Tomorrow, my daughter, Charlotte, will turn two. On the eve of this anniversary, I find myself contemplating my mothering journey, humbly marveling at how such a tiny child has changed me so profoundly and permanently. I am deeply thankful for the opportunity to mother Charlotte, though some might find that surprising and unbearably sad.
WHEN CHARLOTTE DIED
On the day of her birth, as her lovely body began its descent into my birth canal, Charlotte died. Her umbilical cord, which was wrapped around her body and tucked under her arm, was clamped when my membranes ruptured. By the time she made her gorgeous entrance, swooping out of me and up onto my belly, her heart had stopped beating. Our beautiful baby lay on my chest without a cry, like a sleeping angel. I like to say that my heart stopped beating for a moment when I saw her, and deep inside, I feel it must have. My love for my baby overwhelmed me; I could feel the miracle of my daughter drowning me. It seemed impossible to face, in the same moment, the beginning and the end of our small family. Yet our journey continues two years later, and I am forever grateful for it.
Charlotte came to us on a warm May day in 2003. My labor had been progressing slowly and steadily, with gentle, soft waves, when I felt the gush of fluid I had been anticipating for nine months. Several hours later, during one of the conversations with our midwife, Julie, I mentioned my concern that I hadn’t felt the baby move since my water had broken. Julie decided to err on the side of caution, and asked us to meet her at our hospital’s birthing center. When we arrived at the hospital, Julie met us immediately and led us to a tiny room at the end of the hall. Her mood was upbeat and unconcerned, but when she failed to find our baby’s heartbeat with the fetal monitor, her face grew serious. She explained that although she was worried, sometimes babies could “hide,” and that she wanted me to have an ultrasound. In came a doctor, who squirted blue jelly on my round, shiny belly, moved the wand around, then moved it some more. I looked at my husband, Greg, not at the doctor, because I could not bear to see the expression on her face. After a moment, she spoke. “I’m sorry. Your baby’s heart isn’t beating anymore. Your baby is no longer alive.”
Although I still remember that moment so vividly, I cannot fully describe my emotions on hearing those words. It was as if we had been sucked into a vacuum—pulled from the earth as we knew it, then returned to a place we could not bear to be. All of our dreams had been crushed. I could not imagine why a tragedy like this would strike me. I feared disappointing our family and friends when I failed to bring home a baby. Above all, I was confused—I would give birth to a baby who had already left me.
PUSHING CHARLOTTE OUT
But, like any birthing mother, I could not stop my body, which was already working to bring my baby forth. We moved to a comfortable birthing suite down the hall, where we put on some beautiful, slow music and prepared to meet our baby. There, we were joined by our second midwife, Sam, and it was not long before I declared that I was ready to push. Sam determined that I was fully dilated.
I felt I was about to push my baby off a cliff. Inside me, she was still mine. But when she was born and failed to cry, I would lose her. I feared that I would then no longer be a mother. Tears flowed down my cheeks, and I felt angry that I had to become a woman who would deliver a baby who had died. I didn’t want to be that person. I looked Sam right in the eye, my heart on fire. “How am I going to do this?”
Sam’s eyes were large, quiet, and brown. She met my stare. She took my hand. “This is going to be the hardest thing you’ll ever do. But you just have to do it.” Her calm voice filled me with courage. Then, for a moment, she left the room. Greg and I were alone with our tears and our unborn baby. We held hands and prepared to meet her.
When I rose to a squat to push out our baby, I could feel my body’s sudden strength and knowing. I was transformed from a stranger to this experience into one woman following in the footsteps of millions of her predecessors. I felt as if iron tethers were anchoring me to the core of the earth as I pushed. I felt in my heart that I was being tied down by a necklace of tears, joining all of the women of history whose efforts had ended in loss. I wondered if I was really having a baby—it felt as if I had already lost my motherhood. The room felt quiet, but a power lingered. After some time, Sam spoke.
MEETING OUR BABY
“Your baby has a lot of hair,” she said. I began to cry. How adorable that this child I could not keep would have hair. Then I felt her head emerge, and then her shoulders, and those two things—her head and shoulders—pulled me from the place I had been sinking into. As I gave the final push, my eyes opened to see my tiny, perfect child gliding out of me into Sam’s gentle, waiting hands. I reached toward my baby, pulled her to my breast, and felt myself lift off the earth.
