Sunday, November 30, 2008

Still, but Born


I never, ever put those two words together.

But more than that, I never put the words


together, and put them into a sentence with my daughter's name in it.

Why? It's true. That is the technical term for what happened. It's here in Webster's:

stillborn: adj; dead when born
stillbirth: n. 1. the birth of a stillborn fetus 2. such a fetus

Now, I realize that is what happened. But look at that definition. I can hardly take it, this other term they use: fetus. She was nothing but a fetus to them, just a fetus. This full grown, seven pound, dark haired, healthy girl-fetus. We were all those, once. Only when we were born, we got to be called a baby. My child: a fetus. A stillbirth. I hate those words.

They degrade my child, to my ears, they lower her status from baby to something other-than; they make her less of a real thing and more of a term. Calling her stillborn puts her into a statistical category; she becomes something familiar. It is insulting.

After all, we've all heard about a baby being stillborn. We've read about it in books from the old days, when labors were longer and there were no doctors and it happened more often. The baby was stillborn, and the midwife would take her and wrap her in a cloth and she wouldn't let the mother see. The child was never named, and the mother was encouraged to quickly forget.

So should I be doing that? Forgetting? I think not. Being fixed on not forgetting is part of what I do, I think, when I say she died during the birth. This is, of course technically true: she did die during the birth, and by saying this I get to avoid calling her stillborn. We don't forget anymore. So I don't use that old word.

Sometimes I wonder whether my absolute refusal to use the word (and I can tell you with absolute certainty that I have never in my life referred to Charlotte as stillborn) is a form of denial. I don't want her to die. I don't want that to have happened to her. I think there is also a piece of me that is latching onto the fact that in our society, if your baby takes even a breath, even lives for one minute or two hours or a day or a few weeks, suddenly it all seems so much more legitimate to everyone that you get to miss that baby. Somehow, when it is so clear, when I say stillborn, that she never took a breath, it's as if she never happened. When I say that she died during the birth, it's almost as if I'm trying to prove just how close she got to life, even though she just missed it by a hair.

This is of course highlighted by the paperwork, in that of course she cannot have a real birth certificate, only a death certificate. And yes, yes. I do have the Certificate of Birth Resulting in Stillbirth; which you have to apply separately for later on because it doesn't happen automatically. But it's still not a birth certificate. She still never had life to them, she never existed on paper. It breaks my heart.

This is part of why I loved recording the StoryCorps interview with Greg yesterday, because we talked extensively about Charlotte, and now she is archived in the Library of Congress. You can't look her name up as someone who was really born but you can hear all about her if you go to the Folklife Center. At least she is somewhere.

Lastly, I will throw one more term into the pot: two words I found scrawled at the bottom of my discharge slip. They cut into me like a cattle brand, they seared my heart, sucked my baby down into a whirlpool.

Fetal demise.

I don't even need to write about this. How would you feel if someone called your baby this, even if you knew it was true? Her name was Charlotte Amelia. Please call her that.

What words get you?


Hope's Mama said...

Carol I love you. I know your loss was a lot longer ago than mine (well mine was like five minutes ago, really) but I hear all of what you are saying. A friend sent me an email in the initial aftermath and it said something like "I know someone else who had a stillborn". I wanted to put my fist throuh my laptop. I didn't have a STILLBORN I had a baby, who because of a complete medical cock up when I was at the finish line, did not survive my labour. If said friend's dad had cancer I wouldn't call him her Cancer. He is her dad. Grrr.
And I saw the term fetal demise on some of my paperwork the other day. Fetal demise in utero. I could have thrown up. She was my baby. She was real. She lived in me for 40 weeks and 4 days. She was born at 40 weeks and 5 days. I have spent more time pregnant than many people I know, yet I have nothing to show for it. Although one thing I do have is a birth certificate. We still get them here in Australia. However, we don't get a death certificate. If they die inside you, that doesn't count. If she took one breath, she would count and I'd get that extra bit of paperwork, too.
She will always be Charlotte Amelia to me Carol xo

wandering mom said...

Bless you and your honesty and thank you for the passionate way you express yourself years after your experience. It warms my heart to read your honest, sincere, and profound words.

Your willingness to share is inspiring. My son was born and still four years ago. Some people imply or infer that four years is enough time to "move on", I find these sentiments are most often expressed by those who have not experienced a loss themselves.

Your words help make a painful reality that much more gently acceptable.

Peace to you and sincere desire for you to find your new sense of what it means to be "whole".

kris said...

Carol, know that from the first day I heard you speak about her, Charlotte has been very real to me. She most certainly existed, and continues to exist in her way.

Melanie said...

When you first mentioned StoryCorps, I figured you made a private recording on the National Day of Listening, but it sounds like you did an 'official' StoryCorps recording. I wish I were so brave. I imagine it was an exhausting, yet somehow satisfying experience.

Please let us know if your recording makes it on the air. I'm a huge StoryCorps junkie and I just love listening (and usually crying) to the stories.

Sarah Bain said...

Carol, my second worst day after Grace died was when the hospital offered to deliver the pictures of Grace to our house. I was so thankful I didn't have to go back to the hospital.

