A few weeks before Afton was born, I bought a book called The First 40 Days.
Have you heard of the 4th Trimester? You know, those fresh days after you bring your baby home, when you – the powerful, beautiful, natural mother – are reeling and healing and head-over-heels in love all at once? This book embraces the idea that we should look at pregnancy and birth as more than three trimesters. That there’s so much healing and adjusting that needs to happen after a baby is born, and that we should really view those first 40 days after birth as the 4th Trimester.
The book is really beautiful and intentional, and I’d recommend it for any hippie-leaning mama who is preparing for life with a new baby.
But that’s not me anymore.
I need a new book – one that’s written for moms who never brought their baby home. Whose first 40 days included, mainly, surviving the shattering of their own hearts. Instead of giving us recipes for how to promote healing or lactation, this book, in my imagination, would tell us what to eat when we literally cannot find room for anything in our stomachs other than rock-heavy grief.
As far as I know, that book doesn’t exist (does it? please tell) and this post is not my attempt to write that book. I’m in no position to be giving advice. In all honesty, today I could hardly get out of bed and it was 50 degrees in February. 50 DEGREES IN FEBRUARY.
Here it is in all its wordy honesty: a full documentation of the first 40 days without my son.
People often ask me, how are you healing? physically?
And I really appreciate it.
But I have almost nothing to say because, if I’m being honest, having a major abdominal surgery and several very large incisions on both the inside and outside of my body is really a non-issue in comparison to the emotional pain of losing my baby.
For the record, everything seems to be healing just fine. I bought these things which seem to be helping on a cosmetic level, maybe? I guess I didn’t realize that a c-section scar would not heal super smoothly, so there’s that special and very glamorous detail that I will now live with forever. The uneven scar would have really bothered the old Lindsay, but it doesn’t ruffle even one single feather of my new exhausted self. Okay, maybe half a feather. I might still have a little shred of vanity hanging on.
Bottom line – I’m healing. I can sit up, I can walk, it’s all fine. And even though I never wanted a c-section and I definitely never wanted this story, I’m grateful that my body is putting itself back together.
After giving birth at just 23 weeks, my body started producing that liquid gold for my baby, and it was incredible. I’m obnoxiously proud.
I decided to pump and donate milk, primarily because the idea of just stopping lactation immediately upon getting home from the hospital was so heartbreaking that I couldn’t handle it. I knew I needed to have this experience, even if it was just for me.
Meeting a mom and handing her a bag of almost 100 ounces of hard-earned breastmilk that should have been for my son was sweet and weird and super emotional. I thought: maybe I won’t cry. I cried immediately. Her baby was a former one-pound preemie, and the mom hugged me and teared up with me as her happy little buddy smiled at us from the backseat of the car. I smiled back at him and thought: that could have been Afton. That one-pound preemie who grew up to smile happily at strangers could have been my son.
As amazing as the donating experience was, I would do the pumping all over again even if just for me. It was so emotionally healing to just find a quiet place to sit and be close to the memory of my baby every day. I’d hold his blanket and think about him, and a lot of times I’d light a candle or just cry, but staying close to Afton and close to the pregnancy through pumping milk was one of the best things I did in the first 40 days.
It gave me structure, purpose, and a really bittersweet joy. It made me feel like a mom.
I decided to officially stop one month after his birthday. It’s hard to describe the level of emotional pain that I felt as I watched my body produce less and less milk, and then eventually none. There were so many hard changes: My nursing bras no longer fitting. My appetite completely vanishing. The feeling that my heart was literally, physically, breaking. For two days, I had a hard time talking to anyone about anything without needing to leave the room for a good hard sob. Those were some of the darkest days of my life.
Letting go of this crazy-beautiful body miracle has made Afton’s goodbye official for me. He’s here in my heart, yes, always. But he’s not a part of my body anymore.
Sleeping and Eating
Sleep? Sleep has been okay.
The time before I got to bed and the time after I wake up are the hardest for me. Bjork and I realized our differences one morning when his use of the paper shredder just after I had woken up was enough to trigger full-on waterworks. I don’t know why. I don’t even know. It’s just one of those things. When I wake up from sleep, I am so emotionally fragile that I cannot handle a paper shredder.
But sleep is there. It’s happening. And that’s a really good thing.
But oh, the eating, you guys. The eating during these first 40 days has been unlike any other season of my life, and I don’t mean that in a good way. My stomach is constantly full, unnaturally satisfied, not hungry at all, because it’s heavy with emotion and anxiety and grief. There is absolutely no space left for food.
Food fits neatly into two categories: Okay and No.
Right now in the Okay category, we have:
- sugar cereals (calling back to those first trimester days)
- avocado toast
- hot chocolate, of which I can drink exactly one third of a small size from Caribou
- soups and crusty white bread with butter
- chocolate covered animal crackers
- ginger tea
I’m trying to eat just a little bit every day, but even foods in the Okay category are just okay. Nothing tastes good. Nothing gets me excited. It sounds cliche, but it’s the truth. Food has lost its flavor.
