By: Brooke Taylor Duckworth
When I was pregnant with my first daughter, I was determined to have a natural, unmedicated labor and delivery. You see, when I was pregnant with my first daughter, I thought such things were important.
I assumed that getting to my third trimester meant that the baby would live and that the other details were things that I could control.
My husband and I attended childbirth classes and he carefully wrote out a long lists of phrases that he could say during labor that would be helpful and supportive (You are a great mom already! Hang in there. You are doing a great job! Baby is almost here!).
I found that list about a week after my daughter died—unexpectedly stillborn a few weeks before her due date. A list of no-longer helpful phrases written in my husband’s meticulous printing.
I ended up having an unmedicated labor and delivery with Eliza, simply because it happened so fast that I didn’t fully grasp what was happening until it was nearly over. So much for my childbirth classes preparing me for what was to come. I arrived at the hospital in labor. I was told my baby didn’t have a heartbeat. Less than an hour later she was born.
My husband was there for all of it, holding my hand, rubbing my back, holding himself together so I that wouldn’t fall apart. Neither of us thought for a moment about that list of supportive things to say.
In shock, he simply repeated one sentence over and over again: “I love you.” These three words were everything I needed to hear.
I heard in those words all of the unspoken things he was feeling: I can’t believe this is happening. I don’t know how to fix this. I don’t want you to be broken. I am scared. I am heartbroken. We have to find a way to be okay. Please don’t die.
It’s one of those clichés people say—that they never knew how much they loved their husband until they saw him become a father.
For my husband, the first experience of fatherhood was not a whirlwind of sleepless nights, poopy diapers, and bewilderment about how to support a breastfeeding and hormonal wife.
His first experience was cradling a silent and still little infant while his wife sobbed in a hospital bed.
I watched him with the baby. I think I was waiting for a miracle, for her hand to move, for her to take a breath, for time to reverse itself so we could get a do-over, for someone to realize somewhere that there had been a terrible mistake and this was not my actual life. My husband cradled our baby girl and whispered to her. I couldn’t hear him but I know what he said. He’d been saying it to me over and over. It was a three-word mantra that held everything he needed to say: “I love you.”
This father’s day, I’m sending love and light to the men who marveled over growing bellies and baby kicks near the belly-button but who never got to meet their babies on this side of heaven. I’m sending love to the stoic men who finally sob over silent babies. To the angry fathers who shout at healthcare workers because they don’t know what else to do with the rage at the unfairness of the universe. To the fathers who openly weep at grief support group and to those who grit their teeth until their jaws ache. To those who express their sorrow in song and poetry. To those who turn to solitude.
To the fathers who function as support systems when their own hearts are broken, too. And to those who rely on “I love you” to capture all the complexity of heartbreak and unconditional devotion.
When I came across that list after Eliza’s death, it felt like a punch in the gut. (I’m proud of you. You’re doing great! It won’t be long now.) Part of me wanted to crumple it up and throw it away in a rage. Instead, I folded it carefully and placed it between pages of Eliza’s mostly-empty baby book. In the months and years to come, I would write hundreds of thousands of words about my first baby girl. My husband used his words differently—first in a plan to support me, and then, when that plan fell apart, he improvised the best way he could: through the repeated comfort and promise of unconditional love in three words.
To the fathers who love unconditionally, through life and death, through grief and joy. This Father’s Day, we remember you and your love.