Saranna’s Story, Part 2: From Loss to a Legacy of Connection

by Brita Johnson

Photo courtesy of Saranna W.

Photo courtesy of Saranna W.

In the spring of 2012, Saranna and her husband Frank were expecting their first child, with a sense of anticipation at building the family they’d dreamed of. Their happy emotions spiraled into deep grief, as the pregnancy ended at 19 weeks with the loss of their son, Spencer. (Read the first part of her story here.) The passage through the seasons of private grief that followed felt long, but Saranna was determined to try again as soon as they were given the green light

Although conception had been complicated with their first pregnancy, they were delighted that Saranna got pregnant more easily this time - though Saranna remembers that the giddiness she felt was intertwined with fear of losing another baby. With a cerclage at 14 weeks to address the cervical insufficiency that had prematurely ended her first pregnancy, this second pregnancy was otherwise healthy and uneventful - until a nasty virus intervened during Saranna’s third trimester.

Due to complications of the virus, baby Neha was born five weeks early - though they’d planned to have a cesarean birth, the birth experience became chaotic, with concerns both about the virus and about Neha’s heart. Out of the chaos of emergency cesarean, though, “came this little person,” says Saranna says. “It was the first time I’d seen a biological person of mine, so [I just wondered] at her and [looked] at the ways she looked like me.”

She was able to wonder at the sight, but she wasn’t yet able to hold her baby. Neha was taken for some medical tests, and Saranna was moved from the operating theatre to a recovery room. Marked by her experience of having lost her first baby, her anxiety mounted as the separation went on. Finally Saranna’s birth doula advocated for the family, saying, “Saranna needs to hold her baby - the baby needs to be held.” When she was finally able to hold Neha, Saranna felt a tangible sense of reassurance - this *was* her baby, and the baby was healthy.

Saranna says she and Frank experienced a comedy of errors in the early experiences of newborn care: “Frank had never changed a diaper, and I had to stay prone due to the surgery discomfort - and the books we’d read hadn’t talked about meconium! We had quite a scare til we learned what it was!”

For Saranna, bonding with Neah really started after the first 24 hours, as a massive dose of antibiotics began to vanquish her virus symptoms and she was able to use her body to be active and interactive with her baby. “She was so little - I was so scared I was going to break her,” Saranna says, a feeling common to many new parents but intensified by the trauma and loss she’d experienced in birthing Spencer.

Coming home from the hospital, Saranna and Frank experienced a week of chaos as they settled into their new reality, and then another week of digging out from under that chaos. Neha had severe reflux, and navigating the medical system to find the right solution added another couple of weeks of disequilibrium. Meanwhile, conflict escalated with Saranna’s family, resulting in a decisive separation from her parents.

“It took a while to get into a rhythm, but once we did, we did well,” Saranna says. And soon they felt they felt ready to add to their family again. The experience of having had a healthy baby was redemptive, and there was more a sense of possibility as they tried again to get pregnant. The process, Saranna says, was “more fun this time.” When she became pregnant again, there was still some fear born of loss, but in some ways, the path felt well-trodden - she got set-up with the high-risk team again, and while there were some early moments of concern, those soon resolved. Her 3rd pregnancy was her least eventful.

The birth of baby Mira was redemptive in some ways as well - the team of female doctors and nurses listened intently, respected her priorities (especially getting to hold Mira right away), and validated the ways in which her previous birth experiences had been damaging to her. Mira was hearty, and they were able to leave the hospital without NICU intervention - to their intense gratitude. Saranna was relieved to get home to Neha, who’d been with a patchwork of care providers during the hospital stay.

This time, their homecoming - and the experience of settling into life with a new baby - was eased by postpartum doula support. The birth doula who’d supported Saranna and Frank in both girls’ deliveries had referred them to Bridgetown Baby, and they’d met with Merriah and Emily during Saranna’s pregnancy to plan for the postpartum period.

Recalling what their relationship with Bridgetown Baby meant to them, Saranna highlights both the physical and emotional support that the doulas offered: “It was just me and Frank making the ship go forward, without family help. The doulas helped to keep balls in the air and handle household and newborn care details that might otherwise have slipped through the cracks.” It was also helpful, Saranna says, to have her experiences as a mom to three babies - missing the one-on-one time she’d had with Neha before Mira’s birth, and keenly feeling Spencer’s loss - normalized and validated: “The doulas really provided a listening ear, and this helped me to open up about my grief and process some of the difficult family dynamics. This was so reassuring.”

