Shifting nervously in my paper gown, I search the room and realize there isn’t a clock. I wonder if that’s intentional, if it is meant to bring about calm for people like me and my husband, as we sit in this windowless, cloud-colored room.
The clinic is quiet as we wait for the doctor who will interpret our ultrasound. The minutes slow and stretch as I take shallow breaths with my hand on my stomach. We were supposed to hear the baby’s heartbeat by now. Our midwife hadn’t been able to find it, but she said that wasn’t unusual in early pregnancy. She sent us to this specialty clinic as a precaution, to make sure everything was progressing as expected. She told us she had seen two other women in the same situation just this week. Their babies’ heartbeats had been found, no problem. I turn her word choice over in my head. Those heartbeats were found, but if a heartbeat is lost, where does it go?
My husband and I start talking to each other and then trail off, afraid to voice our fears that there might not be a heartbeat, there might not be a baby anymore. There is a tap on the door and the doctor enters. She leans gently against the sink, compassion softening her voice and drawing her gaze right into mine, as she tells us that the baby has no heartbeat. It could be a mistake in dating the pregnancy, so we should make an appointment in two weeks to come back and check, just to be sure.
Tears run hot down my face as I choke on my jumbled thoughts. I press the doctor for numbers she is reluctant to give. How much of a chance is there that this baby will live? “Less than ten percent,” she finally admits, “but we will hope for the best.” I excuse myself and rush down the hall, fumbling with the bathroom door as my sobs come out loud and fast.
“I’m so sorry,” say the doctor’s words and face, as she tells us she will see us in two weeks. We will keep hoping.
Two days later, the bleeding starts. We cancel the appointment. There is no baby. There is no need to check for a heartbeat.
A few months later, I find out that I am pregnant again. Joy and terror chase each other around my head. I spend the next six months afraid to say anything concrete about this baby. I begin my sentences with, “If this baby is born,” and, “Maybe …” Fear clenches its relentless grip around my heart as I furtively research pregnancy symptoms and baby registry checklists. I cannot believe that we will really get to meet this little person growing inside of me. But the heart carries on, regardless of the emotional state of the person in which it beats.
At each appointment with our midwives, I hold my breath until we hear the baby’s heartbeat. Every time, it is strong and clear and definite. At our 20-week ultrasound, the doctor tells us, “You have a beautiful baby.” Despite my fear, the baby’s heart is pumping away, a miraculous flutter on the grainy black-and-white screen. There is still a tiny heart cradled in my body, beating and growing, sustaining life and bringing healing.
Our son with the strong heart sits in his high chair at breakfast between my husband and me, looking from one to another. My husband puts his hand on his chest. “Ba boom ba boom ba boom goes Daddy’s heart!” He does the same thing on Julian’s chest, and our little boy dissolves into giggles. “More!” he shouts. “More!”
Later that day, I sit with our boy again in his high chair. He looks at me with earnest concentration, his ocean-colored eyes clear, his forehead furrowed. He touches a small hand to my chest. “Mama heart, “ he says.
Mama heart. These words from my son’s mouth articulate the joy and pain and uncertainty that dance daily within my being. How much can a mama heart hold? How do we make room for all the love, fear, and wonder that welcoming little ones into our lives can bring? I used to think that my heart could not contain it all. The heartbeat we could not hear from our baby who did not live closed my heart down in despair for a time. But it is the work of the heart to open as well as close, to carry us through both the hard and the good times, because that’s what the heart does. Hearts are strong and made to endure, to expand and contract with the changes of life. They keep persevering, leading us on, with each new moment. We grow, life shifts, and our hearts adapt.
My heart is not the same as it once was. I know that this little boy and the baby who came before him have made it bigger. This business of being a mama is the hardest and most glorious work I’ve done. It is a daily, moment-to-moment way of being in the world, and it teaches me that my heart can carry more than I imagined. Joy and pain expand and contract the heart, and the spaces between make room for strength and courage. I celebrate the small joys, and when I stumble, I get up to try again. My mama heart is strong, like my boy’s, and day after day, my heart beats on.
Guest post written by Jordan Miller-Stubbendick. Jordan lives outside of Buffalo, NY with her husband, toddler son, and golden retriever. She is a writer and Lutheran pastor who loves books, daydreaming about her next meal, and the transformative power of stories to humanize and connect us to each other. She is learning to exhale, stay present to what is right now, and take this thing called life one day at a time.