Aliza’s Story: My Body, My Babies
At the time, I felt very unpretty. I felt in order to be pretty, you had to be skinny. The thing was, I was very very skinny. I thought that being skinny would make me popular. For me, I felt like I just wanted to be accepted, I didn’t have a circle of friends, I didn’t feel like my teachers liked me, I was doing horribly in school. I was falling apart at the seams, and I felt like I needed to be better- more accepted, I had to succeed. In order to do that I needed to be thin.
I started to put myself on a diet. It was in the 90’s when the style was big huge shirts and huge flowy skirts, so I was able to get skinnier underneath my clothes. No one was seeing me undressed, and I did not share a room so I had no sibling to notice what was going on.
I starved myself. That became difficult because my friends eventually picked up on it, and they told our teacher who told my parents. They brought me to a nutritionist, and because I had to eat, I started making myself vomit. I would eat very little, just to make people happy around me, and then I would purge it. The throwing up was the very beginnings of anxiety and depression for me because it was self-harm. I needed to feel the burning after purging episodes all the time because then I knew that there was nothing left inside of me. I just wanted to be empty.
One of the things that got me better was when I lost my period. I had gotten my period as a late bloomer, and at this point, I know that my depression and anxiety are largely affected by my hormones, and I believe hormones contributed to my mental health issues. I had been getting it regularly, and when it stopped my doctor asked when the last time I had a cycle. I stopped and thought and realized it had been a long time. I asked the doctor, “Am I ever going to get my period back? Will I be able to have kids?”, and he said, “I don’t know. You did damage to your body.” That helped shake me to the realization that what I was doing at that time as a teenager could have long-term effects on my body. I was just worrying about today, next week- I wasn’t thinking about the future.
But I always had loved babies. I was always the babysitter, running groups in shul. The fact that someone was telling me that I might not be able to have a baby was unacceptable to me. The hope of having children one day motivated me to recover from anorexia and bulimia.”
“Fast-forward and I didn’t get married. I was single for a long time. I recovered when I was 17. I had depression and anxiety on and off for many years. I started dating when I was 20. But I didn’t really have the headspace to be with someone else until I was doing better. By the time I met David, I was in a good place and so I was ready to be with him. I was almost 32 years old.
When David and I finally got married, we wanted to start a family. I was 32 years old and there didn’t seem to be a point in waiting. I got pregnant fairly quickly and I was so elated to be pregnant.
A few weeks in, I woke up in the middle of the night in terrible pain. Terrified, we were rushed to the hospital and they discovered I was having cyst pain on one of my ovaries. When the doctor called because it was so early on, she was talking to me about the right time to test for pregnancy, and how very often in the very early week’s pregnancies end in miscarriage and it’s too early for women to know. I remember thinking, “Why is this doctor talking to me about miscarriage? That’s like a one in a million chance that happens. How obnoxious that she is talking to me about this.”
When I went for our first ultrasound we were able to see a heartbeat. I was going for ultrasounds every month because they were monitoring the cysts. At 20 weeks, the doctor said that she was going to do the doppler and not the ultrasound this time. I was excited about getting to hear the heartbeat. She started doing the doppler, and I didn’t even know what I was listening for. I heard the fluid moving around and I thought that was the baby. She seemed really calm, and she said, “Maybe the baby is in a funny position, let’s go into the ultrasound room.” Till this day, the fact that I could not anticipate what came next still haunts me. The doctor was just so calm.
She did the ultrasound and then she shut off the lights. I had no idea what was going on. By this point, I had felt fluttering from the baby. I was wearing maternity clothes. Everyone knew that I was pregnant. I was so excited to tell everybody- I had all these students who were so excited for me.
The doctor said, “Aliza I’m really sorry, but there is no heartbeat.”
“I remember sitting up and screaming, “What are you talking about?? What does that mean?” She responded, “That means the baby died.”
I was by myself, my husband had gone to a family bris that day. The doctor asked where he was, and said, “Let’s call him.” She took my phone and dialed his number. She was going to tell him on the phone but I would not let her and when he picked up the phone I started screaming, “The baby is dead!” over and over at the top of my lungs.
When David got there, we both went into the doctor’s office. She told us that the only way for me to get the fetus out of my body was to deliver the baby, and she did not want me to be awake for that. She made me an appointment with a different doctor who gives you medication to get labor started, and right when the baby is ready to come out, he puts you out so that you don’t have to be awake when it’s time.
She told us that they were going to test the baby when it was delivered, to see if they can figure out why this happened. I said right away, “This happened because of my eating disorder.” My initial reaction was, “I did this to myself. My body isn’t strong enough to carry a baby.” She quickly assured me, “This is not your body- this is something else.”
