By Jenn Elfner
A Web Exclusive
When I reflect on my pregnancy with my daughter, there were subtle signs, ones only I myself could recognize - signs that all was not right. When I was pregnant with my first child, Drew, I was convinced that he was a boy after a vivid dream ten weeks into my pregnancy. Without any ultrasound to tell me, I instinctively knew his gender as well as having some thoughts about what type of child he would become. It was so strange to me then, when I became pregnant with my second child, that I could never get a grasp on anything about my new baby. No dreams about gender, no ideas about disposition, no ideas about anything. It haunted me that I didn't feel close to this child, and I had no idea why I just couldn't make that connection.
Before we ever started trying to get pregnant, my husband Nate and I decided that homebirthing was right for us. We really felt that birthing should be done in an intimate setting where both parents would feel safe and supported, and for us that was our home. We ended up having our son at a hospital, but not due to any complications. After over 40 hours of labor I was exhausted, and asked to transfer to the hospital for some pain relief (Nubain) to help me rest for a bit. Drew arrived five hours later, and we joyously drove ourselves home soon after to start living our new life together.
Our midwives, Nina and Kelley, assured us that second babies usually come quicker than the first (although no promises!), and we should be able to have the homebirth that we so wanted. My pregnancy went smoothly, and besides the added strain of chasing a two-year old around the house, I felt great after the morning sickness had passed.
I began to have a few dreams about going into pre-term labor sometime around the beginning of my third trimester. I told myself that all women had these anxieties—everything was going to be just fine. You don't want to believe that anything could actually go wrong with your pregnancy; it is always easier to believe that bad things only happen to other people. Bad things started happening.
Driving home from a midwifery checkup at 34 weeks, I began to have some mildly painful contractions. I tried to reassure myself that my uterus may have been irritated during a deep external exam on my belly—we were trying to make sure that the baby was in the head down position. I had gone through labor before, and I knew these were not Braxton-Hicks contractions. Throughout that evening and on to the next my contractions continued at around ten minutes apart. My midwives urged me not to jump to conclusions. With a little relaxation and good luck, they might stop and my pregnancy could still go to full-term with no complications.
That hope faded away when I discovered bloody show on the second day. Sitting on the toilet crying and scared, Nate and I called the midwives to tell them the news. "We need to get you in to see the doctor", said Nina. Her words were calmly spoken, but I felt nothing but cold dread. This wasn't going to be the happy ending that we were hoping to have. I packed my bag with several nightgowns and some books, thinking that I would be put on bed rest for the next several weeks.
An ultrasound told us the bad news: very little amniotic fluid. The doctor assumed that my water must have broken at some point, and I had just not noticed. This was confusing—how do you miss your water breaking? What it meant was that I needed to be induced as soon as possible, so that we could safely deliver the baby. At the hospital I received Cytotec to ripen and dilate my cervix, and after four hours I was 3cm dilated and having good regular contractions.
I was so scared. My mind was racing ahead thinking of all the complications that could come with a pre-term baby, and how our life would be impacted by having to spend the long weeks ahead driving back and forth between our toddler and our new baby in the NICU. I asked for an epidural when I was 5-6cm; I just could not handle the pain of the contractions and my fear of this pre-term labor. My friend and doula, Joy, decided that I needed a good cry—and she was right! After crying hard and talking about my fears out loud, I felt much more in control and a little excited about the baby coming.
My midwives were right on the money in predicting that my second labor would be much quicker. After only ten hours of labor, I pushed out my little Greta Ruth Corrine Elfner—a 5 lb 7 oz GIRL! The NICU nurses were in the room to help with the delivery, as was mandatory for a 34-week old baby. Nate proudly cut the cord, and we passed her over to the NICU team to check her over. Our first indication that anything was out of the ordinary was hearing one of the nurses yell into the intercom, "Get me more people. Get anyone from the NICU over here now!" Nate and I stared in disbelief as they worked to restart her heart, and then proceeded to place a breathing tube down her throat. They then took her off to the NICU to work on her breathing situation and get her stabilized. I felt strongly that I wanted one of us to be with her, so Nate went with Greta and held her small hand.
