Talking Publicly About Her Stillbirth Is Helping Maya Vander Feel Less Alone
Romper talked to the mom of two and Selling Sunset star about what it was like to experience a stillbirth, and how she is coping as she grieves her baby, Mason.
Early in Season 4 of Netflix’s Selling Sunset, Maya Vander shares the news of her most recent pregnancy with her castmates. She is already a mother to a son and daughter, both under the age of 3. She’s been either pregnant or postpartum for much of the show’s running, which is lovingly joked about with her coworkers. When she arrives at a celebratory work dinner party, someone asks after her babies. And she replies “Which baby? Number one, number two, or number three?” She smiles and rubs her midsection, and everyone screams and hugs her. Immediately following, there is a cutaway interview. “So shocking, I’m pregnant again," she says. "Sometimes I’m like, ‘What the hell was I thinking?’ But, I’m happy. I’m excited. But that’s it. I’m totally done.”
I watched the Selling Sunset scene, filmed a few months ago, with the unfortunate knowledge of what’s to come, which makes it even more heartbreaking. Last week, Maya learned that her son’s heart had stopped beating. She was just two weeks away from her due date and gave birth to her stillborn son, Mason, on Dec. 10.
A part of me always holds my breath at pregnancy announcements, because I have been where Maya is, where everything is fine and healthy until it very suddenly is not. My son, Paul, was stillborn nine years ago about four weeks shy of his due date.
I had the conflicted pleasure of meeting her in this common ground, at once an honor and one I would gladly return in exchange for different circumstances. I spoke with her over Zoom while, in the most heartbreaking of multitasking, she was at the funeral home picking out a plot and gravestone with her husband.
Kate Suddes: In my experience, there are all of these questions and comments you receive when you give birth to a baby that lives that people don't ask you when you have a stillbirth. "What did he look like? How much did he weigh?" Do you want to tell us his name and a little bit about him?
Maya Vander: We were going back and forth between boys' names, and I wanted to choose a name that wasn't as common. So we liked the name Mason. We didn't even think about the middle name yet. We chose to see the baby after he was born, because I wanted to see what he looked like. He looked a lot like when my son Aiden was born — same features, same nose, lips. He looked a lot like my husband. He was a healthy weight, too: 7 pounds, 4 ounces. So a fully developed baby who looked totally normal. Ready to come to the world, and we just... There are a lot of questions that we are asking. "What the hell happened?" We are hoping the autopsy will tell us something, but I do know that sometimes they just can't find the reason. It's been a very stressful couple of days and very, very emotional. And obviously, you went through it, so you probably know. It's just not easy.
How are your two children doing? How are you doing parenting through grief?
We are lucky we have two healthy children. So I'm very thankful for that. They keep us busy. Because my son is 2 and a half, my daughter is 1 and a half, they don't understand yet. My son always talked about, "Oh, baby Mason," and I showed him my belly. But he's still too young to understand. So it's not that he was asking me, "Where is the baby?" Thank God. They don't know, and that helps a little bit.
When we cry at home, my son does tell me, "Don't be sad." And he's only 2 and a half, so it's just the energy that we have around the house, unfortunately. And hopefully with time, it would be less painful, but just everything is so fresh. They still don't understand.
How is your husband doing? How has it been for your relationship as you're grieving through this together?
I have an amazing husband. He's very, very supportive. Unfortunately, he got Covid so we couldn't have him in the delivery room. Thankfully, they did let him come to the hospital to say goodbye to the baby. But for the delivery process, he couldn't video, but he wanted to come afterward and say bye to the baby, hold the baby. He's broken. I mean, he's devastated. We have a very strong, good relationship. We were supposed to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s, and everything was perfect. And now we have that cloud above our head and it's hard to process. Everything is kind of like a slap in the face. And we're just trying to, I guess, take it — I wouldn't say even one day at a time — but one minute at a time. I'm talking to you from literally purchasing a plot in a cemetery, which I never thought I'm going to have to do for a child. And I know we didn't know him yet, but he is still someone that I carried for nine months, and I was excited to give him the love he deserved. It's hard.
