Sunday, January 16, 2011

Ordinary Suffering

The internet is a magical beast.  It has brought me a good measure of comfort, it has cost me a great deal of tears.  It allows me to commemorate Eliza, to communicate with family, friends, acquaintances, strangers.  It has brought me in touch with old friends, new friends, friends-of-friends.  It brings together bereaved parents in groups, blogs, message boards.   

I still shudder at the term “babylost parents,” as the community is sometimes identified.  To me, it sounds too vague.  Too ambiguous.

I still prefer the word “bereaved.”

Because she wasn’t lost.  We didn’t mislay her or forget about her.  She was ripped away from us.  By chance, by fate, by accident, by random happenstance.  We are deprived of her and it is unfair.  It is still so profoundly fucking unfair.  

But it is also so ordinary.

It makes me catch my breath, how many people share our pain.

1 in 160 doesn't sound like very many.  But when you think about all the babies that are born everyday, it adds up to 25,000 per year in the United States.  25,000 people out there who feel the way I feel.  It's unbelievable.

* * *

I taught Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to my Introduction to Literature class last semester.  Mary Shelley is pretty fascinating to begin with--she wrote Frankenstein when she was still a teenager, hanging out with romantic poets.  Her father was a liberal political philosopher.  Her mother (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley) an eighteenth-century feminist who wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792 and died from complications of childbirth five years later, after giving birth to her only daughter.  Growing up without a mother, Mary Shelley was educated by her father and she fell in love with one of his political followers, the Romantic poet (and political philosopher) Percy Bysshe Shelley.  They had four children together and only one of them lived to grow up.

If Facebook had existed in the early nineteenth century, Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley most certainly would have selected "It's Complicated" for their relationship status.  When they first got together, Percy was married to someone else.  But he was a man of big ideas, and one of those ideas was free love.  There was much discussion about free love vs. formal marriage and the idea of an open relationship.  Percy seems to have been much more in favor of this than Mary, perhaps for the simple reason that there weren't any dependable forms of birth control.  Or maybe she just wasn't crazy about the idea of her boyfriend sleeping around.

As it was, Mary ended up pregnant with Percy's child and had a stillborn daughter in 1816.  That same year she married Percy (after his first wife committed suicide) and wrote Frankenstein.

When I taught the novel, I spent a lot of time pointing out the book's obsession with the link between the marriage bed and the death bed.  Over and over again, the novel presents this troubling connection.  Dying parents beg their children to get married to a spouse of their choosing, murders take place on wedding nights, dreams problematically confuse mothers, monsters, and wives, wedding sheets become shrouds.  

I gave my students a brief biographical and historical outline of Mary Shelley's life and talked a little bit about late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century feminism.  I pointed out that the novel was written by an eighteen year old girl whose mother died after giving birth to her and who had recently experienced the death of her own baby, a stillborn girl.  

I remember standing up in the classroom by the dry erase board, saying something like, "This overlap between birth and death and marriage beds in Frankenstein is perhaps less surprising in the context of the nineteenth century, when the rate of women and children dying in childbirth was much higher than it is today."

I paused and then patted my fat pregnant belly with a dramatic sight and said, "Thank goodness, right?" and my students and I laughed.

* * *

Babies died in the nineteenth century because medicine wasn’t good.  Because there was so much people didn’t know.  Because nutrition wasn’t great.  Mothers also died, but not as frequently.  Childbirth was life and death wrapped up in pain and joy. 

That was two hundred years ago.  When doctors inadvertently caused infections that killed people because they didn't know to freaking wash their hands.  Today?  In this age of modern medicine?  Babies aren't supposed to die.  At least not babies that are perfectly healthy, not babies born to mothers who track the grams of protein they eat and take prenatal yoga classes and track their baby's kick count.  Those babies cannot just die for no apparent reason.
But they do.

It is not as common as it was in the 1800s, but it happens.  Babies die.  All the time.  For no reason.  To mothers of every age and every race and every socioeconomic background and all levels of education.  There is no rhyme or reason.  It happens everyday, to so many people.

This is my heartache and David’s.  It is our private, precious loss.  It is the most devastating experience of my life.

But I cannot pretend that we are alone in this.  That we are the only people to have ever felt this way. 

The world should stop.  The ocean should be poured away.  The world has neither joy or light nor peace nor certitude nor help for pain.

And yet our experience is not unique.  It’s horribly, horrifyingly ordinary.  It happened to me and it happens everyday many other people.  The grief that we feel is the same of suffering that twenty five thousand people in this country suffer every year, that people of every generation have suffered, that people experienced in far greater numbers in the past.  In this perspective, it is an ordinary kind of suffering.  No less painful or terrible, just all too common.

But our baby?  Eliza Taylor Duckworth?

She was one of a kind.

Our first child.  Our little girl.  Our extraordinary daughter.

Beautiful, perfect, and dead.

There will never be another like her.

And I will mourn her all the days of my life.


  1. There is nothing ordinary about what we are all going through. The experience may not be rare (oh how I wish it was) but it is profound and all of us who walk this road walk it in our own unique way.

    Hugs to you.

  2. I think you're right that "ordinary" fails to capture it. This grief is far too common and yet still incredibly profound.

  3. I have also been struck by how often infant loss and stillbirth occur, it is horrifying. Although as you said each loss is so profound and different as well.
    Just as you said Lily was our first child, our daughter, and most likely our only biological child. She left a whole that will forever be missing in our hearts and lives.

  4. I remember running into an old acquaintance who I had not seen for years and when asked what was new, I told him about my stillborn son and he replied "well, that's very common" and I said "yes, but that doesn't make it any less painful."

    She will always remain your first child, your Eliza.

  5. It's common... but it's not. For all that the numbers show how often this happens, it's still a horrible shock when it does. And we often don't know all the people we know that this has happened to, until it happens to us and they come out of the woodwork to comfort us. There's still a silence that surrounds this topic that adds to the hardship bereaved parents experience.

    I don't know what we should be called either. I don't particularly like "babylost parents" either, & "deadbabymama" sounds a little flip, although I've used both on occasion.

  6. yes, to all of this. I think about moments like the one you remember - patting your belly and remarking on how grateful you are for better care for mothers and babies - I have moments like that of my own, as well, and I wonder, how is it that this IS so common and yet it is so not in our consciousness of something that happens here and now? And how is it that we don't have a good and specific word to describe our "predicament." I just keep coming back to the thought that it is all too sad to be named, too sad to be in one's consciousness. (Though i would argue that losing a spouse is equally painful and sad, and that has a clearly definitive name, so who knows...)


    love to you, brooke.


  7. Brooke, I happened on your blog a few weeks ago, and have been lurking and checking in on you daily since then. I just want to let you know how much your story has taken hold in my heart. I think about you and David and pray for you both everyday. I hope that you can find some moments of peace. You seem like a beautiful person. I am so sorry you are going through such a horrific experience. As several have stated, I too believe that your experience may be more common than anyone would like for it to be, but your experience is not ordinary.

  8. to me, babylost sounds like we have been banished to a cold, dark place, doomed to wander forever without our babies. and that's kind of how it feels sometimes, and so i kind of think it works. but i know that not everyone does.

    i had no idea about all that about mary shelley. how utterly heartbreaking.

    it's wrong that the world stops turning.

    i will miss our first child forever, too. and i will always be sad that i will never know whether it was a boy or a girl. i feel i should know at least that much. but it's too late to find out.

    sending love x

  9. 'it's wrong that the world stops turning.'
    should read
    'it's wrong that the world DOESN'T stop turning.'

    dammit. sorry.