Sometimes, they don’t live long and prosper

I know, of course, that children and infants frequently died in our past. As a former student of Victorian literature and history, I am comfortable with the fact that perhaps most children in the history of the world have died young and unpleasantly.  And I’m sure that heaven will be centered around the under 8 crowd – just like church!  I have sometimes even thought that perhaps the single most significant development in allowing women more life choices was scientifically advancing to the point where they did not need to have many children to ensure that at least some survived to adulthood.  But I didn’t realize how many infants are still dying – and how many women still struggle to conceive them at all.

Younger women in our society rarely hear about the difficulties of having children.  On the contrary, most of their sex education is directed towards the perils of becoming unintentionally pregnant.  Becoming pregnant is not something that sometimes requires patience; it is something that happens all too easily and fast.  On the flip side, pregnancy is also something that they hear responsible couples can plan for, even picking the very year when they will become parents. 

Modern parents, similarly, don’t hear much about failed pregnancies or children born too early to survive.   These are events that, for the most part, we keep to ourselves and don’t publicly mourn.  It is true that babies born in 2009 are more likely to survive than those born in 1909 — neither of my two brothers would be alive today without medical advances – and many people can get pregnant on the spot, but babies are still not guaranteed to come, to live long and to prosper.

And, so, I was moved by my Relief Society this Sunday when many mothers shared the experience of losing their still-born, pre-maturely born, or infant child.  But I was also surprised.  And, given my surprise, I’m now a little concerned that young women like me have let our medical advances and industries surrounding child-rearing give us the false impression that babies always come easily and survive.

Comments

  1. Natalie I think you are exactly right, and it is a huge disservice to both men and women.

  2. Hmmm. Maybe I’ve been in a different world, but I’ve found great attention paid to premature babies–some of whom survived and thrived, some of whom survived but with serious handicaps, and some of whom died–and to stillbirths. I remember suffering my second miscarriage in Boston back in 1986. I was only eleven weeks pregnant, but the ward mobilized and sent RS sisters to help me clean (we were moving back to Utah). Then, most importantly, the RS president, who had had several miscarriages herself, came over just to listen to me, understanding that a miscarriage even at such an early point in pregnancy was a very real and painful thing.

  3. Margaret I read it as not that the church was not paying attention to it, but in general when we in society talk about reproduction, we talk about ways to avoid it. We don’t pay attention to the fact that most people want it, many people can’t experience it, and how to increase the chances of it. That’s a pretty unbalanced approach to such a significant part of the human condition.

  4. You are right Natalie. We don’t appreciate how fragile infant life is in modern times. Thank you for your thoughts and addressing this tender subject.

    It was a surprise to me how much I grieved over the loss of a stillborn son. My grief was in not knowing him and not knowing if he was mine in the eternites. It did not matter if I could have more children. I felt the loss of that particular child/spirit. I blogged about that experience and others added their thoughts to mine. http://www.millennialstar.org/2009/02/25/tears-in-heaven-a-lds-perspective-on-stillborn-and-miscarried-babies/

  5. I’ve heard soon-to-be-parents joke that “I don’t care what it is, as long as it’s healthy”. And then I think of my mother, who had 7 healthy children — one of them significantly preemie — and one severely handicapped child … and I think of my friends with autistic children, and that off-hand remark takes on a new meaning…

    DW still gets emotional talking about a miscarriage and the spiritual connection she still feels with that spirit…

  6. JA Benson,

    I don’t know if you caught my apology from that other post on this issue. But I just wanted to state it again in case you missed it. My comment then was without considering what it really meant for so many people. I wanted to thank you for reminding me of that.

  7. Daniel,
    I am sorry for being so cranky. I know you meant no harm. Thank you.

  8. The wonderful thing about parenting is you love your child. Once they are yours you love them deceased or handicapped or alive and healthy. This is not to imply that parents of handicapped children do not grieve, but the intense parental love is definitely there.