One of the things I was struck by when I went through it was watching the people in our family who were of an older generation who had never been through anything like it. I know it was jarring for them and for us. What has it been like for your extended family and for you to be on the receiving end of that support?
Our family is amazing. My in-laws are here with us. My mom is in Israel. My dad is in Holland. So unfortunately, they're not here. Although, my dad is coming next month. And my mom, hopefully, after. But, they're all broken. I mean, you hear about stillbirths and all that. You hear about SIDS, but you just don't think it's going to hit your house. You don't think it's going to happen. They're broken and devastated. They lost a grandchild, my mom, my dad, and my in-laws and cousins. It's tough. It's been very tough. We have a very loving family and relationship, and we get a lot of love, I mean, from a lot of friends, and people, and everybody has been so amazing. I can't even express how much love we've been getting in the last few days. And I'm amazed to see how people are just incredible.
I read a quote that you had given that really struck me. You said, "This will chase me forever." My son would be 9 this year and I was so struck by that word, chase, because I've said many, many times over the years, this stays with you forever. But there's something so poignant about using that word chase because it's such an active word. To me, it implies you can't outrun this. And I know you're still in the early days, but you will come upon his first birthday, his second, his third, all these milestones. I was just so struck by that word, and it feels so insightful, coming from you because it's still so fresh.
We were in a very good position. The show came out, my business in Miami is great, I have a great relationship. Everything was just perfect, getting ready for the third baby, because I wanted to have a big family. And suddenly, there's this big cloud above my head that I know time will help and time will heal, but to your point, it's my due date, then it's birthdays, then it's holidays. "Oh, he could have been there." I feel like the word chase, it's just going to chase my memory forever. It's not something I can just wake up and forget about, it's something that we're experiencing. I mean, it will never go away. It will probably be less painful with time, I hope so. But I will always think, “You know, I could've had a son right now. He could've been 15 years old, or 18 and going to college.” Something that I will just never forget.
I know after I had my son, the thought of being out in public was just so paralyzing. I felt like I couldn't interact, like I had lost all my social skills. As a public persona, how do you feel about this loss moving forward and integrating it into the show and your job? How does it feel to be out in the world in this way?
I tell you, I had clients in town, like the last few days, and I had to go meet with them and show them a property. It's tough. I mean, I can't just disappear on people, and obviously they would understand, but it is my business and I work so hard to succeed in what I'm doing and build my core business in Miami. So I can hold it together for an hour or two, and go show a property to a client, and then I just come home and basically break down, and cry, and deal with it privately. Speaking of the public eye, look, everybody follows Selling Sunset. People knew I had miscarriages before my son, and I was pregnant. And then the joke is like, "Oh, Maya is pregnant again." I share a lot of my personal life at least as far as pregnancies in the show, including a baby shower that we filmed for Season 5, which will be out in a couple of months. They filmed a baby shower for me. And I told the producer, "If it made it to the editing, you can just keep it. I can handle it. It's fine. It's life, life happens."
It helps me to know that I'm not the only one, that people understand the pain that I'm going through.
And I know people experience it too, something that I experience right now, but a lot of people just don't talk about stillbirth, because it's a very painful situation. And with me, I announced pregnancies on Instagram, and had photo shoots and all that stuff, because I just never thought it's going to happen to me. So unfortunately, people know who I am, and I chose to share this because people will ask me, "Did you have your baby yet?" For me to just post on social media and talk about it, it helped me a little bit, to kind of get it out.
Is there any part of it being so public that is comforting? I know you're getting an outpouring of messages of sympathy. How does that feel to you?
Yes, it does help. I didn't even go on my social media and look at the messages. My mom was seeing what people wrote to me. I get a lot of messages and emails also from women that went through this. It helps me to know that I'm not the only one, that people understand the pain that I'm going through. There are a lot of women out there that experienced it, and they eventually moved on and had more children. That gives me hope because I think I do want to have another kid. I know it's too soon to talk about it, but I feel like for me, it might be part of my healing process. And maybe I'll change my mind a few months from now, but as of now, I need that. I have a big void that, even with two healthy kids, I still have that void, and unfortunately, it's going to be hard for me to just let go. So, it helps to be in the public eye in that sense, that people are sharing their story with me as well.
