As Told To essays allow members of our community to share their stories, often for the first time, with the help of mater mea writers. Here songwriter and performer Tori Johnson-Jones tells Tomi Akitunde about her experience with multiple pregnancy losses and stillbirths.
I knew that motherhood was a title that I wanted to have in my lifetime. I had already been with my husband for some time, and I knew that he would be a great teacher for whatever children we would have.
When it came to pregnancy, like most people I naively thought, “Oh, you get pregnant and then you have a baby!” The first time I got pregnant was in 2007. I wasn’t happy about it because I wasn’t prepared. I was a recording artist so I was performing, and I was in between record labels. But once I found out I was nine weeks pregnant, I accepted it and that was that.
I remember being naked in the mirror, putting shea butter on my round belly as it was growing. [Laughs] I remember watching my breasts get full. I would anticipate the age of the child—like, In five years, the baby will be this age and I’ll be this age—and think about all the things we would do. Once they told me it was a boy, I went into the names and the future and what it would look like and how my life would change.
I Thought We’d Be Fine
I’ll never forget. I was at home and I felt a gush of water at six months. We went to the hospital, and I knew, based on their expression, that this was serious. But I have a brother who’s 25 now who was born at six months. Surely technology is better today.
I thought, You’re going to be in the hospital, you’re going to be in the bed. You’re baby is going to be in NICU, but you’ll be OK. Even when I went into contractions and they said “The chances of survival is this percentage versus that percentage,” I still felt like, Oh, we’ll be fine. My brother did this, and my mom had this, we’ll be fine. I still expected to have a baby.
I naively thought, “Oh, you get pregnant and then you have a baby!”
I have a girlfriend who is a doctor. I wanted her to be in the delivery room with me as part of the delivery process. When I woke up, she was the first one to say, “Issa didn’t take a breath.”
I don’t really remember anything after that.
I heard my mother screaming in the hallway. I remember the doctor with sadness in her face. And then I went home. I had full breasts with milk, I had remnants of a C section. I had a sore butt from progesterone shots. I had to get blood drawn, I had been in Trendelenburg position, which is being upside in the bed to hold the baby in the cervix… There were just several things that I had endured and my body was tired because from all the poking and pulling. So when I went home empty handed, it was just depressing. You’re supposed to have a baby, but there’s no baby… It was the worst thing I ever felt.
Why Don’t I Have A Baby?
I didn’t realize I was depressed. For the first two weeks, I took percocets and sleeping pills, but my husband took them from me and said, “You’re not going to do this. You’re going to get up and we’re going to go outside and we’re going to move step by step.” We would go outside, and I’d be crying. I was still healing from being cut, so I would just move in tiny baby steps. I’m usually really strong and active, so I felt like another version of me.
I have a really sacred relationship with my ancestors and I felt like I was talking to them, asking, “What does this mean? Why did I have to go through this? How does this happen to people?”
But at the same time, I knew that this was a process and that I would be strong eventually. I had my son December 12, 2007 and I had my first show February 14, 2008. So I had to get back on stage, shake a tail feather, full show, and no one was any the wiser. Some people who knew I was pregnant would ask, “Oh, did you have the baby?” That was painful, because it’s like you’ve gotten to a certain place about it, and while it still hurts, you still move along. But you have to relive it with other people asking.
I would see pregnant bellies at the supermarket, and I would feel a tinge of jealousy. How did she get to have a baby, and I don’t have a baby? I couldn’t accept that I, Tori, couldn’t have a child. The doctor said, “Your baby came too early because you have an incompetent cervix. The next time you get pregnant, just let us know, and you’ll have a cerclage at 12 weeks.” [Editor’s note: Cervical cerclage is a surgical procedure that closes the cervix so the baby will be able to stay and develop inside the uterus.] I thought once I had a cerclage, I would be able to have a baby.
“God Ain’t Gonna Do This To Me Again!”
It was January 2011 when I found out I was pregnant.
I went to the hospital for an ultrasound and they said there’s two of them. Twins don’t run in my family and they don’t run in my husband’s family, so I just felt like God was blessing us. We lost one, and God was like, “We’re gonna give her two!” And then when they said it was a boy and a girl? We were like, “Oh my gosh. We lost our son, so we’re getting a boy and a girl? This is just amazing!” They checked the heartbeats, everything was going fantastic. I was over the moon. We got a bigger home that was perfect for the addition of two, Solomon and Azza. I was on bed rest. I wasn’t happy about it, but that’s just what it required. I acquiesced.
