Published on August 22nd, 2023 | by Risa Polansky Shiman0
Just a House
When we found out we were losing our baby, I was six months pregnant, and my husband and I were days away from closing on our first house: a five-bedroom, cookie-cutter monstrosity in a family-friendly suburb we thought we were too cool for until we were on the cusp of having a family of our own.
We house hunted through the beginning of the pregnancy, first in the neighborhood around our beachtown apartment, then in other walkable areas with character and charm, begrudgingly ruling out each. Homes too old, and too expensive for being so old. Schools iffy. All that. In the end, as had several sellout friends before us, we put in an offer on a newish house in a well-regarded school district west of the Florida Turnpike.
The bedroom next to the master was set up as a nursery already, with white clapboard paneling and sea-green walls.
“Works either way,” I said, one hand in Marc’s, the other on my belly, wondering who was in there and imagining this son or daughter curled up just the same in a crib in the corner.
All such daydreaming came to a halt, though, at 25 weeks pregnant, when a sonogram revealed abnormalities that hadn’t been visible during earlier scans. The baby was unlikely to survive the pregnancy, and if it did, would be unable to survive outside the womb.
“Incompatible,” the doctor said, “with life.”
We were left alone to process this unprocessable news, ultrasound gel still drying on my stomach. For some reason, the first thing I wailed as I collapsed onto Marc was, “I can’t live in that house!”
In the parking lot, I called my mother sobbing, and Marc called our apartment manager to extend our lease.
Within a blurry few days of phone calls and frantic internet searches and unquantifiable tears, a second local doctor confirmed the diagnosis, as did third and fourth opinions in New York, where I delivered the stillborn.
“Let’s stay here forever,” I said into Marc’s clavicle as we lay in a hotel room near the hospital. Just the two of us and a big bed and no one to whom we had to explain the sudden absence of my baby bump, no one who’d pity us or offer platitudes that would either make me cry or make me want to punch them in the face.
But we couldn’t live in a hotel in another state, and I couldn’t imagine, nor did I think I could handle, being so sad forever. Afraid, I suppose, of becoming incompatible with life myself. So I decided not to be. I would be tough, I would be optimistic, I would not let our (miserable, devastating) present dictate our future.
“It’s just a house,” I chanted.
We went through with the sale, moving in later than planned, but moving in nonetheless. Beforehand, Marc and his father did a walkthrough, removing the baby gates the previous owners had left. We’d forgotten about the mural in the upstairs loft, a tree with a little girl swinging from its branches, so there she stayed and there she swayed, just down the hall from the nursery, sea green and as empty as I was.
With a prescribed six months to wait before trying again to get pregnant, the house, which I’d resolved would not be an emotional trigger, became our distraction instead — furniture shopping an assertion of our hope and determination, however forced. We sat on what felt like every showroom couch in South Florida, imagining family movie nights. We bought wicker kitchen chairs, then exchanged them for sturdy wooden models to withstand eventual children. We had a massive white-and-dark-wood desk built into the alcove of the downstairs study, where I would grade papers and write and sometimes drop my head and cry.
Marc would find me there when he’d come home, and whether I was working or sobbing, he’d tell me how strong I was.
“I don’t know if I am strong, or if I’m just acting strong,” I’d say.
To which he’d respond, “It’s the same thing.”
It’s something he learned from his Holocaust-survivor grandfather: just keep going. There are many kinds of strength, many different ways to get by and get through. None are right or wrong, only better or worse for whoever’s doing the grieving.
I have come to believe in Marc and his Opa’s brand of coping. I think of those shattered almost-parents in that ultrasound room, of dragging my broken heart and my broken baby through airport security, of our second loss at nine weeks pregnant, of fussing to set up a five-bedroom house with four empty bedrooms for the almost two years it took to successfully have a child, and I still don’t know how we did it. But we did.