When the doorbell rang, I answered it and a man handed me a package and said, "Here are your fetal demise pictures."

I literally slumped down and didn't know what to do next.

He drove off on his happy, merry way.

I will never forget that. EVER!

THAT GIRL said...

I am guilty. I use those words in my work, and, I have never liked it, and hope I never do. Yes, there are health care workers who are very cold or desensitized to painful situations, and forget that the patient is not a case, or another night's work.

My patients are not my "job". They are people. My babies are not a fetus... they are a person with a future, though the length of that future is not in my hands.

I have often been conflicted in my job when a woman is foul and inappropriate in her labor, and then loves her baby passionately. Maternal love supercedes time and time again even our own life circumstances.

I guess, what I'm trying to tell you is that I hope I am never... ever... that nurse who doesn't discount the labor of love you have experienced to birth your baby. I hope I never lose heart strings attatched to my most difficult and to my most tender and loving patients.

Fetus is not a word I use often unless using with an anatomical reference. It is still an ugly word.

My patients have babies. They have babies who have weight in this world... toes to be counted and curls to caress.

Thank you for your gentle reminder of what it is that my profession can say and do to dig the hole in your heart deeper... so that I can hold my own self accountable as a mecial professional... and not let it happen in my work... my service... again... in honor of you.

I love how you love her. Your blog makes me a better nurse... a better caretaker. You blog teaches me empathy in those gravely sad situations that I am occassionally up against.

Charolatte has weight in this world... still.. as she inspires me to be my most tender hearted and gentle with the mothers who have to say hello & goodbye.

Heather said...

My Charlotte wasn't stillborn, and I remember, particularly in the days immediately following her death, being grateful that she wasn't.

She did indeed live for 2 hours and 10 minutes. She gasped for air (hiccups as my husband refers to them), and moved a little.

She died because of her prematurity, and that seems to discount her in the same way you describe stillborn babies being discounted. As soon as people hear the word premature they get a seemingly understanding look, as if she didn't deserve to make it, as if I didn't have time to love her.

I'm thinking of two Charlottes today. Thanks Carol for your beautiful writing as always.

Shannon said...

It's the lack of words that hurt me the most. All weekend at my in-laws' house and not a word was mentioned about Isabella or Sean. It's so uncomfortable, so awkward that I can’t even bring them up because I know I will cry. I hate crying in front of them. Those people aren’t worth my tears. My husband’s grandmother on his mother’s side is extremely religious, that’s where his mom gets it. We were visiting with her on Friday afternoon and somehow the conversation turned to what she does over the course of the day since it takes her so long to do anything as she’s turning 84 in a few months. She mentioned her daily prayers and how she spends a half an hour or so praying the Rosary and praying for people in the family who have died, and that there’s a special Mass for her Uncle/Cousin/someone coming up. I mentioned that we’ve had Mass Intentions done for Isabella and Sean, and she asked if that was even right. I realize that being old she has no clue how people feel about these things today. But just that she would ask such a thing, as if to say The Church doesn’t even recognize your sorrow so why would they bother doing anything to comfort you. Things like that are worse than the silence, so I guess I’ll stick with not talking about Isabella or Sean around them.

Dani819 said...


My new least favorite words are "retained products". Spoken by the nurse who is supposed to do my post-delivery checkup, as in, "Oh- don't worry. You probably just still have some retained products." Like what? My baby? The placenta that was supposed to nourish him and breathe for him until we brought him safely home? The grief we brought home instead?

The words this nurse-- and nobody in the doctor's office- has said: I'm sorry. How are you? What can we do to help you get through this?

Thank you for your honesty. We are all with you.

Dani819 said...

Oops. Make that- the words this nurse has NOT said. Though I suppose that was understood.

Cara said...

Carol - this is a beautiful post. My trip words are, "was, would". The past tense just makes me seeth. It is like people negate Emma over and over again, to drive the point home that she's not here.

"She would be eight"
No..she IS eight years born, eight years old, eight years in heaven...

I could go on.

Aimee said...

I guess I don't mind the word stillborn or stillbirth as much...I like the combination better than "product of conception" or "fetal demise." Yes, she was not living, but she was STILL born...she was definitely BORN. Still, she was born--despite the fact that she wasn't breathing.

What I hate, like others, is the LACK of words people say. You want to say my daughter was stillborn? That's fine...could you also please SAY HER NAME!

Charlotte's Mama said...

Thank you for all of these thoughts... of course I imagined I was not alone, but to be surrounded with people who can feel the depth of the knife-wound is comforting, in a strange sort of way...

Megan said...

An acquaintance whose wife is expecting their overdue second child recently posted his status on Facebook as "waiting for the fetus to turn into a baby."
I guess to him my beautiful eight-pound daughter was never really a baby.

Shannon said...

I think that's horrible, "waiting for the fetus to turn into a baby". I can't for the life of me understand why anyone would refer to any baby, let alone their own, in that way.

kate said...

My comment became a post, so i posted it on my blog ;)

Yeah, that facebook status update is very misguided.

kp said...

angel baby. comforting to some, not to me. to my hospital's credit, my daughter was never referred to as a stillbirth or fetus. In all the paperwork, she is called "Baby Girl" followed by my last name.