Is there anything that you wish people would ask you or say to you?
People have been very gentle because nobody knows what to tell someone who just experienced a terrible delivery with a stillborn. People are very kind and say, "Look, we don't know what to say. Our heart goes with you," and sent sweet messages, because what are you going to say to someone? There's nothing you can say to make them feel better. So I accept all the love, and all the kind messages. It's part of my grieving process.
Since your husband couldn't be there for the birth, were you able to have anyone else there as a support?
No, my friend wanted to come to be with me, and I didn't want her to. She just had her baby last month. So the last thing I want to do is put someone, who just celebrated their baby, with me in the delivery room for a traumatic event. So I was actually alone in the delivery room with the nurse and my gynecologist, and they were amazing and incredible. And I just went almost like autopilot because I knew I needed to get it done. I knew I needed to deliver the baby. I don't know. I just got some crazy strength and power. And I had a vaginal delivery with no epidural because [the anesthesiologist] couldn't find the spot. So I felt every pain, every contraction. I felt it. I got it done. I pushed the baby out, and thankfully they let my husband at least come and say goodbye because it was important for us.
What did you think when you first saw Mason's face?
He looked exactly like my son. My son, when he was born, had the same features. Mason also was very similar weight, just a normal baby. And then all the questions are starting to float in, like, "If I delivered a week earlier, if I paid attention to more movement," stuff that I'm like, "Should have, could have, would have.” Because I'm looking at a normal-looking baby and thinking, “What happened?" And I thought to myself, he would've looked exactly like my son, Aiden. Literally the same features. And it just broke my heart that I couldn't give him the love.
We joke that Paul, our stillborn son, was the most perfect looking out of our three children. I can relate to what you're saying. It's so incredibly jarring to look at this perfect, little creature who is somehow dead. I remember thinking, "Are you sure you checked him?” I’m sure it’s shock and hormones but I felt so strongly, "There has to be some mistake. Surely this child will take a breath any moment."
I delivered two babies, so I know when you check into the hospital, you'll see the monitor. They monitor your heartbeat and the baby's heartbeat. And it just struck me when I sat there and I looked at the monitor, the baby heartbeat was just not… you don't see anything on the screen. It just devastated me that it was just my heartbeat and that's it. And I asked the nurse, "Are you sure there is no mistake?" And he obviously said, "Yeah. I mean, there’s just no chance, unfortunately." It's been something that's just very tough to process.
Did you take any photographs of him?
Yeah, we did. Honestly, we have photos, we have a video when the nurse was swaddling him.
And I look at it, I do, and maybe it's a mistake that I look at it, but I do. I feel the need to look at it and to see what he would look like. The hospital took photos as well with the memory box. All we have is just basically photos.
Have you shown your son or daughter photographs of him?
I did. My son wasn't engaged too much. When they grow up and can understand a little bit, I'm going to tell them the story.
Can I ask you since you're at the cemetery, how did you and your husband decide to bury or cremate his remains?
When I drove to the hospital before I even delivered, I told my husband, "I don't want to do anything. I don't want to deal with it. I don't want to even see anything." But then it hit me. I'm like, "What am I going to do? It's a baby. I want to give him that respect. I want to have some sort of closure," which I know it's going to be impossible, but I knew I wanted to just give him the proper respect. Burial for me was something that needed to be done versus cremation. Because he's a baby, just the thought of burning into ashes, I couldn't do it for a baby. So we're going to do a grave. We’re purchasing a plot in a cemetery as we speak. And we're just going to do a proper, respectful burial for him, because that's at least what he deserves. We’ll have a service for him. Just me, my husband, and my in-laws. Nothing big, just us, very private because I don't want to put anyone through this. It's a depressing, traumatic experience. So just the four of us.
You said earlier, it's not even one day at a time, it's like minutes and hours at a time. Are there any little things or big things that you're taking comfort in right now? I know you said you work, and then you can come home, and can fall apart and cry. What’s bringing you any sort of comfort these days?
