Stop This Milk Please!


The night after I buried my newborn daughter, my milk came in. I had hoped that I would be spared dealing with mother’s milk. I was shocked and surprised that I was shocked, relieved that I did not have a severely ill child to take care of and that the pregnancy was over. Grief thick as molasses settled in with the aching physical soreness after labor, hormones that woke me up at night looking for the baby to feed, the longing to hold my child, the memory of holding a cooling baby in the bewilderment after labor. Hadn’t I been through enough? Why milk, when Mary Rose was not here to drink it? It felt as if God were mocking me. My midwife, Anni, said that the whole body was weeping. I cried and cried, struggling to get around since my sciatic pain was still severe, wondering if I would survive being postpartum at all.

It was Sunday night and my mother tried to bind my breasts while my husband slept and I cried from pain. The next morning the pain was excruciating. I wept and called my midwife who would come to help. My breasts looked like missiles about to launch. The pain was so intense that every movement hurt. Afterbirth pains continued. I remember sitting down a lot and weeping. After all that work, the months of pregnancy and labor, what did I have to show for my efforts?

When Anni came with essential oil of peppermint and a carrier oil, No More Milk tea and a bag from Rite Aide with advil, ice packs and bandages, I felt her love in her blue eyes and ready hands telling me that I would be okay. I was writing a dark poem, moping in bed, frustrated that my back pain hadn’t gone away immediately. She showed me how to massage the essential oil of peppermint in a carrier oil onto my breasts. I started to also massage out some of the milk for some relief. She often talked about the gift “these babies” are to those who encounter them unafraid, but I just wanted my milk to go away.

It took a few weeks for my milk to dry up completely. It took some time to piece together a “how to” list to stop the milk. This is what worked for me:

1. Sudafed has been shown to dry up milk. I took a lot of Sudafed for about a week and then started taking less for a second week.
2. Sage tea and No More Milk tea, both found in a health store or online at or I alternated the teas and drank them all day. I think that the sage tea worked better, but they both helped.
3. Cabbage leaves cold from the refrigerator did not seem to work. I read one study that said cabbage leaves had not been shown to decrease milk supply but acted as an ice pack and relieved some pain and pressure. I continued to look online until I found another source that said that to activate the enzymes in the cabbage leaves you had to crush the veins by going over each leaf with a rolling pin. I covered my breasts in crushed cabbage leaves and then placed ice packs on them. When the leaves wilted I did it again.
4. Essential oil of peppermint diluted in a carrier oil applied directly to breasts has been shown to slow milk supply. I did this two to three times a day.
5. Hot baths to let the milk drip out. I sat in a bath and let my milk drip into the tub each night, sometimes massaging some milk out. It offered some relief.

I started doing all of the things above, including using ice packs on my breasts, for at least two weeks and then started taking steps out. I stopped the Sudafed first, then the cabbage leaves, then the essential peppermint oil. I stuck with the teas for several weeks until my breasts no longer filled up with milk. I know that binding breasts has worked for women for centuries, but it was too painful and I decided to skip that suggestion.

After my first pregnancy I pumped milk for ten months for my son until I became so ill that I had an autoimmune disorder. I did not get sick from pumping. It was a combination of not sleeping with a baby waking up every three or four hours, coxsackie virus, and the exhaustion of pumping day and night while taking care of a baby and a terminally ill aunt that put me over the edge.

Many mothers who carry children with fatal illnesses to term pump and donate their milk to a breast milk bank helping others who have too little milk or no milk at all. After my experience with my son, I could not get back on the pump unless I had a child able to drink my milk. I felt selfish, but I did not want another baby getting Mary Rose’s milk. Perhaps this path of stopping my milk would have been easier if I had pumped and slowly weaned myself from pumping until the milk lessened, but I couldn’t do it.

In speaking to my bereavement doula, Leslie, she said that in her experience mothers who are in shock and don’t expect their babies to die often pump as a part of their process to work through their shock. She thought that I had been mourning Mary Rose during those five long months after her “diagnosis” and I didn’t need to pump.