From a rough start in life, through the pain of losing her son, Saranna has emerged with a clear sense of the legacy she and Frank are building for their children. “We envision our kids as adults around this table, sharing memories of their parents with their own kids. We’re building a legacy of connection.” And that connection is obvious in the calm, deliberate and loving interactions between Saranna, Frank and their rambunctious girls.

When asked what’s allowed them to build this solid, loving, family universe despite loss, grief and broken family ties, Saranna says, “I was empowered - by the difficult experiences I had, my own determination, and the doula support I received - to show the girls, ‘you can do it, you can have it, but you’ve gotta work for it. Even if people try to box you in with their expectations, you have to say ‘my mom said I could do it’ and then do it.’”

If you are seeking support as you navigate the grief of pregnancy loss or the loss of an infant, we invite you to start with a short list of resources on our blog. If you’re embarking on pregnancy, and wish to seek out information to help you plan for and support a healthy pregnancy, please contact us for resources from our extensive list of local referrals.

Saranna's Story, Part 1: Pregnancy Loss - Will There Be Joy Again?

by Brita Johnson

Photo credit: Brita Johnson

Photo credit: Brita Johnson

For Saranna, family was something that didn’t come easily. At 8 weeks old, she made the long journey from an orphanage in Calcutta to an adoptive family in Oregon. Once here, she worked to overcome serious medical conditions, while contending with difficult dynamics within her adoptive family that would leave her estranged from her parents as an adult. When she and her husband Frank married in 2007, they were eager to start a family. “It was like the puzzle pieces were all in place, and we could start to make our dreams of having a family of our own come true,” says Saranna.

As hopeful as the prospect of building their family was, this hopefulness was tempered by the challenges they encountered in becoming pregnant. It took support from members of their church community to puzzle through the maze of the medical system, then a panoply of medical and alternative interventions, to finally get pregnant in the early spring of 2012.

As Saranna and Frank celebrated the joy and anticipation of her pregnancy, Saranna was also careful to follow her doctor’s guidance to a T, with special attention to managing the impacts that the pregnancy had on her ongoing medical conditions. It took a few months, Saranna says, to get back to “her normal.” And then, when she did, things went quietly sideways.

In week 19 of her pregnancy, things started to feel “off.” She shook it off, convincing herself that it could be anything, that it certainly wasn’t something serious. “I didn’t listen to my intuition,” she now says. On a late Friday afternoon, as she headed out on a round of errands to stock the nursery, her water broke.

She and Frank rushed to the hospital, where she would learn, in the words of the attending doctor, “you’re perfectly healthy...but your pregnancy isn’t.” There was no way to save the tiny being inside of her. In a swirl of shock, grief, medical decisions to be made, and hospital paperwork, she spent a sleepless night trying to come to terms with the procedure scheduled for the next morning that would end her pregnancy.

“I felt these mama instincts to ‘keep my baby safe, here in this bed,’” Saranna says, describing the irrational desire she felt for time to stand still, for the night not to end. The early hours of the morning brought a peace and a readiness to let her baby go. When the procedure had been done, she could finally learn whether the baby had been a boy or a girl; the magnitude of the loss sunk in when Frank said, “it was a little boy.” Their son, Spencer.

Bundled out of the hospital, without ceremony, she and Frank were sent home to grieve and figure out how to go forward. The next day was Father’s Day, and the seasons that followed were seasons of numbness for Saranna. She put her grief on hold, going through the motions of daily life, marriage, community, taking care of everyone but herself.

“Grief is a lonely place,” Saranna says, looking back on that time as a season of missed connections. She and Frank grieved their loss separately; she didn’t have a relationship with her parents that provided warmth and support; and her grief isolated her from the church community that had been a pillar of strength for them.

As she sought to understand the medical explanation for what had happened, Saranna also sought out local resources to support her grieving process, but, she says, “the support groups I found didn’t feel welcoming to me, as a person of color with an obvious disability.” She spent hours combing the internet for articles and stories that would validate her experience. She found some small rituals that helped her to cope. The warmth and loyalty of their dog, Mocha, was a sanity-saver and a source of comfort.

