*Warning, this text deals with the death of my daughter Iris, and the subject of perinatal grief.
Make sure you're in the best conditions to read it*.
On August 31 2022, I gave birth to a full-term baby girl, Iris, who died a few hours later.
During the nine months of my pregnancy I had the time to adjust to my new status as a mother-to-be. I projected myself into a future and an identity that in the end, was to be taken away from me at the very last minute. Yet I'm constantly being told, as if people are trying to persuade me that it’s true, that I'm a mother, because I carried and cherished this child of mine. Yes, I'm Iris's mum, but I'm also Camille, a 36-year-old woman who went home from the hospital without a baby.
Since I lost my baby I've been writing notes, draft emails, snippets of words that capture a moment, or a feeling. It's all very disjointed; a patchwork of emotions. So when Kenza asked me, gently and kindly, to share my story, I thought it would be the perfect way to share an experience of motherhood like no other, by putting all my thoughts together. I have written my grief, compiled my feelings, and tried to be as accurate as possible.
My name is Camille Arot Thuillier and I'm a florist. My husband Pharrell Arot -- with whom I've shared my life for nearly 15 years -- already told our birth story a few weeks after we left the maternity ward, in his newsletter. I want to tell you about what came afterwards, about life without Iris, what my postpartum was like, and above all, my experience of motherhood.
We could never have anticipated the aftermath. We never imagined that we would be leaving the maternity ward emptier and sadder than we had ever felt. Especially after nine months of a perfect pregnancy. Once the initial shock has passed, the reality of it all sinks in, and you realise that every step will be an ordeal: leaving the maternity ward, saying goodbye to Iris, dealing with the paperwork and getting back to the real world.
Pharrell and I quickly headed south, just the two of us, to rest and catch our breath, away from our lives and away from the turbulent waves. It was like an extra summer before we faced the sadness of winter. The trip was incredibly beautiful and simple, like a starter course on how to enjoy life again. And in the end, I think I understood pretty quickly that it would be OK, because as long as I have Pharrell by my side, everything will always be OK.
For the past nine months, together, we've felt an urgent need to live, to get away from it all, to see beauty everywhere. We’ve been taking spur-of-the-moment trips, embarking on new professional projects, crossing things off an imaginary checklist, as if we’re trying to find the bright side to our reprieve of freedom.
The hardest thing since Iris died has been the absence, the gut-wrenching absence of having lost her, of never really having known her. I read that losing a child means losing your future, and I completely agree with that. All that life that we had imagined as a family of three will never happen. In the first few weeks, I often woke up imagining that it was just a bad dream, before reality came rushing back to hit me full force.
For the last nine months, my life has been about learning to survive, getting back into the swing of things, constantly testing myself to see if I'm up to it. Going out to do the shopping, bumping into people in the street, going back to the pharmacy -- it's these little acts of everyday life that are proving the most daunting and difficult, the ones that bring me back to my situation. But one step at a time, I'm feeling my way around, learning everything all over again.
For a long time I couldn't listen to music as it triggered too many feelings, so I started listening to podcasts in the car, just so I wouldn't be overwhelmed at traffic lights. That’s what grieving is, having to calculate everything to make sure you don’t drown.
The hours pass, the days pass, the months too, and life starts again for everyone else. But not for me. And with the passage of time comes the point at which people forget, move on to something else. So you have to re-find your legitimacy, justify yourself again, find excuses for your sadness.
There's also the "why"; that "why" that everyone is asking, themselves and us. We don't have the answer and we never will. Nothing will ever bring Iris back to us, so we've made the choice not to waste energy looking for somewhere to lay blame, or an explanation.
For the last 14 years, Pha and I have protected each other, loved each other and laughed together. We live everything intensely, and that's what is saving us now, and will always save us in the future. Inside this infinite sadness, we’re united, and it's only amplified our feelings. The stronger we experience sadness, the more intensely we experience happiness. We made the choice together to be happy in spite of everything, not to let ourselves be tarnished by grief. The beauty of life is taking over again, I can feel it, even if it's a difficult and winding road. The return of spring, time spent with our loved ones; thanks to these little everyday things, I'm able to savor the road we've traveled. Of one thing, I’m sure: I will eventually be happy again.