She also would not let me leave her office until we called my psychiatrist- they were both worried about my drop in hormones from the miscarriage, and how that would affect my mental health. They quickly put me on medication to take for a few months, whether I needed it or not- in order to stabilize me.
We went home, and I still had my baby inside of me. Family and friends came over and called to be there for us, but we were shocked. I couldn’t stop crying. I woke up in the morning and my husband was davening downstairs- he never misses minyan- but he didn’t want to leave me. I fell into his arms, hysterically crying because when I woke up I realized it was still true.”
(4/7) “Closure and Hope”
“We spoke to our family rabbi and told him, “we don’t know what we are doing.” He told us he was sending someone to meet us at the hospital. When we were still alone, we asked the doctor, “What do we do about burial for our baby?” He told us that they test the baby and then the hospital “takes care of the body for us.” He assured us the baby was going to be buried.
When someone from NechamaComfort came in, she asked us if we needed help planning a burial for the baby. We told her that the doctor assured us that the hospital was going to take care of it. They told us that she was unsure of the hospital policy of burying the babies and we needed to advocate to do it the way we wanted.
It was Erev Shabbos, I had the Pitocin. When I woke up after the delivery, I was hysterical that the baby was no longer with me. My best friend who was walking into her Shabbos Sheva Brachot came in to see me, She was all dressed for Shabbos. Just having her there with me made me feel so much better. It was just what I needed. We got home within the 18 minutes before Shabbos.
On Monday, we got a call from the Chevra Kadisha and they told us that the hospital would not release the baby’s body. The doctor never signed the fetal death certificate. We had to hunt the doctor down, and he was very abusive to us before he finally agreed to release the body of our child so we could bury it; after 10 days. My OB felt terrible that she had sent us to this doctor. The tzaddik who is the head of the Chevra Kadisha here went to the hospital every day for ten days, waiting for the body to be released.
When they buried the baby, a sense of closure came with it. The doctor called me a few weeks later on Tisha Ba’av, to tell me that the baby had Down Syndrome. She said, “75% of babies who have Down Syndrome never make it out of their mother’s bodies. Chromosomal abnormalities can make babies very ill, and your baby must have been very sick.”
I still was hoping to have a child. Right before Rosh Hashana that year, I took a pregnancy test, and it came back negative. In shul that Yom Tov, I davened like crazy. Picture the scene: My father was the chazzan. He was davening at the bima, and I was right behind him, behind the mechitza. I was sobbing so hard I was practically screeching, in front of the whole shul. It was horrible.
The day after Rosh Hashana, I took a pregnancy test and I found out that we had new hope: I was pregnant again.”
(5/7) “Acts of God”
“I went to the doctor at 7 weeks and everything looked great. She told me she wanted to see me every two weeks; not because there was anything wrong with me but because she knew that I needed the reassurance. I went back 5 days before our one-year anniversary (around 11 weeks), and it happened again. The fetus had died.
I already knew the drill. I couldn’t wait for the baby to pass on its own. Having a dead baby inside of me makes me want to die, too. Also, if I let it naturally pass, then they wouldn’t have been able to test it, and I needed to know why this baby wasn’t viable. I needed knowledge.
My own doctor was able to perform a D&C at exactly 16 weeks to the day of my first loss. I was devastated. I was broken. That baby’s test results came back: Another chromosomal abnormality.
I went to a genetic counselor and she did a million tests on me. There was no reason for these two losses. It was an act of God.
Around seven months after that miscarriage, I found out that I was pregnant again. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t tell anybody. I told David because I had to. I went to the doctor every 2 weeks. I got ultrasounds every single time. I never did the doppler because it was too traumatic for me. I did all the testing that was available. I wore a sweatshirt every day of the spring and summer because I didn’t want people to see my stomach popping out. I was hiding the pregnancy.
I was terribly nauseous and vomiting and was on medication for that. Every time I saw the baby on the ultrasound being ok- that elation lasted for one day- and then for 13 more days until the next appointment I was so scared.
I wasn’t just sad and nervous; I was negative. I would say things like, “If this continues..”, or, “If the baby comes..” We didn’t talk about names. We didn’t talk about what gender the baby was. We bought not one thing. Not a stroller or car seat. I didn’t believe this baby was going to come.
When I had her, they induced me because I was a wreck. We made sure that MY doctor was with me. We told every staff member in the room what had happened to us before. It happened to be that every person in the room was frum. I had a doula who was really there for my needs after the birth, sat on the side and said Tehillim for me, which was really special.