One week after my daughter’s funeral I went to a pow wow with my doula, Leslie, and artist friend, Sindy. We sat on the grass under a tree listening to drumming, feeling that ever constant heartbeat of the Earth moving forward, even when we want life to stop. The dancers came out in their colorful native clothes, moving and singing, celebrating their culture and way of life. A woman carrying a tiny newborn walked in front of us and sat down right in front of me. It was a big park. Really? I thought. My breasts ached, my body bled and I sat there trying not to cry, held up by the sisterhood of my sweet companions. I didn’t stay long because I was exhausted, but I walked around limping and bought a wooden frog for my son knowing that the choice I would make was to continue on my path for as long as God kept me here.

It is my hope that each woman faced with milk after a miscarriage or infant death does what feels best. That first intuitive feeling in the heart center is right. Pump if that feels right and bless others with your mother’s milk. And if, like me, you just can’t do it, you just can’t attach your breasts to a machine and package up your child’s precious nourishment, don’t. Either way, you will survive this time that feels endless and maddening. Those post-partum months were worse than I expected, especially because I couldn’t sleep through the night. I would wake up after a couple of hours of sleep and toss and turn for hours. Where is my baby? I kept thinking. My eyes would dart around looking for the girl I wanted to hold and nourish.

Where is my baby? I like to think that she is right next me, cheering me on. You can do it, she says to me. And so can you.

I hope that you are accompanied by a few holy sisters who surround you and hold you in your tears as the Earth beats on.

It’s Not Your Business: A Discussion of Abortion and Neonatal Life Support

free-vector-mothers-silhouette-02-vector_026828_Pregnancy%20(2)I heard the poet Claribel Alegria speak at The Resilience of the Human Spirit Conference in 2006. She said that everything we do is political. During my pregnancy with Mary Rose I recalled her words often. Choosing to carry my daughter to term after testing revealed that she had trisomy 18 disturbed people and my pregnant body became a part of public discourse. Not too many people know that their baby will die while pregnant, and though I am pro-choice politically, I am also a private person who still does not understand why people freely gave me advice on two decisions that most have no experience making: abortion and neonatal life support.

A few Christian friends suggested abortion, and this surprised me. Did it surprise me because they were talking and posting on Facebook about “The Lord?” or was it because I thought that my decision to carry my baby was private? I would never tell my very closest friends what to do with a pregnancy. What made it okay for acquaintances to tell me what to do with my pregnancy? Or for friends to advise my mother after liturgy that abortion was the best choice for me?

It was appropriate for the doctors and genetic counselor to offer me the choice of abortion. When I said no, that was it, probably because I live in the south and Christianity is the mainstream culture here. I know other mothers are pressured into aborting their babies and have a hard time finding doctors who will work with them to carry their pregnancies to term. I know that some parents of trisomy 18 babies can’t find doctors to treat their children because they are deemed “incompatible with life.” It seems that no matter what we do there are challenges. We have to be our own advocates or we will get lost in the system. I did a few things that were not expected. I carried my baby to term, birthed her at home, and did not have her body taken away to a funeral home. I simply refused those options, even though they might have been easier choices.

I can’t imagine that abortion is an easy decision though. There is still a loss. When I was mourning after my baby died, post-partum hormones raging, I knew that some people thought I wouldn’t be going through this if I had terminated my pregnancy. It’s not so simple. I know women who have had abortions and they are still dealing with their choice years later, just as I will always walk my path with the consequences of my choice to birth and bury my newborn.

I was childless for 15 years, not by choice. In that decade and a half I wanted to be pregnant. I wanted a child of my own with every cell of my body. I knew that I could not terminate a pregnancy regardless of the child’s outcomes even when a child was an abstract wish far off in the future. I first felt Mary Rose move in the genetic counselor’s office as she was asking me if I would have an abortion. I firmly stated, “No.” I wished for a child and I had a child. I knew that there would probably be no holidays, no milestones, not much time. Babies with trisomy 18 have a range of possibility. Fifty percent are born still and most die within the first hours, days and weeks. Under 5% live to their first birthdays and most of these are on life support.

