Suicide By Childbirth
Recently I was having a discussion with my friend about suicide. It’s never an easy thing to talk about. I was sitting in the passenger seat of his little fuel-efficient car, legs curled up to my chest, tears streaming down my face, holding his hand as I cried and told him the story of my best friend who had taken her own life three years before.
I’d known him for a year, and he had not heard this story yet because, although I’m a storyteller, this one was too raw to share. The wound was still open.
I had yet to visit the site where she died. I wanted to. I thought about it a lot. I imagined pulling over on the little two-lane mountain road, about an hour’s drive from the quiet, suburban town where she and I had lived only half a mile apart. What would happen next, I wasn’t sure.
Maybe I’d have written her a letter and I’d paper-airplane-it down into the gorge. Maybe I’d bring a flower — maybe a rose, although she’d have thought that was trite and ridiculous.
Most likely I’d offer that fucking gorge nothing but my guttural rage, and my screams of protest and pain would go right over the edge— just as she had.
Maybe they’d reach the bottom and echo against the very rocks that broke her body, and maybe that would somehow help me heal and get a message to her that she wasn’t lost from this world, after all.
But I hadn’t been able to bring myself to do it yet. I certainly hadn’t intended to do it that day when we decided to take an impromptu drive into the mountains to escape the oppressive Phoenix heat. We were about two miles away when I realized that we would be going over that bridge — her bridge.
Suddenly, I couldn’t breathe. He offered to stop so that I could collect myself. He offered to pull over and turn back.
“We don’t need to take this trip today.”
“Yes, we do.”
This article is not an advocation of suicide. This is not a justification or a co-signing of taking one’s life as a solution to any problems. This is a story about how little self-awareness people can have when they are in a headspace which offers no escape.
It’s about how all of the things that are most important to a person — the people we love and the values we hold sacred — can fade into the blurred edges of the tunnel vision that comes with the prospect of relief from soul-crushing pain.
My brother-in-law killed himself 9 years ago. My best friend killed herself three years ago. There have been five suicides at my daughter’s high school in the last school year.
It’s something we have to talk about.
During this conversation and drive over the bridge that I blame for taking my best friend’s life, I told my friend that I had never considered suicide — that I’d never seen that path as a viable option. He said that I was lucky and that, unfortunately, he had spent some time in that very headspace. It was difficult for me to conceive of this man, whom I respected and admired, feeling that his life wasn’t worth living. I got to thinking about the low points in my life and why I had never considered suicide as a viable out.
That’s when I realized that I had.
After giving birth to my fourth baby, my uterus was trashed. Like ‘dumpster fire’ trashed. It had never been top-shelf quality. I mean, it did its job… housed, fed, and brought forth five beautiful babies. But if there had been a “Uterus Olympics,” mine wouldn’t have even made it through the local qualifier. None of my babies cooked the full forty weeks. My pregnancies were laden with all manner of complications. If my uterus deserved an award, it was for participation.
Adding injury to insult, two weeks after said fourth birth I suffered a surgical accident — a substantial (several inches long) perforation through my uterus — during a routine dilation and curettage (D&C) that was performed to stop me from hemorrhaging.
Unlike a small, tidy C-section scar, the perforation was a long, jagged, murderous slash that cut through my uterus, nicked my intestines, and turned my 30-minute D&C into a 6 hour, open-abdominal surgical repair.
My doctor made it clear during my post-op appointment that additional pregnancies would threaten my life. He mused that the loss of one Fallopian tube and scarring which would inevitably occur due to the process of the repair, I would be unlikely to get pregnant, anyway.
“Don’t even try,” was his advice.
“Come back for a hysterectomy in 2–3 months.
“I mean it, AJ. You need to be done. Want to live to raise those girls? No fifth.”
“Okay. Whatever you say, Doc.”
It was a lie. My family didn’t feel complete. Maybe the desire for another came from the leftover grief I felt following the adoption of my first child. Maybe it was a product of the residual fear of loneliness carried over from my childhood. Maybe it represented a way out of the emotional neglect I suffered in my miserable marriage.
There are pieces of truth in all of those theories.
Even though I wanted another baby, I went ahead and scheduled the hysterectomy at the insistence of my doctor. Two months later, my husband came home from work and told me to text my doctor and cancel the hysterectomy that was scheduled for the following day.
He said he couldn’t get off work, but the truth was that he didn’t want to have to take care of the kids by himself while I was healing. He knew he’d be inconvenienced whether I lived or died.
