Eight weeks pregnant, for the second time, I am neck-deep in the frustrating trifecta of symptoms that accompanied my first pregnancy: nausea, exhaustion, and emotional volatility. The room is constantly spinning, I am in perpetual need of a nap, and I’m one wire hanger away from moonlighting as Joan Crawford’s personality clone. These things are hard, as hard as I remembered, maybe more so. The normal first trimester irritations, however, are not the source of my prenatal anxiety. What keeps me up at night is reconciling the tentative happiness of this pregnancy with the terrible sadness of prior loss. My first child, my daughter Talya, died unexpectedly of SIDS at five weeks old. And since her death, everything related to pregnancy, parenting, joy and sorrow is cast in a different light.
I can’t describe – there are no words to describe, not in my lexicon, anyway – the depth of pain I experienced at Talya’s death. It shook my faith in the universe, it compromised my belief in my body, it challenged my desire to move forward – with Talya’s father, with graduate school, with anything. You need to go on, my best friend called in from Texas, perhaps a month after the funeral, so that you can have more children someday. But how could I go on, how could I even consider the fantasy of ever having another baby, when my only child was dead?
Maternal ambivalence is verboten in our culture, which demands that mothers be kind, loving, and entirely devoted, every minute of every day, from the instant of conception onward. From girlhood onward, if we’re being honest. And while I make no claim to being a perfect anything, in her tragically short life, I was entirely committed to Talya, in every way possible.
Yet, when I thought of this second coming, this pregnancy with what many SIDS parents would dub my “rainbow baby,” I felt only the most tentative shred of excitement, coupled with deep fear at the prospect that this baby may die, also, and a lingering feeling that to have, and to hold, and to love another baby would reflect disloyalty to Talya. I loved this fetus, yes, but I also felt quite detached from it. Initially, I wanted the baby to be a boy, and I prayed that the baby would look nothing like Talya. I wanted to cry; I wanted to scream; I wanted to throw up. I wanted to be taken behind the barn and shot.
“Talya would want you to be happy,” my friend Deb insisted over the telephone. Talya would want to nurse and suck on her fingers, my petulant inner monologue went, anytime anyone highlighted how happy she would have wanted me to be. She would not have given a damn about my happiness. She was five weeks old.
And I thought about Talya, and I cried. She only lived for a short time, but she lived fully, seeing the world through the innocent, inquisitive eyes of a newborn. She gained two and a half pounds in her life. She paid close attention to the melody her father tapped out on his upright grand one-handed, cradling her. She was deeply loved.
And I thought about this future offspring, and I cried some more. I thought about all of the things I hoped for in the life of this future baby, as I had done with Talya. I thought about how much I wanted this baby to have a good, happy, beautiful life, full of love.
And while I wondered (and if I’m being honest, I still wonder) will I love this baby as much as I loved Talya? How will I stop myself from inflicting my wounds upon this baby, from stifling him or her with my anxieties related to his sister’s death? How will I honor Talya’s memory while treating her sibling as an individual, not a replacement, but as his beautiful own little person, wholly loved, and complete? How will I continue to share the story of Talya in the world, without letting it overtake me or overwhelm the life of my next child, who is on the periphery of existence, and well on the way to joining us in this world?
Really, I have no idea. Or rather, I am still trying to figure it out. It is a complex process, riddled with difficulties of all kinds – but the challenges are mostly emotional. I don’t believe that this baby was sent by Talya (as many SIDS parents posit about subsequent babies). I know that the challenges are only going to continue as this pregnancy progresses, through and subsequent to this baby’s birth. Every pregnancy is different; every child is different; while bereaved mothers have new babies every day, for me, these waters are not un-navigable, but uncharted.
I only know this: I love this fetus, and I wonder who she or he will become. I contemplate his temperament, and his disposition, and whether he’ll inherit his father’s musical ability or the luminous blue eyes of both grandfathers. The stubbornness and love of books his parents share. His sister Talya’s persistent, watchful gaze. I wonder if he’ll be a good eater, if he’ll be athletic, if he’ll make art. If he has a future as a writer, or a sailor, or – the child of parents avowed to petlessness – a veterinarian.
And I know that I will be a wreck, at times, and that I will worry about everything, but this is the province of parenting. I know that I will embarrass this child as a teenager, and overprotect from the onset of his life and throughout it. I will, I hope, provide him a strong, loving foundation, from which he may launch. I will offer him roots, and wings, love, and stability, and compassion, and fortitude, and hope. My first child only lived on this earth for five weeks, but she offered me my greatest gifts. Through her life, I learned unconditional love, and in her death, she taught me courage. I will impart these gifts to my impending child.
Talya will always be an important part of my story. Her life, and death, impact everything I do, including my public health research on global infant mortality. Nonetheless, Talya will never form part of her younger sibling’s story; the new baby will have his own tapestry to weave. And one day, very far off from now, when he is old enough to understand, my child will learn the story of the older sister he never knew, whose memory lives on in the hearts and minds of those who loved her, and in the life of her family. In the meanwhile, I waddle through this pregnancy, love and trepidation comingling in my heart, my belly growing, my baby’s heartbeat reminding me that in the face of terrible loss, life will never be the same, but in its own way, it does go on.