AVA ELISE: A Birth Story
ON THE NIGHT YOU WERE BORN
On the night you were born, so enchanted with you were the wind and the rain, that they whispered the sound of your wonderful name. - Nancy Tillman
Four months before we found out about Ava, we had lost our son and just the month before we were spreading his ashes at Jacksonville Beach. It’s safe to say that emotionally, we were scattered. I say this now with a sense of reproach but I found it extremely difficult to connect with the idea of a new baby. In the aftermath of our miscarriage, I knew that life would go on — especially for everyone else but not for me, and in the recesses of my heart, I was alright with that. I didn’t believe that I would be happy again and looking back on that season now, if you gave me happiness on a silver platter no strings attached, I would have taken a pass.
The answer to the golden consolation phrase: "You will have so many more children" was, "NO. I don't want other children, I want this child. This child is human is he not? This child is valid, is he not? So why not this child? What was so wrong with this child that he was glossed over so quickly by people who said they cared? Why were they so quick to give him a pass and release him from their hearts as if it was my pet goldfish that died?" Of course, I never said that out loud and logically I knew that most people were only trying to help. And to be honest, I felt for them. I felt bad as they searched to find what they thought were the right words...the whole thing was often just loquacious and awkward and I often wanted them to stop talking. I learnt just how much of a burden it must have been to console a grief-stricken mother so I tried to make it easier for them.
And so I kept my head above water— we both did. I coddled my grief with a personal and silent resolve. I protected it and tried to display what I thought was strength. And so I feigned some elementary portrayal of contentment which involved a collusion of "God knows best" and mouthfuls of "It will be wells" as though I had come to terms with the fact that he wasn't here anymore. And yet I broke down in the bathrooms of people’s homes, in the car, in shopping aisles, in between dinner, while pumping gas and even once with an old boss who had gone through the same thing. We couldn't be more different, my boss and I--but you should've seen us, big white guy, little black girl-woman-person crying and then laughing at how we totally and completely understood exactly what each other was feeling but also how silly we both were to have broken down...in the middle of a work day...finding a common identifier where in reality we probably wouldn't even be friends outside of work.
It's funny, when we are broken we become so infatuated with our disappointment on how things turned out that it seems the only way to mourn or to make sense of what we've lost is to guard it. Selfishly internalizing the density of our own emotional jungles as they start to grow and become the only source of comfort we want—an unhealthy intimacy with misery.
BUT we were pregnant again and now I had to choose to let go of what happened and begin to think of a new beginning (a precarious one at that) and I didn’t want to. All my doctors had told me that I was high-risk, and would always be, and so from the moment I found out (which was right around conception :) so a realllly long pregnancy in my mind) that I would be seeing a doctor or a specialist every week. I was placed on bed rest, quit my job, had surgery on my cervixto keep Ava tucked away in my womb (this is called a Cerclage, and I urge every woman to speak to their doctor about the cervical length during the early stages of pregnancy to prevent future losses. You are more likely to have cervical shortness/incompetency if your mother had it, but I would check and be adamant about it anyways. A cerclage is a small stitch that is placed in the cervix to keep it from dilating prematurely. It is most effective when done early on in your pregnancy.)
I was sick during most of the pregnancy and even had a few scares through it (despite the cerclage.) In those moments the tension of letting go and moving on weighed heavy because the idea of losing another child and being constantly reminded of it with every doctor’s visit, with every well-intentioned word of encouragement from family members, nurses and friends was too much at times. I was scared to speak to my new baby, or connect with her in any way. And though I got over that hill with much prayer and tear, and with the help of my husband I was still living in fear.
When we finally hit 24 weeks, the 6-month mark, I felt I could breathe. She was finally, in medical terms, viable enough to sustain life. She had already started kicking right around 16 weeks and I was in a better place mentally. She was in there and she was real… this was happening and I wasn’t going to think myself out of it. I was definitely bonding with baby by this time and with the same ferocious spirit I protected my grief with before, I begun to use this resolve to protect my joy. I finally had to let go of the miscarriage but I didn’t stop missing him or thinking of him, but I stopped living off of the sadness of it all. I stopped relying on it for comfort. It was at times the only way that I could feel him but I came to the understanding, with Ava here now, that I didn’t have to be in agony to remember my loss. That our loss was not any less significant if I was happy. So I spoke of only the goodness that would come from that day on.
But right at this stage is when things started to get testy. My husband always says that with every new step we take in life, there is a test. This couldn’t be truer. So I had already been placed on bed rest early in the pregnancy but now I was beginning to feel different…awkward even. Call it a mother’s intuition. I went to the hospital and was told that though my complaints were concerning, from what they could see with their tests and monitoring I was fine and so was the baby.
“My only goal, the only thing I thought of was to keep my baby safe. That meant that I could not be afraid…and there I was…afraid.”
Well, I wasn’t. My cerclage (a stitch placed on a woman’s cervix to keep it from dilating throughout her pregnancy) was still in place but I was in immense pelvic pain paired with Braxton-Hicks contractions. I couldn’t maintain my appetite and at times I couldn’t walk or move. On a Saturday night in late October, my hubby was away for the weekend and I noticed that I was leaking (tmi, I know...but prego ladies get it). It turned out that I had tested positive for fetal fibronectin— a common sign of preterm labor so they kept me overnight to watch me. Again, I was assured that I was fine and that this would pass. The next day, I was told that the baby looked just fine and though my cervix had shortened there was nothing to worry about. Well, I didn’t buy that. In fact I had a fit (I laugh at that moment now). But I really didn’t give my seeing physician a choice. With tears sloping down my face and a ton of weird hand gestures (I was beyond hormonal at this point) I told her that I wouldn’t leave without the steroid shots that would enable my baby’s lungs and brain to mature if I were to go into labor over the next few days. So they kept me another night. Thank God for that tantrum because my water broke two days later. A mother’s intuition.