“Cancel it, AJ. You don’t need it anyway. You’re fine.”
“Okay. Whatever you say, Hubs.”
Also a lie.
My fourth daughter was one week shy of her first birthday when I discovered I was pregnant again.
Shit, shit, shit.
(Yay! Yay!! Yay!!!)
How the fuck am I going to tell my husband? Or my doctor? Or my family?
At this point, my marriage was trashed. Like ‘dumpster fire’ trashed. It had never been top-shelf quality. I mean, It did its job…housed, fed, and brought forth four beautiful babies. But if there had been a “Marriage Olympics,” mine wouldn’t have even made it through the local qualifier. I was intellectually, emotionally, and sexually unfulfilled. My husband was psychologically, emotionally, and sexually unfulfilled. If my marriage deserved an award, it was for participation.
I was nine weeks pregnant with the ill-advised baby when I started bleeding. It started slow but progressed to gushing over a matter of days. I had three ultrasounds over the next three weeks to check on the fetus. She was strong and alive in all three, and yet I continued to bleed. My doctor presumed it was due to the scar from the perforation. He told me to put my feet up and take it easy until the bleeding stopped and that 90% of these kinds of bleeds would resolve on their own with rest.
In my house, “rest” wasn’t possible, if everyone was going to get their needs met. In my house, my husband and I had a distinct and absolute division of labor that had evolved over the previous seven years: he went to work, and I did literally everything else.
I didn’t get a hall pass from my domestic responsibilities just because I was pregnant and bleeding.
On Feb 1, 2009, at 13 weeks pregnant, I attended a Super Bowl party with my husband and children. I did not want to go. I went against my better judgment and with the help of some guilt-ridden goading from the hubs about how he was never able to see his friends and or do anything fun.
I probably should’ve said something like, “I understand you have social needs that our family doesn’t meet, but I want to stay alive and want our baby to stay alive, so feel free to take the kids. I’m not going.”
But I didn’t.
Making myself small was my thing. Being “Mommy, the Martyr” worked for me, somehow.
I was sitting on a couch in the back bedroom of a crowded, obnoxiously loud house full of my husband’s drunk friends, rocking my overstimulated autistic daughter in my arms on the couch, watching through the window as my two older children played in the backyard when I felt an all too familiar warm, wet rush between my legs. I stood up to find myself light-headed and an ominous red stain on the couch where I had been sitting. I was hemorrhaging.
I tracked down and handed parenting responsibility to my irritated husband, who, as always, didn’t think I really needed to go and was pissed that I was ruined “the one damn thing I wanted to do for myself.”
I drove myself to the ER, sitting on a towel I had snatched from the guest bathroom, so that I didn’t ruin the upholstery in my car.
In triage at the ER, holding the blood-soaked towel between my legs, they determined I was in shock from blood loss, ordered a blood transfusion, and wheeled me to ultrasound.
Five days and two additional blood transfusions later, I gave birth to her tiny shell alone in the hospital with the help of meds to soften my cervix. My body refused to release her on its own.
It was willing to bleed out, but not let her go.
The baby was a girl. My fifth girl. I named her Madeline. She was developmentally perfect.
That’s how I knew it was my body that had let her down. It’s not like she had a genetic defect. My uterus failed — I failed to keep her safe, and she had died as a result. I blamed myself for not resting. I blamed my husband for not letting me rest. I was angry and despondent.
I was a failure as a wife. I was a failure as a mother. I was a failure as a woman.
I killed my child.
If anyone was going to die, it should’ve been me. Maybe that’s where I got the idea. I honestly don’t know.
I went home with a plastic red rose, a pamphlet on maternal grief and the sound of newborn baby cries — the ones I had listened to for five lonely nights in the darkness of my hospital room — echoing in my head.
The fights I had with my husband about having another baby were epic, by our standards. We were more the ‘passive-aggressive/don’t talk to each other for three days’ types. Not the, “Will you please lower your voice? The children will hear you!” types.
I pushed. He refused. I pushed harder. He refused. He was worried I would die quickly if I had another baby. I was scared I would die slowly if I didn’t.
I offered a deal:
“Listen. The Dr. said I wasn’t supposed to be able to get pregnant anyway. I have two months until I turn 30. Can we please, please, please just ‘not try, but not prevent’ until my birthday??? If it’s meant to be, it will happen. If it’s not, it won’t, and I will schedule my hysterectomy. Please. I can’t have that horrible trauma be my last experience with childbearing. My heart is fucking broken.”
