but it also taught me a lot about mother/parenthood, and I know that I am a better person for having grown him, birthed him, and loved(ing) him.
However (and it’s a big however), being pregnant with a baby with multiple fetal anomalies (a phrase I hate but can’t escape from) is hands-down the most physically and emotionally taxing thing I’ve ever done in my life. I think the emotional heartache is obvious at this point, but the physical difficulty is something I wasn’t prepared for. I had polyhydramnios that gradually increased from my second trimester and reached it’s peak about 3 weeks before I delivered. My belly consistently measured about 3-5 weeks ahead of how far along I actually was throughout the second trimester. Then, at 30 weeks, I measured full term. I asked my midwives if we could just stop measuring at that point. I don’t know what I measured at 36 weeks, which was peak polyhdramnios time, and I don’t want to know. Extra fluid is consistent with an asphyxiating form of skeletal dysplasia (the chest is too small to allow the baby to process amniotic fluid), so every time I heard how far ahead I measured, all I could think about was Owen’s tiny chest and his inability to swallow fluid and how likely it was with each increasing centimeter that he was going to die.
Polyhydramnios can bring on a bunch of uncomfortable symptoms that make life in general pretty unpleasant. I was quite short of breath, which can happen in later pregnancy anyway but seemed compounded by my high fluid levels, and I often felt like I just couldn’t breathe very deeply or get enough air. I had AWFUL pain in my ribs. AWFUL. Sometimes Zach would find me on all fours on the floor because it was the only position that really brought any relief. My belly got all stretched out and shiny. Obviously, all pregnant bellies stretch, but my belly was pretty crazy at the end. At 30 weeks, I had no stretch marks, and then my belly had about 4 weeks worth of growth in 1 1/2. Bam. Stretch marks. My shiny, stretchy belly also got pretty itchy, and I didn’t find any relief from that until 2 weeks postpartum. The irony is that I was dreading stretch marks from the beginning of pregnancy, but when I got them I was relieved. Even though Owen died, my body will always carry the physical evidence of him.
All that is to say this: Owen’s pregnancy made my body and emotions a wreck. Beyond losing him, which is its own grief, and beyond pregnancy itself, which carries its own challenges in the best circumstances, pregnancy with Owen wreaked havoc on me. The constant physical discomfort unique to carrying a baby like him combined with the never-ending worry and life/death news laid waste to me. From 16 weeks on, my energy was directed toward my baby. Researching, talking to specialists, doing everything physically and emotionally in my power to support Owen consumed most of my time. This increased exponentially the further along I got, and at the end of pregnancy, I’m not sure I gave a single thought to my own needs. If you had asked how I felt, I doubt I would have acknowledged that the extra fluid was having any affect on me or that I was devastated with worry. That took energy too, putting up a front that this was okay, that I was ready, that I had everything under control. By the time Owen was born and died, I had lost myself.
In the weeks after losing Owen, we were in shock-panic-disaster mode. All at once, I had no energy because of my grief, but I also had all the energy I’d ever had, because my whole body said “something’s very wrong and you need to fix it!” People brought us food and visited us in shifts, and I really don’t have words for how overwhelmingly supported we were by literally everyone, from our friends and family (which, to be honest, I expected because we have awesome friends and family) to our medical providers (wonderful!) to complete strangers (a blessed surprise–we still don’t know who left a bunch of groceries and the kindest letter on our front porch, and people we had never even met participated in our meal train). I’ve written previously about how freely I moved in and out of my sadness during those first months without Owen. Similar to pregnancy, I devoted my time and energy to my grieving and making sure that Owen would always be remembered. I was reluctant to give it up. I was up one night with Zach, tearful and lost, and I told him that I wanted to move through this stage, but I was worried that if my days weren’t full of missing Owen that I would forget about him. I wasn’t ready to be anything but Owen’s mother. I wasn’t ready to go back to work or read a book or go for a massage or really anything that might make me feel like me.
I only wanted to be Owen’s mom, but I also deeply felt that I was losing the self I am outside of motherhood even more. I didn’t look like myself, with my hair unkempt and my body shaped differently than I was used to. I didn’t feel like myself either; I had no idea what was happening in the world or even with the people around me. I wanted to be (what I saw as) selfish and carve some space out in my life for myself, so I did. Vain as it may be, my lumpy body and extra 30+ pounds bothered me a lot*. I couldn’t fit into my clothes, and I felt awkward all the time. I had tried to get out of the house to make myself feel better, but my maternity clothes were too big, and my pre-baby clothes were too small. All I had were yoga pants and Zach’s t-shirts. I felt ungainly walking around Old Navy in a maternity dress, but the first time I put on jeans that really fit, I felt so good. I could go out to dinner! And the movies! And for walks! I had pants!
So that was the first step. Every day after that, I put on clothes that fit and straightened my hair. I put on mascara. I called my boss and told her I was coming back. I put some new books on my kindle. I didn’t forget Owen; I just started taking care of both of us. I went back to work, and it was a setback. Zach had started meditating to deal with his adjustment, so I gave it a shot, too. That was a little too much silent emotion for me, so I did yoga instead. I put my mat on our back patio and thanked the sun and the wind with my movements. It was fitting because I think about Owen when the wind blows gently and the sun shines down on me. I practiced self-compassion. I read books and ate more vegetables and listened to the news and tried to keep track of other peoples’ life events. It worked. I felt a little bit better week by week. I felt more like myself, which was odd because I had sort of forgotten what I was like. It was as if I was meeting an old friend after years of distance. I still remembered Owen as much as I had before. I still loved him. Taking care of myself didn’t negate his memory.
*This is specific to me. Some people are perfectly comfortable with their bodies a few weeks post-baby, and that is totally fine. But I wasn’t, I’m not, and I probably won’t be until I can fit back into my pre-pregnancy jeans. Maybe if I had my baby, I’d feel differently. I don’t have my baby, so I think I’m entitled to my jeans.