Chapel Hill: Opinion

June 9, 2014

Carol Henderson: Plans gone awry

As soon as I knew my daughter was pregnant, I blocked out two weeks around her due date. Workshops and clients filled in around the white space marked “baby.”

As soon as I knew my daughter was pregnant, I blocked out two weeks around her due date. Workshops and clients filled in around the white space marked “baby.”

I am lucky to live near my daughter. I didn’t have to guess when to fly in and how long to stay. I was going to be with her throughout labor and delivery and told her I could stay with her for a week after the baby was born.

Things don’t always go according to plan, especially with babies.

I know this all too well.

My husband and I were living in a tiny walk-up apartment in New York City when I got pregnant. We had no room for ourselves, not to mention an infant. On my parents’ recommendation, we visited a community on the train line in Rhode Island where my follks had some friends and, in a day, bought a house. My mother believed in home ownership.

When I was four months pregnant we moved, fixing up the house all summer and taking the train to New York and Boston for work. The baby’s room and most of the house was ready when I went into labor in September. Wow, I thought, good planning.

Until my labor went on and on, for days, and the baby didn’t come. Finally I had a caesarean. Not in the plan. Three days later our son was taken by ambulance to a larger hospital with serious heart problems. I left the hospital and limped after him, my incision still smarting.

Our boy needed major surgery at Boston Children’s Hospital. The freshly renovated house sat empty. “Where’s home?” people would ask me. I had no idea.

Malcolm died in a second open-heart surgery.

I tried not to think of any of this when, as I was leaving my daughter’s house after dinner a few days before her due date, her husband Bryan rushed out after me. “Colette’s water just broke.”

I stayed over, Colette and I awake all night. Her labor didn’t start. At the hospital the next day, the nurses induced her. She labored and labored. It was all too familiar. I kept trying not to think of my story, my endless labor, but memories rose up in waves, like her contractions.

When she ended up needing a cesarean and they wheeled her away, I fled to the parking lot, locked myself in my car, and howled like a feral beast. Colette and I had been together for days, awake for days, trying to make this baby come. For days.

The uncanny similarity was too much for my exhausted mind and heart.

I couldn’t pull myself together. “Stop it.” I hissed. “This is her baby, not yours. Her story, not yours.”

Nothing helped. Plus, I couldn’t shut off the agonizing images of hundreds of bereaved mothers surging through my brain. Ironically, many of my writing workshops are for those who have lost children. I’ve done this work for years, held these stories. But these women’s collective pain, and my own, swelling up from 30 years ago, tossed me in a tsunami of grief.

Finally, spent, I went back into the hospital and splashed water on my face, burying my fear as best I could. Lucien was born.

“He’s so quiet,” everybody said smiling.

What? I thought. They think quiet is good. My baby was quiet. And he was desperately ill.

The comparisons wouldn’t quit.

When my daughter and her family left the hospital – with a healthy baby – a calmer me went with them. I stayed for a week, as planned, happy that I’d arranged the time off.

Soon, I was back at work, leading an intensive five-day workshop, then traveling for another job. And of course (it’s been my lifelong delayed reaction to extreme stress) I got miserably sick.

But no matter. This chapter is over. The nursery is set up, Lucien is thriving.

A beautiful, if uncharted, plan is unfolding.

Carol Henderson is a writer and writing teacher in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at

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