I was 37 when my husband, Chris, and I decided to have a baby. We both had successful careers; I was a copywriter at a major New York agency and he worked for a multinational bank. We had great seats at the Metropolitan opera and been to London and Paris. It was time for a family.
It didn’t take more than a couple of months for me to get pregnant, but because I was over 35, my doctor advised me to have an amniocentesis test for chromosomal abnormalities in the fetus. I took the test at 16 weeks into my pregnancy, and seven weeks later, my doctor called with the results: “I’m sorry, but we can’t let you have this baby.” Our unborn child had Down syndrome.
Chris and I both agreed to end the pregnancy. My doctor told me to eat and drink whatever I wanted and to take Valium if I thought it would help. Three days later, I checked into the hospital where they injected me with prostaglandin to induce labor and after many hours I pushed out a dead baby boy. “Don’t look,” the nurse said, but how could I not look? Even without my contact lenses I could see that he had ears, fingers, arms and toes. The doctor showed him to my husband to demonstrate that the baby had what’s known as a palmar crease, a single unbroken line in the palm of the baby’s hand that confirmed he had Down’s.
I’d been bothered by my doctor’s statement and confronted him three weeks later when I was more coherent: “Why did you say, ‘We can’t let you have this baby’? It wasn’t your decision to make.”
“You’re absolutely right,” he answered. “I was trying to make it easier on you. Some women don’t want to feel responsible for making that choice, and it seems to be easier on them if I say that.”
He told me that the odds of having a healthy baby were still in my favor. “I’d go to Las Vegas with those odds,” he added. So, after four months, I got pregnant again. Then one afternoon, eleven weeks before my due date, my water broke. My doctor was out of town and I spoke to the covering obstetrician. “Try not to go into labor,” he said. “The baby has a very small chance of survival at this time.” I didn’t know how to try not to go into labor. Pinch my legs together real tight? Do Kegels? I stayed in bed all day and night trying not to move, feeling frightened and helpless, afraid to even get up and go to the bathroom. It didn’t work.
The next morning I started to feel contractions, and Chris and I went back to the hospital, this time to have an emergency C-section. This time I gave birth to a tiny, dark-haired baby girl. They showed her to me for a moment and then whisked her away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The following morning the doctor came into my room looking very somber and said, “I’m so sorry.”
My baby had died overnight. I didn’t know what to say; I was too stunned to even feel anything. Or if I did feel it, it was stuffed so far down I didn’t know about it yet. It was too early for Chris to be there, so I just lay in my bed and cried with my eyes closed. I had to stay in the hospital until I could walk up and down the hall on my own. It took almost a week. Friends and people from work came to visit me – a lot of them sent flowers.
One evening, when Chris and a pal from work were in my hospital room, I looked around and said, “There are so many flowers here you’d think somebody had died.” They looked at me in amazement. I meant of course that I was still alive. That’s how I dealt with the death of another baby – I didn’t think about it. Instead, I focused on getting out of the hospital.
My doctor reassured me, again, that there was nothing wrong with me physically and what happened was just a fluke. So I got pregnant again. I was anxious about the health of the baby – it was always on my mind, but all I could do was take my prenatal vitamins, eat well and sleep. Everything else was out of my control.
One afternoon, four months into my pregnancy, Chris and I went to the Metropolitan Museum. There’s a beautiful little pool there in front of the Temple of Dendur where people toss in coins to make a wish. Instead of throwing in a mere penny or dime, I emptied my pockets and Chris’s because my wish was so big. I wished for a healthy baby with 23 pairs of chromosomes. And it worked.
The amniocentesis came back fine. It was a girl, and she was due on October 21st. I figured if I could avoid going into labor until September 1st she would be developmentally far enough along to survive. On August 30th I started to feel contractions. My doctor told me to drink an ounce of alcohol every time I had a contraction; alcohol would slow down contractions and stimulate the development of the baby’s lungs. I called Chris at work, and he came home to start tending bar. It had to be straight alcohol, a shot of gin or vodka, not a mixed drink like a Mimosa.
By late afternoon I was pretty drunk, but I still couldn’t get the drinks down fast enough to keep up with the contractions. I called my doctor who said, “Come into the hospital now and we’ll find another way to get the alcohol into you. You’ll be OK as long as your water doesn’t break.” But it did, the moment I stood up. Chris and I took a cab to the hospital.
My doctor decided against another C-section, so I took a crash course in natural childbirth and baby Katherine was born 38 minutes after our arrival, seven weeks premature. She was so small she practically flew out of me. And it was amazing to see her; she was absolutely perfect with long eyelashes, ten fingers and ten toes.
Years later, when I was finally able to confront the feelings I had about my obstetrical nightmares, I remembered something I’d read by Walter Wriston, former CEO of Citicorp. He said, “The thing all successful people have in common is they’ve all had a lot of failures.”
After a week she had grown enough to come home. Everyone was ecstatic about her arrival but surprised at how tiny she was. When I held her in my lap, cradling her head in my left hand, her feet just reached the crook of my arm. “But she’s in scale,” I pointed out. She was perfect.
* Today my daughter is a Brown graduate. Though she does in fact have a form of ADHD, she is healthy and still my perfect child. Although this happened in 1979, and medical advice may be different today, the decision to have or not have a child with Down syndrome is a very personal one. I hope my story gives parents who’ve suffered through difficult pregnancies the hope and courage they need to make the decision they feel is best for them.