Kristen Matlack (31), Nathan (4), Hannah (miscarriage at 16 weeks | April 2016), and Levi (8 months)
Cleveland, Ohio | Buffalo, NY
Kristen shares -
“We lost our daughter, Hannah Elizabeth, to miscarriage in 2016. At the 12-week ultrasound, we discovered that our baby had a special kind of tumor called a sacrococcygeal teratoma (SCT). SCTs are tumors that grow off the tailbone of developing babies in the womb. They tend not to be cancerous and they are rare (1 in every 40,000 births). I immediately went in for further tests and we found out our baby was a girl. Our precious baby girl was sick.
Everything depended on how she looked at a 16-week ultrasound. At that point, they would determine the treatment options and her outlook. I’ve never been more anxious than I was during those 4 weeks. We prepared for all of the ways her condition could go, willing to move me to another city to get special medical treatment, if needed. But there was absolutely nothing to do until after the next ultrasound. We named her during a stint in the ER with our son for an asthma flare-up and double ear infection. Both my babies were sick – that was my lowest point as a mother. I felt so innately responsible for their health – from my body’s role in their growth and development through pregnancy and breastfeeding, to my son’s care as he grew into a toddler. I had failed them both, and there was nothing I could do to help them.
At the 16-week ultrasound, we knew immediately. There was no heartbeat. The tumor had grown to be almost as big as she was; it overtook her. It took 3 more days for the hospital to fit me in for the D&C. I was not given the option to birth her naturally due to the size of the tumor. That’s the day I count as the day I lost her. My husband and I both struggled greatly with the loss in the following months. He kept it inside, trying to be strong for me. I numbed my feelings with food. I gained 30 pounds in 5 months, bringing myself 5 pounds over the weight I was on the day I had delivered my son years before. I gained the pregnancy weight, just without the pregnancy.
After three unsuccessful attempts at finding a therapist who could help me navigate the unfamiliar territory of grief, we finally joined a support group for perinatal and infant loss. It was an amazing experience – difficult, heartbreaking work with a courageous group of parents (some without any living children), and, ultimately, a beautiful healing process. We became friends with the other parents in the group and continued to meet up after the 10-week group counseling had ended. One of the women in the group is here with me today; she is one of my closest friends. Our rainbow babies were born 6 days apart this past October.
I have struggled with my body image my entire life. However, motherhood has only affected by body image in positive ways. I always knew that I would love being pregnant, but I did not expect it to feel so great physically. With my first pregnancy, I felt the best that ever felt in my entire life. That’s not to say that I didn’t have back pain or that my feet didn’t swell, it’s just that I have never felt so healthy and so in touch with my body, and so proud of it! After he was born, nursing was the most beautiful and natural experience to me. It was kind to me too, helping me lose all the pregnancy weight and then some! I was able to nurse my son until he self-weaned at 14 months.
Postpartum, I experienced a lot of pain during sex. I had heard it would hurt at first, but nobody really talks about the damage to your pelvic floor that can result from childbirth. When I finally asked my OB/GYN about it months later, she referred me to a pelvic floor physical therapist. I went to weekly physical therapy appointments like you would for a knee injury, except it was for my pelvic floor. It was awkward at first, but it helped almost immediately. I was better within a few months.
Immediately after my son weaned, I started to gain weight back and 7 months later, I got pregnant with our daughter. I was upset that I started the pregnancy at a higher weight that I had with my son, but I was still hopeful that baby and I would have a healthy pregnancy together. When we lost our daughter at 16 weeks, I went into a complicated grief process where I numbed my feelings through compulsive eating. My body image was at an all-time low. I wasn’t pregnant; I had no reason to be this big.
The following January, once again, we found out we were pregnant. I was scared about the health implications of being an “obese pregnancy”. Despite the shame about my weight, physically, I felt wonderful. Something about being pregnant or breastfeeding, gives my body a purpose outside of myself that I don’t feel other times in my life. At other times, I feel like I should be working out more, eating healthier. When I’m pregnant or breastfeeding I feel like no matter what effort I’m putting into it, my body is rewarding me by performing well.
I gained 40 pounds during this pregnancy, unable to shake the anxiety about the possibility of another loss. I wasn’t as good at watching what I ate; I didn’t work out. When my son was born, I was the highest weight ever been in my life. The weight has come off very slowly this time, despite breastfeeding going very well. Even so, I feel more comfortable in my own skin now, while breastfeeding my son, than I ever prior to becoming a mother. Nurturing these babies is a beautiful gift!
During my first pregnancy, I felt terrific and so deeply connected to my son. However, the birth experience and first week of my son’s life were nothing like I had imagined. I had a very clear plan for a natural birth, but after my water broke and contractions didn’t begin on their own I was led down a path of unwelcome medical interventions including over 24 hours on Pitocin and an epidural. Although I don’t judge other women’s birth stories, I feel shame about mine to this day. The positive experience I hold on to with his birth was when I pushed him out in 30 minutes.