Despite the emotional numbness she felt, and perhaps based on an inborn determination that comes from surviving her own hard beginnings, Saranna was eager to try for another pregnancy as soon as she was medically cleared to do so. There wasn’t really a question of emotional readiness for her: “I wanted a different outcome and the only way to have a different outcome is to do it again,” she says, “I just got back on that horse.”

When she and Frank did get the go ahead to try for another pregnancy, she got pregnant right away, to everyone’s delight and to her own disbelief. She laughs a little now, remembering the doctor who said, “if you get five positive pregnancy tests, I think you’re pregnant.”

There’s no such thing as a simple happy ending, and though sweetly humorous, the anecdote above is also revelatory of the complexity of pregnancy, and parenting, after loss: fear of losing her second baby rimmed her emotional experience of the pregnancy; not a day goes by that she doesn’t miss the son she never knew; some of the cloud of numbness she felt in 2012 has only recently started to lift.

But you only have to meet Saranna to sense the joy that she finds in her growing family. In the second installation of Saranna’s story, Bridgetown Baby joins the team that has supported Saranna and Frank through the challenge and redemption of continuing to build their family - read more on Bridgetown Baby’s blog, coming soon.

October is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness month. We stand with the families, in our Bridgetown Baby community and around the world, who have lost a child - and we want you to know that you are not alone. If you are seeking support as you navigate this particular grief, we invite you to start with a short list of resources, on our blog.

Tully and Postpartum Care- A Doula's Perspective

The postpartum doula world was a buzz when previews were released for Diablo Cody’s newest film, Tully. Having loved Juno, also written by Cody, for its realistic slice-of-life depiction of a supported teen pregnancy, we had high expectations that Tully would show how postpartum doulas aide the transition into parenthood. 

The movie opens with actress Charlize Theron, playing a very pregnant Marlo, lumbering down the hall to wake her son. You can feel the exhaustion of the third trimester as Marlo sets into motion the cascading responsibilities of the day. Quickly you are introduced to the struggles that she has been through, from caring for a ‘quirky’ son to struggling with a previous perinatal mood disorder. In an attempt to stave off a resurgence of Marlo’s ‘hard time,’ her brother Craig, played by Mark Duplass, offers to pay for a night nanny. Taken aback with mild offense and slight trepidation, Marlo reluctantly takes down a number to call “in case [she changes] her mind”.

After the baby is born, the movie goes on to portray the early postpartum period in a way that may feel all too real to recent parents: a repetitive whirring of never-ending, circular tasks done on little sleep, minimal energy, and dwindling patience. Director Jason Reitman catches shots that make us as parents laugh, gasp, and nod empathetically. After weeks of feeling alone, empty, and exhausted, Marlo decides to take Craig up on his offer. Enter Tully, a twenty-something night nanny played by actress Mackenzie Davis. Early on in their working relationship, Tully reiterates to Marlo that she is ‘[there] to take care of [Marlo]’. Feeling both apprehensive and relieved, Marlo welcomes Tully into her home, accepting the kind of helpful support that a postpartum doula might typically provide - support with breastfeeding, emotional processing, baby care, and household tasks.

Marlo’s journey with Tully takes some unconventional turns as Tully steps out of the role of a postpartum doula (imagine a wine-fueled hot tub conversation and sexual fantasy, adolescent makeup parties, and a night of bar-hopping together in the big city). Much to our dismay, the film’s end reveals Tully to be a delusion-- a symptom of postpartum psychosis. A psychosis that went unnoticed by Marlo’s husband and family.

Yikes! And let's pause for a reality check. While this movie demonstrates a real issue that affects a very small portion of the population (statistics tell us that .001% of childbearing women will develop postpartum psychosis), there is a larger - and quite serious - story to tell. Postpartum psychosis, though rare, is an extremely concerning ailment that requires immediate medical support: among the women who develop postpartum psychosis, approximately 5% will commit suicide; there is a 4% infanticide rate associated with the illness. And while postpartum psychosis is uncommon, other perinatal mood disorders are more prevalent:

  • 80% of postpartum parents experience the baby blues-- feelings of sadness, stress, and/or difficulty bonding with baby;

  • 14% of women suffer from postpartum depression;

  • 4-10% of new mothers experience postpartum anxiety/panic disorder; and

  • 3-5% of childbearing women are affected by postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder.

