Just shy of 20 weeks, Allison McDonald lost her baby. She’s opening up on Green Moms Collective to share the often private story of losing a baby, the grief that follows and the unexpected hard-won lessons from miscarriage about motherhood and life.
My husband and I were thrilled when we found out we were expecting our second child. We already had a blonde-haired, grey-eyed little boy named James and couldn’t wait to be able to say “our kids.” That excitement only doubled when we found out it was going to be a girl.
The first signs the pregnancy was different
It all felt so good. Except for the gnawing feeling I couldn’t ignore that something wasn’t right.
By 16 weeks, I didn’t look like I did when I was pregnant with James.
I had barely gained 8 pounds, and while my tummy was showing, it just didn’t feel big enough or hard enough. Or something. I couldn’t put my finger on it.
I went in for my 16-week check-up, and my baby girl’s heartbeat was strong, so I felt reassured by the doctor that everything was fine. I just had to wait until our 20-week appointment for the next ultrasound, the anatomy ultrasound, and then I would be able to see with my own eyes that she was okay.
Two days shy of 5 months pregnant, I woke up in the middle of the night to find blood running down my legs. I ran to the bathroom and cried out to my husband something that I knew in the core of my being to be true: I was losing the baby.
But all through the ambulance ride to the hospital and the hours it took before the on-call OB-GYN could do the ultrasound to see if there was a heartbeat, I still held on to hope. Maybe, just maybe.
But it turned out I’d already lost her, even before that day.
The ultrasound showed that sometime around the 16-week mark—when I had started to feel that something wasn’t right—my baby girl had indeed stopped growing, though it was impossible to know when her heart had stopped beating.
Due to complications during my labour with James, and the fact that I was presenting with placenta previa this time around, the decision was that I would have a hysterotomy. It’s similar to a C-section but with a smaller, vertical incision, rather than deliver the baby vaginally, which in my case came with the possibility of hemorrhaging.
Becoming a mom who had lost a baby
When you hear about women who miscarry or give birth to stillborn babies, even if you don’t have children, there is a complete and utter sense of despair you feel in your compassion for them.
I know this feeling.
I’ve felt despair for so many women before me, a select club of warrior moms, I never thought I would join. The ones whose own stories of losing a baby have come before my experience with baby loss.
When I heard their stories of losing a baby before, all I could think of was how awful it must be for them, how sad, and how devastating.
Lessons I Learned From Losing A Baby
Through my induction into this group of women, I’ve learned that while all of that is part of it—the sadness, the loss, the grief, and devastation—there is another side to the experience. One that presented the gift of valuable lessons and realizations that were hard-won but nonetheless left me with a sense of greater understanding and hope that as strange as it may sound, I couldn’t be anything but thankful for.
You are one tough mother (effer)
When I was pregnant with my son, James, I planned on having an all-natural delivery and even studied hypnobirthing à la Kate Middleton. But the reality of my delivery couldn’t have been further from my vision.
I ended up in labour for 18 hours and when it was clear things were not progressing (I was induced three times and hadn’t dilated more than a centimetre) and James’ heartbeat started to drop dramatically, the doctor walked in and declared, “Your baby isn’t happy.” 5 minutes later I was wheeled in for an emergency C-section.
When I got home from the birth, rather than feeling relieved and elated that my baby and I had come through, I felt like a complete and utter failure for not having been able to do what nature intended was the one thing I was supposed to do.
This feeling was exacerbated when my milk never fully came in, and I had to introduce formula. For months, I couldn’t get over the shame and ineptitude I felt.
In the days and weeks after losing my baby girl, I realized how wrong I had been about myself when James was born. I was not weak, or inept, and there was nothing for me to be ashamed of. Rather, it was the opposite.
Going through a C-section in any scenario is a serious surgery, despite how common they are today; going through the same surgery 100 years ago would have likely resulted in my death.
But going through a C-section to deliver a baby I would never hold in my arms, followed by 6-weeks of recovery, would be a daily reminder of what I had lost, required a toughness that I didn’t even know I possessed.
Every step to the washroom, every shuffling walk I took around the hospital floor, every morning I woke up and got out of bed to be with my son and carry on, was a testimony to the fact that I was a one tough mother-effer.
I realized that my body was an amazing thing that could do amazing things, the least of which was continuing to be a mom, a wife, and just existing after my miscarriage when so much of me wanted to curl up and give in to the weight of the pain, both emotional and physical.
Whenever I spoke to friends and family, they kept telling me how very strong I was, in my attitude and in my determination to not give up. And this time, I decided to agree with them.
You really are enough
Before my miscarriage, in between working, my days consisted of doing laundry, cooking, cleaning and taking care of James on the two days he was at home with me. James is not only the most energetic toddler I know but he also a tank. Being with him requires a Herculean-level of stamina and strength. On most days, I measured myself as a good wife and mother by how much I accomplished: meals, playtime, bath time, reading etc.
But after losing my daughter, I was stuck on the couch, unable so much as to kneel down to hug my son, let alone pick him up and hold him. I couldn’t do anything but be.
And in being, I was reduced to love. Love for James, love for my husband, love for my friends and family. Love for myself.
Being pared down to nothing but love forced me to realize that me—just me existing, just me loving—was enough. I didn’t need to do anything special or be anything extraordinary to make a difference in people’s lives. More importantly, I realized I didn’t need to do anything special to matter. I mattered because I was here, and I was me.
