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The tough conversation I had with my 5-year-old after my miscarriage

“Why isn’t there a baby in your tummy anymore?” she asked me. “Where did it go?”

I sat in a lawn chair, sipping lukewarm sparkling water, watching my daughter celebrate her 5th birthday in a castle-shaped bounce house. My head throbbed as I struggled to carry on conversations with family members, and behind my forced smile was an overwhelming sense of loss. It hadn’t happened yet — but my body knew something was wrong.

Three days later, on May 31, the doctor confirmed it: We had lost our third child at seven weeks pregnant. It was five years to the day my husband and I welcomed our first baby girl — a cruel irony that certainly wasn’t lost on either of us. 

After months of meticulous trying, it was devastating. Sure, we knew the risk was there — at my age of 35, we were familiar with the increased risk of miscarriage. Still, we were confident that after two healthy daughters, we were in the clear.

We were wrong. And, as our doctor tried to reassure us, there was nothing we could’ve done to prevent it.

Regardless, the inevitable guilt is almost unbearable. Every trip to the bathroom and every flush of the bright red water brought on uncontrollable tears. There were nights when my husband held me as I sobbed on the kitchen floor, trying to push away the thoughts of “what if.” 

What if it was another girl? What if she ended up with the same big, blue, beautiful eyes?

The only way I could describe the feeling to my husband was “mental torture.” I told myself the “silver lining” (if you can even call it that) was that it happened so early.

Still, the loss of something so incredible — a growing human who, at that point, was supposed to be making big developmental strides — was more than we could handle.

Another unexpected challenge

Of course, the slightly bigger issue came in the form of a tiny, blond-haired, blue-eyed human: my 5-year-old daughter. Her natural lack of filter and habit of asking unintentionally inappropriate questions kicked into overdrive after learning about my pregnancy. If her beloved episodes of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” taught her anything, it was that Mommy’s tummy — and her role as a big sister — was about to get a whole lot bigger.  

And she was so excited.

Alex Vance and daughter
The author with her older daughter.Courtesy Alex Vance

In the few days following my positive pregnancy test, she became a hard-hitting journalist in toddler-sized shoes. No topic was off-limits, and her eagerness to learn about the growing baby was adorably incessant. For weeks, she begged me to show her YouTube videos of how babies are formed in the womb, and for weeks, I marveled at her genuine enthusiasm toward her future sibling.

But during those very same weeks, everything I had taught her about what was going on inside my body wasn’t actually happening — not to me, at least.

The conversation I never wanted to have

My husband and I, along with our 5-year-old and 2-year-old, drove home in silence after leaving the doctor’s office. My dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure was complete, and just like that, I wasn’t pregnant anymore. My head bobbed like a buoy in rough waters as I tried to emerge from the fog of pain medication. The worst part was over, but I still had one more hurdle to jump: explaining to my older daughter that it was over.

Although she didn’t understand the procedure I had just gone through, she knew something was wrong. I watched as her little face twisted with concern in the backseat, so when we returned home, I vaguely explained to her that Mommy was no longer pregnant.

“Why isn’t there a baby in your tummy anymore?” she asked, motioning to the area that once housed her second sibling. “Where did it go?”

How do I find the words to explain this? How specific do I need to be? Will it even register? I hadn’t prepared myself for such a crushing conversation.

I explained to her that the baby had simply stopped growing. Its heart wouldn’t beat, and its body wasn’t getting any bigger. Much like a seed that needs nourishment to grow into a tree, the seed inside Mommy’s tummy didn’t have what it needed to survive. 

“This baby just wasn’t ready to be born,” I told her. “But you know what? Mommy and Daddy will try again another day.”

I could see her little mind going to work, trying to process what I had just told her. She knew I was sad. She may not have been a grown-up, but her immediate response proved her maturity: She gave me the biggest, most incredible bear hug.

“I miss the baby,” she said, sending my emotional roller coaster into another unexpected loop. (But man, was it cute.)

Moving forward together

As innocent as children are, they are incredibly smart. They’re resilient. They’re unafraid to be themselves. In this case, my daughter didn’t just help me through an incredibly difficult situation — she instilled in me a sense of strength that I had lost after seeing the absence of a heartbeat on my emergency ultrasound.

She was my reminder that this loss did not diminish my strength as a mother. The guilt, heartache and mental turmoil I felt were hard to shake, but looking at her — my purpose, my everything — gave me the strength to move forward.

Alex Vance and family
"As a family, we grieved," Alex Vance writes of the time period following her miscarriage.Courtesy Alex Vance

And that’s exactly what we did. As a family, we grieved. As parents, my husband and I welcomed any questions our daughter wanted to ask. Most of all, we didn’t let the situation derail our plans of becoming a family of five.

Do I regret telling our daughter so early in my pregnancy? Not at all. If anything, she’s a big part of the reason I was able to pick up my emotions from the kitchen floor I spent so many nights crying on. She was my shoulder to lean on and the one to make sure I had a stuffed animal to cuddle with on my worst days.

There may not be a baby in my tummy anymore, but the two I have in front of me are everything I need — and so, so much more.