I can’t recall needing anything more than I needed to have that baby.
“Fine. Two months. And if we do have a baby, you have to get up with it every night when it cries. I’m not doing it. ”
I found out I was pregnant on Mother’s Day.
And an incredible sense of peace settled over me.
It was meant to be.
Not surprisingly, my doctor didn’t agree with my “meant to be” assessment when I went to his office at six weeks along to start my maternity care. He was incredulous to find me pregnant again.
“I didn’t believe it when I saw your name on my patient list today as a ‘New Pregnancy’ patient. I thought they got you mixed up with someone else.”
— silence — shrug —
“Do you want to die?”
— Pause —
“Then I am obligated to recommend that you terminate this pregnancy and, at the very least, have your tubes tied. Everything will be done in the hospital and with full insurance coverage because I will certify that it’s being performed to save the life of the mother. I’ll do it myself, AJ. I’ll be right there with you.”
He was a very kind, very warm-hearted, very Mormon doctor for whom abortion goes against everything he holds sacred. And here he was, not just offering me the option, but recommending that I have an abortion — one that he would perform himself.
He didn’t want me to die and he believed that I would.
As I refused, his eyes turned glassy.
He then recommended that I let him tie my tubes at the conclusion of the pregnancy, regardless of whether the pregnancy resulted in a live baby or not. I agreed. I knew this would be my last child, one way or another. I didn’t need any more chances. This would be it.
As I opened to the door to leave the exam room, I paused.
“Dr. W… I need you to know that if it ever comes down to it, I want you to save her and not me.”
He looked up at me from writing his notes with equal parts sorrow and pity behind his eyes and said, “The fact that you’re continuing this pregnancy makes that abundantly clear, AJ.”
It wasn’t a mother’s love. It was suicide by doctor.
And he knew it, even if I didn’t at that moment.
We didn’t tell any of our family or friends that I was pregnant until we couldn’t hide it anymore physically, around six months. They all thought we were fucking crazy. They thought I had a death wish. Not one of them expressed excitement or anything resembling congratulations at the onset.
In retrospect, I couldn’t blame them.
I imagine that it’s difficult to be happy for someone you love when they tell you they are going to take a nap on a set of train tracks.
They must be fucking crazy. They must have a death wish.
They must be suicidal.
You don’t cheer for that.
The pregnancy was fraught with peril. I started bleeding at the same time as I had with the last baby. It was my perforation scar wreaking havoc. This time, I gave myself a pass on my proportion of household labor. I simply refused. The housekeeping went to shit. I met basic needs, and that was it. The bleeding stopped just before 12 weeks. That was just the first hurdle.
Over the next 4.5 months, I had three blood transfusions due to severe anemia, hydronephrosis of my left kidney that required drainage (which would’ve lead to kidney failure), peripartum cardiomyopathy (early-stage heart failure), and I started having small contractions around 30 weeks. None of it scared me. I knew that it all had to happen, somehow. The goal was to get to 35 weeks for a scheduled C-section. We made it to 33.
This isn’t a heroic story of “a mom willing to risk it all to give her child life.” That sounds noble and dignified. There was nothing noble and dignified about intentionally putting my life at risk with the likely outcome being leaving my existing children motherless.
It seems so obviously reckless now.
My mindset is really difficult to come to terms with. How do you say out loud, “I was so fucking miserable that I was willing to orphan my babies to escape my pain?”
Just like that, I guess.
Even more selfishly, I would never have taken my own life in a way that was apparent to anyone around me. I could never have openly hurt my children and my family. But the suffering I endured in a lonely and broken marriage, the chronic sorrow of coming to terms with parenting a child with a disability, and the soul-crushing grief of my failure having cost one of my babies their very life, and the lingering trauma of my childhood rendered mine unlivable.
Death by childbirth felt like an out — a justifiable shot at redemption. If I lived, I’d have my complete family to love and care for. If I died… sweet relief from the accumulation of the everyday tragedies that had made my domestic life, the only adult life I knew, intolerable, and full of despair.
My precious Mattalyn was born seven weeks premature. She was due February 6th, but her birth date is December 16th. I started bleeding and contracting on the morning of December 15th and was admitted to the hospital that same day. They gave me yet another blood transfusion, and she was born via C-section at 8 am that next morning.