Baby loss changes how you envisioned your family
I am a planner (I am a mom, after all). Plans give me something to look forward to, something concrete to build towards, and a sense of control.
At the same time, I fully believe that you never know what’s going to happen and try to be flexible when things don’t work out as I imagined.
This experience of losing a child forced me to become the embodiment of every cliché ever heard:
You want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us. Etc., etc.
After my surgery, when the fog cleared and the constant surge of adrenaline coursing through me had subsided, something dawned on me: The entire dynamic of my family that I had planned so well was no longer a possibility.
My children were supposed to be just less than three years apart—James would be old enough to understand what was going on, be potty-trained and hopefully less inclined to jealousy, while still allowing my kids to be close enough in age to be friends and enjoy the same activities.
I was supposed to be just shy of my 34th birthday when my second baby was born so that I would still be a young-ish mom, and be out of the diapers phase sooner rather than later.
This way, by the time I was 36, I would be back into the full swing of my career with one child in daycare and the other in public school. Life would be perfect.
Sometimes things won’t work out the way you planned, and that’s okay
Now I will have to wait at least another 6-8 months before trying to get pregnant to avoid the possibility of uterine rupture. And what if I miscarry again?
It’s a possibility I don’t even want to contemplate, but I know it is there.
Which, if it happens, will push my parenting plans even further off, and make it possible that James could be the only child I’ll ever have.
The number of plans I made that have disappeared since losing my daughter are endless.
And so I decided that it was okay, that these changes had to be okay for my sanity.
Rather than rail against the unfairness of my baby loss and waste time not accepting the things I can’t change—time I’ve wasted too often in my life—I consciously chose to be okay with the fact that plans had changed and I couldn’t do anything about it.
It was hard at first, but the magical thing that happened when I accepted my life as it is was is that I feel free.
I’m free to explore what will come next, free to be a different version of myself than I had planned on, and free to experience the joys of whatever family is intended for me.
And there was so much beauty in this realization that instead of making me feel tension and panic, I had the space to imagine all of the new possibilities that entered into my life and there is an undeniable brightness to that silver lining.
A mother’s love is timeless, boundless and infinite
Until they could get the right team in place to perform the surgery that would deliver my baby girl, I had to stay in the hospital overnight, with her still inside of me.
After the doctor had whispered to me that he was sorry, but there was no heartbeat, I looked at the ultrasound screen. I’d seen that my daughter was curled up in a little ball as if she had just gone to sleep.
At that moment I told myself, That’s how I’m going to think of her. That’s how I’m going to remember her.
That night and all through the next day as my husband and I waited in our quiet room for the surgery that would make our loss more final than it already was, I pictured her curled up asleep.
And I still felt that bond and connection we’d built over the last months, even though her heart was no longer beating.
Rather than force myself to pretend the connection wasn’t there, I talked to my daughter in my mind, in the same way, I’d done since the day I learned she was there.
I told my baby that I was so sorry that I couldn’t keep her safe. I told her that I knew if she had to go it was for a reason and that it was okay. I told her I missed her, that I missed her so much. I told her that I loved her and would always love her, no matter what.
And in a way I can’t adequately describe, she answered back. It was a primitive, instinctive connection.
What I didn’t expect was that, even after the surgery, when my baby was no longer in my body, our connection would remain.
That’s when I learned what a mother’s love really is; what love is. It is boundless, infinite and defies the laws of time and space and all reason.
This realization was comforting; a gift because I knew then that although the body of my baby didn’t live, and she would never have the life my husband, and I had imagined for her—for us—she wasn’t gone from me, not really.
My baby girl would always be there with me, as part of me, because I loved her—as every mother has ever loved their child—and at the same time I loved her in a way that would only ever exist between she and I.
And nothing, not even death, could take that kind of love away.
The reason to talk about baby loss
I am sharing what I’ve learned from my miscarriage here today in memory of my baby girl whose life was short but nonetheless so meaningful and full of purpose. I’m telling my story of baby loss to pay forward the bravery of the many women before me who have told theirs because those stories made me see that I was not alone and saved me from feeling so isolated.
Telling my baby loss story is for all warrior moms, especially those whose little ones have left too soon. My hope is that these words may offer a glimmer of light through your grief, a sense of solidarity and the knowledge for women in the thick of it that you will come through this pain.
Giving back to the people on the frontline
In honour of Mother’s Day this year, from April 1st to May 14th, I am partnering with Sunnybrook’s Women & Babies Program.
I’ll be donating $1 from every greeting card sold in my Etsy Shop to them in support the tireless efforts of the staff in the High-Risk Obstetrics Unit, as I have seen first-hand how invaluable their work is.
If you need cards for the mom in your life, please consider purchasing one from my shop. If you would like to donate directly to Sunnybrook Women & Babies fund or to learn more about the program, you can visit their website.
Allison McDonald is a mom, a writer, a greeting card designer and an expressive writing workshop facilitator.
In pursuit of her lifelong passion for books and stories, Allison completed her Honours BA in English Literature followed by a post-graduate degree in Publishing. Allison had a career as a developmental editor for nearly a decade before deciding to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.
She has written for a variety of Canadian publications on lifestyle topics and is also the owner and designer of September Project Cards, an eco-friendly greeting card line sold through Etsy and in stores around Toronto.
Recently, Allison has added to her training as a writing workshop facilitator and has developed a workshop series called Healing Through Writing, based on the founding research in expressive writing by Dr. James Pennebaker.