    The best example of Christ like behavior, I have ever personally witnessed was when we traveled to CHina to get Hong Mei. and there were parents in our travel group who traveled to adopt severely handicapped children. One set of parents took on a mentally disabled and blind albino older child. Another set of parents adopted a severe spina bidifida older child and they already had another severe spina bifida older child. Another family adopted a deaf child. They paid the money and jumped thru the same hoops as we did to bring their child out of deplorable conditions to receive treatment and love in America. In each case they knew these children were theirs and God witnessed for them to go and get their child.

    Parenthood is a difficult and a amazing journey no matter the circumstances.

  9. I think that miscarriages/still births are common enough that most adults are aware of the fact that a certain number of pregnancies end prematurely and or badly. My Sister in laws and my wife have had 2 miscarriages in the last 18 months in addition to three live births.

    I also think that younger women in LDS society are far more exposed to childbirth and both the joys and difficulties of newborns since in my experience they are simply around more babies and pregnant women than the average.

  10. Elouise says:

    Interesting what a wide spectrum of responses people have to the reality of miscarried, stillborn, and early-death babies.

    A dear young unmarried friend became pregnant. When she miscarried, the general response among her mother’s wide circle of friends was, “Well, it’s sad, but this is probably for the best.” But one friend wrote the young woman a long, tender letter, saying how sorry she was for the loss, how often she had wondered what the baby would look like, how she had happily imagined possible names, and so forth.
    Her letter respected that this was a major event in the young woman’s life, one that deserved its own time for grieving and sympathy.

    In my parents’ day, people didn’t talk much, if at all, about miscarriages and stillbirths, etc. Mother, aged 8 or so, overheard her mother talking to a friend, saying that she had “lost” a child at three days of age. Mother, who had not known about this death and was raised not to ask personal questions, worried for several years that if her parents had “lost” one child, they could perhaps
    carelessly “lose” her.

    Yet another consideration is this: if you have lost a child, what do you say when someone asks you how many children you have? Do you just say “four” and let it go; do you say, “four, one of whom has died/was stillborn”?

    Knowing what a large percentage of babies died during the 19th century, I was (foolishly) surprised, when studying women’s diaries of that period, at how permanently those little souls stayed at the center of the mothers’ hearts.
    Again and again, I read entries like, “June 28; my darling boy [who died at 6 weeks] would have been 21 today.”

  11. CS Eric says:

    We still keep track of our stillborn’s and early death’s birthdays. Our son would be on his mission, and his younger sister would be pestering us to let her date or drive. Based on a suggestion from a grief counselor, last Christmas we bought ourselves a present from them–one of those “Live, Love, Laugh” plaques, which we have hung over our front door.

  12. My miscarriage would have given me a 14 yo. As I struggled with feelings after that experience two things got me out of it (other than the ever patient support of my husband). 1. my sister discovering she was having twins-although I had struggled hearing of others pregnancies I loved my sister so much I couldn’t not be happy. 2. madonna announced her pregnancy- it was the crazy slap on the face I needed to remind me that pregnancies are not earned with righteousness.

    It is sobering to realize that despite all of our technology we have very little actual say in birth and death. My miscarriage taught my husband and I that marriage did not give us power over procreation…it is still God’s power with all its biological complications.

  13. Eloise-I was reading a family Bible from the 1800′s and what struck me was that one child that died before he was baptized was not even given a name. Just “boy” and birth and death dates. He lived for a few months, so you know his family had to have some name for him. I am grateful for my belief that infants who die go straight back to God, not eternal hell.

  14. My ward does a wonderful job with Mothers Day. In our last 15 minutes of RS we are served wonderful desserts while we chat. I spoke with an elderly sister for a while. She showed me some poems she had written. I asked about her family, since I do not know anything of her background. She lost three babies, one aged 13 months, one 3 months, the other I don’t remember.
    I chose to talk to her because I think we should respect the women who have gone before us. Our society forgets to honor age and wisdom. There is wisdom and experience there, buried beneath the old lady clothes and the cane and the shaky slow voice.
    Our society slowly marginalizes our women and men as they age because we worship youth, until neither they nor society think they have anything to offer.

