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Ode: When a baby is stillborn

Caroline River


I was 37 weeks pregnant when I noticed my baby had all but stopped moving. At first, I thought maybe he’s just getting bigger and has less room, but something didn’t feel right. It was the day after Thanksgiving 2014, and I just stayed in bed. I didn’t want to get up because I knew, once I put my feet on the floor, the day was going to start and my life would never be the same.

While the kids made breakfast, I finally pulled myself from the snarled sheets and did all the things you’re supposed to do get a baby to move in the womb. I drank juice. I ate honey. I took a shower. I rolled around on the floor and gently poked my stomach.

Where I once feltElliott’s tiny feet kicking my internal organs, I now felt nothing.

It was time to call the midwife.

She came over to the house with her fetal Doppler. I had just seen her for a weekly appointment on Tuesday, and everything was fine. But now, three days later, as she moved the wand around my bulging belly, she couldn’t find a heartbeat. I didn’t look at her because I didn’t want to read what was on her face.

After about 10 minutes of searching for signs of life, we rushed to the hospital where a nurse tried to find a heartbeat and couldn’t. She called in someone else who couldn’t find it. Finally, they brought in the ultrasound tech – this little blonde girl who couldn’t have been older than 19. She looked at the monitors and her eyes grew wide. She obviously had not been trained how to manage her feelings because she started crying and shaking her head.

I went through this with my home birth midwife by my side. My husband was in the waiting room with the kids because we’re not from here and didn’t have any friends or family to call to watch them in a pinch. Meaning now, I had the responsibility of telling him that our son was gone.

He had lost his dad and his two brothers to a hereditary disease. He was the only one who didn’t get it. From the age of 7 to 21, family members were in some stage of sickness, drawing closer to death. I was not prepared to give him more bad news.

He came into the labor and delivery room, expecting an emergency C-section, not another loss.

My birth plan was an all-natural home birth with a doula. Line by line, everything was getting scratched off the list. The only thing left was that I didn’t want another C-section, so the doctor induced labor.

It progressed really quickly and my midwife came back for the pushing part of it. I still remember my skewed perspective as I watched all of these people watch this horrible thing happen like a train wreck. I felt so sorry that they had to see it.

A knot in the umbilical cord had cut off his blood flow and oxygen. There was no way to prevent it. It was the answer that I needed.

When Elliott was born, he looked like he was wearing lipstick. I kept thinking that he would take a breath, fill his lungs with air and cry like babies do. But he didn’t. In that uncomfortable moment, I joked that he was my little drag baby because of his perfect cherry red lips. No one knew how to react. Should they laugh? Should they cry? Nothing seemed right.

My 8-year-old daughter held her sweet sleeping brother. She was prepared for us not to come home with him, but what could I say to my 18-month-old son? How would I explain the empty playpen, the unused baby clothes, the empty car seat? Abram was super invested in mommy’s big belly and eager to meet his little brother. I was scared of the questions he might ask, and I didn’t know what he could possibly comprehend.

At last, I had no choice but to go into the house that still smelled like Thanksgiving dinner. I was greeted by the sight of my doula, who was supposed to help during the throes of home birth, sitting in my kitchen feeding my son. It looked like she had always been there even though I barely knew her. That morning, she was the most important, truest, best friend I could ever hope to have.

The following days, weeks and months, that awkward silence from the labor and delivery room carried over into everyday life. Since I didn’t have a bouncing baby boy on my lap, no one asked those chit-chatty questions about when Elliott was born or what he weighed or how long I was in labor.

I still wanted to talk about him. I carried him for nine months.

Each time I told my story, I felt like a wolf howling at the moon, mourning the loss of the forest I called home. As my cries went out, other wolf mothers came to my side and my pack started to grow. They helped me see that there was no time but now to start again. So I dug holes and dropped my dreams in like seedlings and waited to see what would sprout from the ashes.

Today my life is so full. Strong but gentle branches hang over my head, protecting me, while still letting through the guiding light.

Even though Elliott was stillborn, I look back on that birth experience with really positive memories because of the connections I made with the women who helped me. I thought if I can give that to one other woman, I want to do that.

I got certified to become a birth and bereavement doula. That led me to yoga, and I started yoga teacher training. My life has purpose, and Elliott’s does too.

I’m not happy that I lost my son, but I’ve found incredible healing through that loss. It’s almost like all of these beautiful things were laid out for me by him. Those are the moments when he’s with me, and I’m proud to be his mom.


Caroline Riveraworks as a doula. She also teaches classes at Evolve Yoga and Wellness Center. She lives in Sioux City with her husband and four children.


 Ode presents an evening of true stories, told live outside at Koffie Knechtion, 419 Golf Road, in South Sioux City at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 23. Storytellers will share personal essays crafted around the theme "Just Work." Admission is $10. 


For more information, visit Ode on Facebook. Click here to listen to stories from past events, recorded and broadcast by Siouxland Public Media.

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