We thought we would go into labor that day, but my cervix did not dilate and I had no bleeding. I was still having contractions, but they were far apart and inconsistent. They set me up on two rounds of antibiotics and were determined to keep me pregnant as long as they could. Ava was 25 weeksat that time and the statistics weren’t encouraging. The neonatologist had the hard job of giving us the statistics. He was nice and I didn’t envy him. He straddled the line of trying to encourage us and still give us an accurate idea of the reality that we could face. At the time she had a 50-65% chance of living and if she lived she would have a 1 in 10 chance of developing a disability, it was 20 minutes of non stop education on the risks involved in her birth, and for the first time I broke down. Up until that moment I was in mama-mode through the whole ordeal. I refused to give in to negativity and I keyed in to the power of prayer and faith and positivity. My only goal, the only thing I thought of was to keep my baby safe. That meant that I could not be afraid…and there I was…afraid. Fail. And so he walked out, and Alex held me as I cried and he prayed (so thankful for him!). He was the only one who could completely understand everything that I was feeling. And as we prayed over the weeks to come we grew stronger than ever. Miraculously, I stayed pregnant for 3 more weeks— and with every week a better chance of survival and a healthy baby.
A few days before she was born, I started feeling more tightness but nothing that anyone thought was abnormal. But it’s funny, I knew that she would come soon. By this time she had no amniotic fluid left in there and though I tried to stay hydrated, I was losing more than I was regenerating. And with no amniotic fluid it became harder for her to move around. I didn’t feel her kick as much as she was a very active baby and that worried me. But again, this was completely normal. There were other women in the high risk ward that were going through the same thing and many of them were able to maintain their pregnancies for months. The biggest risk to the mother and child in this state where the membrane is ruptured is infection. Because now your baby who was once protected by the placenta is now exposed (loss of mucus plus) to bacteria. The resolution for this is to keep moms on antibiotics to fight infection. But after the recommended round— it’s up to your body to keep you and your baby safe. At any sign of infection both lives are threatened and labor is induced.
The morning of her birth, I woke up with a sore and stiff belly and I just knew. I had an ultrasound that day and my specialist noticed that she was barely moving. That is not a good sign and could mean that baby is in distress. They tested my white count and noticed it was significantly higher than average. If baby and I weren’t sick yet, we were going to be. I was immediately scheduled for a c-section and even waiting another 24 hours could threaten both of our lives. So I was wheeled back up to my room and I called Alex and told him the news. He was, at the time, driving a HMMV across the backwoods of Georgia somewhere. I thought he would miss it because he was about 4 hours away. But never underestimate a father’s love for his daughter. He made it right when I was to be prepped for the epidural. It was all very mechanical and unceremonial. I thought it would be different, all my natural super hippy birth plans were thrown out of the window. I mean I never even gave one thought to having a c-section and there I was having a c-section! We make plans and God laughs :)
Alex was amazing. He kept me calm from the nerves and jitters of the epidural and he spoke to me the whole time. She was too small to cry so I was unsure when they had taken her out or not but I could tell when I saw those tears run down his face. He whispered to me, how proud he was. He rubbed my head and even made me laugh throughout the whole surgery. Because she was early, those first few minutes are critical in making sure that baby is safe. When I finally saw her, about 20 minutes after they had taken her out, she was already swaddled and had a cannula in her nose to help with her breathing and oxygen flow. There was a rush to keep her in the incubator so the nurse just kind of flashed her at me. “Here’s your baby! Ok, gotta go!” LOL. Obviously, that was not going to work for me. I knew that if she was breathing, she would live. I would believe it for her and I would fight more than anyone else could for her and with that in mind, I asked her to bring my baby back so I could see her and kiss her and whisper to her how far we’ve come. It was me and her for 7 months. For 7 months I had another beating heart inside me, always by my side, reminding me to stay strong , to stay positive, to love my husband and to stay committed to becoming the best me I could be. So no, a quick little flash in spite of the mechanical routine of our delivery was not going to satisfy me. They finally took her away and all I could think was, “wow.”…just “wow” I was completely submerged in the moment.
I won't go into all the details of Ava's care plan while she's been in the NICU. However if there are any NICU moms or dads that have questions, or even if you are just expecting or trying and have some questions, I would be happy to share. I'll say this though, Ava has done so well over the last two-and-a-half months. We've seen her triumph and we've supported her when her health has taken steps back. Today, I finally got the call. The call every NICU mother wants. I got a suggested (tentative) due date. Though I believe in being plain and transparent with my readers, I hope that you will respect my decision to not share the date. I feel that it is a moment that all our family members have been waiting for and I would like to honour them with that. Also, there is a big chance the date that was given to me today may change depending on how well Ava does over the next few weeks.
I'm glad and feel so blessed to be able to document her birth story and I am filled with so much pride that she is here. I believe that she is a fighter and that all babies, whether they made it or not into the world are fighters too. I have a new perspective on life and the fragility of it all and I hope that you will all cherish your loved ones a little bit more each day.
Our girl was born Nov 9th at 2.1 lbs and ended up losing a lot more weight in her first week of life. She is now over 6lbs. She has a strong and feisty spirit and LOVES to eat. I haven't shared photos of how tiny she was before and I'm only posting them to give some hope to other people who might have a sick or premature child.
**Updated: Ava Elise is currently 17lbs and thriving. She is rolling over, attempting to crawl and making us laugh every single day.