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April 20, 2018

'I had 3 miscarriages and a stillbirth

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Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a carrier for Turner's syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting baby girls.
The first time I got pregnant, I was 21 years old and wasn't even sure I wanted to be pregnant. I was newly married, working full-time, and in the midst of graduate school—not the most ideal situation for accommodating midday naps and my need to puke every time someone made coffee in the office. Plus, I was on birth control.
So when I saw the positive result on the pregnancy test, I was surprised, and then felt conflicted. My husband and I wanted children, sure, but not yet.
But then the decision was taken out of my hands. I hadn't even made up my mind on how to break the news to him when my period started. It was a couple of weeks late and extra heavy—likely an early miscarriage, the nurse at my doctor's office told me over the phone.
Totally normal, she said, nothing to worry about. So I tried not to. But I couldn't help but wonder what that baby would have been like or how my life would be different.
A year later, at 22, I had graduated with my Master's degree, my husband and I settled into our first home, and we decided it was time to start our family.
I quit the Pill, we tried (daily, ahem), and the very next month we were celebrating around a plastic stick I had just peed all over.
I hit all the first trimester milestones hard—lots of vomit, sore boobs, food aversions, exhaustion, and oh, the peeing— but I didn't complain because the doctor said it was a sign of a healthy pregnancy.
We heard a heartbeat at eight weeks and started thinking of names. At 12 weeks, we announced it to family and friends. And then two weeks later, during a routine ultrasound, there was nothing. The baby had simply stopped developing, its heartbeat gone before I ever felt a kick.
We were devastated by the loss—it turns out losing a baby when you really want one is a heartbreaking experience. My doctor told me to wait to miscarry on my own as that would be easier on my body.
By 18 weeks, I still hadn't miscarried, my body blissfully thinking it was still pregnant even though every scan showed the baby hadn't progressed. Walking around "pregnant" (but not really) for over a month made me a physical and emotional wreck and I started having panic attacks.
Finally, at 20 weeks, they scheduled me for a D&C, a surgical procedure to scrape the remains out of my womb. During the surgery, the doctor perforated my uterus and I spent the next day—Thanksgiving day—hemorrhaging and feverish from an infection. It took me months to finally recover, mentally and physically, to the point where we felt like we could try again.
Two losses in two years was bad luck, but it was totally normal, my doctor said; nothing to worry about. I was worried.
Find out what every woman should know about pregnancy tests:
We got pregnant the first month we started trying, again, but this time we saved our happy dance and big announcement for the 20-week ultrasound. Thankfully everything was progressing well, the baby's heartbeat was still strong and we discovered we were having a girl. We started to buy things. I hand-painted a changing table for the nursery.
Every night my husband read sci-fi books to my stomach. And then it happened again. My belly wasn't growing as much as it should and it was discovered that the baby wasn't producing enough amniotic fluid because something was wrong with her kidneys.
Further testing showed that the kidneys were the least of her problems. The doctors weren't sure exactly what was happening, only that something was gravely wrong with our little girl.
I was in my third trimester and looking obviously pregnant by that point. Each scan showed her heart still beating strong and I could feel her kicks, punches, rolls, and hiccups. I was falling more and more in love with her even as the doctors prepared us for the worst. We might get a miracle, they said, but don't count on it.
We didn't get a miracle. After nine hours of labor, our daughter was stillborn. I'll never forget meeting her for the first and last time. Her sickness was apparent: She had a tumor on her spine, swelling in her brain, her abdomen was filled with fluid.
Yet all I could see were her dark eyelashes curled against her pink cheeks, her tiny fingernails on tiny fingers, her rosebud lips, her perfect chin.
To me, she was beautiful. We spent some time with her, but eventually we had to give her to the nurse, who would arrange for her to be transported to the funeral home where she would be cremated.
That moment, giving my born-still baby away, was, and is, the heartbreak of my life. I'd spent nearly nine months keeping her alive and the fact that she died as soon as she left my body felt like a failure. I was wrecked, inside and out.
