This Mother’s Day marks the end of a full season of grief. Exactly three months ago today, on February 10, 2015, a date which will live in infamy, Suzanne and I heard the four most painful words of our lives: “no fetal heart rate.”
Only a few weeks earlier we had learned that we were expecting our (gulp!) fifth child, and we had experienced the emotional gamut in the wake of that news.
First, there was shock. After all, we are supposedly a fertility-challenged couple. Eleven years ago, when our Grace was almost three years old and we were trying to have a second child, a fertility expert told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to conceive a child without some medical intervention like in vitro fertilization. I asked, “If we’re unable to conceive, how do we explain our daughter Grace?” The doctor said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”
Fluke number two arrived nine years later when our Sage was born, but still, even after two conceptions and births, I don’t think either of us really believed that there would ever be another fluke. That’s why we were initially shocked when we learned in January that our family would grow again.
At moments, we felt overwhelmed. Our house has bedrooms for four children. How and where would we make accommodations for the fifth? I recalled the CNN story I had seen a few months earlier about the rising cost of raising a child to age 18. I had joked that we only needed a million bucks to raise four children. Now, seemingly overnight, we needed $1.25 million–and that was before college tuitions!
Our two year old Sage was just growing past the most difficult stages of infancy, and it made us tired to think of starting over again with a new child, especially at our ages.
Anticipated exhaustion gave way to laughter as our ages inspired hilarious thoughts and conversations. We calculated our ages at various milestones in the baby’s life. I joked about how people would ask me which graduate was my grandchild, since I would be sixty-two at his or her high school graduation. Suzanne imagined herself as the sixty-one year old mother of the bride or groom, if the baby married at the same age as she had. We joked that we would have children involved in the church’s youth ministries for twenty consecutive years, from Grace’s sixth grade year through the new child’s graduation.
Moments of laughter paled in comparison to the moments of outright joy! We imagined all the fun moments ahead as seven of us Jonases packed into our Honda Odyssey. We dreamed of how many grandchildren would gather at our house for future celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We felt blessed that two people who had no apparent reason to expect that they would conceive once were now expecting for the third time!
Bursting with the need to share that joy with the world one weekend, I put together a cute little video announcement that came closer to going viral than anything I had ever posted on Facebook. We felt warmly embraced by the congratulations, hugs, and Facebook “likes” that our friends and family piled upon us!
Just eleven days after posting that video, on a cold February Tuesday, Suzanne and I sat in the ultrasound lab as we had so often throughout two previous pregnancies. A couple of weeks earlier, she had gotten to see the tiny flicker of a heartbeat, but I had been at the pediatrician’s office with one of our other kids and had missed that ultrasound appointment. I was eager to see the tiny heart’s movement for myself.
As the technician began the scan, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see any distinct features this early in the pregnancy, but I also knew to look for the heart flashing rapidly like a tiny computer cursor. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry. I couldn’t imagine there was any need to. The technician casually asked whether our doctor wanted to see the ultrasound for himself and said that she had better go invite him just in case. When they returned, he looked and listened for only a few seconds before he turned to us and said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. There’s no fetal heart rate.”
I feel certain that he said more, perhaps something about the hardest part of his job, but I didn’t really hear any of it. Once again, we were in shock, but for an entirely different reason. My mind and heart were stuck on those four words: no fetal heart rate. Just that quickly, we were no longer expecting parents. We were grieving parents.
And we have grieved.
But it’s a different kind of grief with an unborn child. There are none of the usual cultural trappings of grief–no obituary, no visitation, no funeral service. Rather than the customary surge of emotion that washes over a family over the span of one or two days with those public expressions of love and grief, we have experienced more of a tidal ebb and flow. Rather than sharing tears with a hundred people at a service, we’ve shared a hundred different moments with people over the past ninety days.
It’s a different quality of grief too. In every other experience of a loved one’s death, I’ve grieved because of a shared past. We’ve had a special bond and shared special experiences in the past, and I have mourned because there would be no more moments like those in the future. In this case, I grieve that I never got to have a past or future with our unborn baby.
In fact, for me, the mourning is best expressed in an almost endless series of we nevers. We never got to hold our baby, know if our baby was a boy or girl, know his or her hair color, smell his or her skin and breath, make comparisons of her or his physical and personality traits with other members in our family, settle on a name, and maybe most importantly, whisper “I love you” against soft baby hair or ears . . .
