Giving birth to death.
Desire to voice my experience.
Trying to rediscover my heART in the aftermath of grief.
Attempting to be patient with myself in an impatient world.
All of these things and more were happening simultaneously after my son Dakota died at birth. He had been a full-term, perfectly healthy pregnancy. At his birth, he was perfect. Except that he wasn't breathing. "This baby has no heartbeat." That line rings through time and space.
It seemed impossible to make sense of it all. We'd read and had lots of educational sessions about miscarriage. We'd read and had lots of educational sessions about SIDS. But stillbirth? That was something that happened in olden times to our great-great-grandmothers back in the old country before decent hospitals and healthcare. Yet here we were.
After his death, I learned that my husband's sister's first child was stillborn. My great-grandmother had two children who died. In my own family, there was a history of stillbirth. But none of those children were on the family tree graphics. No one had ever mentioned them on their birth/death days. No one had ever uttered their names. Besides just being a sad commentary on how we deal with death, these silences cheated me out of my full medical history. My caregivers had no idea to look for markers like PCOS that might need special care to avoid stillbirth outcomes. They didn't know because I didn't know. It reminded me of my youth when people would whisper, "Cancer."
I came to discover there are whole organizations formed around the support of stillbirth families. Research institutions. Entire books of study written. And yet stillbirth is ignored. In some places, death certificates are issued and families are required to arrange for burial or cremation, but no birth certificate is given. The stillBIRTH is ignored. Not counted. Estimates on U.S. stillbirths vary because there is no standard for counting us. Lowest rates say 29,000 stillbirths per year in the U.S. Divide that by 365 days. Divide that by 24 hours. You get almost 7 babies dead every two hours of every day of every year.
So a couple of years after Kota died, I was invited to make art for a show titled "Women's Bodies: Violence & Healing" to be hosted at the Vashon Allied Arts gallery. The opening night party was scheduled to be two hours long. I decided to make a series of 7 Womb Books to represent the 7 babies who would die while we were all looking at art for that two hours. The 7 mothers who would be told they didn't give birth by refusing them a stillbirth certificate, but who would be handed death certificates, confirming for each of them that they had become vessels of death. Talk about violence against the body of mother and child.
To make the books, I cut up one of those wavy paper crates that holds apples at the grocery store. I folded two of the waves/cups over on one another and then stitched coarse string through the center and edges to make the fold permanent. I painted the whole piece, inside and out, with a thick, red, acrylic paint. I attached a red silk string from the inside to represent the umbilical cord. At the end of the cord, I attached a small handmade book, in the shape of DaVinci's "Study of Womb" image. I used the image of the baby from that piece as the cover art for my book. The pages are an accordian fold, handcut from Japanese rice paper. I liked the skin thin quality of this paper, and the fibers running through it reminded me of veins. I handstamped, letter by letter, the content to read:
Without my consent
and then the last pages said:
Birth Death Date:
so information for real children could be filled in there. The back cover was a mirror of the womb baby shape and painting in the same red acrylic paint. I numbered and signed each one. And then I closed the accordion book and wrapped the red umbilical cord string around it to keep the book closed. Of course, that represented my own experience of my son being strangled to death by his cord.
These 7 pieces were on display at that gallery for the opening and for an entire month afterward. It was one way of raising awareness through heART. One way of integrating my story as I learned to live life after death.
When the show ended, I filled out the information in several of the books, and sent them off to other stillbirth moms I had met along the way. I know they are treasured. The only negative reaction the pieces got was when I gave one of the books to an extended family member who then gifted it to a newly bereaved mom. This mom was so early in her grief that the graphic nature of the statement scared and offended her. When the extended family member asked for that book, I had a gut instinct not to give it. But I didn't listen. In my heart, I have hoped that the mom who received it at least might have kept it tucked away somewhere till she was ready to begin integrating her story. It was a reminder to me that there is no prescription for grief that will fit all of us! We make our own meaning and our way through it.
One of the precious books does remain with me. I filled out one of them with my own son's information, and it resides on his altar in our home year round. For me, the delicate nature of the book touches on how intangible his physical being is and was to me. And yet the starkness of the piece reminds me how ever-present he is. Grief cannot take away love. It can take a lot, but never love. I am still Dakota's Mom.
About the heARTist
Kara is Grief & Creativity Coach at www.MotherHenna.comand creator of the 1,000 Faces of Mother Henna project.