I remember watching the NICU doctor and my OB walk into the room together; I knew the news wasn't going to be good. He tried to explain to us that they just didn't know why she wasn't breathing correctly, and that they were sending for specialists to exam her. He gave us his unofficial diagnosis: Potter's Syndrome. Technically it means that she never developed kidneys or a bladder, and this would explain why there wasn't much amniotic fluid on the ultrasound. Babies produce a large amount of their own amniotic fluid, through their urine, and Greta would never have been able to do that. Her breathing problems stemmed from the compression that is created when there are low amniotic fluid levels. A baby's lungs, as well as other body parts, need proper space to expand and grow to fully develop. As the NICU doctor walked out of our room, we still didn't feel like we understood the situation. My doctor spelled it out for us; this condition meant that she was going to die, and probably very soon. The NICU doctor's initial diagnosis was quickly confirmed; Greta had Potter's Syndrome.
We cried. Of course we cried. But these were unlike any I had ever experienced in my lifetime. These were great shaking sobs that tore out of my chest, and spilled out as shrieks and wails. After some of the shock and grief had subsided, I whispered to my husband that I wanted to just hold Drew. Knowing that I was going to lose Greta made me desperate to be with my little boy. Feeling the enormity of the situation, we both called our parents and asked them to come to the hospital to be with us.
Finally we were allowed into the NICU to hold our daughter. With a tube down her throat and monitors here and there, it was hard to handle her. We held and rocked our sweet little girl, and told her how much she was wanted and loved. My husband, who I had always thought of as a kind and sensitive man, now showed me just how strong he was. It takes a courageous person to fully live in every moment, even the heartbreaking ones. He gave her Eskimo Kisses, something he always does with our son, and memorized every part of her little face. It both broke my heart, and filled it with joy! After about an hour, we removed her breathing tube and let her slide quietly back into eternity.
The kind and knowing nurses helped to guide us through the process of losing a baby. We bathed her, and dressed her in the tiny outfit we had packed for her trip home. Our families helped us to take pictures of her cradled in our arms, ones that have now been looked at a thousand times. It was such an unreal time in my life, walking out of that hospital with an empty belly and no baby in my arms. We rushed to pick up our son, and once home we dove into our bed and hugged him to us as we all fell asleep together.
We decided to plan a simple memorial for Greta at our home, and bury her cremated ashes under a new Burr Oak tree in our yard. Having her finally come home was so important to us. Celebrating her arrival and passing with a Flower Offering and memorial with all of our friends and family helped us to reflect on all of the love we have in our life. While preparing for her memorial, we came across a Zen proverb that captured for us the birth and death of our daughter.
The morning glory that blooms for an hour
Differs not at heart
From the giant pine that lives for a thousand years.
There are events in our lives, both big and small, that work to teach us what our souls are trying to learn; this was one of my moments. Losing her taught me so much, but nothing more important than empathy. After Greta's death, I have found myself looking at people and wondering what hardships they had in their life. I have been so moved to hear other people tell me the struggles they have had to endure. I have also been deeply touched by the extent to which friends, family and others in our community went to help our family. From baking casseroles to helping with our medical bills, we were surrounded by loving support.
Nate and I shared a conversation right before our son was born, and it resurfaces in my mind often these days. We spoke about how having children was going to require that we put our hearts out on the line, and that we would forever be intensively vulnerable to heartache. Having now gone through such a sorrow, I can say with certainty that we made the right decision to have children. Greta was my greatest heartache, but she was also one of my greatest joys.
Jenn Elfner is a stay-at-home mom who helps run the family's landscape & organic lawn care business, and practices massage therapy in her "spare time". She and her husband, Nate, have a 3 &1/2 year old son, Drew, and joyously welcomed their third child, a little girl named Rory, this past August.