With work, I definitely try to minimize as much as I can when I’m meeting clients. But I do have applications that I need to get done. There are deals pending, and I can't just vanish on people. So I hold it together, I get it done. And obviously, I deal with my own grief privately. But I've been watching a lot of YouTube videos of women that posted about stillbirths. I mean, I just want to hear their story and understand that someone else has the same pain I'm experiencing. Those women that experienced it, a lot of them had another child after. So that makes me feel a little bit better. I've been reading a lot of articles about stillbirths. I never imagined I'd have to Google this subject, but now I'm in this position. I will probably go to therapy with my husband because he's devastated, I'm devastated. And as much as I'm a strong person, my body is just in a huge muscle spasm, I have headaches. I'm a strong person and I can deal with things, but this particular situation, it just has taken a bad toll on me. I’m trying to listen to other stories and relate to the women. And it helps me a little bit.
Your baby died, but your body is still processing a birth. I think one of the things that people don't realize is that you are in a postpartum body.
I don't breastfeed so my boobs are majorly in pain. You have to deal with that and obviously all the levels of hormones. From the delivery, because I didn't have an epidural, my body was in utter, complete stress and so I have huge pains. I'm trying to do acupuncture and massages, but I feel like it's just a combination of the physical delivery that I went through. And obviously, the stress, and emotion and everything has just come together. And my body is in sort of shock, I guess. I really hope it will go away so I can at least function and be better for my kids.
Are you eating and drinking and sleeping?
Yeah, thankfully. I try to rationalize the situation. I'm like, "I didn't meet him completely. I didn't get attached to him yet. Maybe it's something that God saved him from, like misery in the world." I tried to make sense of it, to not be in a crazy depression situation. And maybe the autopsy will give us some sort of answers. But thankfully, at least I sleep well and I eat well. I know I need to get strong.
It sounds like you’re grappling with many universal themes people in this situation experience. You’re of two minds — in one way, you didn’t “know him” and yet you’re experiencing such immense pain and grief. Because you have two other children, you know how immediately their personalities come through, what the big milestones are like. All that gets taken away. It is a huge loss of potential. The void is just infinite.
Yes, there’s just the potential that he could've been a kid like my son, and they could have played together, and how would it be. And he didn't have the chance to show me how he would be. And that just kills me. It kills me that I just couldn't give him the love I'm giving to his siblings. I don't know. I'm sure time, again, will help, but it's just right now, there is guilt too. I'm feeling guilty, to be honest with you. I know it's not my fault, but I do feel guilty because he didn't deserve not to be loved. So it's tough. It's a tough situation that I just don't wish on anyone. I honestly don't know how parents can lose a child that they already know. I don't know how they can move on from a situation like that, because I didn't know Mason. I carried him for nine months, but I didn't know him and it's extremely painful. I can only imagine people that lose their loved ones.
You've said that a couple times, you weren't able to give him your love. You want to love him so much. Is there a way to do that going forward? How do you love him in his absence?
We are going to donate a playground at my daughter’s school. They were actually raising money to do a playground and my husband and I are just going to do it. And we're going to name the playground after Mason, because then all of the kids will enjoy it and play there. Probably then I'll come to the cemetery every Friday and bring him flowers. It's a place to come and show him that I loved him no matter what. I mean, I really hope that God will bless me with another kid so I can give that love to my child. I mean, my third, hopefully. I really hope so. I really hope I can get pregnant and have a healthy kid. But whatever happens, happens. But at least we do what we can by doing a burial service, and giving him the respect, and doing a playground for the children. So that's the plan for now.
How are you feeling about the holidays coming up?
Around the neighborhood, everybody decorated their houses with lights, and we also have lights too. Although I'm Jewish, we still have a Christmas tree because my husband is not Jewish. So we are going to do a nice Christmas for our kids because they deserve that. We're going to have Christmas. We're going to celebrate. It's just not going to be as exciting as I was hoping. I mean, I was supposed to probably be released from the hospital on Christmas Eve because my due date was two days before. Unfortunately, it's just going to be a little bit of a different holiday season for us.