  15. I think it was Frontline that did a piece on insurance in the last month, the guy with great insurance (Microsoft) got close to a million dollars to get his premie to the age of 2 while those with out got to go a funeral. It may not seem fair but it is reality and a topic our society is discussing. I hope those having babies today knows what is covered with their policies. Great topic to discuss.

  16. This hits close to home for me – not because of my own experiences but because of the situations of my parents.

    My mother had three miscarriages to start her marriage. When she got pregnant again and didn’t miscarry, the entire extended families rejoiced – and it is a large extended family on each side. When she went into labor and was told – just prior to delivery – that the baby had died, it was crushing. Truly devastating. (It almost pushed them to quit trying and adopt. It led to them having four kids in two years after my older sister was born – desperately hoping they could have “just one more”.) My mom delivered a dead baby – her first delivery; they named her; they buried her; they still talk of nine children – even as the eight of us that followed talk of only eight children. There is no doctrinal support for their hope that their oldest child will be theirs after mortality, but they cling to that hope as fervently as they do so with those of us who lived.

    I agree totally that infant death is not discussed enough in our modern society – and the fact that it happens far less around us than it used to happen (and still happens in many parts of the world) does create unrealistic expectations among our young adults.

  17. Nameless says:

    It almost pushed them to quit trying and adopt.

    Ray, I have been reading here long enough to not think this was intentional on your part but I just wanted to say this is odd phrasing. Adoption should not be a consolation prize.

  18. #17 – I certainly didn’t mean to disparage adoption through my wording. Thank you for recognizing that.

  19. Ray, a question for you, you said that “There is no doctrinal support for their hope that their oldest child will be theirs after mortality, but they cling to that hope as fervently as they do so with those of us who lived.”

    I’m rather confused, especially as I consider the covenants that a couple make when they are sealed that all children born to them are born under the covenant and thus are sealed to them for eternity.

    Could you please clarify? Or if this is a thread jack, just let me know and we could discuss it elsewhere.

  20. Sorry, I didn’t didn’t add to the second paragraph. I rather thought a stillborn child was still a child born to that couple, whether or not they lived outside the womb.

  21. Kristine says:

    Ray, there’s also no explicit doctrinal refutation of that hope, right?

  22. Stillborn children are not sealed to parents*, nor are they reported on ward records as births and deaths for statistical purposes. That’s not quite the same as an “explicit doctrinal refutation,” but seems to be only one step removed from it, on a practical level.

    The church does encourage families to name stillborn children, record them in family records, even hold funeral services, but whether that is only one step removed in the other direction, or is meant for the comfort of bereaved parents, I can’t guess.

    Search “stillborn” at lds.org for a small number of references to both kinds of statements.

    *In countries where the same word was used in old vital records for both children born dead and children born alive but who died before christening, such children are sealed to their parents. But where it is presumed that “stillborn” means the child never breathed, no sealing is done.

  23. Ardis, thanks for that. I sometimes wonder how much doctrinal basis it’s reasonable to infer for such aspects of church bureaucratic practice.

  24. It’s not in the same class, though, as a bureaucratic decision on the age of missionaries or whether Fast Day will be Sunday or Thursday. It’s a question that would have arisen almost from the very first moment of family sealings, and stillbirths occur in the families of the highest church leaders and theological scholars. While it isn’t of itself a statement of doctrine, it is virtually unimaginable that a definite practice, in a matter of such tender feelings and eternal significance, which absolutely has to have come into the notice of those who decide doctrine, is merely a “bureaucratic” practice that hasn’t been challenged in the more than 100 years it has been in effect. I don’t have the doctrinal statement behind the practice, but I’ll bet my dollars to your doughnuts that there *are* such doctrinal statements.