There are just too many we nevers. They’ve been my constant companions over the past three months as I’ve grieved my loss. What comforts me most is the image of Jesus holding my baby until I can.
But I haven’t just grieved for myself. I have grieved for my Suzanne.
Seventeen years ago, during our exactly fifty-one weeks of dating before we were married, Suzanne and I had a conversation about vocation. She was completing her preparations to be a French teacher, but she said to me that day, “What I really want to be is a mommy.”
We knew there would be fertility challenges, and because of that and her deep maternal desire and calling, we prayed and prayed for a baby. When we learned we were expecting our Grace, it only seemed natural to name her Grace, since we genuinely believed she was a gift from God. Her name became all the more meaningful when she was born two days after the 9-11 attacks. Grace became even more precious to us when we learned, in the words of the aforementioned fertility expert, that she was a “fluke.”
From the beginning, Suzanne was a natural. I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a parent from her. Sure, my parents taught me to be loving and compassionate, and my dad showed me what it means to be a nurturing dad, but Suzanne taught me the skills like diaper changing, bottle preparation, bathing, towel wrapping, and others. She’s still trying to teach me how to brush daughters’ hair and how not to be a pushover with our kids. Hey, I’m a work in progress, but she’s a natural.
When we had the conversation with the fertility expert and made the subsequent decision to adopt, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She loved Brett before we ever saw him, and when we did see him for the first time in a hotel lobby where several adopting parents were meeting their adopted children, she spotted him across the room and said, “That’s my baby!” He has been ever since.
When our adoption agency called to let us know that Brett’s birth mother had given birth to another baby boy, she didn’t feel overwhelmed. She was thrilled! Micah bonded with her immediately and looked at me with suspicion. When I held him, he screamed, but when she held him, he was content. When we brought Micah home that December, she was the stay-at-home mom of three children under the age of five. I can imagine very few tougher jobs–and hers came without a paycheck.
When Sage (fluke #2) came along at a time in our lives when we didn’t expect to have an infant in the house, Suzanne talked about how much fun it would be to have four children in the house, and she was excited that we had greater odds of having lots of grandchildren.
You should see the relationship she has with Sage now! That two year old bundle of red-headed spirit thinks her mommy is the world’s MVP! Mommy does everything better than Daddy, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Mommy is her security blanket, the gravitational pull at the center of Sage’s every orbit. Mommy is her best buddy.
In fact, if you’ve seen Suzanne with any of our kids, you didn’t have to hear the words. You know from watching that what she really wanted to be is a mommy.
And so, when we discovered in January that the fifth Jonas child was on the way, there were some nearly overwhelming moments at first, but Suzanne quickly started nesting. She had already made room in her heart, and she was making plans for the space this child would occupy in our family and home. No matter how early in the pregnancy, she was clearly this baby’s mommy, and this precious child was her baby.
Then four words–no fetal heart rate–broke my Suzanne’s heart.
We’ve both grieved, but her grief is different from mine. I joyfully expected a baby, but she carried our baby. She felt the changes in her body. She loved that baby right through the nausea and fatigue. She provided within her body the only earthly home our baby ever knew.
Because of that, her we nevers are accompanied by a million what ifs. She wonders what if she had eaten differently, acted differently? What if? What if? What if?
I have grown to hate the word miscarriage, and I refuse to say it. Like mistake, misuse, misappropriate, miscue, and all those other mis- words, miscarriage implies that someone did something wrong, resulting in an unwanted outcome. She did nothing wrong, and I hate that her grief is accompanied by second, third, and millionth guessing of herself. Next to God’s, our baby knew no greater love than Suzanne’s.
So, on this Mother’s Day, we’ve come to the end of a season of grief, but our grief has not ended. Suzanne no longer carries our baby’s body within her, but she still carries the love, the memories, the we nevers, and the what ifs. I suppose she always will.
Today will be a day of great joy for my Suzanne. She will be surrounded by two sons and two daughters who love and cherish her! She will celebrate that she’s living her dream and being what God made and called her to be–a mommy! But this Mother’s Day, the first since we loved and lost our fifth child, will also hold some grief.
Suzanne has adopted twice. She has been pregnant three times. And today, though she will only hold four of those precious children in her arms, I know she holds all five in her heart.
Will you please hold her in yours?