The Body Knows

Trigger warnings: birth defects, fetal death, stillbirth

April the giraffe had her baby!

After weeks of waiting, rumors of a hoax, and assertions that she needed a c-section, April the pregnant giraffe FINALLY went into labor, and millions of people around the world watched live on zoo-cam as she gave birth.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, yay! It’s great that it is such a cause for celebration and education for so many. On the other hand, mammals generally don’t go into labor when stress hormones are flooding their bodies—and being watched triggers stress hormones. To the mammalian brain, being watched means predation. You can’t tell me that an animal native to the African plains (lions, cheetahs, and hunters) isn’t  flooded by adrenaline and catecholamines with all those people watching her and whispering about her.

You see, our bodies know so much that our minds aren’t aware of.

How do you explain the feeling of being watched? We all have it sometimes.

How do you explain a deaf person knowing someone has come to stand right behind them?

How do you explain the instinct that a particular person is dangerous?

How do you explain a pregnant person knowing something about their baby?

I’ve encountered this several times in my personal and professional life. Clients and friends who “had a feeling” about their pregnancy–that it was twins, that it was a boy/girl, that they would give birth on a particular day–and were right.

And sometimes our bodies know that there is something wrong with our babies.

This is where it gets personal. Yes, I have known others who didn’t know—but I had a different experience. I always wanted four children. I had imagined what it would be like, many times. But through all 21 weeks of my pregnancy with Sweet Baby, I couldn’t envision having THIS baby together with the children I already had. We were planning a home birth with the midwife who’d caught FearlessToddler, and I knew exactly which room I wanted the tub in, which room I wanted to birth in, who I wanted with my older children and where I wanted them while I labored.

But I couldn’t envision the birth.

We got the ten-week genetic screen since we are both in our forties, and when it came back absent any trisomies or other genetic abnormalities, I said, “That’s good, but there are plenty of non-genetic problems that could be present, too.” The day leading up to my 20-week ultrasound, I was so full of anxiety that I arranged to have two friends on call to give us a ride home if the scan should turn up a problem.

It did.

Did I know? I have gone over and over this in my mind. Other than exceptionally gentle movements from Sweet Baby, so gentle that even at 20 weeks no one else ever felt him move, there were no outward signs. I never consciously believed that something was wrong. I never had any indication that there was a problem—and I had an eight-week scan as well. What I come back to, again and again, is this: my body knew.

The Friday night after our Tuesday ultrasound, I woke suddenly at 12:29. I was sobbing, my pillow wet, and the thought in my head was, “My body should be a place of life right now, and instead it is a place of death.” No one had mentioned the possibility of early fetal demise (that so-clinical term that I hate), in fact they had emphasized that there are treatments for Sweet Baby’s condition–and still his death was there like a certainty in my head. I cried for a while, then remembering the advice of a hospice counselor when my brother was dying nearly fifteen years before, I took a deep breath and said aloud, “All I want is to hold you and look in your eyes and let you feel how much I love you. But if you need to go before that can happen, it’s okay. You just go. I’ll be fine.” I cried a while longer, and then went back to sleep.

I never felt him move again.

The following Monday morning, my midwife confirmed what I had suspected all weekend long: sometime over those two days, my Sweet Baby’s heart had stopped beating.

Our bodies are wonderful and mysterious. Science has only scratched the surface of understanding what they are capable of, how they work, the many ways in which their various systems interact. There is no logical explanation for my experiences with this pregnancy and loss. Did I know he had a fatal anomaly? Did I know he would never join our family as a living being? Did his death somehow wake me at the moment it happened? How? How, how, how?

I don’t believe I’ll ever have firm, scientific answers to these questions, and I’m not sure I need them. For me, my instincts are enough. And my instincts tell me that—just as April the giraffe knew it wasn’t safe to give birth with so many people watching–with or without proof or rational explanation, my body knew.  And I come back, once again, to the most basic tenet of birth work:

Trust your body. It knows things that you don’t, and can’t imagine. It works exactly the way it is supposed to.

The body knows.

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