My husband and I agreed that we would not terminate the pregnancy and then decided that we did not want life support for our newborn. If our baby could not breathe on her own, could not eat, or suck, we wanted to hold the space to honor her peaceful death. We were making these intense decisions with our neonatologist, midwife and priest and then someone would say “You didn’t have an abortion?” What gave us away? The fact that I was seven, then eight, then nine months pregnant. I had one question: Why is this any of your business?

The decision to carry a child with a fatal illness to term or not, to choose life support for an unborn baby or not, to plan a funeral instead of readying a nursery, these are all private decisions. For those who feel that they should weigh in, let me stop you here. If a couple asks “What should we do?” then it is appropriate to give advice. In our case we never asked anyone for advice, except for our midwife, Mary Rose’s doctors, and our priest. We wanted to be sure that our decisions were ethical, that we were not denying our daughter anything as her parents. But life is life. She would either breathe on her own, or she would not. She would either eat, or not. And in our daughter’s case she did none of these things.

For people who don’t know what to say, say less. The comments I appreciated the most were “I don’t understand what you are going through, but I’m here for you.” That says I love you, but I won’t boss you around. It is somewhat comical the way people dispensed advice. One mother told me “I wouldn’t do anything. Just wait and believe that God will heal your baby. Do you pray? Do you believe in miracles?” That’s a great way to kick a woman already on her knees further down. I believe in miracles, but I also believe in accepting God’s will. I had carried a healthy child to term and I knew that my daughter’s body was not developing normally. If I had listened to this woman what would we have done with Mary Rose’s body? We had already purchased a plot and had a casket for the burial. She was buried within 26 hours of birth. I couldn’t exactly wait to see what would play out when the tests were 99.8% accurate.

The sweet baby, Grace Miriam, whom I mentioned in a previous post has full trisomy 18, spina bifida and hydrocephalus. Most people would have aborted Grace, but her parents, who are devout Catholics, carried Grace to term. She is alive and breathes on her own. Grace has survived surgery on her spine and surgery to place a shunt in her brain. A priest friend told Grace’s father that they should consider their time with Grace as Holy Hours. I am so grateful that our Creator “use[s] the foolish things of this world.” Grace is alive. We see life in the fragmentation of our individual lives, but what about the bigger picture of one, connected, pulsing Universe? How many lives is Grace touching? Why do humans think that one life is more valuable than another?

I think back on my pregnancy with Mary Rose and remember feeling so vulnerable and alone. May I suggest that if your friend or sister or cousin has had a troubling ultrasound or a miscarriage, that you offer her a box of tissues and a cup of tea? A hug. Shared tears. Unless you have ever been “diagnosed” with a pregnancy that is considered fatal, don’t offer advice. You really don’t know what you would do. Even my friend, Miko, whose son, Josh, died as an adult in a car accident agrees that she couldn’t give me advice on the pregnancy. You can’t know until you are standing there, hands on your belly, at the crossroads, feeling your child move, loving her no matter what.

Mother’s Day

IMG_0476Mother’s Day

I remember Mother’s Day one year ago when I was surprised by the intensity of my grief. It had been two months since my unborn daughter, Mary Rose, was diagnosed with a fatal illness. I was almost seven months pregnant. She moved inside me; her motions and limbs were tiny. I remember crying outside sitting on my green metal garden chair. I cried all day because I knew that this would be our only Mother’s Day physically together. People often tell me not to cry because I have a son. I am very grateful for my living child, but he cannot take away the grief of his sister’s fate.

This year is different. I’m just starting to come out of more than a year-long daze of shock and grief. I want to tell every mother whose child is gone through miscarriage or illness or accident, Cry. You have earned the right to cry. Well-meaning people tell us not to show our emotions, but we don’t have to hide the intensity of our path.