During my C-section, under anesthesia and strapped to an operating room table, my heart began to fail. It was exhausted and ready to let go, just like me. They called it “cardiac decompensation,” but the reality is that my journey was complete. My family was complete. I didn’t want to be a wife anymore. I had redeemed myself as a mother. The failure and weakness that had cost my Madeline her life was now paid for by risking my own life to bring forth my final child.
Her name was Mattalyn.
We named her after my husband’s brother who had committed suicide the year before.
I kissed her face and let go.
My doctor pulled me back.
I woke up in the ICU hooked up to all kinds of heart monitors and machines. Mattalyn was in the neonatal intensive care unit.
4lb, 6oz, 16 inches long. She was so tiny I could hold her in the palms of my hands. But in relation to the other babies in the NICU, she was huge. She was hearty. She was a fighter.
I felt her skin on my skin — finally — 14 hours after she was born. She was strong. They laid her on my bare chest, right over my heart that still wasn’t convinced it wanted to continue beating.
I put her to my breast, and she nursed. I breathed in her smell and her essence. This girl was powerful. She was brave. She was here. And so was I.
Neither of us was supposed to make it through that. I hadn’t believed that we would. And yet there we were.
I didn’t know at the time that Mattalyn would be diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy eight months later. I didn’t know that she was also born with a defect in her spinal cord that would cause her pain and weakness in her legs for a lifetime.
I didn’t know that I would live the rest of my life with the guilt that I did those things to her.
I now have two kids with developmental disabilities. That’s life. It’s our life and a life I am grateful for.
It took a long time to realize what I had done and why I did it.
My best friend killed herself five years after Mattalyn was born. She jumped off this bridge.
I remember hearing people say, “How awful for those children! How could she be so selfish?” I replied with silence. I couldn’t bring myself to judge her choice. I knew her demons. They were loud. They were persuasive. They were monsters that she lived with every day. And I was no different.
She chose a bridge. I chose childbirth.
There’s a shameful part of me that thinks she was brave and I was weak. I’d never had the courage to jump — but she did. I’m also beyond thankful that my suicide attempt failed. I believe that, if she were here, she would wish that hers had failed, too. I wish hers had failed. She had three beautiful children who miss her everyday…whose lives will never be whole again. They will always miss their mom. I will always miss their mom…so goddamn much.
But I can’t be mad at her.
I can’t hate her.
I can’t judge her.
I wish I’d been there to pull her back.
I was drowning in despair when I conceived Mattalyn — grasping at straws. I wasn’t brave, and I wasn’t strong.
I conceived Matty to have a justifiable out. Instead, she saved my life. Each of my babies did, in their turn. They each sustained me long enough to bring the next one until I was strong and self-aware enough to sustain myself.
Is that the “right” reason for having children? Fuck, no. But how many children are born for the “right” reasons? I most definitely wasn’t. How many of us were conceived with less than virtuous motive or intent? Or by accident? Or by force?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it matters less how we get here than how we are treated once we arrive.
And I believe that I was, indeed, drawn to have her because I knew that if I didn’t, I would die long and slow, anyway. Instead of childbirth, I may have eventually chosen a bridge. I may have chosen starvation. I may have chosen pills.
Having her gave me at least a chance to live.
I am grateful that we are both alive. She’s the strongest person I know. Her body remembers the womb. It remembers the following two years of hospital visits and therapy and leg braces and surgeries and G-tubes and ambulance rides. It remembers that it has a spinal defect that makes her movements more difficult than they have to be. And she refuses to let any of that stop her from living.
How could I bring her into this world and ask her to face challenges that she didn’t ask for, and yet be unwilling to face my own? How could I watch her struggle daily with things that are easy for the rest of us and not be willing to struggle myself? How could I ask her to face the pain that each day brings and be unwilling to face my own pain so that, just like her, I can grow and be better and stronger?
I gave Matty life, and she saved mine.
And anytime I need a reminder; I watch that kid for five minutes. I watch her sustain herself through the challenges, struggles, and pain that she faces every day. I watch her refuse to give up and accept defeat, even when presented with a formidable obstacle.
I watch her stop in front of a set of stairs that are difficult for her to descend, pause for a second, and then announce that she’s a mountain lion and go down backward using both her hands and feet, growling and roaring all the way.
She doesn’t make herself small. She doesn’t try to disappear. She makes herself big. She makes her presence known. She makes sure she is heard.
I’m working on not making myself small. Not trying to disappear. I’m trying to make myself big. I’m trying to make my presence known and make sure I’m heard.
I’ll never stop trying because I don’t want her to stop either.