The Woman Parenting Her First Child Like He’s Her Second


Because no two paths to parenthood look the same, the Cut’s How I Got This Baby invites parents to share their stories. Want to share yours? Email and tell us a bit about how you became a parent.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Liz* and her husband married after ten years of dating, in part because they wanted to start a family. Liz had been in grad school for years and finally had a stable job; the timing felt just right. She got pregnant easily and for the first 12 weeks, her pregnancy seemed to be progressing normally. After a routine scan showed this might not be the case, more extensive testing led doctors to reassure Liz everything was fine. Then, at 19 weeks along, her doctor discovered a rare severe abnormality. She describes the moments when the ultrasound technician stopped talking, her mother’s reaction to the fate of her pregnancy, being put in the wrong waiting room, and why she feels like she’s parenting her first child like he’s her second.

On what seemed like an ordinary pregnancy. I got pregnant in the spring. And I felt like everything was fine: I didn’t even have normal problems, no morning-sickness, nothing like that. Right around 12 weeks, there was a routine test — a nuchal test, a blood test combined with an ultrasound — to screen for some of the major chromosomal problems, like Down syndrome.

I kind of knew something was off because the technician was chatty, until she wasn’t. She just stopped talking about the baby. At first I thought I was just being paranoid. Our results weren’t good, though — the measurement wasn’t in the “obviously there’s a problem” range, but it was close.

On reckoning with test results. When the blood tests came back, they also weren’t good — they said we had a one in eight chance of having a significant problem. That was a really hard time for us. I’m a teacher, so I don’t work in the summer, and the 12-week test result was the first week of summer vacation. I didn’t have anything to do or take my mind off anything.

We had gone into the pregnancy saying if the results came back with something like Down syndrome, we would have the baby. I’m pro choice, I always have been; we just felt like we made the decision to be pregnant and if it wasn’t the baby we were expecting, that’s okay. But then when it got to where they’re telling us it’s a one in eight chance of Down syndrome, that was really scary.

I had a CVS really quickly after that, and then it was a week of waiting for the results. I spent the week reading up on Down syndrome, looking at support groups. And then they called and said they’d tested for the most common problems and everything looked fine. It should have been a big relief, but I couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong. I stayed kind of scared during the rest of the pregnancy.

On the scan that changed everything. There’s the big 20-week anatomy scan, where you find out the sex. My doctor sent me in at 19 weeks — I still don’t know if that week is significant. Maybe she was trying to make me feel better, maybe she suspected something, maybe it was nothing. But that was when they found the actual problem.

I had an appointment first thing in the morning. We had a whole plan — my husband took the day off, we were going to go to the Met afterward. It was during the Alexander McQueen exhibit; I’d seen it, but he hadn’t, so we were going to go together.

The same thing happened: The technician was chatty, then got quiet. We could see that the screen would say things like “estimated age 13 weeks,” so I knew something was wrong. But I didn’t know what — maybe some kind of dwarfism. We could live with that, it’s a manageable thing. As soon as the doctor came in the room, I started crying. And he started explaining that it was a lot worse than that.

On finding out the actual problem. It was type II thanatophoric dysplasia, more rare than anything tested for during the 12-week test: The legs and arms are extremely short, the rib cage and the lungs don’t grow to full capacity. But most important, the skull is in a clover shape, which puts significant pressure on the brain. We kept asking if they were sure. The doctor explained to us that it was one of the clearest cases he’d ever seen. Once he pointed it out, I could see it too — it wasn’t subtle.

He explained it was a fatal abnormality. It’s possible for a baby to survive to term, but many don’t, because the skull shape squishes the brain. And even if he did make it to term, he wouldn’t survive very long — just minutes — outside the womb because his lungs would never develop enough for him to breathe on his own. He was going to die. It was just a question of when.

On knowing exactly what she was going to do. They have all this counseling available at the hospital. But we decided that day we were going to terminate the pregnancy.

We’d gone over the idea of him having problems; that was okay. But if he was going to die — I couldn’t see going through another five months of pregnancy knowing he was going to die. And if he died inside the womb, it could cause all kinds of infections and endanger my health. Mostly, I just couldn’t handle the idea of having a baby and not being able to bring him home.

My OB, I assume she had to cancel patients — she met with me that afternoon to walk me through what was going to happen. No one pressured me, but they kept asking me, “Are you sure? You have other options.” There was no way. This is what we were going to do.