My dear friend, Daniela, sent me a present this week. It is a crocheted rose with Mary Rose’s name on the back, and it is the first gift that I have received honoring my daughter that hasn’t sent me into fits of weeping. It still stings to see a joyful, pregnant woman or a newborn girl. Doing family things and witnessing children growing and playing and being alive often still hurts. The first holidays after Mary Rose died were almost unbearable, except I’m still here.

Mother’s Day is a tough holiday. It excludes many people. For women who are infertile and childless it is a reminder of what they do not have. For people whose mothers are on the other side of the veil, there is a void, and for those of us whose children have died, what do we do with this rosy, cheery, pastel holiday? I’ve been thinking of my dear friend Louisa all week. Her mother and only son are on the other side of the veils, yet she meditates and lives her life with a vivacious grace that inspires me.

Louisa and I have both connected with the spirits of our children through prayer and meditation. We feel them close by and know that they are now intercessors, spirit guides and helpers, depending on the language you use. This year I propose that instead of listening to our sad thoughts that we are separate from the ones who have died, let’s think with our hearts. Our children’s souls are intact and if we think with our heart centers, reality shifts from a thinking place of lonely loss to a heart place of loving communion. This year I invite each of you whose children or mothers are not in an earthly body to light a candle and celebrate anyway. It is my great hope that we can celebrate this Mother’s Day with tearful smiles and an understanding that the veil is thin, that our loved ones speak to us and send us messages of love from their heavenly place.

I have been listening to Kari Samuels 28 Days of Angel Meditations this month. When she says Archangel Gabriel, please come, I feel such peace. I choose to say Mary Rose, come, and Louisa chooses to say Colin, come. We are not separate from our children who continue to live through us and with us.

I am married to a man who is very sensible and practical, and he’s married to a former English major who sees symbolism everywhere. I carry feathers into the house proclaiming that they are signs from my daughter saying that she loves me. He tells me that birds molt. On New Year’s Day I found a heart shaped rock in the middle of a brick outside when I stepped out of the car after our long trip back from New York. I had asked for a sign from my daughter that she is still with me. I was so sad thinking that this year, 2015, would start without her. I believe that these gifts come from my daughter, but my husband says, Coincidence.

This spring my husband turned the grill on under a flowering dogwood tree. One petal landed in the middle of his big hand and he said it looked like a heart and he thought of Mary Rose. He said that all the dogwood petals looked like hearts this year.

I wish for each of you to find hearts and roses and feathers this Mother’s Day, because our dear children are still our children. They love us, and we are their mothers on this plane, and the Mother’s Day gifts that we receive cannot be found in a Hallmark store.

Come, Sweet Child, Sweet Mother, Aunt, Friend, Come, this Mother’s Day and show us the truth about Life.

Healing Companion

Healing Companion WEB400x800 Watermark

Healing Companion

It is almost a year since I met the artist, Sindy Lorraine Strosahl. She came to my house on April 30th, a rainy Wednesday, to deliver my painting, Healing Companion. I knew of Sindy through my midwife who had one of her paintings of a pregnant woman in her office. I fell in love with the vibrant colors and decided that I would like to have an image to commemorate my two pregnancies, especially since I was childless for 15 years in what feels like another lifetime.

When we received news of our daughter’s fatal condition, I messaged Sindy and told her. She meditated and connected to the soul of my unborn child and painted the image that you see here. When Sindy went to her car to get the painting, the torrential downpour stopped long enough for her to walk into my house. Healing Companion is a mixed-media collage. Sindy cut out pieces of the pages of a gardening book. I was so excited when I saw words in Mary Rose’s and my hair. My dress is fabric that she painted. The 3-D view of this image, with the ancestors as yellow orbs surrounding me, is so powerful that almost everyone who see the original walks away with tears in her eyes.

One painting. One mother. One child. Sometimes I feel like a grain of sand in a vast lineage of mothers whose children have died. Who am I to think that this should not have happened? Loss and death are all around us though we choose to ignore it much of the time. Sometimes babies die. Sometimes children die. Mary Rose lived and died. But that word, Companion, is so real. She is here with me. Her DNA is in my body. I think of her often throughout the day as I take care of my son, as I wash a cup or spend time outside watching my plants blossom. She is my companion and my heart center feels her soul is as alive as any of our souls.

