I always thought that the use of the term “expecting” for pregnancy was odd. What are we “expecting”? Expecting a child to be born? Well, obviously. Expecting there to be a child? But the child is already in there: he or she just needs to come out. And just as the child is there, the woman carrying that child is already a mother, already loves like a mother, already worries like a mother, and the father does likewise. Shouldn’t these “expecting” parents instead simply be “waiting”?
But there’s another side to the word “expecting”. It isn’t a guarantee. Nothing is certain: nothing.
Midwifery clients in Ontario are generally given copies of the contents of their files after their post-partum care concludes. The top sheet of paper is the primary sheet of the chart with things like the mother’s health history and dates relevant to the pregnancy. At the bottom of the sheet is a list of topics to be discussed at the monthly appointments. As the pregnancy progresses, one by one that list of topics is completed and checked off. When I was expecting Bubby, my midwife and I were talking during one of our appointments. I was struggling with hypertension and she was worried that I would be terribly upset if my health demanded that we abandon our planned home birth for a hospital birth. She wanted to talk about my expectations. As we talked, I told her,
“To be quite honest with you, I don’t even entirely expect to get a baby at the end of this. I’m keenly aware that sometimes you just…don’t.”
And in that room, while Peanut coloured at a little table under a big, happy green leaf, with glorious sunshine beaming in the window, bathing the room, we talked about stillbirth. We talked about neonatal death. We talked about mothers we’ve known, both in person and online, who have lost babies not early in a pregnancy but late, so late that it is unfathomable, so late that a happy outcome seemed a sure thing. We talked about mothers who have held their baby after a normal birth, awash in the glow of everything going right, who days or even just hours later held that baby as that tiny life slipped from this world.
And we wept. We wept for those mothers and fathers who had something so very precious so fleetingly. We wept as we smiled while talking about the immeasurable value of a photograph of a father holding his child, precious and perfect and entirely still in his arms. The eternal gift of a moment, of just one moment, and the image of that moment frozen, cherished forever.
There is no line-item for stillbirth and death on that page in my chart. It isn’t one of the mandatory topics of discussion. But we must talk about this. We cannot live blindly, ignoring the very truth and reality that mortality is universal: it does not only belong to the old. It walks hand-in-hand with birth. The great fragility of life is part of what throws life’s beauty into such relief to be celebrated.We do a great disservice to families when we speak as though everything were certain. We needn’t dwell on such terrible pain, but likewise we must acknowledge its possibility.
It’s a pain I do not know and have not the gall to suppose that I can imagine. While I was expecting Peanut I felt great surety when I reached 32 weeks. “Now I am safe,” I thought. “Now I can be certain that everything will be fine.” But with Bubby I was not so naive. Better do I now know that nothing is certain. Nothing is safe. As I laboured with Peanut I was never concerned for her safety, so sure was I that everything would always be fine. But as I laboured with Bubby, aware that my own body was failing, I had occasion to wonder after her health. Was she safe? Was she well? What would happen? Birth is as safe as life gets…and life can be painfully uncertain.
I am struck today by the absolute appropriateness of the term “expecting”. When one is pregnant one expects to have a child to hold and kiss and love and nurse and raise into being a strong and beautiful person. But we do not know. We make the best choices that we can, we best our odds for success and health and happiness…and the rest we give up to God.
Because we cannot know for certain. We have only the expectation of joy.