Since I was a young girl, I dreamed of being a mother. Throughout my adult life, it was the moment I most anticipated. When I finally fell pregnant, it was a surprise, one my husband and I welcomed.
At 20 weeks, we found out that our son had a heart defect. We were devastated. Doctors said it may be a marker for some major genetic disorder. We spoke to a genetic counselor, who spent most of her time trying to convince us to terminate the pregnancy. I couldn’t even think about such a thing, feeling him kick and knowing he was living inside me.
We decided to keep the baby and as the pregnancy progressed, things began looking good. The doctors told us he had a 98% chance of surviving, albeit with some limitations, such as being unable to play contact sports and requiring several surgeries throughout his life. Despite this, he could lead a fairly normal life. We were ecstatic.
He was born at 37 weeks. My labor was extremely difficult. With every contraction, my baby’s heartbeat stopped. I was told in my Lamaze class to relax during contractions, but seeing the baby heart monitor stop at every contraction made being calm impossible. I had to wait to do an emergency C-section in the morning, when the doctors finally arrived. Because I was unconscious at his birth, I never saw my baby with his eyes open.
He lived for only eight days. They were the hardest eight days of my life. Sometimes he was doing well, but more often he had “dips” and doctors just couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. Despite the antibiotics and constant care, he couldn’t seem to kick the respiratory problems he had developed. He was unconscious the whole time because they kept him heavily sedated to minimize his pain. I longed to hold him, see him awake and look into his eyes, but alas he left us.
Grieving for him has been the most awful and devastating thing I have ever experienced. Although I have already seen the requisite therapist for my loss, talked to numerous people, joined support groups, and even written publicly about my son, I cannot help but feel misplaced.
I began feeling lost when I was sent home from the hospital without my child. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I no longer felt him inside me and knew I would never feel him again.
I had all of the things ready for his arrival, but no baby to use them. I didn’t know what to do with his baby clothes and furniture. I tried to put them away but the uncontrollable crying prevented me from doing so. Eventually, my mother and sisters took care of this for me.
Soon after my son’s passing, my family and friends bought my husband and me a ticket to Hawaii to get away and grieve in private. To this day, I cannot remember which island I went to or what I did the whole time in Hawaii. My only memory is standing in my towel in the hotel room and watching my breast milk seep through the towel and crying.
In the Pashtun culture, we celebrate the 40th day after childbirth by the mother officially bathing, praying and giving money to charity. New mothers do not have to pray while they are healing from the birth of the child. So when she begins to pray, on the 40th day, it is a mark of celebration. The maternal grandmother also gives new clothes to her daughter, prepares food and buys sweets, which are to be distributed among family and friends. My mother made me the food and had my new clothes ready after I showered, however, I did not have any sweets to give away. I followed tradition, with the knowledge that while this was a celebratory time for most mothers, I was grieving my empty womb. On my prayer mat, I cried throughout my prayer. It was my mother who consoled me and told me that God loved me and that is why He tested me with such a difficult test. She said she prays that God takes away my tears and soon blesses me with another child. She loved my son as much as I did and grieved not only his loss, but her daughter’s broken heart.
For some reason, I ended up going to my postpartum appointment all alone. Ashamed, I sat in the waiting room and prayed none of the staff remembered me or asked me about my baby. I watched other expectant mothers and mothers with newborns with a longing I will never be able to describe. Inside the examination room, I cried openly with my wonderful doctor, who did the same. Although her kindness helped me through a difficult appointment, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t be in a building with all of the happy mothers. Surely, there was a place for someone like me.
I am unable to see other children his age without bringing him up. I have been known to make perfectly normal situations awkward by asking how old a child is and then commenting, “Oh, he/she is my son’s age.” Oblivious and even enthusiastic mothers ask where my baby is and respond with shock and uncertainty when I tell him he passed away. The worst was when I did this at a wedding. I made one mother so uncomfortable, she avoided me for the rest of the wedding. I felt like a leper. I couldn’t enjoy the beauty of it. I didn’t even notice the intricacies of the flower arrangements or the color of the bride’s dress, which I usually do. My husband and I left right after dinner.
The feeling of being lost has stayed with me almost a year after my child’s passing. We have been blessed again and I am expecting my second child on the birthday of my first. When asked if this is my first child, I have to think about my answer. Do I want to answer honestly and say “no” but then have to explain my first child’s death? Or do I want to say “yes” and just let strangers remain ignorant, “oohing” and “aahing” at how “life changes once you become a parent.”
I will always feel like I have lost something. But with prayer, a good husband, wonderful family and friends and mostly time, I find myself learning my place in life again, where I am the mother of two children—one in heaven and one inside me. This knowledge makes me stronger. I am learning to no longer be unsure about what to say concerning my son. And I also realize that because my loss was so great, I am forever altered.
© 2012 – 2013, Sabina Khan-Ibarra. All rights reserved.