Marni Asplund-Campbell, editor
Spencer Roy Barentsen
[p.170]I am a childless mother. One month ago my first child, Spencer, was born dead after seven months of pregnancy. I feel as though I will never recover from the pain of missing him, or understand why he had to leave me. The whole experience seems incongruous—pregnancy is about life, not death.
I loved my son deeply. From the beginning, when I threw up three times a day, to the last few strong kicks that I felt at the end, he was my darling little boy. My husband and I read him stories in utero, and I could tell he liked them, especially “Goodnight Moon,” as I did as a child. While showering, lying in bed at night, at all times of the day, I rubbed my protruding tummy and encouraged him to grow strong. I talked to him, about ideas, about how I was feeling. I drank pink lemonade Snapple, ate dill pickles, couldn’t eat enough oranges to satisfy him. While driving in the car, I always made sure classical music was playing to heighten his development. I subscribed to every parenting magazine available.
I pictured myself as a proud mom this summer, pushing him in the new stroller I bought, showing him off. I longed to hear him cry. More than anything, I couldn’t wait to hear him call me “Mommy.” Even now, whenever I hear a child call his mother “Mommy,” I tear up, wondering if someone will ever call me by that name.
Oh, how I long to be a mother! I’ve never wanted anything more in my entire life. My arms are empty, and they ache to hold him. I am obsessed with getting pregnant again. As much as I want it though, I am afraid. I will never rest easy. What if the same thing happens again? At times I feel that I am not like other people. I’m jealous of other women who effortlessly have healthy babies. I have failed at the most impor-[p.171]tant thing in my life, and I’m scared I’ll never be able to carry a live baby to term, to hear it cry. Writing that statement makes me shudder as I realize how deeply I feel that fear. But I must go on. I have to try again.
I wasn’t always so obsessed with motherhood. In fact, I have never wanted those things that are part of being a traditional Mormon woman. After I went on a mission to Hong Kong and graduated from Brigham Young University, I moved to San Francisco and worked as an investment consultant at a major bank. Every year I doubled my income and moved higher and higher up the ranking sheets as a “top producer.” I was validated by my big career, part of me was frightened to be a mother and lose that part of myself.
Life was good for my husband and me. We were having fun being married, travelling up and down the coast of California every other weekend. My co-workers, who thought I was too young to get married at twenty-five, definitely thought that I should wait to have children until I was much older. But I realized that there was more to life than a demanding career. We gave up birth control and tried to get pregnant for about a year. When the home pregnancy test finally showed a positive sign, I was thrilled. Scott and I jumped around, hugging each other and laughing. As inadequately prepared as I felt, I was very happy.
I’m terrified that I killed my baby. Now, in some of my darker moments, I imagine that having my career for so long, waiting to have a baby, these things caused Spencer’s death. Maybe it was unresolved sins in my past. He was living inside of me, supported by my body and my breath. I’ve blamed secondhand smoke, being out of shape, not attending the temple enough, or drinking Diet Coke while I was pregnant. Maybe it happened while my husband and I made love the weekend before we found out that the baby was dead. Some well meaning people have suggested that my severe morning sickness was the problem. Others blame the stress that I experienced from my job. I’m sure I’ll think of more ways to blame myself because it all seems completely beyond my control. I struggle to deal with problems with no cause. It makes little difference what my doctor says. She says it was a fluke, nothing that I did caused it to happen. Some days I believe her, some I don’t.
I need to know exactly what happened to Spencer. I am so scared [p.172]that he suffered, that I starved him to death. I’ll probably never know, but I hope that he didn’t feel any pain, that his spirit was taken long before his eventual physical demise. The autopsy showed that the cord was attached poorly, and the placenta was malformed and abrupted in one spot. Other than that, we really don’t know why—the baby was perfect, no genetic problems. Placental problems rarely recur, but then only about a million other things can go wrong in pregnancy. I know, because I’ve read about them all. I continue to read medical journals and own over ten books on stillbirth. I need to know that this has happened to other people, not just me. Every time I read or hear the story of a woman having living children after this experience, I feel a tug on my heart. Maybe, just maybe, that will be me.
My pregnancy was not routine. I had severe morning sickness that kept me out of work from the eighth week on. Our ten-week ultrasound was accurate with my dates, but the twenty-week showed that he was only eighteen weeks along. The perinatologist originally said that it was no big deal, they would just change my dates. But as they examined it further after the twenty-two-week ultrasound, he was even smaller. He kept falling farther and farther behind. Friends and family reassured us that he was just a small baby. The first indication of a problem came in mid-January, when my doctor called and told me that the original dates were accurate. I was relieved, but then she dropped a bomb. She strongly recommended an amniocentesis, as this kind of growth retardation is sometimes caused by chromosomal abnormalities. I hung up the phone and sobbed. Something might be wrong with our baby! The next day I called the doctor, ready to take my chances and not have the amnio. She insisted on the amnio, because the baby could be “incompatible with life.”
I was terrified of the amniocentesis, of the giant needle. I was so worried about the baby being hurt. After the procedure I waited the longest two weeks of my life. Everyone close to us was fasting and praying. I thought that if he made it through the amnio all right we were home free. The answer came—“normal male fetus.” I felt as if I’d won an olympic medal. I ordered a complete custom made nursery, arranged to have the baby furniture delivered, and finally relaxed. We celebrated with a romantic weekend in Napa. In eleven short weeks we would finally have a baby, after all these trials.