On waiting in a room full of babies. The termination was a week later. Well, I mean, it’s an abortion. I was 20 weeks and one day pregnant. It wasn’t just a one-day thing, because what they’re trying to do to make the actual termination easier is get the cervix to open up. They wedge these seaweed sticks, they’re called laminaria, into the cervix; the sticks absorb water from the body over the day and expand — basically forcing dilation. I did that Sunday morning, then Monday morning again, then Tuesday was the termination.

The laminaria procedure was really painful. They do it in the same labor-and-delivery wing where women are actually having babies. That Sunday, the first day we went in, we showed up on time, but the room they were going to put us in wasn’t ready yet. So we were in the regular waiting room, and there were people with newborns, in those little newborn terrariums, moving them down the hallway. I was just crying the whole time. When my doctor showed up, we could hear her down the hall, yelling at the people who told us to wait there.

On anger. The actual termination, I was unconscious. I just remember everyone was so nice. There’s no way this isn’t political: I had a late-term abortion, and I felt so lucky. It was the actual worst thing that could have happened in my life, and I had it as easy as could be. My doctor was supportive, I was in a major city with a nice hospital, I didn’t have to cross picket lines. Nobody argued with me. I’m so angry I have to be thankful for that. It should be that easy for everybody.

On family reception and religion. We both come from Catholic families. My husband and I aren’t religious, but our parents are. I was terrified how my mom would take this. I told her we’d had a scan and there was something wrong and he wasn’t going to live. My mom said, “They’re going to have to take him, right?” and I told her yes. Then she offered to come to the hospital with me. I didn’t want her to come, but it meant a lot to me that she didn’t question this. She’s very pro life — I just don’t think she sees this as a conflict. She was very supportive.

Both sets of parents asked if we wanted to have the baby baptized, which I did not want. If the baby had come to term and been able to live, I wouldn’t have had him baptized either.

During the actual termination, one of the nurses asked if I wanted the chaplain to come talk to me — and I said no, I’m not religious. And she said, “Oh no, I just thought it might be nice to have someone to yell at. This happened to me and I know exactly how it feels. Sometimes you just need somebody to be angry at.”

Other people’s stories. In the week leading up to it, I spent a lot of time googling other people’s stories. I needed to find out that other people had lived through this, because I wasn’t sure I would. And I did, but a story like this was harder to find — most of the internet forums are talking about miscarriage, which isn’t quite the same thing. It’s hard, but it’s not the same kind of hard.

On getting pregnant again. There were rational reasons for going ahead, but for me, it was like, the sooner I was pregnant again, the less it would hurt. Which I don’t think was really true. It was what it felt like, though, and what I expected.

After I did get pregnant again, we were hesitant about having a baby shower. I really didn’t want one. I finally agreed to have one, two weeks before my due date. Even then, we had a lot of trouble talking about names. And when we finally set up the crib, it felt like we’d done something wrong — it was like, oh god, I hope we put a baby in here.

We took one of those birth classes, and it just felt like I wasn’t experiencing pregnancy like other people. We had to go around in a circle and say our fears. For other people, it was like — I really want to have a natural birth, but I’m afraid I’ll need a C-section. Or, I’m really worried about vaginal tearing.

And I was like: Are you fucking kidding me? There’s one thing to be scared of. The only thing to be scared of is, the baby dies.

On the birth moment her husband won’t forget. My water broke at 36 weeks, two days. Labor was pretty fast — about 12 hours, start to finish. Because he was early and small, pushing was easy. It didn’t take long.

I couldn’t see this, but my husband will for the rest of his life: When he came out, the baby was gray, not breathing. My husband had this moment of pure horror. But then, our son was fine: The cord was wrapped around his neck, multiple times apparently. All they had to do was cut the cord and take it off his neck. Within a few seconds, he was okay — crying, healthy.

On parenting your first kid like your second. I have anxiety that he might die, but other than that, I don’t think I have the same kind of anxiety other first-time parents have about being perfect. If you don’t breastfeed for a year, if you don’t get into a certain pre-K, if you give them food that’s not organic or too much screentime — these are not significant worries.

As more people I know are having second kids, I just have this feeling we parent him like a second kid. Because everyone says you’re a lot more chill with the second. I feel like we jumped to that part. I don’t know if that makes me sound like a jerk, but I still have a lot of worry about big problems. Small problems don’t feel like problems. Parents who’ve lost late pregnancies don’t all feel this way, but for me, parenting the child I do have is so joyful it pushed out all the grief. I still think about it. But it doesn’t hurt so much anymore.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

The Woman Parenting Her First Child Like He’s Her Second