Monthly Archives: February 2007

World Upside Down

For now, I’ve decided to be honest when people ask how I’m doing. I’m not going to burden my local barista or library circulation desk employee with a more dramatic response than, “Fine, thank you.” I am well enough to buy a coffee or check out a book. But for now, friends and colleagues will get the truth. Fortunately, as a grad student, ABD, on a fellowship rather than teaching, I have the privilege of not going out. If the answer to, “How are you?” is going to be, “Bloody awful, thank you,” or, “Barely restraining wails of grief and horror, thanks,” I’ll just be staying in. But if it’s, “okay” or “not too badly,” I might as well say so. And apparently I’ll say it with a smile.

I’ve been reading blogs by other bereaved mothers. It’s a part of my quest to avoid surfing incessantly for information about pre-term labor, and instead to find supportive and engaging sources on the web. I was saddened but somehow encouraged to find that other women experience the feelings of guilt and shame that I do at times. Saddened because I wish no one else had to feel what I feel and because of course they’re not to blame and there’s no need for shame. But encouraged because, well, if other women who’ve done nothing wrong feel like I do, then probably I didn’t either.

It would be nice if we could really know what we’re responsible for in this world. I know what I’m responsible for not doing – violence, for example – and I know what I’m responsible for on a small scale – my cats, husband, taxes, etc., – but on a global scale it’s tougher. We all ask ourselves at some time, I’m sure, whether we ought to pursue a career that has as its explicit purpose helping the world. But it’s not so easy to define what that means.

I have no idea how I’m supposed to respond to suffering. Last year for example, when I was in Moscow, I saw disabled people neglected and mistreated in the most horrifying ways. On my ride to Moscow from the airport, I saw a legless man pushing himself through traffic on a dirty little cart – just a piece of plywood, really, with four wheels, only about 4 inches above the ground. Later, in St. Petersburg, I saw another man, with a terribly mangled face and only stumps for arms and legs dressed in dirty rags, leaned against a wall with a cardboard sign saying he was a veteran and asking for money. Perhaps most upsetting was when we witnessed a man with extremely bowed legs knocked down by a swinging door and people were just stepping over him. We saw him from a distance, and when we got there, only two young people could be bothered to help Josh help him up. I gave many of the disabled panhandlers money (I’ve never cared how beggars use it.), but later a Russian academic told me that disabled beggars are sometimes part of a slave market, and that what I give them will only be taken away. I don’t know if that’s any truer than the idea that all American homeless people will use what I give them for drugs. In fact, I have less knowledge about its accuracy, but it certainly didn’t make me wish I hadn’t given them anything. I do believe, though, that many Russian aid organizations are probably corrupt. So as an American who feels morally invested in disability rights and safety, what is my responsibility once I’m aware of this problem? Honestly, thus far I’ve done nothing. As one person, and not a very wealthy one at that, what am I supposed to do? I feel less wise about my place in the world now than I did ten years ago. I’m not even in control of what I’m responsible for – I could do nothing more than I did for Natan. I was responsible for his welfare, but in the end all I could do was bury him and make sure he is remembered and memorialized. That’s not at all what I wanted but I had no power to change it.

Being mother to a deceased child is surreal in many ways. But for me, I am most bemused because I believe that Natan’s soul has gone on to divine wisdom while I only feel more and more at a loss for understanding. So in that way, our son, a being we created and wanted to nurture, has surpassed us in development. And I am confused by this world turned upside down.

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70 Degrees (Fahrenheit) of Separation

We returned from our two weeks in Florida on Friday. Our moms sent us there to escape the cold North and relax. The first goal was easy. At one point Google weather reported an over 70-degree temperature difference between Clearwater and Ann Arbor. I found relaxing more difficult to achieve. Fun we had plenty of for sure – swimming in the Gulf (actually I was the only person I saw doing that – the water was only 62-degrees), sitting in the hot tub, walking on the beach, and drinking more than enough wine and martinis. I definitely made up for my months of sobriety. There were moments when I felt at ease, but I never quite accomplished a complete escape. Sadness and moodiness still prevail much more often than is the “norm” for me.