Sindy, who also photographed Mary Rose’s birth and witnessed her brief life, is now a doula. Mary Rose changed my life she says. And she’s not the only one. Healing Companion has comforted many mothers. The print hangs in a birthing center in Michigan, the card is in an apartment in Romania. I like to think of a web connecting the mothers who gaze at this image remembering their children. And we are their mothers still. Some women do not birth living children. Some women do not have any living children. For many these challenging pregnancies are their first. I am honored that my request for this painting is helping others.

It has taken me some time to acknowledge that the pregnant woman in Healing Companion is strong and graceful, that perhaps I am strong and graceful as Sindy painted me. In the painting, I am perfectly centered and focused on my pregnancy and baby. I neither felt strong during my pregnancy nor did I feel graceful as I limped around in extreme back pain for the last weeks waiting for my baby girl, still or breathing. But sometimes I catch a glimpse of my resolve in the image, and sometimes I feel that perfect peace knowing that everything is as it should be. Mary Rose, at my side; my three-year old son holding my hand, leading me to his train tracks once again.

This morning I had a few messages from my friend, Isabel, whose brother and sister-in-law are in labor today. Their daughter, Grace Miriam, has many challenges and may not live long. I lit two candles for this baby today and cried remembering Mary Rose’s birth in a pool under Healing Companion. Did I mention that Sindy was trying to paint an androgynous, adult angel, but the image that emerged persisted? Mary Rose looked like that angel, so much like her father. I hope that Grace Miriam’s life is a blessing for all those who encounter her. Her parents are courageous and loving. They are waiting to embrace her, no matter what she looks like, no matter what her condition.

And at the end of our lives, what will we remember? Not what we ate today or what show we watched, or who we did or didn’t call, but that endless and boundless love that flows from our Creator, the love that lives in each of us with potential to grow and bear much fruit throughout our days, whether they are few or many.

(Prints and cards can be purchased through the link on the Resources page of this blog. And no, I do not profit financially from any of these sales.)

My Daughter, My Angel

IMG_9851My angel grew inside me until my womb swelled and my body opened. Then she surrounded me with wings and love. My daughter, Mary Rose, lived one sacred hour. I held her in my arms and had to let her go.

Why am I still here a month later when my body is heavy with grief and milk? How do I answer the question “How many children do you have?” Dead babies and miscarriages are taboo in our society where positive thinking cures all. But this angel…

Her energy is with me. I carry my daughter in my heart.

Mary Rose’s portrait was painted months ago. In the painting I hold my pregnant belly and the angel holds me from behind. Her wings are my sanctuary. Prints of Healing Companion comfort mothers with infant losses.  Now I write to heal myself and others. We women need each other to survive and bless this planet-in-transition. We are standing on stepping stones to higher consciousness. My heart is shattered and open. I will not hide my third-eye sight and intuition any more.

Mary Rose, bless us. Thank you for sending roses and feathers as you illuminate our path.

Dianna Vagianos Armentrout

published in 365 Days of Angel Prayers edited by Elizabeth Harper and Cathleen O’Connor
© 2014


It is April and cold in New York where I visited with my dear friend, Rachel. We met in high school in New City, she from Brooklyn and I from Queens. We had not seen each other in well over a year, maybe a year and a half and it has been a blur, a long blur between that first ultrasound last spring revealing my baby’s genetic defects and here, now, eight months after my daughter’s death. It is springtime, though the leaves are still mostly bare. I went to Rachel’s parents’ house as I had dozens of times in the years of our friendship, even going to the finished basement today where we had watched movies and hung out as teenagers and young adults. I saw her two beautiful sons, and her sweet husband. I think that Rachel wouldn’t mind if I said that we are late bloomers, coming to our fulfilling married lives later, in our late thirties and early forties.

