* Note: This post contains a sensitive photo related to pregnancy loss.
On Mel Fukushima’s morning commute, she sits in about 40 minutes of gridlock traffic on Honolulu’s H1 highway. It’s a daily ritual, this 7-mile route from her neighborhood of Aina Haina to the heart of downtown. Her sole passenger is her 6-year-old son Max. On this day, he sits contentedly in the backseat, drumming on his iPad in preparation for his school drop-off. Suddenly Max says to her, “Mie is okay. She is living in heaven, with Jesus. There’s a big unicorn with rainbow hair. So don’t worry, Mom.”
Mahalo, sweetheart. Thank you.
Two years ago, the mention of her daughter Mie would have instantly made Mel cry. In a way, Max’s sweet vision and declaration is a form of his own acceptance. Mie (Japanese for “beautiful”) was stillborn at 38 weeks. She would have been his little sister.
Anywhere between 15-30% of early pregnancies are lost, and that’s just in the cases that the mother has known she is pregnant. Stillbirths (beyond 20 weeks gestation) occur in 1 out of every 160 pregnancies. The unmistakeable grief that comes with a pregnancy loss is more common than we think, but we are uncomfortable asking. But you can ask Mel. Her journey has been one of resilience, faithfulness, and —much like her Max’s revelation — of acceptance.
Mel Fukushima, 39
Occupation: Executive Staffing Consultant
You have two sons, Max (age 6) and Zak (1). In between the birth of your two boys, you experienced many miscarriages, and one stillbirth. What was that roller coaster like, and what did you learn from it all?
We had no problem conceiving. Max was our honeymoon baby! There was no hint there would be problems in the future after he was born. I got pregnant with Mie a year later — it was a regular pregnancy, no complications. They would have been 26 months apart. I got all the way to 38 weeks and 3 days.
I remember it was a Tuesday night. I had dinner with my parents and my husband Gene, and I said to them at the table, “She’s not moving.” They all reassured me that it was fine — it’s probably too crowded in there. Later, I laid down and said it again. But there was no reason to worry, right? At that point everything had been fine.
The very next morning, I happened to have my doctor’s appointment at 9 am. He told me he couldn’t find the heartbeat. I remember lying there, not thinking anything until he said further, “I’m going to try with the ultrasound.” So I started to get a little worried, and then the ultrasound confirmed there was no heartbeat. It still didn’t hit me right away. I was thinking, “Well, now what?” Then he asked, “Do you want to call your husband?” That’s when it sunk in. The moment I heard Gene’s voice on the phone, I broke down and couldn’t even speak. The doctor had to explain to him what happened.
This has really taught me to appreciate everything in the moment. We waited a while to try again after Mie. It seemed like anything after her, we’d miscarry anywhere from 2 to 4 months. We finally went to a fertility specialist, and I was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. My body was actually rejecting and fighting pregnancy! So during the first trimester with Zak, the doctors tried to thin my blood. I had to learn to inject myself in the stomach every single day, three times a day. That first shot was the hardest! I cried. But literally 580 shots later, I was a pro. They added different shots along the pregnancy, so towards the end, I was giving myself 9 injections per day. Now I see it as more of an inconvenience, if anything. I was on bedrest that last trimester which really helped lower my blood pressure.
It was all worth it. Now we have Zak.
What advice would you give other women who have experienced losing a baby?
Don’t push yourself to get over it. Don’t feel bad about feeling sad years later, or crying when you talk about him or her. It’s when you’re ready. You also have to allow your other children to express themselves, and ask them questions — because they may not know what they’re feeling. I had to allow Max to go through the process and support him in whatever way he needs.
What was it like to talk to Max — just a toddler at the time — about losing a baby sister?
He was two and a half when we lost Mie, and he seemed to understand what was happening. In the moment, he got it. We had a funeral. He said goodbye. But as he got older, he’d ask a lot of questions about where Mie was, where she lived, why she wasn’t with us. Then it started to affect him more. For instance, he was easy to potty-train, not even one overnight accident. But then we attended a few family funerals, and then he’d regress and have some accidents for a few days.