Of course, there are days and weeks, when the simple fact of living is an ordeal. It arrives like a breath, and leaves just as it arrived. At the end of each of the past nine months, I have woken up feeling sad and purposeless. It lasts a few days, sometimes it’s just the 31st, and then my zest for life returns. It's hard to deal with, but I knew this scheduled sadness would come.
Each month it’s a little shorter, a little less painful, and I think that's what mourning is all about. The absence of Iris will never go away, but you learn to live with the huge hole in your heart. For me, mourning my baby isn't about forgetting, it's about living with it and no longer being overwhelmed every time I think of her or talk about her.
BEING LEGITIMATE AS A MOTHER
Although I don't fit into the traditional mums' club, I can't go back to my previous status either. I don't fit into any box. But it’s not my goal to find a new box. My mission, my voice, is to speak about my daughter, for all those women who experience miscarriage, voluntary abortion, medical termination, death in utero, or those like me who experience the birth and then the death of their baby. Our voice counts as much as anyone else's. If, like me, you don't feel legitimate as a mother, remember it's normal. But if you felt like a mother for a few days, or weeks, or months, then you are one.
Jealousy is a very ugly feeling, but it's real, and it resurfaces frequently: little Irises who are alive and kicking, parents in the street with the same pushchair as us; details that can pull me under into deep sadness instantly. Jealously reaches its peak with pregnancy announcements, or worse, when babies are born. Brand new babies are my worst fear, my heart clenches at the sight of those women lucky enough to hold their live baby, and I'm terrified of my Instagram algorithm that taunts me every day. It’s not like me, but that's how it is. It's not like me, that’s how it is, it will pass, but each time comes the same question: why me?
Physically I feel so empty. Just like any woman after giving birth, only I don't have my baby to fill that physical void. In the space of a few hours on August 31 2022, a part of me was taken away and my heart was left in a million pieces.
Iris went into extreme cardiac distress during childbirth, and I underwent an emergency caesarean section. My scar is my trophy, like an indelible trace of her passage through our lives. It reminds me every day of the violence and the beauty of this whole ordeal. I took lots of photos of myself straight away, so that I wouldn't forget, so that I could learn to love myself again. In the early days, I hid away, so I wouldn’t be mistaken for a pregnant women. I had so loved being pregnant.
I had all the discomfort of postpartum, but none of the joy: I lost my hair, I lost my bump, I had to learn to cope with my new body, I had milk surges despite medication to stop my milk coming in. To manage all this, I've surrounded myself with professionals who have made me aware of the power of my body and my mind, and thanks to them I've regained my self-confidence. They are my fairy godmothers, an army of incredible women who were put in my path just when I needed them. EMDR therapy, relaxation therapy, physiotherapy, Pilates, exercise, massage, reflexology, osteopathy; I learnt to take care of myself, to rebuild myself.
I wanted to love this body that had become so different, to tame it and then leave it be. I decided to cherish it for all that it has done; it is my ally. And now I think I can finally say that I love my body even more, and I'm stronger than ever.
It's still a little too soon to talk about the future, but I'm slowly getting back to enjoying life. I went back to work three months after Iris was born and I had no idea of the power that flowers would have in my recovery. Flowers are my profession, my passion. They bring me so much joy and peace, and I'm always happiest when I'm surrounded by them. With the arrival of spring and flowers in full bloom, I feel like I'm coming back to life. I sometimes find myself in tears at their beauty.
Iris wasn't born by chance, she was born to remind us that love will always save us. The magical love between us, and also the equally infinite love of those closest to us. I want to tell the whole world our story, so that no-one ever forgets our daughter. I need to keep her alive, so that she never becomes a source of shame or a secret. Let's love each other, cherish our children, and remember those who left too soon, for the rest of our lives.
Even if Pharrell and I still have a long way to go, we've never loved each other so much and I think we've never had so much love to give.