After a while of pushing I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. My doctor had me sit up and said, “We have waited too long, and worked too hard for this moment. You are going to push this baby out.” Just before she was about to come out, the doctor asked me, “Do you want to take your baby out?” I said yes. I was able to put my hands beneath my daughter’s arms and pulled her out myself. I put her on top of me, and the doctor told the nurses not to take the baby away.
I was screaming, “She’s alive! She’s alive!” They cleaned her off on me, they wrapped her on me. They knew I needed to be close to her.
We named her Bracha Ayelet. We felt very strongly that she was a blessing for us. People thought that we would name her “Nechama” (comfort) but I didn’t think it was fair for her to grow up and think that she was only born to comfort me for my losses. She was purely a blessing.”
(6/7) “5 Hearts Forever”
“After 9 months, I started trying to conceive again. Everyone thought I would be much calmer after a live baby, but I wasn’t. I was a wreck again.
When I got pregnant I had Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which is severe nausea during the pregnancy. I was vomiting 100 times a day. I had a pump of medication in my stomach. Sometimes I needed IV’s in my arms. Thank god my husband is a paramedic and was able to help manage it at home. It was really isolating because I was sick, I didn’t want people to know I was pregnant, and I had a 15-month-old at home. I did not tell Bracha (who was almost two when I was due) that I was having another baby until the night before Adina was born. I was afraid I was going to lose that baby too and now I would have a whole other person who would be heartbroken about that. Baruch Hashem, Adina was born healthy.
When I was pregnant with my next child, Ahuva, I thought that now that I knew that I had two healthy children, I would be able to manage this. But I think I was emotionally worse with that pregnancy because I was older. I was turning 40 during the pregnancy, I had more tests done, tons of ultrasounds. I was terrified up until the last minute.
My head was in so many different places because I had two older children who would need an explanation if something went wrote, for I was very clearly pregnant. My life had expanded by that point, more family, more friends, close neighbors- there were so many people who knew that I was pregnant this time. Most of those people never knew about the losses that had already happened. Most of them still don’t.
When people ask me how many children I have, I say 3. What am I supposed to answer? Bracha is usually sitting right there and she is too young to understand; how can I explain 2 missing
children to her?
I got this necklace because I will always know that I have 5 children. Yes, I have 3 babies here with me on this earth. But I did have two other babies who also lived inside me. 5 babies in total that had their hearts beat inside me and felt my heart beating near them. For me, it will be 5 hearts forever.”
“I started sharing about my eating disorder because Mrs. Newman, A”H (principal at Bruriah High School) sat me down and told me that teenage girls needed to hear from someone who had the problem and then got through it. They needed to know there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It became apparent to me that parents and educators wanted someone to talk to, so they could further understand what was going on in the head of the person they were worried about. Talking to someone who went through it made them feel that their child, friend, student or themselves could recover and be ok.
I’ve always said that I only talk about things that aren’t scary to me anymore. Last year, when you asked me if I would be willing to talk about my miscarriages, I told you “no”. I was 8 months pregnant with Ahuva, and at the time talking about the miscarriages was so scary to me because I was carrying her around, and every moment wondering if that was going to be the day that I was going to lose her.
Since I had her, I’ve been thinking so much about doing this, because over the year so many people have reached out to me when they heard about my first loss. I feel like if I can be helpful to even one person by saying, “I totally understand what you are feeling” – to validate their fears, their worries, and their pain- it would make meaning of my own pain. That being worried and negative about a pregnancy doesn’t mean you don’t love your baby. It means you love your baby so much, that you can’t
even wish or dream about him or her the way that everyone else does because of the trauma of what you’ve been through.
Sometimes, women do not have a doctor who knows that the nervousness about a pregnancy after loss is ok. Baruch Hashem I had a doctor who respected my feelings and realized that she needed to change her approach to work with that part of me and help me through it. I have incredible family and close friends who were there for me every step of the way, and I have so much hakarat hatov to them for their love.
I share my story because Hakadosh Baruch Hu gives us all sorts of tests- it is not that He gives you tests “that you can totally handle.”
Because sometimes it feels like you can’t handle it. In those cases, often it is the people around you that help support you and help you through it. I feel that at this time if I can be a person who can be there for someone else, I must.
I think it’s really important for people to know that they shouldn’t be scared to share their feelings or tell their story because they may never know what sharing your story can do for other people. I feel very strongly that if we go through something, and we can find a way to turn it into something good by helping others, we should.
Telling this story now gives a voice to my babies. This gives them a reason for having existed inside of me. The reason is not for them to live in my house, or to be a sibling to my other children, or for me to see them at their siddur play and celebrate their birthdays with them. Maybe this is their reason. Their reason is so that I can help others.”
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.