When I told Rachel that I was going to launch this blog to support mothers searching for something in the middle of the night to comfort them, she called me “Brave.” I don’t feel brave, but I am going to overcome my fear of technology (I just got an iPhone this week) and set up a Twitter account and do this to honor my daughter’s life, and to offer some words to someone out there who has just heard these words: “trisomy 18” or “trisomy 13” or many other “diagnoses” that aren’t exactly diagnoses.

In March of 2014 it felt as if I was thrown into another galaxy of new language, fatally ill unborn children, neonatologists, pediatric hospice, funerals for tiny babies. As with most things, there was no map, there were no directions as to the next steps. I didn’t know how to maneuver and negotiate this rocky terrain while the pregnancy hormones surged and my body prepared to nurse and nurture its baby.

I couldn’t sleep so I would look things up on Google. As an academic I can’t call this research, but it was a way of finding information. I was looking for someone to comfort me, to say something reasonable or poetic, to tell me that I would be okay, that my baby would be okay, that my marriage and family would survive this. I found blogs about Jesus and faith and asking for miracles. I found photos of newborn funerals. I even found a new virtual friend, Lakshmi, who birthed her son in April of 2014. He lived a few days. What I didn’t find was a beautiful essay or a friendly perspective on the choices I had to make such as life support or no life support for a newborn.

So here, Dear Reader, I wish you weren’t reading my words. I wish you didn’t know this pain, this path, but I have traveled across this river rowing my boat mostly alone, guided by the love soaring out of my heart for this unborn child. I carried my daughter to term, even though I am pro-choice politically, dealing with people’s words, some comforting, but many hurtful or anxiety- provoking. I go to a church where my daughter is hardly acknowledged. My mother’s family barely acknowledged my pregnancy or my daughter’s life. My husband pulled away from me and my body during the pregnancy and post-partum period because he was trying to protect himself from inevitable pain. It hurts. It stinks. There is no easy way around this. I walked through each step allowing myself to feel and process my emotions moment by moment. I thought I would lose my mind. I thought I would die from my grief. I worried about my two-year old son who would not get to have his sister for long.

We are all still here. In our grief we walk forward, and though I walked much of this path alone, I had enormous support. There are some amazing people who surrounded me, prayed for me, loved me, blessed me. I have an incredible therapist who gave me tough love and compassion, who sent emails at all hours of the night to help me process my soul contract with my daughter. I found Isaiah’s Promise, an amazing non-profit that supports parents choosing to carry fatally-ill children to term. They sent blankets and gifts for Mary Rose. The only things she used in her one hour of life were two blankets from those sweet volunteers. I had an amazing midwife and doula, and even a birth artist, walk this path with me and surround me with unconditional love as I maneuvered through the medical system to find the right place to birth, the right way to hold the sacred space that was Mary Rose. I hope that every woman going through such a traumatic pregnancy has people to support and love her through the pregnancy and grieving process.

My Facebook feed today has pictures of siblings because it is National Sibling Day. There are beautiful living babies, and there are beautiful babies who died of trisomy 18, two friends have three trisomy babies. I love the living babies even though seeing their faces still stings just a little bit. I love the healthy unborn daughter of our friends. And I love the angel babies who are present with us in a different form, from another dimension, our children still.

I told my friend, Rachel, about the pain, about society’s inability to honor death, to stay in the space of death and to hold us, the bereaved parents. I will hold that space for your dying babies, and for your grief as you walk this path, and together we can transmute this pain into healing energy as Sandra Ingerman has taught us. Together we can embrace the lives of our children and their deaths as we make our society more friendly to infant losses, because we all need friends. Not just far-away abstract prayers, but hugs, kisses, cards, flowers, tissue boxes and moments of shared tears.

It is my intention that this blog be a space of healing for you, as it is for me. I honor my Mary Rose, my pregnancy, my path, and I honor your loved ones too. This springtime I don’t feel mocked as I did last year when I knew my baby would die. The daffodils and crocuses are popping up and I too am bearing fruit. My daughter’s life counts among my children. I have two children, one on Earth and one on the other side of the veil, and I am blessed.

April 10, 2015