A New Little Sister: Willa Gwendolyn Strong

January 15, 2017 by Victoria Strong

I love birth stories. No matter how long ago, a mother beams as she recounts that special day. Every detail seared into our mothering bones. Regardless of how the child arrived, the day you first hold your precious baby becomes a fingerprint on both of us. Our child’s first story. Our first story as a family with them in it. And these stories are sacred.

I never shared Gwendolyn’s birth story on the blog, though I’ve told and beamed and recounted it thousands of times. It felt so good to write down her beautiful entrance into the world HERE. It feels as if it were yesterday. I don’t know what crazy endorphins were rushing through me after Eleanora’s birth, but I wrote her story while still in the hospital after her birth HERE. And now I share our sweet Willa’s birth story. Her first story. Our first story as a family with her in it.

I have always been one of those women who love pregnancy. The miracle of growing a life, the process on the body… I will always be in awe. My pregnancy with Willa was challenging. My previous pregnancy experiences had been relatively easy, so this felt new. From the get-go, my body struggled. I couldn’t breathe, felt faint with minimal movement, my back seized on me daily and my hip would just give out, both of which made walking difficult. I wrote at one point this year that I was ashamed to even admit this because having a child who faced all of those physical issues at a magnitude far greater I felt ungrateful or lacking in perspective. I also felt shame that anything negative about my pregnancy somehow reflected a lack of joy for the child I already loved so or a lack of gratitude for the pregnancy itself. And, perhaps, without me realizing it, I felt a sense of responsibility for the struggle… that I was the cause because of my deep grief. But, at some point I let all that go, realizing I was charting entirely new emotional territory… and accepted that pregnancy after loss is, indeed, complicated and that is okay.

“This summer I wrote in a blog post "No Child Can Replace Another Child" that my grief over losing Gwendolyn and my joy for this baby are separate entities. I still believe that is true mentally, but emotionally my body is the vessel in which they commingle. I know firsthand from living a life of contradictions that sorrow and joy, sadness and gratitude can be experienced simultaneously. But, sometimes, they are at odds. To grow life while grieving the loss of it... it's no wonder my body is tangled. These last weeks I have been focusing on self-care with more intention, nurturing what I have neglected, recognizing my body needs me to embrace the conflict with permission that this in no way lessens the cherished. Growing a human is hard work. And a privilege.”

The joy for the pregnancy was never dampened. I still felt mesmerized by my growing belly (and it was a huge belly) and relished the experience of sharing this with Eleanora’s little two-year-old mind. She often kissed my belly button, tried to tickle the baby, and gladly posed for pregnancy selfies. While she didn’t seem to fully grasp the concept of a baby sister, she has never been adverse either. And she is now adjusting so well, sweetly checking on Willa the moment she makes a peep, including her in games, and doesn’t seem too bothered by this new person taking attention.

Willa’s actual due date was January 1st - New Years, and I was holding out for that day. But, since Eleanora was born three weeks early, we were preparing for her to arrive anytime in December… or I was, Bill had it in his mind she would come later in January (apparently I’m an elephant smile). Because I carry so straight out, people talked to me about early arrival a lot. From the time I was about 6-months pregnant I was asked the same questions daily from strangers: “Due any day now? Your first? A boy? Oh, it must be twins then?”, all of which were met by bigger and bigger eyes as I answered, “No,” to each. As December ticked away, I just kept whispering to her, “Don’t arrive on Christmas…” (I know it doesn’t matter in the scheme of life, but I just hoped she didn’t have to share her birthday with Jesus. The big guy kinda wins out on that one.)

For several weeks I had tightening feelings and it definitely wasn’t comfortable but never lasted too long. Then on Christmas Eve, the tightening felt different. Bill started timing things and we went to bed unsure of what Christmas would bring. I was up a lot that night but around 2 am everything suddenly stopped. I felt nothing all morning at home as we watched Eleanora open presents and so we headed to Bill’s mom’s house in L.A. with the plan that it would “only” take about 1 ½ hours to get home if the contractions started again. This seems crazy now! Thankfully, Willa listened to me and stayed put because, otherwise, I think she would have been born on the freeway.

On December 26th, I slept in a bit and then went to get a pedicure while Bill and Eleanora went to the park to practice riding her new bike. Around 1:30, as I was enjoying an extra long foot massage, the first contractions started. At this point, I was sure it would all just go away like it did the day before. I had an extra intense one just before I left and I remember everyone at the nail salon looking at me like, “Whoa, is this baby coming?” I still didn’t think it was real, the “tightening” feelings weren’t consistent and I’d been so uncomfortable for so long I think it all just felt normal. I don’t know why but I didn’t text Bill and instead headed to do some errands. At CVS a woman asked the familiar question, “Due any day?” This time it all hit me and I told her, “I think I’m in labor now!” That was when I headed home.

