I was exhausted and physically drained when, at 35 weeks, I started gushing blood in my kitchen just hours before my midwife left for a week-long cruise in Alaska where she would be unreachable on a literal freaking glacier.
It turned out to be a partial placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta begins to tear away from the uterine wall and can cause serious complications, including stillbirth. With my background as an OB nurse, I knew exactly what was happening and I was terrified, believing that I had managed to summon my worst fears into existence and my baby was going to die.
I had allowed myself moments during my pregnancy to picture myself giving birth like a warrior, a fight song playing like a movie soundtrack as I pushed her into the world, the tears of joy that would stream down my face when I finally saw her, the perfect missing piece to my broken heart, and the bliss that would envelop us as we snuggled at home with her siblings. Instead, the whirlwind of a frantic rush to the hospital and anxiety-laden labor left me sitting bewildered and alone in a quiet hospital room as my daughter was whisked to the NICU from my arms minutes after she was born. She stayed in the NICU for a week before we got to bring her home.
Just like my entire pregnancy, my rainbow baby’s birth felt deflating. When we brought her home, she refused to nurse. I got up every hour to try to breastfeed her, then ultimately pump and bottle-feed her. Our nursing struggles led to seemingly endless bouts of mastitis, an infection that can occur while nursing, and I was bed-ridden yet again with crippling fevers. She struggled to put on weight and was diagnosed with acid reflux.
I’d had four kids in six years all by the age of 28 and I still had no idea this to-the-bone level of exhaustion was possible. I felt helpless, like a failure of a mother.
Giving birth brought up the stuffed-down emotions I had over my miscarriages; I found myself grieving them all over again, as if I was apologizing that they could not have been born too. As if in celebrating her, I was failing them. None of it was like I thought it would be. None of it was like I thought it “should” be.
The truth is, I had internalized the message that a rainbow baby experience “should” be wonderful and magical and joyful to the point that I felt guilty for feeling anything other than pure happiness. I struggled with the thoughts that I wasn’t being grateful enough or that I simply didn’t try hard enough. I felt ashamed that I was struggling.
It took me some time, but I finally was able to realize that the truth is, there is no “right” way to have a rainbow baby.
I am allowed to admit my rainbow pregnancy was hard. I am allowed to admit that my birth experience didn’t go the way I had pictured it. I am allowed to admit that the postpartum and newborn stage was overwhelming me. I am allowed to admit that I still missed my other babies even though I have my rainbow. We are allowed all of this, because even though rainbow babies are painted in an idealized, glowy, romanticized way, for moms who have experienced loss the reality can be a little different.
As the fog of the NICU stay and sleepless nights and fears over losing my baby have finally begun to settle down around me, I am finally beginning to see that our experience for what it is: Maybe it’s not the Instagram-worthy rainbow baby story I had hoped for, but it is ours. The reality might be a messy and imperfect stumble down an unexpectedly rocky path, but hey, if that’s not motherhood, I don’t know what is.
Today I keep a picture of myself pregnant with my rainbow baby in my office, and even though my 11-year-old rolled her eyes so hard when she saw it—“You just think you’re that beautiful, huh, Mom?”—I refuse to take it down. Because when I look at it, I am reminded that I made it. I look at that image, and despite the Instagram-perfect scene with the field and flowing dress, I remember how hard it really was. I look at that image of a woman trying so hard to be happy and serene and lit up with magic, and I remember that the hard parts, invisible as they may be to others, can be beautiful too.
Chaunie Brusie is a writer in Michigan covering parenting, health, and finances. Follow her @chauniebrusie.