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Thoughts upon reading

this article in The Atlantic which claims ultrasounds lack obvious meaning, ponders whether a heartbeat counts if the heart isn’t fully formed, and suggests that the fetal appearance of being a “baby” is illusion.

[UPDATE: The Atlantic story has been edited to tone down its anti-science claims including the suggestion there is “no heart to speak of” in a 6 week fetus.  You can read about that here

SECOND UPDATE: the corrections keep coming. At some point the correction should be, wow we shouldn’t have published this]

You know, I feel conflicted about ultrasounds too.  You won’t find many people that view them with more resentment and suspicion than myself.  Ushered into that quiet, dim room with the screen mounted high on the wall across from the table, my heart begins to beat fast, my lungs to tighten.  Usually as the nurse prepares her wand and gel I warn her that this patient may be unpredictably emotional, be prepared.

You see, I know just how treacherous this technology can be, luring you in with the pretty pictures and lifetime movie expectations. Posting those great profile shots all over facebook, ultrasound lulls you into a sense of security and joyous excitement.  And then it betrays you with the monstrous, pitiless cruelty.

I sure do wish ultrasound information didn’t have an “obvious meaning”.  I tried to pretend that the blank space in every heart beat, oh you’ll forgive me the lazy description I’m sure, tried to pretend it didn’t mean what it meant.  And what it meant was your son is dying.  My son because I could see that undeniable scientific fact on the screen too.  Dying because the blood wasn’t flowing from me to him in a beautiful smooth uninterrupted line with every, there’s that troublesome word again, heartbeat.  None of this was debatable.

Three times in my life I’ve wanted to argue with the ultrasound.  Once as I watched my son fight.  Once two weeks later when I saw that “obvious meaning”: the terrible motionlessness of a child who had lost his battle.  And once more when the same fate befell another son a year later.  I recognized that all too familiar obvious meaning immediately.  But you can’t debate the machine.  You can’t convince that cold emotionless tool to do anything but what it was designed to do: tell the scientific truth.  I’d love it to be more complicated but it isn’t.  Hearts beat, children live, and then they die and neither fact can be changed by semantics.

Maybe it is possible to argue your way out of seeing the flutter on that screen as an actual heart beat of an actual person.  I’ll tell you what you can’t argue with.  The moment it’s gone.  The flutter stops.  The thump thump sound is replaces by the most palpable of all silences.  And you know what I knew?  I knew he was dead.  Nobody argues death.  Nobody says, oh don’t worry, that baby isn’t really dead.  But if he’s dead what was he the day before, the moment before that dreadful stillness fell.  If the absence means death don’t tell me the presence was some strange in between.

So to me ultrasound is a sickening thief.  It shows you your healthy baby one day and the next leaves you with nothing but a gravestone and a blue box in the closet with a pregnancy test inside along with a crumpled printout didn’t realize would be the last photograph of your child while he lived. LIVED. LIVED I want to scream.

But poor ultrasound isn’t to blame.  It’s just a tool.  A window to the other side of the womb.  And ultrasounds have been used both to save and to terminate pregnancies.  Abby Johnson famously wrote of her experience witnessing an ultrasound guided abortion in her book Unplanned.  So the ultrasound is the tool of the abortionist as much as of the perinatologist or the prolife advocate.  It can’t lie, it cannot cure or harm, it can only watch.  What it tells us may make us very uncomfortable.  Life might be easier and decisions less fraught if ultrasound would just mercifully soften its glare.  So go ahead.  Debate abortion.  But don’t debate with ultrasound.  I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t care what we want to hear.  That damn machine only tells you what is.

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The Unrepeatables


When I became pregnant again, there were lots of reasons not to tell for a long time.  First I just couldn’t talk about it because of how afraid I was.  I was under so much stress and the idea of anybody watching me waiting for something to happen was just one more stress I couldn’t bear.  But the greatest reason has been that I can’t quite get over the irrational feeling that celebrating her publicly looks like forgetting the boys.