At 12 weeks I went and got my cerclage in place. A few months later, I had an emergency—ruptured membranes. [Editor’s note: This refers to a break in the amniotic sac that surrounds and protects the baby.]
One of the doctors said, “You’re going to have these babies today,” and I said, “No, I’m not.” They had to clip the sutures with no medication for me. I don’t remember feeling anything. I blacked out. I said prayers like I had never said prayers before.
When I came back, my husband, my mother, and the nurse were crying. She said, “You was just praying—and your daughter’s sac that ruptured earlier, the reason why we thought you were going to have this baby today, it went back to its normal state where she was safe.” For me, that was a sign! That was a sign that I was going to endure and the kids were going to stay inside until it was the right time. So I thanked God again for the miracle. I talked to my children, I thanked them for staying inside. And then shortly after that, probably maybe 10 days later, I went into labor.
When I was a little over five months pregnant, I was at home alone and had some type of discharge that instinctively didn’t seem normal. I called my best friend and said, “I need you to take me to the hospital right now.” We went to the hospital and got checked in. The doctor cooled everything down and gave me the proper shots, and he even prayed with us.
My faith was so strong, I was like, “God ain’t going to let this happen to me again.” I had my headphones on my belly playing classical music and Yolanda Adams. I was extremely positive. Even though I was in labor, even though it was in the worst pain I had ever felt in my life. Even though I snapped at the doctors for more epidural. She said, “If I give you any more, you’re going to stop breathing.” I bled so much, the bed was soaked.
I finally said to my husband, “It’s the worst feeling ever. I can’t do it anymore. It hurts too bad. I have to let go.” I felt my son bear down and the doctor said, “He’s going to come, but he may not make it. But your daughter is up high, and she can stay in longer.” [Chokes up] I was ok with that. Solomon came out. I didn’t really expect him to live, but I thought, “At least I’ll have one.”
I remember him coming. I looked at my husband.
“Did he take a breath?”
He said no.
I said, “Azza? Mommy will breathe for you. I will give you my breath.” I was saying it out loud. My husband said it was breaking his heart, because he said he couldn’t bear losing all of us.
I was saying, “I will give you my last breath.” [Voice trembles] I was willing to sacrifice me for her.
She came out soon after him, and she didn’t take a breath. And I don’t remember anything after that.
Knowledge Is Power
I spent time with all of my children. I held them, talked to them, looked at their fingers and their toes and their hairlines. It was the worst pain ever. Ever. I felt God had forsaken me.
After the twins, I didn’t want anybody to feel sorry for me. I felt sorry enough for me. I felt incapable as a woman. I wondered, What is wrong with my cervix? Why can’t I do this?
Once I came home, I just sat down. Then two weeks later, I was like, OK. We gotta get going. You have to accept this, and we have to get into the business of figuring this out. Because at this point I’m 37. I was ready to release my husband to another woman so she could bear children for him because I didn’t want to stop his life, his desire to have children. So I just started doing research. I started talking about my experience and it lead me to a group called Abbyloopers. They were women just like me, who had losses and who had the cerclages and the disappointment. I would talk to older women, and they were like, “Oh yeah, I lost three and I lost two and I lost…” And I was like, How come no one ever talks about this?
This community led me to doctors who performed a procedure called transabdominal cerclage. I had a vaginal cerclage where they go in through your vagina to get to the cervix to stitch it. The transabdominal is where they cut you via c-section and they go higher into the cervix to give you a tighter stitch. I never heard about the procedure. I just started educating myself. I had conference calls with doctors who were specific about the procedure and gave you the percentages of carrying full term. I met with doctor after doctor to get their opinion on my situation.
“There’s nothing incompetent about my body. We just need some assistance. OK?”
I got my womb checked to make sure there was no blockage, no scarring. And once I did that, the doctor told me, “You have an incompetent cervix.” And of course, I hate that word and a man must’ve made it up. It got to the point where I was almost out of my mind. I would tell them, respectfully, “We’re not going to use the word ‘incompetent,’ because there’s nothing incompetent about my body. We just need some assistance. OK?”
