From the time girls are children, we are led to believe our destiny is motherhood. Our bodies are built to carry and nourish children. When we have babies, we’re told that our only job is to make sure they survive. But where does that leave us when something goes wrong? When we fail to fulfill that destiny? When our bodies refuse? When our babies die? I feel like I’ve been betrayed by the body that was supposed to know how to get pregnant and carry children, a body that was supposed to know that those children are meant to live. As a result of that thinking, when my daughter was diagnosed with Trisomy 18, I immediately found ways to blame myself and my own body for her condition. Unfortunately, the battle with my body is not new to me, but Zoey’s death and my infertility struggles certainly exacerbated the fight.
I’ve struggled with body image since I was a kid. I wasn’t necessarily overweight, but I wasn’t thin, not the fashion ad kind of thin. Nor was I athletically inclined (trust me, do not ask me to be on your softball team). When I was in high school, my parents joined our local gym, so I started to work out. During the challenging times of losing my dad and dealing with a mentally ill brother, I was able to find refuge at the gym. It was my safe place; for an hour a day I was secluded from the chaos around me. I was strong and I was healthy. For the first time since the embarrassing days of always being chosen last in gym class, I was happy with myself and proud of what my body was able to accomplish.
About three years after I was married, my husband and I decided it was time to grow our family. We started trying for a baby, but things did not go well and I began to eat. After a few years of fertility drugs, surgery, and lots of frustration, we received some shocking, but amazing, news. I was pregnant!! I told myself I would do everything right while I was carrying our daughter. I started eating more salads, added more vegetables, and avoided doughnuts. I wanted to do everything I could to stay healthy so my child would be too.
But then…we got Zoey’s diagnosis: Trisomy 18, a condition considered by some to be “incompatible with life.” We were devastated. We had decisions to make. The life of the child we dreamed of for so long was in extreme danger. And while I still followed the “rules” (no alcohol, no cookie dough), I further turned to food for comfort. I remember taking the glucose tolerance test and telling the nurse that if the doctor tried to take away doughnuts if I failed the test, someone would get hurt! (I passed thankfully!) I thought food would help. It didn’t. Because nothing, NOTHING could fix what we were going through. I put on the normal baby weight and then some.
Our daughter was born on May 1, 2014. And she was a beautiful, tiny, little miracle. Clearly, losing weight and working out was the last thing on my mind as I held this precious child in my arms for 120 days. But then she died. And I was lost. I went back to seeking comfort wherever I could find it, usually in a chocolate chip cookie. But I knew something had to change. I needed to find something to help me refocus. I decided to run a half marathon at Disney World in memory of Zoey. I began training just a few months after she died, and in February of 2015, I completed the race, but I still wasn’t happy with myself. We then started trying to have another child. And once again things were not easy. I continued to struggle with the body I felt had failed me. I’m a woman. I’m supposed to be able to create life. My distrust and anger at my own body continued. We tried in-vitro fertilization which involves a ton of medications, including injections. I often gave the shots to myself in my thigh, leaving my legs sore, heavy, and lumpy. During the stimulation phase, I dropped my activity level out of fear for hyper-ovarian stimulation. And then there were the hot flashes, headaches, and mood swings. If I didn’t feel like myself before, the fertility medications certainly pushed me over the edge, all while dealing with the emotional side of infertility and, ultimately, the failure of the treatments. And that’s the thing—to this day…no, to this very moment, I internalize every part of this struggle. I’ve often felt like I failed my daughter for not keeping her alive, for having “bad eggs.” Certainly the failed embryo transfers were also my fault, right?
Our fertility treatments have ended, but my body is certainly not back to normal yet. I’ve not been able to release the blame, but I’m trying to re-focus and find my way back to being proud of what my body can do. I believe there’s something positive in a woman’s learning to control her body, to push it. And, maybe most importantly, in learning to breathe. I may not be able to control the emotions that roll over me, but I can learn to focus my reaction to them, learn to breathe through them. For instance, after leaving a family function where my nephews were all dancing and singing for us, I knew Zoey should be there too, tagging along on their adventures. Moments like those leave my chest heaving and my lungs gasping for air, when I can’t stop the sadness from overwhelming me. But I can remind myself to breathe; just pause. Inhale air and exhale pain.
As I got home from a workout one recent morning, when I opened Facebook, one of those “here’s your memory from years ago” photos popped up, one from “before.” Before Zoey. Recently, I’ve seen memories of past vacations, runs, and triathlons when I was much thinner and faster and more clueless about what life was about to bring. I look at those pictures and it bothers me that I don’t look like that anymore. I’m heavier and carry more pounds in my middle, more grey in my hair, more wrinkles on my tired face. My body is bruised and scarred. Much like my soul. But those photos also remind me to look back on what my body has accomplished in the last few years. It carried life…a beautiful, miraculous, amazing life. And I remember those moments in my life when grief overtook me and left me crumpled on the floor—the moments after leaving the doctor’s office the day we first heard the words “Trisomy 18” and the moments right after I handed her body over to the funeral home. But I did get up again. I recall those early days where it took all of my energy just to get out of bed, but, thankfully, my body remembered how. So it did. Gradually I got stronger. My body learned to bear the weight of grief. My heart kept beating despite its broken pieces. I want to look back on those pictures and appreciate where I was at that time, and I want to look at the pictures of me now and appreciate that I’m even stronger now than I was back then. I’m strong enough to keep moving forward despite the pain. That’s how I understand grief and how I think I can carry on without Zoey. The pain will always be with me, but I will have to channel it in ways that are meaningful to me. Grief will always coexist in my life alongside joy, and I have to choose to find the beauty in it. I must make peace with it.
I continue to search for that inner place where I can be proud of how strong my body is and how it will carry me forward, no matter what struggles I face. And the thing is, when I look back at all of those photos, I don’t think I’m the most beautiful back in the days when I was in the best shape. I’m most beautiful holding my newborn daughter—where she could hear my heart beating. The heart that’s strong enough to keep beating while searching for joy and the meaning of life, even after hers stopped.