A Birth, Still

Deep breath. It would seem that I have survived this unscheduled month of “vacation.” I did not, in fact, fall into a deep, dark hole in the absence of all my self-important busyness. I am well. I think some new possibilities have opened in the spaces within; I’m more able to notice and accept some aspects of myself and some things in this (rather fucked-up) world. There’s more space around everything somehow.

I didn’t write or post much of anything marking Rafa’s death/birth day this year. I was in the mountains and at the coast for nearly the whole time. I didn’t feel like I had much to say to the world and was very much deep in my own process (and celebrating Yeyo, as he shares a birthday with his son). What I did notice was a culminating angst in the days leading up to July 30th and 31st, and a palpable sense of relief from August 1st onward. Now, some weeks later, I feel called to share some of my reflections from this time.

Over the past month of marking so many second anniversaries, I’ve spent quite a lot time remembering with incredible detail my experience of labor and delivery. Obviously, it’s a very painful memory (on so many levels) and probably one I’ve chosen consciously not to revisit with any frequency. But, the images and the impressions of those twelve hours just kept coming up for me this year. There can be such power in the experience of birthing a child; power and pain. Because Rafa died, and is not present in our lives in a physical way, I sometimes forget that I actually physically did give birth to his body.

I remember the calm before the storm: the hours between receiving the first dose of misoprostol and when the contractions started. I remember that my midwife gave me acupuncture while I lay on my bed. I remember Yeyo asleep, challenged but resting to face the night ahead. I remember that when hard labor started around 2am, I needed something really hard to press my hands and arms into in order to bear the experience. I remember grasping the bannister in excruciating pain. I remember that I could not hold still. I remember feeling that I was uncontainable, inconsolable.  I remember when the midwife checked my cervix at 4am and said we could drive the hospital. I remember trying to put some pants on and then realizing I needed to just wrap myself in a sarong or sheet. I remember everyone trying to put more clothes on me as we left the house and tearing the jacket from my shoulders screaming “I’m not fucking cold!” I remember truly believing that I was dying during the 15-minute drive to the hospital. I remember begging for pain meds when we arrived, though deep down I knew it was too late. I remember lying on the hospital bed and thinking that this supine position would cause him to come out faster. I remember how much more pain I was in when I was on that bed. I remember asking for forceps. I remember finally getting up and sitting on the birthing stool and how it didn’t help the pain but did help bring him out. I remember Yeyo sitting behind me. I remember that when Rafa’s lifeless body was born, I only felt relief. No sadness. I remember that I did not recognize him as human in those first minutes.

Some weeks after the birth we went to an open house. I was talking with a friend, the mother of a one-year old daughter. She told me about all of the physical challenges she faced with incontinence and post-partum depression following the birth of their child. It was during that conversation that I realized that I too had given birth. That a stillbirth is still a birth. Because it is such a difficult and taboo subject in our society I actually felt that I didn’t have a right to talk about my experience with labor and delivery and even the post-partum time. In fact, I still feel like that. It all seems hung heavy with shame. Obviously, everything is different when there’s no living baby to care for after the birth… but I felt I even censored my own memories of labor and delivery since few other people (even other moms of stillborn babes) seemed willing to talk with me about their experiences. I am deeply grateful for my doula, Julieta, because a year later she shared with me her experience of the birth and the beauty she experienced with Rafa finally was born. The beauty and the agony in a single instant.

Sometimes, I worry that I think about this all too much. That my constant reflection on what happened two years ago isn’t serving me in the here and now. Yes, I gave birth, but it was not the kind of joyful moment that other moms and dads and grandparents and siblings want to remember. So… why is it still so alive for me now? Am I too obsessed with this one experience in my life? Has it got an unhealthy hold on me?

I would like there to be more of a forum in this online space… more of a conversation between women. But mostly it’s just me here, reflecting on myself. Sometimes it feels like a naval-gazing house of mirrors where I’m just driving myself (and possibly my husband) crazy. I am deeply grateful that I realized how important a (mostly) natural, vaginal birth would be for me. And I am thankful for the pain and suffering I endured, as I do believe that it is an essential element in my ongoing healing and my continued desire to work with grief in community, particularly with mothers who lose their children during the perinatal period. But is there a “too far” with all this? Should I… could I… just stop remembering?

Photos by Úrsula Hierra and Yeyo Beltrán.

3 thoughts on “A Birth, Still

  1. Dear Aerin, I came across your blog tonight and wish to offer thanks. I am crying now and broken open once again to the pain of the death of my first born son Lewis. It was the 23rd anniversary of his birth 2 days ago. That sounds like a long time all of a sudden.

    I notice how I still resist using the word stillborn. I didn’t want people to have a reason to dismiss him in their minds. Like because he was already dead when he was born that it was meant to be so. Or any other way his life might be diminished in people’s thoughts. I would say “he died just before he was born”.

    It’s startling, looking back, how huge and long-lasting my grief was. I remember how pure and uncomplicated the pain was. There was no one to blame. I had no parenting mistakes to feel regret over. It was raw and clear.

    After Lewis died, I started a whole dive into grief support work, hospice work, funeral celebrant work. And these days I still run a grief group within the addiction treatment centre where I work. So there’s all that.

    But today, thanks to you and this moment of reflection, I can see how my heart, seasoned and tenderized and able to feel pain deeply, is what makes me who I am and how I show up with people. Lewis taught me that grief is love. I learned how to be unreserved in my loving because of Lewis. And I have expressed that unreserved kind of love in my life and work ever since.

    I offer all this as a deep bow to your experience, your motherhood, your powerful generously shared words, your questions, your longings, your emptiness, your fullness, your World in a Grain of Sand, and your Beloved Rafa.

    with love, Mary McAlister


    1. Dear Mary…

      Many weeks back I wrote a longish response to this beautiful comment that you posted here. And then… the internet did its thing and when I hit “Send,” I got an error message. Since then, I’ve kept your words open on this browser window… not quite sure what I had written before and wishing that the right moment/state of mind would arrive for me to sit back down and try again. I guess that moment is finally here. ; – )

      As I approach the 3rd anniversary of Rafa’s death, it also sounds like a long time to me. Hearing you, I doubt my experience with the conception, gestation, death and birth of our baby will ever feel “far.” I suppose I’ll see and learn. It has been a hard number of weeks here as I approached and passed my birthday. I have a lot of questions churning inside me. It has now been more than 14 months since my last miscarriage. I am curious about what the future holds.

      It’s fascinating to hear your feeling about the term “stillborn.” I really resonate with the term and find some peace in it. In Spanish, there is no word like this and I often feel frustrated when I write in that language because it takes so many words to describe how Rafa was born…

      And yes, I resonate so much with what you say about the grief going on and on…its rawness and clearness… for me, it is still ever-present. While it’s not always hard it can sometimes feel a bit heavy and brings up a lot of questions around my motivation to move through life. But these feelings change and wane and wax and seem to be constantly moving, never “pin-downable.” As you say, our “tenderized and seasoned” and still-grieving hearts have shaped and are still shaping us; they have the capacity to grow more with every passing day and precisely because of our lived experiences.

      Thank you so much for this tender and beautiful message, Mary. I am feeling you fully in my own heart today.



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