Also, he went through a period where he’d make physical objects connect to us so that he was always touching us somehow. For instance, if there were pillows on the couch, he’d move them to where he was, so they’d touch, then he’d connect a blanket to them, and then connect the blanket Gene or myself. It looked like a tornado, putting all these things out. It was a mess. I’d get mad, and tell him to put it all away. But he would take everything back out again, connect them again. Like they were extensions of his arms, and he never wanted to be by himself. So I realized that there was something else going on.
So you have to know — at the same time you’re going through this emotional roller coaster, so are your children – regardless of what age they are. Sometimes they just aren’t visibly expressing it the same way, so you have to be more sensitive and aware. That was tough. We worked with a doctor to figure out ways to reassure him that we weren’t going anywhere. From a parenting perspective, it definitely broke my heart.
He still refers to having two siblings. That’s difficult. I never want to stifle how he expresses himself. Sometimes if people ask him if he has a brother or sister, he’ll say “I have both.” Then I have to explain to that person what he’s talking about. It’s a difficult situation because your child is bringing up a another child they’ve never met, and they ask “Where’s your daughter?” and then they feel bad. I tell them it’s okay, but it’s hard.
I struggle with that, with Max. Whether or not I can tell him he can’t believe something. I don’t want to take away the fact that he had a sister.
You never get over it, but you get better talking about it. It’s been about 4 and a half years since Mie’s death, and I’m finally at a place where I can talk about it. There was a good 2 years where at the mention of Mie, I would tear.
Doctors try to encourage parents of stillbirths to hold the baby. Did you hold Mie?
Yes. We all held her. Gene, myself, my parents. My sister. We just didn’t bring Max in the room because at the time we felt it would be too much for him. We stayed with her for a few hours before they had to take her away. She was truly perfect, head to toe. Ten fingers, ten toes. She had the Fukushima nose that everyone who bears that last name has. She looked like her brother a lot.
Here is a photo. Hope it’s not too much… Some people aren’t comfortable with pictures. But I think she’s beautiful.
You’ve definitely experienced the spectrum of emotions of motherhood. What are some of the funniest experiences in parenting so far?
Max’s wit keeps us on our toes. The funniest moments with him have to be the conversations we have. He calls it like it is. I call them “Maxisms”.
With Zak, it’s not so much funny moments as it is just loving moments. I love when he comes up to me with all his drool and wants to give a kiss. I love when he walks around holding his blanket and I love when he dances at the sound of music.
What’s been the most surprising thing about motherhood for you?
I never thought I’d be so much like my mother! I strive so hard to not be like her [laughing]… but your parents absolutely have a lot of influence in what you do and don’t do. I’ve seen it go in both directions — the things in your childhood that are so positive, you share them with your children, but things you didn’t enjoy — that’s what you choose not to do.
Sometimes I wish there weren’t so many things out there, like the iPad. Then I sound like my parents when I say “When we grew up, we didn’t have these things.” But sometimes I do wish we didn’t have all these luxuries. That my children could grow up the same way we did. Growing up, I played outside a lot. I was able to walk to stores by myself. But the world is different now.
The world may be different, but some might argue that you live in paradise. What’s the best part about raising your children in Hawaii?
Ohana. Family. I grew up in Honolulu, left at 17 for college in Colorado, and came back home six years later. Hawaii is one of those places in which family is so tight. It’s the one place where you can have 3 or 4 generations of a family all in one central location, at one time. It was really important for my kids to be raised near their grandparents, so they could learn about all the cultural and ancestral customs I grew up with.
For instance, New Year’s is a Japanese celebration for us. There are traditional foods that we eat, like drinking ozōni soup on New Year’s morning. A lot of firework popping. Huge family gatherings. Really, for any holiday we have at least 3 different parties — a brunch with friends, then an auntie’s house for lunch, then diner at another auntie’s house. [laughing] Everybody is family here in Hawaii, everyone is either an auntie, uncle or cousin. It’s a constant celebration.
If you were to describe your journey in motherhood in a few words, what would it be?
Keep the faith.