The other morning, I was playing with Autumn on the floor. She had a toy where you push a button, or turn a knob, and an animal pops up. It was a new toy, and she was trying to work through how to make each of the animals appear. I would show her, wait a few moments for her to process what had happened, push the animal back down, and wait a few moments again to see if she could figure it out for herself.
Finally, she managed to exert enough force on one of the buttons to make a monkey appear. A big, proud smile flashed across both her face and mine. “Good job!” I praised her, enthusiastically.
As I watched Autumn continue to work on her toy, I had a moment where I thought about Nelle sitting in front of me, with her little mind and fingers at work. All of my children have similar features, so I could picture her with black hair and dark eyes, petite. A smile that would reveal dimples.
I haven’t thought much about Nelle as an older child. The months pass and sometimes I think “She should have been two years old” but I don’t often think about what she would have been doing. It was always limited to “I didn’t bring my baby home” and picturing those first newborn snuggles. Or I would think about the parts of my pregnancy that I missed, that I “should have been eight months pregnant” for Christmas that year.
Autumn has favorite toys, like her piano or anything that makes music. She likes to sleep with a stuffed coffee cup (definitely my child) and her face lights up when her brothers are around. I don’t know what Nelle’s favorite toys would have been. Nelle’s room was going to be teal and coral. Autumn’s room is blue and gray. Autumn is loud and definitive in knowing what she wants. Would Nelle have been equally as verbal, or more reserved?
I watch Theo and Quentin, ages 8 and 6, and how much they dote on her, and wonder how they would have interacted with either Nelle or Iris, since they would have been 6 and 4. Whether the logistics of three children been more simple or more complicated – I don’t know because I never experienced that. I only know what is.
It is easier to picture Nelle sitting in front of me, playing, because I had over five months to dream about my baby being born, unaware that the pregnancy could end differently. Stillbirth at 21 weeks was not something that had ever crossed my mind.
I cannot picture Iris as much, because I was so terrified from the beginning. I rarely allowed myself to believe that we would be bringing her home. I don’t feel guilty about this, because it is the reality of how I processed my pregnancy with Iris. Instead, Nelle is more of an embodiment of both of them: NelleandIris. The family portrait with three children.
The women I have met through my support group are all coming up on a similar timeframe. Friendships seem to form around those that joined that tribe around the “same time.” We often say that Year Two is harder than Year One. The first year are all of the firsts. The second year…. we begin to wonder about who that child would have been. The milestones that we have missed are obvious and concrete, but the little moments – like playing with a favorite toy – are similarly somber.
I started seeing a new therapist this week, and one of the topics I brought up was parenting after loss. I have passed the fears that Autumn will inexplicably stop breathing in the middle of the night. Instead, now it is looking at the baby, always a reminder of the baby we lost and the moments we never got to have.
And ever the contradiction, as I thought about Nelle and looked at Autumn, thinking “If Nelle had lived, you wouldn’t be here.” Lately I have found that saying “I had a stillborn baby” leaves too much at arm’s length – it is an understood, yet clinical term.
Instead I have found myself saying “My baby died.” My. Child. Died. A child I loved and wanted and never got to see grow up.