Wacky dreams are the clearest sign that I’m still strung out (in the emotionally exhausted, not drug induced, sense of the phrase). Saturday night I dreamt, for example, that someone served me a glass of wine in a margarita glass and I was so insulted, I wouldn’t drink it. Last night, I dreamt of being chased in a public restroom by ugly vampires. The weirdest part? At one point I looked in the mirror and saw that I was a Haredi man (a certain type of Orthodox Jew). But then suddenly I wasn’t, instead he was just helping me fight the monsters while valiantly avoiding touching any females. It’s not strange for me to have vivid or lucid dreams but what’s really striking is the intensity of my anger in them. Of course anyone would be perturbed if vampires attacked, but I was still angry when I woke up. I think I scream a lot in my dreams too these days.

What are you really trying to say?

If you look at my links, you’ll see I’ve included a “political” section and if you check out this week’s “Top 10 Conservative Idiots” you’ll see that a congressman in Tennessee has proposed requiring death certificates to be issued for aborted fetuses. The author of Top 10, Earl G, makes enough of the ridiculousness of this proposal that I don’t really need to do more. But my non-sophisticated un-philosophical response is that it’s mean-spirited. I am quickly learning about fear and guilt associated with fertility and childbearing and it seems the Tennessee measure’s intent is to shame women. Unable to successfully criminalize them, this legislator wants to create a public record of women who have abortions.

It caused me to reflect on my treatment at the hospital. Overall, the nurses and doctors were profoundly kind and compassionate. Thankfully they don’t see a situation like ours every day, but even still, they do see tragedy often and still they were sincere in their empathy and grief. During my week in the hospital, I went through every possible emotion. I felt guilt, like I must have done something wrong despite having spent months preparing my body for pregnancy and then following every guideline for making it a healthy one. In weak moments I felt ashamed at my apparent inability to easily accomplish such a “natural” task. (So much for the Fit Pregnancy magazine and Bradley Method to Natural Childbirth book I happily purchased in November. My subsequent pregnancies will involve bed rest, a throng of medical professionals, and probably a C-section.) I was so upset with myself at times that I was shocked by the medical staff’s concern for me, as well as our baby. Over and over they expressed that my life was their first priority, and reassured me that I was a good mother. Even as we all confronted the death of Natan, as the passing of a real person, I was struck by the care and compassion they expressed for me.

With the miscarriage, however, it was different. None of the medical personnel mourned the baby as a real person with a soul and an identity, and neither actually did I. I thought I did at the time, and I would never reduce the experience of miscarriage to simply a loss of tissue. As I waited for the fetus to pass, having chosen not to get a D&C if it wasn’t absolutely necessary, I spoke to it, telling it I would always love it, but that it was time to move on. I was distraught over losing the pregnancy, but I didn’t know that fetus like I knew Natan. I passed an 8.5-week fetus, and honestly I couldn’t discern much of a human form. The idea of a death certificate would be bizarre – we wouldn’t even know the sex and as we know the law doesn’t accept intersex as a category.

But let’s not get into that debate. Ultimately I am trying to discern why the Tennessee proposal angers me as a mother and why I relate it to my feelings of inadequacy and guilt over Natan’s death. Some of it, I think, is appropriate. I was his mother and I loved him. I wanted him in this world, even more than I wanted myself. Of course I’m heartbroken over losing him, and of course I think about the events leading up to labor. Of course I wish something could have been done to save his life, and will always have some “what ifs” in mind.