Can I just tell you, though? My one successful experience with food came after a day of really struggling to eat. I had picked at my oatmeal that morning (as with almost every morning) out of sheer obligation to keep my body alive and then just skipped lunch altogether because I couldn’t even handle the thought of forcing myself to eat any more food.
That day, Bjork and I went to Afton’s grave. We spent some time just being with him and near him, crying together, loving the sweet spot that we picked for him (pictured above). And when we came back to my parents’ house that evening, I smelled lasagna right when I walked in the door and I came alive. Garlic and cheese and meaty tomato sauce… ah, there you are, hunger. I had a huge bowl of lasagna that night and felt just a little bit like my normal self again.
The strange thing is that every time we spent time with Afton, even after he had passed away, I felt a little bit better. It’s like after I was close to him, holding him or being near him even after he was gone, it pulled up my last reserves of strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It feels symbolic: when I was with him, I was okay for a little while longer. I could eat.
Food = survival in the first 40 days.
If you came for the juicy stuff, this is your spot.
To use a super common analogy, the first 40 days have been nothing short of an emotional shipwreck.
Above all, it’s disorienting. One moment I’m having the thought: “I think I actually love being pregnant,” and the next moment I’m slammed, pinned down under a waterfall of grief, trapped and scrambling to right myself but not knowing which way is up. I find the surface, I catch my breath, I scramble to hold on to Bjork, and then I get pounded again by a new wave. There is heavy water rushing over my head and pushing me back under, and this time I know which way is up a little better than I did before, but I’m also getting tired. It’s getting harder to claw my way back up for air the second, third, fourth time. The exhaustion is bone-deep.
And then between the waves, in the periods of stillness when I come up and catch my breath, I look around and see a wide expanse of open sea in every direction which brings its own type of panic. Here I am, stranded, in the middle of my own ocean of sorrow and confusion. Where is everyone? Just a minute ago, I was on solid ground, safe and naive, and now it will be years before I ever make it to shore. Wait, will I ever make it to shore?
This is where I live now: in the heart-and-soul identity crisis of being a mom but not.
It’s my ocean. I’m out here in the middle of it, miles away from my baby and all the dreams I had for our family, present and future. And what’s really overwhelming is knowing that my new identity – a mom without a baby – is one that I’ll carry for a lot longer than I’d like. Maybe, in some ways, forever.
I’m not a soul without hope. I know that I will be okay, and I know Bjork will be okay, and I know that because we made that promise to our baby as he was dying in our arms.
“It’s okay, Afton. You can go. We will be okay.”
I WILL keep that promise. For him, I will.
But damn. My heart.
Hard Things Vs. Helpful Things
Things that are hard:
- Seeing baby bumps
- Seeing babies, kids, families, and anyone who doesn’t know about Afton… so basically all people
- Looking at social media because the babies are everywhere
- Getting dressed – maternity clothes are too big, regular clothes are too small
- Talking to people without acknowledging Afton
- Making small talk with anyone about anything
- Listening to music without crying
Things that are helpful:
- People asking us questions about Afton
- People making plans with us and understanding if we have to cancel last minute or if we are a little on the socially weird side right now
- People texting us throughout the day just to say, “How are you today?”
- Writing about Afton
- Writing to Afton
- Snuggling with Sage
- Walking with Sage
- Doing anything with Sage
- Following a bunch of animal accounts on social media
- Lighting candles
- Browsing trash magazines
- Binging on TV shows
- Reading about other peoples’ similar experiences with loss
And Now What?
I was probably moderately good at this in my Before Life, but in my current state of mind, my ability to fake my way through anything has gone down to zero percent.
My counselor recently asked me: what feels good right now? And I said: telling the truth.
Which is good – it just means that the hardest possible thing for me to do right now is to pretend to be excited about something I’m not. So I’m going to honor the honesty that this situation is asking of me.
I think the answer to the Now What question looks like slowly trying to cook and eat, just for me, just because. Now What looks like walks with Sage and naps as needed. Now What looks like finishing those thank you cards and finding the right special box for packing away all of Afton’s clothes and blankets. Now What looks like writing posts about whatever is true, and only when the inspiration comes, such as at 1am when I am drafting this post. That night owl lyfe tho.
Now What looks like love and grief in a holy mix: slow and steady, little by little, day by day.
My vision for these next few months involves a slow re-assembling of all the pieces of our life… and the blog sort of coming along with it. My promise to you is that when I’m ready, I’ll write about food. And when I’m not, I won’t fake it.
To all of you who read these posts? Even though it’s such a hard and weird season for us, I’m thankful that you’re here for it. Really, deeply thankful.
I closed my other baby posts with this note, and as I stand here on the other side, I think it’s worth ending with that one last time.
To you mamas who are pregnant – I’m glad you’re here. Please love your precious babies the very best you can. ❤️
To you mamas whose journey involves loss of a pregnancy, a child, or a dream – I now stand bravely with you. I see you, I love you, and I’m cheering for you and your babies.
To you readers who are in a completely different life stage altogether but still show up to be friends on the internet – you are amazingly cool. We’re lucky to have you here.