My baby was very perfect and very real. Her elegant face was sculpted with tiny lips, a button nose, and wide-spaced eyes with tiny, blond lashes. Her hands were long and narrow, her skin as smooth as silk. She had my mouth and Greg’s chin. We had made her. I turned to Greg and said, through tears, “Oh, Greg. Our baby is so beautiful.” We held her together and cried, overcome by the great peace and sweetness of that moment. After some time I looked beneath her tiny, curled leg and realized that this baby of ours was a little girl. Then I dared to dream what might have been: a daughter, a little girl, a woman to share my life with. Greg and I were left alone with our newborn girl, our Charlotte Amelia, whom we loved so dearly. We were left to parent her for one day.
We loved her fiercely that day, memorizing each curve of her body, the smell of her hair, the shape of her fingernails. We bathed her, held her tiny body close against our warm, bare skin. We cut a lock of her thick, dark hair. We invited our families to come and meet her, to witness our small family intact. We took photographs to preserve these moments. A wonderful nurse, Judy, brought us bracelets, crib cards, and footprints with our Charlotte’s name on them. We made agonizing decisions about funeral homes, cremation, and memorials. Finally, at the end of that long day, we said goodbye.
LETTING HER GO AND KEEPING HER FOREVER
I could never fully describe the feeling of watching my child leave me and knowing with great certainty that I would never see her again. I had a pain in my chest, an emptiness and hurt, that engulfed me. When Judy first began to take her away, with our permission, I felt my body begin to shake uncontrollably. I could not bear that this was the beginning of the rest of my life without Charlotte. I cried out—I needed her back—and Judy brought her to me. I buried my face in Charlotte’s little chest and sobbed, telling her again and again how much I loved her. Every ounce of my being longed to keep her, to mother her, to love her here on earth. But I could not.
Somehow, we let Charlotte go. But we refuse to relinquish our daughter entirely. On that day, we realized that the love we felt for our daughter needed to be recognized and celebrated. Her little life could not be in vain, and we knew that we could indeed be her parents, even after she had left us. We invited our friends into our world and shared Charlotte with them through our words and pictures. My milk rushed in and spilled from my body like tears for our lost baby, my body cried out for her in every way, but still we celebrated her—we found the joy in our little girl.
Charlotte brought me the greatest gift I could imagine: she made me a mother. It was through her that I learned a mother’s love, and the passion a mother feels for her child—the urges to protect, to nurture, to nourish. Charlotte had joined my husband and me in an inseparable bond; she had brought me closer to my family of origin and paved the way for us to view our future children in a completely different light. Though our grief work was great and exhausting, Greg and I decided that we would welcome any subsequent children as soon as they should come. They would not replace Charlotte but join her.
CHARLOTTE’S BROTHER, LIAM, COMES
Eleven months to the day after our daughter slipped from our grasp, her brother, Liam, was born with a bellow. Every person in the room was crying with joy, and, as we held him to our hearts, we thanked Charlotte for sending him to us and for teaching us how to love him. In our hearts we knew that, had Charlotte lived, Liam probably would never have been conceived. We felt grateful for him in a deep, sad way that was born out of the pain of Charlotte’s loss. Liam seemed more of a miracle than any other baby in the world—the unexpected result of an unexpected tragedy, a phoenix rising from the ashes of our shattered dreams.
I will never know how I would have cared for Charlotte on earth. But I do know that I mother her in my heart, and Liam here on earth, with a humble, calm, grateful spirit that is the essence of what she left behind. My mothering journey, which began with such heartbreak two years ago, has changed me in ways I could never fully describe. I hold both of my children equally dearly, and I feel they are both deserving of the world’s love and respect. My experience has taught me that a mother’s love for her child can never be replaced or removed, but rather remains part of her forever.
Tomorrow, on her birthday, I will shed tears of pain for my lost daughter. I will grieve each and every day that she was deprived of, and I will mourn once again that the big sister in our family is permanently lost. But I will also reaffirm my promise to continue to mother her in the best way I can—by taking care of myself, by loving her brother and father, and by cherishing all the people in our lives. I will spread her story so that others might hold their children just a bit more tightly. Mothering Charlotte is not easy work, but I would not trade it for the world.
Happy Birthday, my beautiful daughter. I love you, and I will always miss you.
Carol McMurrich lives in Western Massachusetts with her husband, son Liam and daughter Aoife Charlotte, and the spirit of Charlotte Amelia. Carol and her husband, Greg Reynolds, stated the Empty Arms Support Group for others who have experienced infant loss, miscarriage, stillborn or infant death. The Empty Arms Support Group was founded with support from Cooley Dickinson Hospital Childbirth Center Registered Nurses and was awarded the New England Association Directors of Healthcare Volunteer Services President’s Award in 2011.