I pushed open the hospital room door, having to give my eyes time to adjust to the darkness. The lights were off, and the room was surprisingly quiet. I saw my sister, exhausted from childbirth, pushing herself to a sitting position and gripping the handrails. I saw my brother-in-law on the lime green sofa, a poor excuse for a bed. For a split second, I wondered, Maybe the baby isn’t even here. And then I saw the clear bassinet and my newborn nephew sleeping inside, swaddled in a pale blue blanket. My heart seemed to skip a beat.
‘Hi, Jackie. I wasn’t sure if you were going to come,’ my sister said, attempting to sound casual. The truth was that I wasn’t planning on visiting. I wasn’t planning on even seeing my nephew or my sister. I just didn’t think that my heart could bear to see her happiness.
“Hi, Jackie. I wasn’t sure if you were going to come,” my sister said, attempting to sound casual.
The truth was that I wasn’t planning on visiting. I wasn’t planning on even seeing my nephew or my sister. I just didn’t think that my heart could bear to see her happiness.
“I won’t stay long,” I replied. But then my eyes rested on my nephew’s face and the traditional knit hat that every newborn in the hospital system receives. I surprised everyone, including myself, when I asked, “Can I hold him?”
I could see that my sister was blinking back tears as she nodded, “Of course.”
My brother-in-law carefully picked up the baby into his arms then placed him in mine. I was surprised at the weight. My Richard was much smaller and lighter. I looked into his face. He was still sleeping, but I could tell that he was going to wake up soon. His eyes were moving beneath his eyelids, his face scrunching, his lips moving, in search of milk. I could feel his little body wiggle in my arms.
I began to sob and said, “I never got any of this with Richard.”
I never got to see my son open his eyes. I never got to see him root for my breast. I never got to feel his body move in my arms. I never got to hear him cry.
The first time I held my son was after his time of death had already been called. I said hello and goodbye at the same time.
When I was five, my sister told me that I was an alien and that our parents didn’t want me to find out. I nodded in disbelief and agreed not to reveal the secret that I had learned. When I was seven, she told me that babies came out of our belly buttons. I cautiously pulled up my shirt and wondered how an entire baby could come out of there. When I was 13, she repeatedly rearranged the clothes in my drawers because she knew it drove me crazy. I would barge through the house, ready to scream at her, only to find her giggling to herself.
As my sister and I grew up, our age gap of seven years seemed to grow smaller. I went from the annoying kid sister to the friend to call to talk through a problem. When we lost our father in September 2015 and then both became pregnant with sons a short time later, we became even closer.
Upon learning she was pregnant, she called me, crying, worried that she would not be a good enough mother.
“How am I going to do this? I’m not ready.”
I responded, “You might not feel ready, but you can do this. You’re going to be an amazing mom.”
She cried loudly: “That’s easy for you to say. You’re so prepared. You’re going to be great.”
I assured her: “Remember that we’re in this together. We can spend maternity leave together. We can sit on the couch with our babies and just commiserate together. You won’t be alone. This will be good, I promise.”
When I left for work on a Monday morning in May 2016, I glanced over at the chalkboard sign on the kitchen table that read, “Baby arrives in 6 weeks!” I smiled and rubbed my large belly. Six weeks felt so incredibly close, but we were almost ready: the nursery was nearly done, we had all of our gifts from the baby shower, and we had purchased a new car to fit our family of three.
But at 11:07pm that evening, our son, Richard, was born. After several failed Nonstress Tests and hours of monitoring, I had to have an emergency C-section.
We later learned that despite the NICU team’s herculean efforts, he died from heart failure because of a fetal maternal hemorrhage.
When the doctor, holding back tears, asked if I wanted to hold him, I could only nod. I had dreamed of holding my son for the first time, but this had become my nightmare. I could not believe that this was our reality.
When the doctor, holding back tears, asked if I wanted to hold him, I could only nod. I had dreamed of holding my son for the first time, but this had become my nightmare. I could not believe that this was our reality. He looked absolutely perfect with a full head of hair, so how was he dead? What was wrong with my body? Why couldn’t it keep Richard safe? Wasn’t that what it was created to do?
When it was time to move me to my hospital room, I passed our families in the waiting room. I saw my sister sitting there, her growing belly on display, trying to make eye contact with me. I shook my head and looked at my hands instead.
In the weeks afterward, I ignored her text messages and phone calls. Just the sight of her name on the screen was enough to send me into an emotional spiral. I would curl into a ball and scream as loudly as I could. The pain was so excruciating, like I couldn’t stand to be in my own skin anymore. I rocked back and forth, my fingernails digging into my arms, leaving red half-moon imprints.
I finally answered her call one day and said, “I cannot talk to you. I just can’t. It is too painful. I’m so sorry. I hope it isn’t always like this.”
She was stunned, silent, then finally said, “I understand. I’m sorry, Jack. I love you.”
What helped the most with my sister is that she listened to me. She gave me time. She gave me space. Although she was hurting, she recognized that I was hurting, too. I began taking small steps toward rebuilding our relationship.
What helped the most with my sister is that she listened to me. She gave me time. She gave me space. Although she was hurting, she recognized that I was hurting, too. I began taking small steps toward rebuilding our relationship. We started texting and then began talking on the phone. Whenever it became too much for me, I would tell her so and end the conversation. She never got angry or pushed for more. She let me take the lead, and I needed that.
When we spoke, she let me talk, completely unfiltered. I could tell her about my pain and my anger, and she would regularly use Richard’s name. She allowed me to tell my story, and she became one of my safest spaces. Even to this day, she holds that role.
She also gave me the strength to tell my story and use it to help others.
As I dealt with my grief, I realized that I had two identities: teacher and Richard’s mom.
We often talk about the teaching profession as a “calling,” which leads many of us to sacrifice our own well-being for the sake of our students. We put the job first and our needs second or even third. But we are also people that dream of becoming parents. Some struggle to build a family. So many teachers have suffered in silence.
When I reflect on my family-building experiences of a missed miscarriage, an infant loss, two high-risk pregnancies, and a NICU stay, I remember the immense isolation I felt. I would try to talk to those around me, and they would offer well-meaning platitudes, but they just made me feel even more alone. I wished I had a group of people that understood my journey.
I founded my organization, Start Healing Together, to support educators experiencing pregnancy loss and infertility. If we put ourselves and our family-building needs first, we can work toward shattering the stigmas. If we normalize conversations about infertility and loss, we can create a supportive community.
Part of my personal support community is my sister. When I became pregnant again, she acknowledged how scary pregnancy after loss must be for me. We talked about the conflicting emotions of sadness and excitement. And almost exactly one year after her son’s birth, I gave birth to my first daughter.
I dreamed of watching our sons playing together, chasing each other in superhero costumes. Instead, I watch her son take my daughter by the hand and lead her to the tallest slide at the playground. I watch our youngest daughters, only two months apart, attempting to communicate through a series of jumbled words and gestures. As we stand on the playground together, we talk about Richard and what he would be doing if he were here right now. She tells me that she just talked about him the other day while at the grocery store. I know that she tells his story often to remind people going through similar struggles that they are not alone. I am thankful to have such a strong advocate by my side as I work toward supporting other parents like me.
Jackie Mancinelli is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She is the founder of Start Healing Together, an organization dedicated to supporting educators experiencing pregnancy loss and infertility. She is also the New Jersey Ambassador for Count the Kicks. Follow Start Healing Together on Instagram and Facebook, and check out the website.
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