When I walked through the door around 3:30, mid-contraction, Bill immediately knew. He got his trusty timer going again and then we waited. I assumed it would still be hours before we even went to the hospital… and, for some reason, there was also a bit of denial. We got Eleanora up from her nap, played a new game, ate, and even though the contractions started getting closer together I still kept saying, “I’m not sure if this is it.” There was a gorgeous sunset and so I sat outside soaking it in. This always centers me and that night I could really feel Gwendolyn and imagined her giving baby sister hugs before sending her to us. When I went back inside at 5:00 pm, my water broke. My sense of calm disappeared and I suddenly panicked – sat down and didn’t want to leave. Poor Bill was running circles around me lovingly trying everything to get me to leave. And sweet Eleanora patted my knee and hugged my neck giving me a pep talk as I trembled through a big contraction saying, “You be okay, Mommy.” That was the boost I needed.

When we got to the hospital around 6:00, the contractions were coming fast. As I was wheeled into the birthing center I immediately saw the nurse who delivered Eleanora. (She, another nurse, and Bill literally delivered Eleanora because our doctor didn’t get there in time.) She remembered me too and immediately told all the nurses, “This one goes fast. Get her in a room and call the doctor.” She was right - things went very fast at this point and I was consciously finding my rhythm. For some reason, I still assumed it would be hours more, but I went from 4 to 6 to 8 all in about 30 minutes. I was really uncomfortable in certain positions and felt best sitting up or leaning forward with Bill rubbing my back and I listened to that even though it meant they couldn’t monitor the baby very well. The nurses in labor and delivery are really just wonderful. They are so encouraging and empathetic and hearing my nurse repeat that I am a strong woman gave me such focus and confidence to breathe and work with my body without an epidural.

At one point, the nurse who delivered Eleanora mentioned Gwendolyn, offering her condolences, and while my throat filled with sawdust at the sadness of missing her so I relished having Gwendolyn brought into the delivery room. As I labored, I listened as she and Bill talked about Gwendolyn and it helped me so to once again visualize my beautiful firstborn holding this new baby sister, showering her with kisses and her sacred love, and then sending her on to us with pieces of herself.

At 7:37, Willa Gwendolyn Strong came into the world. Her eyes were closed and she was covered in thick vernix, which made her hair look black and curly. As she nursed and the vernix rubbed in, we studied her closely still in a bit of shock that she was in my arms. She was pink and plump and smiling. She may be the most smiley newborn I’ve ever seen. She has Mommy’s long fingers, Daddy’s long toes, much more hair than either of her sisters, but the sweetness of them both.

Naming her was easy. There are many girls names that we love, but we both knew we needed to have Gwendolyn included. We quickly chose to give her Gwendolyn as a middle name, of course, in honor of her big sister, and also as a special bond between them. Eleanora will always have a connection to Gwendolyn because of their life together. So we wanted to give this child a connection that was unique to her. Also, we have always given family names as our children’s middle names: Gwendolyn’s is DeBard in honor of my mother and my side of the family. Eleanora's is Tanzey in honor of Bill’s mom and grandfather and his side of the family. With our third, we decided it would be nice to honor our little family – the family first created with Gwendolyn. But, this didn’t feel complete. We paired Gwendolyn with many beautiful names but none of them felt right. That was when we knew we had to use Willa. Willa is a name Gwendolyn selected with great enthusiasm years ago. It was the first and only time she really chose a name with such seriousness. She was five-years-old and we literally went through 10,000 names with her and ended up reading a baby book of names until she very specifically and with great confidence chose the name Willa for her new special doll. At the time, we immediately loved her choice and told her it was so beautiful that we would name our own child Willa. We loved that it is classic yet not too common, strong yet whimsical. And we especially liked that Willa is a nod to the many Williams in our family. (Bill was named after his grandfather, William Tanzey, who was a very influential person in his life.) We didn’t choose it when we had Eleanora, but this time, now having lost Gwendolyn, this memory of her involvement in selecting the name with such seriousness and pride felt like a gift given to us for this moment.

We are soaking in all of Willa’s newness. Savoring her sweet baby smells and sounds and remembering the newborn period with all three of our girls, knowing how quickly it goes. I find myself enamored. Just staring at her, soaking in every ounce. Her every wrinkle and new facial expression and squeak. As a mom of 3, so acutely aware of how fleeting these days are. Hazy, sleep deprived, finding a new balance, getting-to-know-this-new-human time that we will never get back. As a medical mama, knowing how precious and simple this newborn nurturing is. What a gift it is to be able to make everything better with food and snuggles. As a loss mom, the tenuous nature of life is now etched to my core... and so I savor a little more deeply, clinging to the goodness. Every breath, every smell, every smile.

Sometimes it strikes me how much Willa looks like a newborn Gwendolyn. Not always, but certain mannerisms and at certain angles. Holding my babies skin to skin, feeling the entirety of their bodies breathing in rhythm with mine, watching their just breastfed faces soften, their long fingers stretch out and gently pose against their round cheeks. It takes me back to those new days as a new mom when Gwendolyn was physically her very strongest. Before SMA, before grief, before child loss, before I was shattered. And for a moment, a brief beautiful moment, I feel as if I'm getting to hold them both.

While I cling to that feeling, the reality of Willa being in my arms now is the very sweetest goodness. Having another child will never erase the pain, but I am astutely aware of the gift of her life. It would be impossible not to compare, but Willa is her own person and I cherish that too - hoping, with every fiber of what I have left, for a lifetime of watching her become who she is meant to be.


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