I know it's still early in your grief process, but does this change your feelings about filming and being on the show? Do you want to talk about this within the show or a different capacity moving forward? Does it feel important to you to keep his narrative present?
Yeah, talking about it helps me. And I share my story and a lot of women can relate because they went through the same experience. So if that can help other women, obviously it's very new to me, I just want to come out on the other side and know that life goes on and it's going to be OK. Maybe I can inspire other women as well.
When I had my miscarriages and shared it on the show, I got a lot of emails and messages about how many women go through loss of a pregnancy. And then they see me getting pregnant and having another baby, and it inspired them and gave them hope. I really hope this situation will give some hope to the women. And maybe a year from now, I really hope… I want to get pregnant. And then that will give them some kind of hope. Because when I see other women who had a stillbirth, and they have kids after, it gives me hope. So I'm hoping to do the same.
There does seem to be such a strong biological urge after loss to get pregnant again. I remember being in the hospital, still pregnant and in labor with my baby knowing he had died, and asking one of the nurses, "When can I get pregnant again? And she gave me this look like, "Slow down, lady." But I remember the desire to right the ship was so strong. I remember feeling, "I can't end on this note.”
Exactly. Being pregnant, you go to the ultrasounds, you go to checkups, and you are paranoid and you want to make sure everything is OK. But when I drove to the hospital when I was pregnant with my son and daughter, there was that excitement. You check in, the room is ready, you see the bed with the light over it ready for the baby to come. As much as it's painful, it's also exciting. And I remember when my first son was born and we left the hospital, I told my husband, "OK, when should I get pregnant again?" Because I just love that excitement of going and delivering a child to the world even with the painful, terrible experience that comes with it. Now my last memory is driving by myself to the hospital to deliver a dead baby. And I don't want to end on that note, like you said, I just don't. I want to have exactly the same excitement that I always had driving and delivering a baby. And I don't want to have that stain in my memory when I just drove in and I couldn't save him. And I think that's why I mentioned it before; that it's going to chase me. It's just going to chase me forever. So I really hope I can experience another positive pregnancy, but I don't know. Maybe it is too soon for me to talk about it. Maybe a few months from now I'll feel different, but right now, I feel that huge void that I need to fill.
Mason Miller was born on Dec. 10, 2021. I’m going to remember his day and I hope the service goes as well as it can be.
Thank you, Kate. What did you guys do by the way? Did you do a burial or a cremation?
I had the similar thoughts as you did. I was so terrified of cremating him, but it's what we ended up doing because I wanted him with me. And I was terrified that I would bury him somewhere and then we would move away and I didn’t want to leave him somewhere. I don't know what the right answer is. Sometimes I wish we had buried him and I wish he had a gravestone. We have a table, his little altar, and I have different photos, figurines, keepsakes, and art. We make him a cake every year. Sometimes I buy him a little gift and my girls open it up for him. I write an essay every year for him on his birthday. We've had nine of these birthdays to celebrate and if nothing else, it’s become a special day for our family just to have quiet time together. It’s, of course, incredibly bittersweet and sad. But it is special too.
So did you move on from this eventually or—?
Oh, gosh. That's such a great, loaded question. It's like you said, it gets easier and in some ways it gets more sad because it becomes less immediate. Because my girls are five and a half years apart and people kind of look at that, and I can see them kind of raising their eyebrows like, "Oh, that's an interesting age difference." And sometimes when people ask I say, "We had a son in between that we lost." Sometimes I don't. It never goes away. It's like you said — Mason is your son and he was your third child. And the fact of that will never leave you. It will become more distant, or that's my experience. But I also take comfort from people I've met who are 30, 40, 50 years out, who say, "I'm 70 years old and this was one of the most heartbreaking days of my life. You don't get over it, you never forget.” It gives me solace when I feel like I’m trying to honor him in a world that wants to forget him. So I don't know. It's so different for everyone. I'm sure we could talk for hours about it, and I'm sure it'll change for you with each day and month. It's like you said, I really hope that when you're ready, you're able to get pregnant, and have another baby, and that there's some peace in that.