Carrying Love and Loss in Equal Parts
by Lindsay Mitchell, of The Returnity Project
To say I had a difficult pregnancy is an understatement. After suffering a miscarriage with my first pregnancy, I found myself pregnant with twins on our second try. Oddly enough, most of my adolescent dreams about becoming a mom had centered around a slight obsession with having boy/girl twins. So when we found out we were indeed pregnant with two, I was elated. And then, when we found out there was a little boy, and a little girl in my belly, I was in sheer disbelief. On the one hand it felt unbelievable. On the other hand, somewhat fated.
At 21-weeks pregnant, the best thing that had ever happened to me had quickly become the worst. We tragically lost our son —which put his sister, Sloane, at risk too. The devastation was indescribable. The entire situation felt like a cruel joke. My pregnancy was immediately classified as “high-risk”, and I spent the next 13-weeks on "house arrest" doing everything humanly and medically possible to keep Sloane alive, and inside of my belly for as long as possible.
I went from measuring my pregnancy against various sizes of produce, to tracking my progression against preemie survival rates. Every Sunday that passed successfully, was celebrated. Reaching the 24-week-mark meant viability. Reaching 29 weeks meant a 95% survival rate. Getting to at least 34 weeks was our North Star.
I spent the rest of my pregnancy feeling things I couldn’t understand. The devastation of loss and the excitement of life. The fear of getting my hopes up, sharing her name, getting excited. The anxiety around having to tell people who asked how “the twins” were, that there was just one now.
Eventually, we started to create a nursery. Eventually, I let my mom talk me into having a baby shower. I dreaded my weekly visits to the Perinatologist, but eventually found them reassuring. I never realized that most parents only have 1 or 2 sonogram photos of their babies. We have an entire collection.
On the eve of turning 34-weeks, I started feeling uncomfortable, itchy, and unsettled. And 17-hours later, on the day she turned 34-weeks old, my sweet girl was born: Four pounds, 18 ounces, six weeks premature, and perfect. I sobbed the second I heard her first cry — a culmination of all of the grief and worry I had held in for weeks on end. I had a healthy perfect baby girl, and for the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to feel joyful. It was undeniable that Sloane and I were an unstoppable team — we had gotten to the finish line together.
On the day I said hello to my perfect daughter, I also said goodbye to my son. Though he had stopped growing weeks before, I had to carry him for my entire pregnancy. The juxtaposition of emotions we experienced that day truly cannot be put into words. We spent the next two-weeks at the hospital, caring for Sloane in the NICU, and attending to her needs was a needed distraction. When they brought us the forms to fill out for her birth certificate, we checked the box for “single” baby. The hospital made us change it to “twin,” because technically, that's what she is. I hadn’t thought about if or how I’d tell Sloane about her story, but having her carry this with her on her birth certificate weighed heavy on me. One day we’d have to tell her. And how would we be able to share the grief of our loss without making her feel like she alone wasn't enough? To us, she is everything. I already began dreading it.
Most of my maternity leave wasn’t spent thinking about my loss, but instead, focusing on my daughter and how much joy and purpose she brought me. Though I couldn’t see it then, a big part of my struggle with going back to work centered around a loss of control. During my pregnancy, I went to extremes to control what I could in a situation where I felt utterly helpless. As an example, I cut out any and all food pregnant women are told to avoid. Even decaf coffee, just to be safe. Once Sloane was here, continuing to have control over her care made me feel in charge of both of our destinies. And going back to work meant giving up complete control over the majority of her day. And I panicked.
I know how incredibly lucky I am, and I don’t take that for granted, not for a second. I have a perfect daughter, who is the absolute light of my life. And I know not everyone is as fortunate. She’s strong, already having endured and survived an incredible amount before she was even born. While I was pregnant, I worried I’d never be able to look at my daughter, without seeing my son too. But that’s far from the truth. However, it’s hard to know how to handle such joy and such loss, at once. Such love and such heartache. I probably should have (and still should) spent time speaking with a mental health professional. Because I don’t think we’re naturally equipped to know how to handle loss. Especially the loss of a child.
While most of my moments and days are spent relishing in every single thing my daughter says and does, there are moments that catch me. I was checking in at the airport a few weeks ago, and had to go up to an agent to get Sloane a lap child ticket. The agent looked over Sloane’s birth certificate, and exclaimed, “Oh, she’s a twin!”. My body tensed, throat closed up and tears flew from my eyes instantly. “Ya, kind of” was all I could think of saying. I raced away from that ticket desk as quickly as possible. I couldn’t believe how emotional that moment had made me. How immediately and automatically my body reacted, mourned that comment. I think about that interaction often, and I can’t shake it.
I give myself moments to think about my son, and when I do, I look up at the stars. We bought a star for my son, as a way to always keep him with us. I have the coordinates printed and framed in my daughter’s room. One day, when she’s old enough, we’ll tell her about her brother. And let her know that he’s always with her, and watching down on her.
To anyone who has experienced loss, in one form or another, know you're not alone. Know that everyone has a story. The more we open up and share, the less alone we'll all feel.
Lindsay Mitchell is a mom and marketer living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Ryan, daughter Sloane and golden retriever, Roo. She’s the cofounder of The Returnity Project, and is passionate about supporting women as they return to work from maternity leave. The Returnity Project is a storytelling platform, built around a community of real women sharing their stories about returning to work, and the life that happens in between. Follow them on Instagram and share your story today.