[p.173]The next morning the sun shone, after weeks of rain. I had a routine office visit, and when I saw the doctor I gloated over the results of the amnio, as if I’d passed some difficult test. I was chatting away about how happy I was when the doctor couldn’t find a heartbeat with the Doppler. I still wasn’t too worried, as I figured that the baby was hiding or her instrument was malfunctioning. I called my husband, and he met me at the perinatologist’s office for another ultrasound. The technician couldn’t find a heartbeat either. I made her check over and over again. She looked at me and flatly stated, “Your baby is dead.”
I couldn’t believe it was true, but my husband was weeping uncontrollably. I kept reassuring him that it would be okay. Our baby couldn’t be dead. And if it really was true, I was honestly disgusted that I had a dead body inside of me. Could that be the same baby who kicked strongly, who was always there for me? All we could see on the ultrasound screen was the spine; the beating heart that I had taken for granted was gone. I kept going back to the amnio, and how happy I had felt that he was all right. I was in shock and denial. I knew that the baby was small, but what caused him to die? I clung to some desperate hope that he would be resuscitated, or that they were mistaken and his heart was still beating. I swore that sometimes I could still feel his little kicks inside of me.
For two days I continued with this hope. We went to the hospital, and after twelve hours of hard induced labor I delivered him. Through the entire labor I imagined that I would actually be delivering a live baby, that this was one of those “modern miracles” that people go on about in testimony meetings. I imagined calling my parents and telling them there was a mistake, that Spencer was a healthy baby boy. When I finally did push him out, he didn’t cry, and I knew that my miracle wasn’t going to happen. The realization hit me like a brick wall. I was scared to see his body, scared that I wouldn’t love him.
I did love him though. From the moment I saw him, I fell in love as I never had before. Cradling him in my arms, I finally felt like a mother, at least for those few hours. He had a perfect little two-pound body, and his blue eyes were intense and beautiful. He had broad shoulders like his dad, and my nose and lips. Scott and I prayed, held him, and talked to him for several hours. I will always cherish that time with him. He was still our son, even though he was dead. We took pictures, and the [p.174]nurses took his hand and foot prints. We felt his love for us, and ours for him. We felt God near. It was actually a spiritual experience and the veil was thin. We felt strongly impressed that we would have more children.
It broke my heart to leave the hospital without Spencer, alone. We came home to an empty house. Those first few days are still a blur to me. I cried continuously and took painkillers to numb myself into a few hours of fitful sleep. I wanted to sleep forever. I couldn’t bear to look into the room we had prepared for him. Thinking about the future—the next day, the next week—was impossible. I couldn’t watch television, read books or magazines. The world stopped for me when my son died. I was left to stare at the ceiling fan and mourn.
Immediately after this tragedy I felt very close to my husband. That emotional intimacy is indescribable. We had both been through a major crisis in the loss of our son, and I knew that he understood me like no other. But that closeness didn’t last. A week after Spencer’s death, Scott went back to work. I felt so alone. I still do. We are grieving very differently. Scott’s approach to grief is to throw himself into his work. His absence has been hard on me and our marriage. We are arguing more often than ever before, over stupid things. We are both committed to our relationship, but I wonder how long this storm will last. I feel abandoned and alone. First I lost my son to death, and then my husband to his job. Every evening we pray together and we feel close. We hold hands and are intimate for those few minutes. We ask the Lord to bless our son and watch over him until we can be with him again, to give us peace. I suppose it’s the stress of losing Spencer that causes us to argue. It astounds me that we can go from feeling so close at our daily prayers to arguing about unloading the dishwasher. Our moods continue to swing wildly. We are trying to communicate and understand each other, and we’re slowly making progress.
Fortunately, my mom came out from Utah after this happened. She helped us with the necessary details. We suffered through a rude sales person at the cemetery, and an insensitive mortician. On top of dealing with our grief, we were forced to discuss cemeteries, plots, gravestones, caskets, ugly things I never imagined myself discussing for my child. “I am only twenty-eight, I’m not meant to deal with death!” I wanted to cry out at the mortuary. For them this was all in a day’s work, but I had [p.175]lost my only son! We didn’t get much comfort from local church leaders, as there is no stated doctrine on stillborn children. We are encouraged to place his name on our family group sheet, to write that he was “born in the covenant.” Our experience, though, has taught us that we will raise him later, after the resurrection. Bruce R. McConkie states that “It would appear that we can look forward with hope and anticipation for the resurrection of stillborn children.” We are comforted by that statement, and we agree with him. We held a small graveside service for Spencer and sang “God Be with You ’till We Meet Again.”
Time has passed slowly. I am still on disability from work, and unsure if I will ever go back to work at all. Two weeks after his death, I figured that returning to work was the answer, turning back the clock, going to a place where I’d been successful before. But in spite of my wish to act as though nothing ever happened, I know I cannot do that, I know that it’s impossible. I am a changed person. I’m thinking about a master’s degree at Berkeley, but more than anything I anticipate my children. I still cry almost every day, and I visit my son’s grave daily and talk with him. I’ve prepared a box for him with his special things: a videotape of his ultrasounds, his bracelet from the hospital, his pictures, mementos from his pregnancy. I’m writing a series of entries in a book to him while I’m at the cemetery or at home thinking about him. There are things that I want to tell him. I want him to know who I am. I want to tell him about my life—my parents, my college experience, my mission, how I met and married his dad—he needs to know his mother. He also needs to know my impressions of him, my hopes for him. Above all, he absolutely needs to know how deeply I love him and how much I miss him. Every entry in the book resounds with this love.
Motherhood has changed my life. The power to help create life, nurture a child growing within, and raise that child amazes me. I’d taken it for granted. I never knew what an absolute miracle it is when a healthy baby is born. I know that we will be with Spencer again. For now I am Spencer’s mother, and the short time that I spent with him will be with me forever. He will always be with me, and I will never stop loving him, for he is my firstborn son.