Expecting Grief

Contemplating the last child

I wept after each one of my children was born. I don't mean the initial weeping for joy at their beauty or from relief for their health. I wept to mourn after the birth of each one of my three children.

I had read Sheila Kitzinger: "It is recognized that a woman who bears a child who is handicapped or ill, or who has a baby who dies, needs to pass through a period of grieving. It is less well understood that for any woman the time immediately after birth is experienced as a loss which she needs to grieve over, however perfect the baby."

I had read the What to Expect people: "For women who passed the nine months in relative misery . . . the end of the pregnancy is something to celebrate. But if you thoroughly enjoyed pregnancy, its conclusion may be something to mourn. . . . You may feel a sense of loss and emptiness, and miss the uniquely intimate sensation of carrying your baby inside you. You may even regret the disappearance of your bulging belly, to which you'd grown fondly accustomed."

But still, I had not anticipated actual grief.

About three days after Devon, my first, was born, I was watching one of those in-hospital teaching videos with my husband when I began to cry. I cried for no reason. I cried for many reasons. One was that I had lost my childhood; now I was responsible for grooming someone else's childhood memories, and this responsibility weighed heavily on my newly broadened parental shoulders. I grieved for that which I could not re-do, and for that which would never happen. And then I felt guilty because I couldn't enjoy my baby as a new mother should.

That was the year of the '92 Winter Olympics, the year the Republics of the Soviet Union splintered off into individual countries. Those in flux had no national anthems to be played or flag to be flown when one of their athletes won a medal. Viktor Petrenko of the Ukraine won the gold in men's figure skating that year and had to listen to the theme of the Olympics play while he watched the official five-ringed flag of the Olympic Games rise to the ceiling of the ice arena. Tears streamed down my face as I watched him blankly stare at a flag that meant nothing to him. I knew how he must have felt. What should have been the culmination of his career, his finest moment, rang hollow because he could not grasp the emotion he was supposed to feel.

About two days after Zia, my second child, was born, we returned from the hospital and I cried the moment our car pulled into the driveway. I continued to sob for a week. I felt I had destroyed my first child's life by fractioning the love and attention she had been receiving. She now only got half of me instead of the whole she was used to. I also cried because my pregnancy was over. The heavily anticipated homebirth had been moved to a hospital and I had achieved only part of my goal: a healthy baby born vaginally after a Cesarean--but not at home. I grieved my crushed dreams and felt guilty that my grief surpassed my pride in the beautiful healthy child I nursed at my breast. Again, my victory rang hollow.

About one day after my third child, Maxwell, was born, I began to cry intensely and didn't stop for three or four days. The other times I was able to say to myself, "Knock it off. Things are better this way. You'll see," and my tears would abate. And sure enough, things did get better. This time, my grief woke me at night. It was a tangible being whose bony finger tapped my shoulder and whose hoarse voice whipsered in my ear, "He is your last." I felt as a child does at Christmas after all the beautiful packages are opened and the ribbons tossed aside: there is no more to come.

My husband wanted to stop expanding our family after two children. I wanted "just one more." Part of me wanted to replay the birth scenario. Part of me wanted to have an excuse to take better care of my body. And part of me wanted the child who would be Maxwell. When we conceived Max, we acknowledged our financial, emotional, and quality-time limits, and decided three children would be enough for our family. Max would be the last baby to grow in my womb.

As my pregnancy wore on, the excitement of the pending birth was shadowed in my mind by those words I kept repeating to relieved family members: "This is our last baby."

I grew larger through the summer and into the fall, alternately wishing to be done with it all and wishing to stay in a state of magical suspended animation. If only our family could hold onto these moments of delightful anticipation, I felt, this rosy glow would never end. But our Max slipped into the world in late October, another successful VBAC skillfully "caught" by a nurse-midwife in a hospital we had chosen without reservations. He was pink and perfect and the birth had gone well. I'd been through all the other reasons to mourn before, surely I wouldn't fall into the depths of despair again.

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