  25. Ardis, I suppose this might be a difference between a historian and a social scientist — it wouldn’t at all surprise me to imagine that an organization might adopt a policy like this, simply because some answer is needed, and then stick with it ad infinitum simply because it’s too painful a topic to seriously address.

    That said, there could well be doctrinal statements. If so, I think looking closely at them would help us a lot here! If there’s a consistent rationale expressed by different people at diverse periods of time, that would more strongly support the hypothesis that church leaders feel themselves to have insight on this matter. By contrast, if rationales differ substantially across statements, that could perhaps suggest a process of periodic and unsystematic justification for a policy maintained more due to organizational dynamics. But I’m not going to do the actual research on this because (a) I’m not a good historian, and (b) it sounds too much like work I wouldn’t get paid to do…

  26. Scott B says:

    JNS,

    >it sounds too much like work I wouldn’t get paid to do…

    >I’ll bet my dollars to your doughnuts that there *are* such doctrinal statements.

    Sounds like you’d be compensated richly, though payment would be contingent of disproving Ardis. In that spirit, my money is against you.

  27. Ugly Mahana says:

    I wonder if there is a one-size-fits-all solution, or if God resolves things differently than we suspect. After all, sealing is His domain.

  28. Scott B., you’re assuming that I have a lot of doughnuts! If not, the compensation’s pretty poor. In any case, regarding the question of the doctrinality of the decision not to seal stillborn children, I can produce a couple of statements suggesting there is none:

    “There is no information given by revelation in regard to the status of stillborn children. However, I will express my personal opinion that we should have hope that these little ones will receive a resurrection and then belong to us. I cannot help feeling that this will be the case. When a couple have a stillborn child, we give them all the comfort we can. We have good reasons to hope. Funeral services may be held for such children, if the parents so desire. Stillborn children should not be reported nor recorded as births and deaths on the records of the Church, but it is suggested that parents record in their own family records a name for each such stillborn child.”
    President Joseph Fielding Smith (1876–1972), Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (1954–56), 2:280.

    Furthermore, according to Val D. Greenwood, an employee of the Temple Department of the church in 1987,

    Church policy does permit a family to record stillborn children on their family group record if they wish to do so. If the stillbirth takes place after the sealing of the parents, those children can be identified on the record as being born in the covenant (BIC).

  29. Sorry; accidental posting of a partial comment. The citation on that last quote is this Ensign article.

    If children are regarded as BIC when stillborn, that means some sealing for such children does exist.

  30. That refers to a notation on a record kept by the family, JNS, not a church record. I think we need to be careful about assuming any binding quality to adhere to a private notation that is not recognized on the records of the church — especially when that makes God a respector of persons. A stillborn child is sealed to his parents as long as they were previously married in the temple, but the same blessing is denied to myriads of stillborn children whose parents married before the gospel was restored? That philosophy negates the entire concept of ordinances for the dead and puts us right back into the false sectarian teaching that most of the world’s people are forever shut out of heaven because they lived in times and places unenlightened by the Christian gospel. We may not have a clear doctrinal statement about the status of stillborn children, but we do have clear doctrinal statements about that fallacy.

  31. Ardis, indeed, a notation on family records. Nonetheless, BIC is a doctrinally theorized category, and a policy authorizing that category’s application is a counterweight to the policy forbidding sealings.

    I agree with you that it’s unacceptable to suppose that God will resurrect the stillborn children of church members and unite them with their parents, but that this will not be available for outsiders. I think the useful point here is simply that the church’s policy is incoherent, reflecting the fact explicitly stated by Joseph Fielding Smith that there’s no doctrinal foundation, perhaps other than Brigham Young’s vague but often cited remark that stillborn children need no sealing because “they are all right,” if we want to call that doctrine.

  32. This is why I prefer to make up my own doctrine:
    “In heaven everything will be awesome.”

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