My firstborn daughter, Poppy, never took her first breath. She was stillborn at full-term. Many of the parents reading this blog will unfortunately relate. It’s tragic when a baby dies, and I’d like to share a sentiment that anchors me to my purpose as a bereaved mom: While she lived within me, I breathed for Poppy—my lungs were hers too. I also survived her death, and I am still breathing—for the both of us.
I’ve just published a memoir about Poppy. Still Breathing: My Journey with Love, Loss, and Reinvention is the culmination of thousands of hours of writing, believing, and revising. In this blog, I share the divine process by which I landed on the book’s title. I hope the NILMDTS audience will not only understand but find solace and inspiration in these words.
Last June 2021, I escaped home life for the weekend to visit with friends north of my home in Brier, Washington. My friend Jenn reached out to me after I made a Facebook post admitting how hard the pandemic had been on me as a social extrovert and a parent (at the time my rainbow was 3.5). Jenn offered the whole family an opportunity to come up for the weekend. I thanked her and admitted I needed to get away alone. She was more than accommodating, and Eli, my husband, agreed to hold down the fort at home.
The moment I hopped in the car, I felt a wave of relief rush over me. I was going to get time alone to write, to think, and to visit with a friend. After buckling up and backing out of our driveway, I opened the Stitcher app on my car dashboard to find a podcast. One of my all-time favorites, Radiolab, had just released an episode entitled “Breath”. Feeling like that was the theme of my weekend, I selected the episode and started to listen.
Within seconds, I found myself holding my own breath when the podcast host Annie McEwen explained she wanted to explore a question: “How does a baby take its first breath?”
My heart skipped a beat: “Really?” I thought to myself. “Of all the podcasts this is the one I pick?” I pressed pause and I placed my hand on my chest: “Do I want to listen to this story? Do I want to learn about something Poppy never got to do?”
I took a deep breath and decided I’d give it a try. If I felt triggered or if it didn't feel right in my body, I would stop listening. I pressed play and let the story unfold. What I learned next was out of this world.
Annie went on to describe the process of a baby’s transition from a water world to an air world as “totally bananas”. With the help of pediatric infectious disease doctor Rishi Desai, they explained how a fetus breathes.
“For a fetus, the oxygen comes from Mom…the mother.” I’ll paraphrase the conversation Annie and Dr. Desai have next. When mother takes a breath, oxygenated blood travels down to the placenta, the placenta grabs the oxygen and puts the oxygen into the fetus’s blood and then that blood gets shunted into a giant vein that zooms it up to the baby’s heart through a trap door between the left and right atrium. There the oxygenated blood mixes with the deoxygenated blood and gets sent out to the rest of the baby’s body. Carbon dioxide from the baby will eventually be passed back to the mom and she will carry that in her blood to her own right atrium and then to her lungs where she’ll breath it out. Because the fetus isn’t breathing for itself, its lungs are never a part of the process.
I’ve carried two pregnancies to full-term and on a very base level, I knew I was breathing for my unborn children, but I never understood how it worked. Annie and Dr. Desai go on to explain the shocking and inherently traumatic transition the baby goes through when it moves from its water world to the air breathing world.
As riveting as I found this information, there was a huge assumption the podcast made which isn’t true: all baby’s take their first breath.
Over six years ago, I showed up at the hospital in labor, ready to meet my beautiful child, but we quickly learned Poppy had no heartbeat. I would give birth later that day and although she was born, Poppy would never breathe.
As I drove north on I-5, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and a clear blue sky, I listened with rapped attention as Annie and Dr. Rishi moved on to describe what happens immediately after delivery. I found myself listening to the gasping cries of a baby being born, the first use its lungs, and I thought to myself “Poppy never took that breath, but I am still here, still breathing for both of us.”
And then I knew—that was it—the title of my book: Still Breathing.
I was always breathing for the both of us, and I still am today.
I felt a deep sense of peace and understanding settle into my bones. My breath has been an anchor for me a million times since Poppy died. On average we breath about 22,000 times a day. If we can remember our breath, especially in the painful moments full of sorrow, we will make it through, for ourselves and for our babies, who never got to breath on their own.
As a newly published author, mom of a stillborn and rainbow, wife, mindset coach, friend, and daughter, I choose to remember my breath. Each one is a gift of life that fills and sustains me. Recently diagnosed with breast cancer, I am still breathing—receiving, letting go, practicing self-compassion. I hope that no matter what you have faced and what you are facing now, you will remember your breath and choose love for yourself and for your little ones gone too soon.
Radiolab. Breath. June 11, 2021. Produced by Kielty, Matt, McEwen, Annie, and Molly Webster. WNYC. Podcast, https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/articles/breath