Give Me A Sign
I started doing yoga only because I knew I was going to get pregnant again, and knew I had to get my core and my back tight and strong because I know what carrying requires. Yoga was the most healing thing for me. I lost my children May 14, 2011. I started doing yoga June 2011, and that changed everything for me.
Once I started the yoga and the research and conference calls and meetings with doctors, it felt like the wheels were rolling; things and people started to be in place and in divine order. I would randomly meet a stranger, start talking, and then they would direct me to somebody and then they would direct me to somebody. It led me to Dr. Jackie Walters, who was on the reality show Married to Medicine. She was a part of performing my transabdominal cerclage. She became my OB-GYN. She led me to Dr. Kevin Gomez at Emory in Atlanta, who is an expert at this procedure. When it was done, she came in the room and said, “Everything looks good, you can get pregnant. Give yourself a couple of months for your hormones to get in place, and then you can have a baby.”
About a year later, I got pregnant. I found out a few days before Mother’s Day. It was at the point where I would be taking pregnancy tests and trying to be real cool about it. I didn’t share with my husband because I didn’t want him to be disappointed. I was carrying his pain also.
I went to take the test, and my attitude was distant. I wasn’t connected to what the result would be. It said positive, and I’m sitting there looking at it like, Wait a minute. Is this for real? He was in the shower, so I text him a picture of the test. The phone was beeping and he wasn’t looking at the phone.
I said, “Darius, someone is texting you, you need to look at your phone.”
He looked at the phone, he saw the pregnancy test, and then he looked at me and I just started crying and screaming at the same time. I found a facility that was open that evening. I went there on a Saturday, and she confirmed that I was pregnant. Sunday was Mother’s Day, then I finally set up an appointment with my OB-GYN and they confirmed that I was six weeks pregnant.
When I was nine weeks, I had some discharge. I went to the OB-GYN, and she said it was fine. I came back home, had lunch with my husband and I was really quiet. I didn’t tell him anything, he just noticed that I was quiet.
Later that night, he was asleep. It was around midnight. I got on my knees and I just talked to God. I said, “You know how much we love this baby. But if we’re not going to have this baby, let me know now. I cannot handle another loss. I cannot cremate another child. I just can’t. Lord, we want this baby more than anything. Give me a sign that this baby is what we’ll have.”
The next day I got up about 7 o’clock in the morning. I scrolled through my Facebook and there was a status from a friend of mine: “I don’t know who this is for, but a baby is on its way to you. I know you felt like giving up, that God has given up on you… A new home is coming your way.”
At this time, I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant and that we were moving from Atlanta to D.C. Then I saw the time she posted it. It happened to be the same time of my prayer! I showed my husband and he said, “You know what? That’s your answer.”
Once I got that confirmation at 9 weeks, I knew I was going to have a full-term, healthy pregnancy. And that was it.
“Something Inside So Strong”
I had the most flawless pregnancy. I went to the hospital at 6 or 7 in the morning. I felt like Beyoncé because the entire hospital seemed empty to me—there was no one in there but us.
When the doctor said, “We’re getting ready to pull her out,” I was listening for her voice. With my prior pregnancies, there was no voice. But she screamed like Janis Joplin. She hollered. I was crying. My husband was like, “Oh my God, oh my God!” They checked her, and then they wrapped her and brought her to me. I started singing “Happy Birthday” to her and the entire room joined in.
We named her Auset. It means “She of the throne,” “Mother of God,” “Creator of all things.” She was intentional. And that’s why she’s a wild and determined fiery little 22 month old.
I love this old song I always heard in my church growing up. It’s called, “Something Inside So Strong.” I just knew that there was something inside of me that was strong and capable. When I had my twins, people started saying, “Oh my God, you’re so strong.” No, it’s not that I’m strong. I just had to go about figuring out how I could go ahead and carry a baby full term. Even though I did mourn my children—I did cry in my own time behind closed doors—I went about the business of trying to get the answer and trying to bring forth a blessing.
I’m grateful that my children chose me to even come through. I learned so much. I got closer to Tori and closer to my purpose. Instead of describing it as a loss, it was more like a gain. They are my angels now. My daughter has these siblings. I spoke to them before she was born to aid in her being here. I asked them for their guidance and for their assistance in bringing their sibling forth. I turn to them as my answers, as a source. I didn’t go through what I went through for naught. I turned it around and chose joy. I chose to be grateful and thankful.