I want to be superhero.
Not just any superhero. I don’t want to fly or become invisible or walk through walls. And I don’t want to help the entire world or even my hometown. I want to protect, to offer comfort and hope, and to offer my services to a very specific group of people—mothers who’ve suffered the stillbirth of a child. I don’t want to stop a mother’s worst nightmare from happening—it would be hubris to think I could ever stop the death of a child—but I do want to make the aftermath of this most terrible of life’s happenings a little easier, a little safer, and a lot more comforting for all involved.
I haven’t always wanted to be a superhero, not even as a child. But then I read about the British pop singer Lily Allen, who at six months pregnant lost her baby. The media was calling it a miscarriage. A miscarriage. At six months. That’s not a miscarriage, that’s a stillbirth.
A little over five months ago, at barely six months pregnant, I gave birth to my stillborn daughter. It is difficult to describe this event in my life. To say it was sad, painful, heartbreaking, horrible, life-changing cannot fully capture the experience. It was and is all of these things, but more, indescribably more. The emotional and physical trauma I felt at her birth—and have felt every day since—is too much to bear at times.
Baby loss is baby loss. Whether you miscarry at eight weeks or experience a stillbirth at full term, the result is the same. The baby you loved and nurtured and planned for and hoped for is gone, and it’s heartbreaking for all involved. But there is a difference between a miscarriage and a stillbirth, and it means something to those of us who’ve experienced it.
In the United States, a miscarriage is defined medically as the loss of a fetus before 20 weeks; after 20 weeks, that loss is defined as a stillbirth. The difference between 19 weeks and 20 weeks is negligible, but the medical community has to draw the line somewhere. I look at is this way—if a woman has to labor, and I mean truly labor, to deliver her child and a placenta, and then has to fill out a death certificate and discuss what to do with her child’s remains and may, ultimately, have to bury that child, that’s a stillbirth. The loss is the same as a miscarriage, but what happens after that loss is different. And that’s the sticking point for me.
Thanks to a wonderful husband and daughter, family, and friends, plus anti-depressants and a good therapist, I have managed to move forward in my life. Some days are like treading through quick sand, clawing my way up through the memories, self-destructive thoughts, and dashed hopes that follow me everywhere I go. Other days are better—I can laugh, hold conversations, be a loving wife, a patient mother, a productive employee. But the line between the good and bad is tenuous. A few words, a photograph, the sight of another baby can send me spiraling back down into grief.
To have to endure this experience in the small Midwestern town where I live is one thing; to have to endure it in the spotlight of a tabloid culture, as Lily Allen must, is another.
The minute I read about her loss in an AP newswire, I wanted to don a superhero disguise, cross the Atlantic, and swoop to her rescue. I wanted to erase all of the stories that appeared in newspapers across the world. I wanted to step in right before someone says something really stupid to her like “nature has a way of working things out.” I want to be at her side so I can stop someone before they open his or her mouth to tell her they are sorry about her miscarriage. I want to answer her phone, manage her Facebook account, intercept her text messages, anything that can shield her from the well-meaning, yet often thoughtless behavior of people.
I wanted to tell her this sucks. That no matter how many people tell her that “nature takes its course” or that “God has a purpose” or that “everything happens for a reason,” what happened isn’t part of any higher plan or purpose. It just happened, and it’s awful. And that there are other women out there who know what it’s like, who can offer you the support—physical and emotional—that you need, who can show you that you can and will survive.
Essentially, I want to offer her the protection that I didn’t have.
I started having complications with my pregnancy at 16 weeks—four months, two weeks into the second trimester. When the complications first began, we were told we were having a miscarriage three different times. I had steeled myself to that possibility—was even a bit prepared for it in some abstract way. It can happen. I’ve known other women who’ve had this happen. But the baby held on for another eight weeks. And as the pregnancy got more and more complicated, as we were faced with the decision to hospitalize me at 24 weeks so that our baby could have a chance at survival if she was born early, I lost all comprehension of what would happen if we lost the baby. I knew I would have to experience labor, work to deliver her. But that was unfathomable to me. How could that happen? She kept holding on. We’d make it. I never thought about death certificates or funerals or remains. I couldn’t. I wasn’t prepared for this experience. When she was born still, I remember saying, “How do you prepare for this?” No one would answer me. No one could.
I don’t think you can prepare for a stillbirth—to prepare would be to give up hope, to imagine the worst. But now, looking back, I do wish that we as a society talked about it more, understood the differences between miscarriage and stillbirth. Maybe, just maybe, if we were more open about this experience, I wouldn’t have had to explain to a friend—multiple friends—that the one of the main differences between a miscarriage and stillbirth is that you don’t bury a miscarriage. To say those words broke my heart over and over again.
It wasn’t until I found a Web site for parents who’ve suffered baby loss that I found the support I needed. The site helped me find an amazing memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken, who suffered her own stillbirth. I finally found a community that spoke a language that I understood, that articulated all that I was feeling inside.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my mind has turned to superheroes. McCracken writes about how memories of the time before she learned of her son’s death are infiltrated by Superman—the Man of Steel swooping in at the last minute, telling them to go to the hospital immediately, making the critical decisions that could have made all the difference to her family. For me, Batman visits my memories of the two months before my daughter’s stillbirth. When I remember the moment I started having complications, Batman throws a punch, knocking the memory away. What I see is a much like the television show from the sixties—a comic book strip with the words BAM or POW sprawled across the screen. Most of the significant moments before her birth are stopped in this way. The Batman in my mind is blocking the pain.
Perhaps it’s only natural that I now want to be the superhero, to help other women endure this all-too-painful blow. I don’t know why Lily Allen inspired me in this way. In the five months since losing my daughter, I’ve learned of other stillbirths. My heart has always broken for these families, but I’ve never had the desire to help in this way. I have no connection to Lily Allen, have barely listened to her music. I often thought she looks like a lot of fun. I did know she had a miscarriage about two years ago. And that’s it. I have no idea if she wants my help or needs my help. I have no idea if the use of the word miscarriage to describe her experience bothers her as much as it does me. All I know is that her story, the absolute public announcement of her tragedy, has inspired some unknown desire in me to become her Superman, Batman, or whatever hero she may need.
Maybe my desire to help other women who’ve suffered a stillbirth is because birth has become so medical, has left the hands of midwives and women who would pass this knowledge onto other midwives and women. Stillbirths are not rare, but we don’t talk about them. I have told friends that I feel like the freak show—I’m the person whose baby didn’t live. “I am that thing worse than a cautionary tale: I am a horror story,” wrote McCracken in her memoir, and she got it exactly right. Yes, we’ve experienced and lived through a mother’s worst nightmare, but we lived. And we hurt. And we want people to understand what we’ve been through, to sympathize with us, not look down on us in horror or pity.
It’s a fact that miscarriage is more common than stillbirth, and people are more willing to discuss it openly. But to call the loss of a child at six months gestation a miscarriage is to do a disservice to that child, its mother, and its family. And to do so in such a public fashion, in news wires and entertainment blogs around the world, is simply cruel. And I want to do something about it.
My heart breaks for Lily Allen. My heart breaks for anyone who has lost a pregnancy. My heart breaks for my daughter. My heart is broken. But it will heal. And maybe this desire to help others, to swoop into their rescue, is a sign that it is healing, that I will survive and help others to survive as well. If that’s what I need to do—if, in the spirit of all superheroes, that’s my great responsibility—then so be it.