Any of these perinatal mood disorders (which can affect partners, as well, though at different rates of prevalence) can make the postpartum period more challenging - and less magical - than families often expect it to be. A perinatal mood disorder can interrupt bonding between parent and child, which can have impacts over the longer term. The statistics - and the story of "Tully" - demonstrate the importance of awareness surrounding perinatal mood disorders, their symptoms, and where families can go for help.

Perhaps the most important message of "Tully" is that every family deserves support in the postpartum period, a period that encompasses all pregnancy outcomes including miscarriage, abortion, and fetal/infant loss. If you are struggling with your perinatal experience, or even if you are simply preparing yourself and your family for a new addition, you don’t have to go it alone - I encourage you to explore (and use) the resource list that follows.

Camilla Rae is a Bridgetown Baby Postpartum Doula and INNATE Postpartum Care- Certified Provider. With loving compassion, Camilla enjoys caring for the expanding family, sharing baby rearing wisdom, and holding space for the transition into parenthood. When she isn’t caring for her clients, she can be found snuggling her 4 month-old, Maverick, volunteering at the Moreland Farmers Market, traveling the world, and homesteading.

*Statistics are provided by the CDC and Baby Blues Connection.
 

Postpartum Resources

Crisis Lines

Emergency: 911

Multnomah County Crisis Line: 503.988.4888

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1.800.273.8255

National Hopeline Network, Suicide & Crisis Hotline: 1.800.442.4673.

Community Information and Referral Services: 211

Portland Area Mental Health Crisis Line: 800.716.9769

 

Perinatal Mood Disorder Support

Doula Support

ABC Doula :: 503.752.1691 :: abcdoula.com

Birthingway College of Midwifery :: 503.760.3131 :: birthingway.edu

Birthing Stone :: 503.718.7574 :: birthingstone.com

Bridgetown Baby :: 503.970.9554 :: bridgetownbaby.com

Doula Love :: 503.766.3495 :: portlanddoulalove.com

Doula Match :: A website to help you find birth and/or postpartum doulas in your area. :: doulamatch.net

Doula My Soul. :: 360.545.3356 :: doulamysoul.com

It’s a Belly :: 503.493.7390 :: itsabelly.com

Kindred Mother Care :: Sejal Fichadia :: kindredmothercare.com

Groups

Baby Blues Connection :: Baby Blues Connection is a parent-to-parent support service based in Portland. :: 800.557.8375

Brief Encounters :: A safe place for parents whose babies have died before, during, or after birth. Brief Encounters provides nonsectarian group meetings for bereaved families. :: 503. 699.8006 :: http://briefencounters.org

Postpartum Support International :: Postpartum Support International is dedicated to helping women suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, including postpartum depression, the most common complication of childbirth. :: 1.800.944.4773 :: http://www.postpartum.net

Providers

The Postpartum Stress Center :: The Postpartum Stress Center, LLC, is a premier treatment and professional training center for prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety.

WellPDX :: WellPDX is a collective of Portland metro area acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists and naturopathic doctors.

Camilla Rae is a Postpartum Doula and INNATE Postpartum Care-Certified Provider at Bridgetown Baby. This article first ran in NW Kids Magazine July 2018. http://www.nwkidsmagazine.com/2018/06/july-2018/

Ben's Story: Surviving Birth Trauma - A Dad's Perspective

by Brita Johnson

Photo courtesy of Ben B.

Photo courtesy of Ben B.

For Ben and his wife Lauren, the path from their son’s birth in January, 2017 to Father’s Day, 2017 was a rocky road marked by medical trauma, parenting challenges, emotional struggles, and, finally, healing. Ben recalls that first Father’s Day as the time when things started to normalize and they began to enjoy the kind of family moments he’d expected from the start.

Things had felt easy in the beginning. With nothing more serious than the slight nausea and fatigue that you’d expect, Lauren’s had been a textbook pregnancy. When they went into the hospital for an induction a few days past Lauren’s due date, they anticipated a similarly easy labor and delivery. Instead, Ben says, “we walked out forever changed.”