When I look back at that time, I remember a lot of tears, desperation, cynicism. But I also remember floating in our pool with a friend from grad school. I remember watching “Curb Your Enthusiasm” with Marc on the winning couch. I remember filling those extra rooms with out-of-town family on air mattresses. We were strong — our version — and we were happy.
Happier, of course, or happy in a different way, when we finally welcomed our daughter, Sam. Our doctor says he’s never seen someone cry joyful tears quite to the degree Marc did when she was born. She’s six now, and he still sometimes looks at her and wells up. I hope it goes without saying I, too, love her with a love deeper than love.
But after she arrived, I didn’t really know what to do with her.
Before Sam, when the inside of the house was our project, we mostly avoided the outside, surrounded as it was by living children in strollers and on scooters. The inverse became true when I left my teaching job to stay home with the baby.
We had the right kitchen chairs, but they were not yet of consequence to her. I had no idea how to entertain myself or an infant all day, so I went on walks and loitered in the driveway, hoping to run into the neighbors I was finally ready to meet, or maybe the mail carrier. Anything to avoid endless hours inside the house, singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and watching the clock.
I felt guilty about this restlessness, a fairly common sentiment among stay-at-home parents. It seemed even worse in my case, though, after experiencing such loss. All I’d wanted was a baby, and now I had one. I thanked God compulsively day and night. Marc and I would swoon over Sam pictures and videos after bedtime until one of us joked, “Get her back in here! Go wake her up!”
But when she was up, it was hard to conjure that feeling. I’d roll a ball across the foam mat in the living room that had finally become a playroom. I’d read to her in the glider in that seafoam nursery, ribboned “Sam” banner above our heads, and think about how much it used to hurt just walking by that empty room. I’d stare at her eyelashes resting on her bubble cheeks or nibble her little baby toes for what felt like hours, but when I checked turned out to have been minutes.
I was enamored. I was so grateful I could feel it in my stomach. But I was also…bored? What was wrong with me?
“Stop being so hard on yourself,” said Marc, ever the cheerleader. “You’re used to being busy in a different way. Find something fun to do together.”
So I enrolled in classes four days a week (more “Itsy Bitsy,” but with company, at least). I lingered in the lobby of the baby gym, striking up conversations with anyone who could talk. I roamed Target, first wearing Sam in a baby carrier or pushing her in the cart, later chasing her down the aisles.
The same was true when my son Levi was born, tiny and sweet with Marc’s grandfather’s blue eyes. Sam went to preschool, and Levi and I hit the mommy-and-me circuit (and Target) just as hard. I was a stay-at-home mom who very rarely stayed at home.
Then came Covid.
Facing however many weeks (remember when we thought it would be weeks?) stuck in the house that occupied me during a dark time and suffocated me during what should have been the lightest, I told myself the same thing as when I lost the baby. I can’t handle not handling this, so I’ll handle it. I won’t count the days or watch the clock. We will find something fun to do together.
And we did. For almost two years.
No preschool, no baby gym, no Target — just us. In and around the house. We sat on the floor of the playroom and built block towers and marble runs and rarely picked them up. The couch Marc and I had so painstakingly chosen became a trampoline and a fort. Sam learned to read. Levi learned to swim.
I learned to let the day unfold; learned that simply to be with my children is more than enough. And I gestated and birthed another, filling the last available upstairs bedroom with dimpled, wild-haired Benji.
Despite never having been more content with or grateful for my family and the comforts of our home, there were, of course, difficult moments. Whiny moments and frustrated moments and restless moments and bickering moments and moments when I’d look at the laundry piled on every surface or notice the wood floor warping from perennially wet toddlers or slip on a toy car at nine months pregnant, and I’d groan, “This house!”
But I wasn’t lying when one day, deep into the pandemic, after most people had sent their kids back to school, my neighbor who has two children of her own asked if I minded being home all the time with the little ones.
“No,” I’d said, shaking my head over Benji, who was strapped to my chest watching Sam and Levi scooter ahead. My chin grazed the fuzzy beginnings of his curls. “I really don’t.”