Every Mom feels protective of their children and that remains true when they’re gone.  You can’t protect them from a whole lot.  They’ve gone beyond the need for your protection really.  But you want to shelter their memory.  You want to make sure people speak of them and think of them respectfully.  Anything that devalues their lives hits a very raw nerve.  People say things that hurt, usually without thinking.  Sometimes it’s obvious stuff. “It’s a sign they died, well really, what did you want a baseball team?” being one example.  Other times it’s someone trying to be comforting and just getting it a little wrong.  Under this is filed: “Don’t worry, you’ll have another.” And that’s the one I’ve struggled with this whole pregnancy.  It implies that Charlie or Samuel are replaceable. They aren’t.  They’ll never be here and nobody who does end up being here will be them.  It’s not like I had 5 roles to be filled and we just go “the part of fifth child will now be played by ___” and carry on.  Fifth child is Charlie.  Sixth child is Samuel.  Those roles will never be played here on earth now.  The characters are written out of the script.  And I feel, not guilty exactly, but bad, that in celebrating the arrival of our newest child many people may think. “oh good well that’s all better then.”

It isn’t all better.  I love her so much.  She’s beautiful and wonderful and she wouldn’t even be here if either one of her brothers had lived.  It is, biologically, an impossibility that they would all be here.  That’s hard to wrap my mind around.  She only exists because they do not.  And I want her to exist so desperately.  But she doesn’t take their place.  Charlie and Samuel aren’t a chapter we close and never think about again because I finally got a fifth child.  Because none of our children are just numbers.

Number.  That’s the concept that has always bugged me, even before our losses.  Everybody gets asked these questions, it’s pretty natural small talk. More so if your family is a “weird” size, either bigger or smaller than the average.  Are you having more? Is your family complete? How many kids do you want?  In 9 years I still haven’t come up with a great way to put into words the answer in my heart.  I usually just laugh awkwardly and shrug.  “I don’t know” is accurate but not thorough. But at the same time I’d like more than ever to have a good answer when our answer has gotten complicated.

My kids correct me if I try and give the easy answer. “No Mum, we have four boys and three girls.” It melts my heart that they so fully include their missing brothers but it sure drops a bomb into conversations with strangers at dance lessons. I have 5 living children.  I have delivered and held 7 children.  I have conceived 8 though one barely brushed the world with her or his presence, a twin who disappeared, leaving behind a sibling.  So how many kids do I have?  How many do I want?  It’s all in the counting.

But I don’t want a NUMBER of children.  I want a collection of individuals.  A collection of Ones.  The Unrepeatables, just like the blog name says. I don’t have a target output.  My children are not a product, or workers in the domestic economy, or figures on a spreadsheet.  I have one Jean, one Gus, one Gina, one Dulcie, one Miriam.  I have one Charlie and one Samuel.   Do I want more?  Maybe?  Yes? All I really ever know is I want the ones I have.  All I ever ask is can I take proper care of another right now?  It’s a daily decision not a 10 year plan.  I don’t know what we’re having for dinner tomorrow; trust me, my plans for the future are pretty vague.  My family is always complete right now.  And always might have room for another.  Both true.

I have been pregnant since July 2014.  Two years with only two small spaces where I was recovering from birth.  So it’s feels like a 2 year pregnancy.  I worry that when I celebrate the birth of my little girl, people will think “oh good she finally got that fifth baby.” Like I was trying for an accessory and it just took a really long time to acquire one.  I’m not having my fifth baby, I’m having Miriam.

Miriam would not exist if Samuel hadn’t died.  And Samuel wouldn’t exist without Charlie’s loss.  I’m thrilled beyond measure to meet Miriam.  But I can simultaneously be sad, a little angry, and confused, that those boys couldn’t be here.  I still wish it.  Because I love them.  Not the number 5.  Or the number 7.  Or the number 12.  I love them.  I wanted them: Not A child, that child, every time.  I don’t want anyone to think I just kept getting pregnant to hit a number, to prove something to myself or anyone else.  I kept getting pregnant because I kept being ready to meet my next child, whoever that might be.

I’m not any less excited to finally hold this beautiful, dainty, solemn, mysterious little girl who made it to us, looking up at me with a face so like her brother Charlie’s.  I can’t wait to get to know her better. But I will always wish I’d had that chance with the boys too.  JD told me it is kind of like I will always be pregnant with Charlie and Samuel but not give birth to them until I get to heaven.  It’s an imperfect analogy but pretty deep coming from an eight year old.  In some sense I’ll always have that hopeful waiting of a pregnant mother trying to imagine the child she loves already but has not met yet.  I still wait with breathless anticipation for our first hello.


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Filed under Motherhood, Our Family, Religious Ramblings, Stillbirth and Miscarriage, Uncategorized