Finally, after three pregnancy losses, the doctors decided it was time to do some testing. I was young—just 23—and healthy, this shouldn't have been happening. I was supposed to be in my prime childbearing years; it was supposed to be easy.
The reality was anything but. We discovered that I'm a carrier for Turner's Syndrome, a genetic disorder that only affects girls. It is what killed our daughter and probably what caused the other two pregnancies to end as well, although we couldn't be sure as they weren't tested.
Yet my husband and I still wanted a family. We tried again. When we found out it was a boy—and therefore not susceptible to Turner's—we were overjoyed.
It wasn't an easy pregnancy. Once you've learned babies can and do die before they are born, no pregnancy will ever feel easy. Yet he, followed by his two brothers, were all born happy and healthy.
And then I had another early miscarriage. That loss was painful as we contemplated the doctors' warning that we only had a 10 percent chance of ever having a healthy girl.
How much longer were we willing to play genetic roulette? Perhaps we should just be happy with our boys? But we'd always wanted four kids and in my heart, I wanted to try again—although we agreed this would be our last shot, regardless of how it ended.
(Rejuvenate your body by taking a warm bath with color therapy bath botanicals from the Women's Health Boutique.)
Again, I got pregnant quickly. We held our breath until the 20-week ultrasound, and when we discovered the baby was a girl a collective chill went over the entire room. My pregnancy was deemed high risk and I was sent to a specialist for further testing. They could find no trace of Turner's, which meant she either had a milder form that wasn't detectable yet or that we'd finally gotten our miracle.
I wanted to be hopeful over the next few months but I could barely think about her without panicking. I refused to paint the nursery or decorate. I didn't shop for little clothes, nor would I allow friends or family to buy her anything.
I didn't go to prenatal yoga or join pregnancy groups or even read about pregnancy online, like I had with my boys. I was in deep denial, holding my heart as still as possible as if that could prevent it from breaking again, all the way up until she was delivered. As soon as she was born, as I waited for her first cry, I pleaded, "Is she okay?" When the doctor said she was perfectly healthy, both my husband and I collapsed weeping.
Today our daughter is feisty and beautiful and smart and everything we had dreamed of. But occasionally I look deep in her eyes and see the girls we lost. I wonder what our family would have been like had they lived.
Sometimes I still dream about them. When I talk about them, people often wonder why, asking why I'm not "over it yet" or if my living kids aren't enough. (Which, trust me, my kids are more than enough most days!) But that's the thing no one tells you about pregnancy loss—it's not just the baby that dies, it's all your hopes and dreams, it's the future you thought you had with them.
And it doesn't matter whether you were six weeks along or six months, it still hurts. I lost a part of myself along with those babies and I'll always feel the empty space they left behind.
My experience isn't the only way women experience pregnancy loss and there is no one "right" way to feel about having a miscarriage or a stillbirth.
I've talked to many women over the years who've lost pregnancies and while most have been heartbroken, some have felt relief or felt not much of anything at all. All of those reactions are appropriate. What's important is that we're allowing women to talk about it.
For too long, pregnancy loss has been a silent grief women are expected to bear alone. It's time to bring it out into the open, educate each other, doctors, spouses, and even strangers. Women need this.
When my daughter was stillborn we decided to have a funeral for her. After the funeral, an elderly neighbor approached me, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I had a son who was stillborn but they never let me see him or hold him.
They wouldn't even let me name him, much less have a funeral for him. But since they never admitted he was alive, I couldn't accept he was dead. I've never been able to let him go until today," she sobbed. "Thank you for this funeral, in a way I feel like this was for him too." And it was. It was for all the hidden heartache and unspoken grief and all the lost babies and the mothers who felt lost without them.
Losing a child isn't something you get over, it's something you go through. My grief over the babies I lost doesn't mean I love my living children less, rather it intensifies it, burnishes it, because I know how easily they can be gone. The heartbreak of death is, after all, how we learn to love life. And I love my life.
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