The shame, however, I think is reflected in much of the way women, fertility, pregnancy, and babies are presented in media and conversation. Why did I see so many pictures of Reese Witherspoon’s daughter, Kate Hudson’s son, and other celebrity kids in the US magazine I paged through this morning at the gym? Why can I not turn on television news programs without hearing about missing children, pregnancy fads, or pedophilia? We are baby obsessed in popular culture (academics please forgive me for not footnoting that phrase) and I think it has very little to do with true compassion for children. It’s narcissism. I love Natan infinitely, but it wasn’t only my love for him that made me excited when people out in public could tell I was pregnant. I liked the attention. But not in a healthy way. In the same way pride in my athletic body in high school turned into an unhealthy obsession when that became difficult to maintain in college, I realized I was putting too much value on a popularly represented body image. And that body image was of a baby-making machine. I am certainly not saying that a pregnant body isn’t beautiful and that the sight of a pregnant woman shouldn’t make us happy or that we should not be concerned about the welfare of babies and children. But when we portray motherhood as the be all and end all of a woman’s life, we ultimately devalue life. We cheapen the experience of pregnancy by making it a universal commodity, something we all must do and have. And we say that if a woman cannot achieve it or does not want it, she has failed.

When we obsess over childhood and children, we create impossible norms. If you care about your children’s well being, do you subject them to constant scrutiny? Do you comment on everything they do, say, and wear? Do you make them play out their personal pain in front of everyone you know? If every moment of your every day is spent chronicling every detail of your children’s lives, are you really thinking first about them, or about yourself?

The Tennessee proposal reflects this shame. Death certificates for fetuses have nothing to do with individual children, with increasing their real chances for life or for improving its quality. It doesn’t even have anything to do with reducing the incidence of abortion. It has everything to do with portraying motherhood as the norm, and with ignoring diverse experience that complicates it.

In the Beginning

I begin this blog six weeks after the birth and death of our son, Natan. After learning this summer that we were expecting, my husband and I felt cautious exaltation. I’d had a first-trimester miscarriage so we were already aware of pregnancy’s precariousness. But when the threat of miscarriage passed with October’s arrival, we began to feel comfortable planning for and discussing our first child. Every doctor’s appointment, when we’d either see the baby’s heartbeat via ultrasound or hear it using the Doppler, our excitement and happiness increased.

I’d had a rough first trimester, with much nausea and exhaustion, but the second trimester was going well. At 19 weeks, I began to suffer from Braxton Hicks contractions. One ultrasound showed a “borderline” cervical length, but a follow-up exam showed the length was normal. Perhaps I had a dynamic cervix. My doctor told me not to exercise anymore, and to make sure to rest regularly during the day. We were somewhat reassured, but in any case I dramatically reduced my activity. 5 weeks passed. The Braxton Hicks (or so we think) continued, but stopped if I rested or changed position. They were not regular and a subsequent doctor’s appointment still showed no change.

Evening of December 26th, I didn’t feel well and my back begins to ache.

Morning, December 27th. I see blood. We rush to Labor and Delivery, and an exam shows I have completely effaced and I am 1cm dilated. Thus begins a week of hospital bed rest, and medication stops labor. All goes relatively well until contractions begin on the evening of January 2nd around 8pm. My blood pressure unexpectedly crashes and they can no longer safely administer medications. My water breaks at 6am, January 3rd, and they have to deliver immediately. In incredible pain, I begin to hallucinate and go in and out of consciousness. I babble in Hebrew and very broken Spanish. I have gone into shock. The baby has turned to breech position. In his 25th week, he is viable but so small, he moves too quickly through my body while my blood pressure and heart rate fluctuate dangerously. Things are happening too fast, and within minutes it is too late for a C-section. He becomes caught in the cord as he passes through the birth canal. 7 minutes after birth, our son is gone.

We hold him and name him, Natan. He is small, but perfectly formed. He has my nose and his father’s chin. His hair is dark. He is beautiful. I cover his eyes, and say a Hebrew prayer, the Shema. For now, I am not angry, but instead sad and completely unprepared.

Within just a few days time we had birthed and buried our firstborn son. In the first weeks following Natan’s birth and death, I struggled with a postpartum body. Achy breasts, exhaustion, residual contractions, but instead of struggling to balance that with the demands of a newborn, I had all the time in the world to sleep and recover.

6 weeks later, those symptoms have passed. I’m left with a non-pregnant self, but no baby to hold. The anger has arrived, and I wonder, “Where do we go from there? How do I forgive my body for betraying us?” I begin this blog to remember our son, and as a record of his yahrzeit year, our yr. of consolation.