With each of our pregnancies, my husband and I have had a difficult time treating the life inside me like it actually was a life. I don’t mean that we have ever believed that it wasn’t — just that the feelings don’t seem to come naturally. It is not always easy to actually treat a son or daughter like a son or daughter when you can’t yet see them, can’t yet feel them, and don’t know much about them.
But feelings are adaptable. We can train ourselves to feel the emotions that don’t come naturally by acting like we already feel them. This requires that we be proactive in how we talk and think about the baby. Here are some of the habits that have helped us do that:
1. We give the baby a name before we know the gender. Our first unborn baby was Baby Hope. Our second, Baby Peace. Our current, Baby Faith. We never decided to have this particular theme — each name just came to us based on how the baby’s presence in our life was affecting us. By naming the baby we stopped calling him/her an “it.” We felt our feelings for the baby instantly grow and evolve. We still often call our first baby (Joseph) Baby Hope, and he fits the title quite well! For the baby we lost to miscarriage, the name stuck permanently. Our friends and family know about Baby Peace and it’s so much easier to think of, reference, and remember her with a clear name attached.
2. We follow the biological development of the baby and celebrate the milestones. In the same way that we celebrated our toddler’s first steps and words, we celebrate when our unborn baby first has a heartbeat, when he/she can hear, etc. We celebrate them not as foreshadowing of a future but as facts of the present. I know I cherish the moments I got to hold Baby Peace inside me, not for what they could have been but for what they actually were.
3. We tell loved ones early. Now, I know this will not work for everyone. In the same way that the parents of a very sick child want to shield that child and themselves from people who will be harsh and cruel, the parents of an unborn baby with a high risk of dying in the womb naturally want to shield that baby from the indifference of our world’s approach to unborn babies. If I felt that my friends and family wouldn’t properly recognize the baby and/or support me if something happened to the baby, I would do what I needed to do to protect that baby and my family— and that might mean not telling. But we do have a good support system and so we tell. And yes, our miscarriage made for a few painful, awkward conversations. But I believe it was worth it. Death is inevitably painful and awkward but death is always a possibility and I would rather have people there to mourn with me than have to go through it all alone.
4. We don’t resist planning and dreaming. I know the fear all too well — the fear that I’ll have to undo all of that planning and dreaming if the baby doesn’t live. With our Baby Hope I spent so much of the pregnancy hesitant about preparing anything. I was even hesitant to really believe I was pregnant. I kept waiting on all these safe zones like “twelve weeks” or “the twenty week ultrasound” before relaxing and letting myself love. And it was so miserable! Because I needed to love. That sad attempt at detachment contradicted everything else I needed to feel and caused me so much anxiety. Conversely, with Baby Peace, I allowed myself to freely plan and dream. When the miscarriage happened, sure it was painful, but I don’t regret the weeks of being happy about it all. I don’t regret my dreaming because it was time spent getting to know and love my baby.
5. We plan to tell our other children if there is a new baby. Our two year old son knows about Baby Faith. I’m sure that if something were to happen we would probably have to explain it to him and that would be painful. But there are so many things to shield our children from and I actually think that death shouldn’t be one of them. Because by shielding our children from death we inevitably shield them from fully understanding life. If this baby is a member of my family I want the other members to know about him/her, even if he/she happens to die too early and even if such a death inevitably causes pain.
6. We find out the gender. Now, I’m definitely not saying this is the correct approach for everyone. I’ve heard some beautiful stories about finding out the gender at birth (husband gets to announce it, the name comes about more spontaneously, the birth is even more surprising than it already is, etc). In a world that often over-focuses on whether you have a boy or a girl or an equal number of each, not finding out can be such a refreshing decision. I often hear people say we just don’t mind either way. This is wonderful! But we don’t find out because we want one or the other; we find out because it is part of an effort to get to know our unborn babies better; by knowing the gender we feel we know them better. We know their permanent name. How wonderful it was to look at that ultrasound with my husband and say with joy, “Hello Joseph!” My feelings after that moment intensified so much for my baby. Not because he was a boy rather than a girl, but because I knew him a little better and that helped me love him better. Again, I’m not saying this is best for everyone. But I do think there’s a stigma about finding out, as if it implies you have a preference. It shouldn’t have anything to do with preference and it should have everything to do with getting to know someone you love.
7. We try our best to act like there’s a baby in our presence. This means we talk to my belly. It means I will let friends and family and strangers touch my belly. It means I let people pray over my belly and bless my belly. It means I let things sometimes be awkward because I want people to feel free to get to know that baby. Yes, sure, that baby happens to be in my body which makes things kind of complicated. But he/she is still a unique and separate person. And I want people to get to know that person. I want people to have the freedom to love that person.
What’s so cool is that you really can love an unborn baby. I don’t just mean love as a choice. I mean that you can actually develop those loving feelings. I think sometimes we fear that feelings for another person are impossible unless we know his or her “personality.” That may be true. But it’s equally true that you don’t need much to go off of to get a taste of that personality. A kick, a funny movement on an ultrasound, even just the timing of a positive pregnancy test — and you can intuit all sorts of things about an unborn baby. And what if you end up being wrong? What if that super active unborn baby turns into a super chill kid? Well, children change. People change. It’s the core personhood that remains the same. The evolving personality is just there to help us fall in love.