He nursed right away and it was amazing. He seemed perfect. Three hours later, they discovered that he had a slightly elevated temperature. And so, without my knowledge or consent, they took him up to the NICU. When I finally was allowed to see him again 3 hours later, they wouldn’t allow me to nurse him and they had started him on antibiotics. I felt so much shame as everyone on Facebook congratulated me when I posted a picture of him that I had taken just after the birth, before he was hooked up to the tubes. They said he was perfect, but the hospital did not agree. That was hard for me as a brand new mom.
They released Nathan 3 days later, and he did extremely well nursing at home. The postpartum period was kind to me. I loved spending time with my baby; I was overjoyed to be a mom. What also helped was a group of new moms and babies that we hung out with pretty regularly. They were my village and I leaned on them heavily in that first year as a new mother.
I had never dealt with grief like the loss of my daughter. It was grief, it was depression, it was compulsive eating, it was terrible. And it was isolation. No one showed up with the lasagnas like they would for a birth, or even a “real” death. No one knew what to say, so they just didn’t say anything. I had an aunt that sent me life-saving cards and texts from across the country, and a friend at work that truly listened; they were lifesavers. But everyone else just . . . left us alone. And we needed help.
I struggled for a long time, seeking help from counselors but not getting what I needed. Finally, my husband and I joined a perinatal and infant loss support group. This changed everything for us. The group, and the friends we made through it, empathized with us and helped us begin to heal.
The next January, bolstered by our experience in the support group, and not wanting our children to be spaced too far apart, we conceived our second son. This pregnancy was different from the other two, marked by anxiety and fear. I struggled to feel a connection to the baby while I was pregnant for fear of getting too attached and experiencing another loss. I also hadn’t worked through my grief enough to be at the point where I was able to consistently eat healthy or work out. Of course I did my best for my son during this pregnancy; it’s just that my best wasn’t what I had had to offer in years past. Everything was moving along great, and I was gaining weight on track, until the very end.
Because I was not happy with my first birth experience, we hired a doula. Thank God we did! On my due date, I was diagnosed with polyhydramnios (excess amniotic fluid) and the baby was estimated to be around 10 1/2 pounds! I was sent for an induction that day. One of the doctors tried to scare me into a cesarean. He all but assured me that the baby was too big and it was highly likely that the baby would be injured on the way out of the birth canal because of his size. We were devastated! Thankfully, our doula assured me that this was something that I could do, that my body could do, and that there was no reason for this man to say this to me. A kind nurse also assured me that since my first son was 8 lbs, 12 oz and delivered vaginally, that she thought I could do it again. Between my doula and the nurse I got the courage to tell the doctor “no”, and that I would try to move forward with the plan of having a vaginal delivery. The labor was long, painful, and exhausting. It was almost 24 hours of Pitocin again and an epidural to manage the exhaustion. In the end, Levi was 9 lbs. 14 oz. and perfectly healthy!
I had been robbed of the postpartum snuggles with my first son because of his NICU stay, so I was overjoyed when Levi was healthy enough to stay in the postpartum room with me. That was until we went home. He looked a little jaundice, and his levels danced right around the danger zone for days, keeping us tied to doctors’ appointments, ER visits, and eventually, an overnight hospital stay. We didn’t get to spend a night all together at home as a whole family until Levi was a week old.
Since then, it’s been an exhausting blur of caring for these 2 amazing, growing boys. Breastfeeding Levi has been a wonderful experience and really helped me to bond with him in the beginning. Also, I have been overjoyed to share this time with a fellow support group alum and her husband whose rainbow baby was born 6 days after ours.
I believe that all women, all bodies are beautiful. Yet, I really struggle with my own body image. I want to be able to see myself the way my husband does, the way my children do. I want to see myself as beautiful. I’m also here to help others who see themselves in me, and in my story, to see the same beauty in themselves.
We need each other. We were never meant to raise children, to become parents, in isolation. Connections with other moms have been essential to my transition into motherhood with my first baby, grief and loss with my second, and adjusting to life with two young children with our second son’s birth. Lean on each other. And show up. Always show up. Support is not texting, "let me know if there is anything I can do". We don't know how to ask for the help we need. Support is doing something, anything. Call. Come over. Bring food, bring laughter, bring listening ears, bring nothing but an open heart - it doesn't matter, just show up. Over and over. The week after, 3 months after, a year after, 5 years after. Kids, parents, grief . . . all living things go through phases. And we need people along side of us through each one. Talking about my daughter honors her and helps me to heal. Talking about my birth and postpartum experiences helps me to feel heard, understood, and known. Show up for one another.”