I hang up my Skype call to my therapist and see that NPR has a story on new studies that link higher autism rates to older parents, specifically mothers over 40 and fathers over 50. They do not mention the rates for 48-year old fathers. As my son says, “I turned sad.” I promised myself a year to work through my grief before I decide yes or no to another pregnancy, and that year is coming to a close. I am almost 43 years old. My first two pregnancies were unplanned, but now I am in a different position. I imagine a healthy baby in our house so that my tender son can grow up with a living sibling. But I now know many things that I wish I could unknow. It isn’t just the three trisomies that concern me, it is many other defects and illnesses that I had never heard of before. And of course there are the usual worries such as miscarriage, SIDS and increasing rates of many chronic childhood disorders, including learning disabilities, diabetes and cancers.
Most grief books about baby death discuss a subsequent pregnancy. Some people get pregnant right away thinking that this will take away the pain of their previous pregnancy, though it does not. One baby cannot erase the pain of missing another baby who has died. Others choose never to have another pregnancy, never to take a chance on another baby having the same disorder or defects. Some parents decide to adopt, and several people have suggested that to me. Adoption takes advocacy, and I’m burnt out after taking care of my terminally ill aunt and fighting to give my daughter a quiet homebirth. At 43 my husband and I have a 95% chance of having a child without the three trisomies. I am a worrier by nature. My parents each passed on a worry gene and the outcome is one very neurotic daughter. After a pregnancy that ends in death, what comes next?
My friend Yana has a daughter who needs a liver transplant. Her daughter is two years old now and will probably have the surgery in a couple of years. Yana and her husband each carry the gene for Crigler-Najjar Syndrome. Each of their pregnancies brings a 25% chance of this disorder. They asked themselves if they could handle another child with this disease and they decided that they could. They just birthed a healthy baby girl. My friend, Terry, on the other hand gave birth to two daughters with cystic fibrosis and they both passed away. She also had a 25% chance of this disorder with each pregnancy. She does not regret her children, nor when her doctor suggested an abortion during her second pregnancy did she ever wish that she had made a different choice. Mary Rose’s trisomy 18 was a random defect. The rates go up slightly as women get older. There was about a 2% chance of having a child with trisomy 18 at 42 years old.
In my dreams my grandmother, Despinaki, speaks to me. She says “You’re not a young girl of 25. I have a baby to send you. The hour is good.” I see her with Mary Rose and they are smiling and beaming their rays of Light. In meditation I connect to the spirit of a child that I have felt around me for decades. She says, “You still haven’t learned to trust God completely.”
Sometimes I repeat Byron Katie’s words “I want whatever God wants” and mean them with all of my being. There are moments when I know that no matter what I choose or what I do I will be alright. After Mary Rose’s death I told my therapist how scared I was that my son would die too. We looked at that fear, and I realized that if that happened somehow I could survive that too. We humans are survivors. Look in the cracks of the sidewalk and see how life seeds itself and grows up toward the sun.
I am thinking of Stanley Kunitz’s poem “Touch Me” where he writes about his garden and crickets and asks
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
What are my desires? Do I desire another pregnancy to heal this one? To end my childbearing years on a different note? And then I remember Jean Valentine’s poem “The River at Wolf” where she reminds me
Blessed are they who remember
that what they now have they once longed for.
What do I long for now? A healthy baby in my arms or any baby? Could I handle another Mary Rose? A child with another illness, severe or not? Would I ever regret the outcomes of another pregnancy? It is almost time to answer these questions. Fertility rates drop dramatically between 41 and 43 years old. I do not know what the next few months or years will bring, but I know that I agree with Byron Katie about something else. She says that life breathes us, that if we don’t have the answer yet then it isn’t time to make a decision. Katie says that when the decision has to be made it makes itself. So I am waiting just a little bit longer to see what that decision might be.
Krista Tippett interviewed Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche, on her radio program On Being. I listened to the interview this week. He talks about the communities that he founded for people with disabilities and about the “equilibrium of the heart.” He finds that when you open your heart to be present to people considered ugly and broken by others you find peace. There among the dark places of our illnesses we find peace and therefore God. Vanier tells a story about St. Francis and how he hated lepers. St. Francis said “One day the Lord brought me to the lepers and when I left there was a new gentleness in my body and in my spirit. From there I really left to serve the Lord.” What is it inside of us that turns away from people with disabilities and illnesses? Even St. Francis had trouble with the lepers of his time. When my aunt was paralyzed in her hospital bed, swollen from steroids, friends and relatives said “I can’t look at her like that,” and some stopped visiting her. I looked at her and touched her. I brought my son to her as an offering and he kissed her and played on her hospital bed amidst the body that could no longer do what she wished it to do.
And my daughter, my six pound baby, who could only open one eye, whose head was too big, chin too small, feet too long, heart broken, whose muscles had no tone at all, whose limbs splayed and whose jaw drooped open, I held that child and loved her in the murky waters of her birth. I was still. I told her she could go to her heavenly place, that we would be okay. My husband, son, mother, midwives, doula and two friends were in that space of a failing newborn’s body and we were all changed. How could I not find God holding my daughter with severe retardation and defects across her whole body? How could I not find peace? For those who opened their hearts to Mary Rose, they saw a glimmer of God and holiness. For those who chose to ignore her existence, they were not open to the “equilibrium of the heart.” By closing our eyes and our hearts to the darker parts of humanity we are denying ourselves the love that fills our broken and cracked hearts. It feels like the more that we are broken and cracked the greater our capacity to be present in the moment and to love unconditionally.
My dear homeopath is nervous about pregnancies in women over 40. I don’t ask her why, but I imagine that she has formed her belief over her research studies and her private practice. The high risk OB/GYN I saw during my pregnancy with Mary Rose smiled and said “You should definitely try again. Most of my patients are infertile.” She highly doubted that another pregnancy with such complications would be our lot. My midwife, Anni, thinks getting pregnant again is a great idea, the sooner the better. She thinks that the data are distorted as fewer women give birth in their 40s and the numbers are off. Anni has also sent me some recent studies that indicate that women in their 40s have healthier outcomes because they take better care of themselves than younger mothers.
I imagine a room of 100 babies, my 100%. I walk in and look around. I want what God wants. Five of these babies have trisomies. Three of them will die as babies. The first few times I imagine this room of babies I am scared. Which are the five that I don’t want? But then my heart softens and I realize that I could love all of the babies. I don’t know if I will become pregnant again, or if I get to keep a child nor do I know which one might be birthed. But I walk forward with trust in my heart. Whatever condition a baby is in, I can love her. I won’t live by data and statistics alone. It is the heart, the heart that carries me forward, closer to my Light.
The untitled artwork pictured above is by Lori Thomas Abbott .