It was while on the operating table for a routine c-section that everything went sideways. Once the baby was delivered, Lauren started bleeding profusely. Ben was rushed out of the operating room while the surgeons scrambled to stanch the bleeding. He spent 15-30 minutes in an adjacent room, not knowing if Lauren would live or die. “It was the most profound loneliness I’ve ever experienced,” Ben says of those moments.

Once the hemorrhage was under control, Ben spent the next three days at Lauren’s side in the intensive care unit, focused wholly on her survival. No part of the story of their first three days as parents is about meeting their son, looking into his eyes, counting fingers and toes, and marveling at his tiny perfection. The baby, who would be named Sully, entered the picture only on day four, when their doctor had to push for an exception to the rules to allow Sully into the ICU to meet his mother.

Ben, Lauren, and Sully headed home from the hospital not long after, to settle into their new life as a family of three. But, “the course of what I thought parenthood was going to be was completely altered,” says Ben. Medical struggles, ongoing physical impacts from Lauren’s hemorrhage, severe colic, and the emotional fallout from their trauma consumed them for the next four months. Lauren experienced a bout of postpartum depression; Ben focused on supporting her through that. As she began to resurface, he took a dive into depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

During those months, Ben lived in a swirl of fear (“Would things ever be normal again? What if this was a mistake and we never reclaim our identity? What if we never get to surf or travel or do the things we love?”) and anger (“why us?”).

“It honestly took 8 months to…I won’t say ‘recover’… but to get back to neutral,” Ben says. What helped? A flood of family and friend support; research into paternal postpartum experience, PTSD, and trauma recovery; an awareness, shared with Lauren, about the need to heal; a subsequent therapy journey. And, support from Bridgetown Baby.

Friends recommended Bridgetown Baby, and soon postpartum doula support became an integral part of Ben’s, Lauren’s, and Sully’s early weeks as a family. “Merriah came into our home when everything was at its worst,” says Ben. Doula support was powerful for Ben and Lauren in ways both simple and profound. “Just to have the energy of someone who’d seen what we’d gone through, and could support us in learning to be parents… In the moments where the four of us could sit down together and talk, Merriah really listened and always gave thoughtful advice.”

Then there was the magical frittata (“I still remember how good it tasted”), and the gift of sleep: “For me, it was having Merriah walk through the door and look at me and say, ‘just go to bed.’ All the riches in the world weren’t as valuable as getting to lie down in the guest room and sleep uninterrupted.”

For Ben, postpartum doula support was something he didn’t know they needed until they needed it. Ben says, “it's unimaginable that we could have gotten through what we did without doula care.”

Looking back, Ben can (almost) chuckle at some of the fears he experienced in those early months. Sully is now a happy, verbal toddler—Ben’s face glows with joy as he describes Sully’s newest abilities and capers. As they approach Father’s Day 2018, Ben marvels at the difference a year makes. “Last year, we were still navigating the crisis, we were in survival mode. Right now, life is chaotic…but life is full, in a good way. We’re able to focus on each other in a different way, and enjoy ourselves as a family.”

With the perspective he’s gained, Ben now feels a drive to share the struggle he went through: if his experience can make it just one or two clicks easier for someone else to find the resources they need, he feels it’s worth telling his story.

For all dads, Ben would like to recognize the tumultuous feelings they might have: “[having a new baby is] a really intense experience, and it’s not easy. And it’s not easy for everybody, not just the mom. The dad’s emotions and reactions are not an outlier—they’re part of the equation. I didn’t think that way walking into it.”

For dads who’ve “gone through something with childbirth, or raising a kid, whether it’s [a crisis of some kind or whether it’s] as simple as you’ve had a completely normal experience but it’s just hard to raise a kid…I hope it can help to know that there’s someone else who’s gone through it and is willing to talk it through.”

His biggest take-home is that it’s okay to feel the feelings you have. ”You owe it to yourself first,” Ben says, “and your family second, to get in there with those feelings, to recognize them, and work through them.”

Find more information on the Bridgetown Baby blog about dads' varying experiences, including tips and resources to make your job as a dad easier and more fun!