Katja Završnik moves for a living. So when she decided she was ready to have a baby, there was a lot to consider. Taking time off work as a dancer and choreographer wasn’t a major concern, and Slovenia’s one-year maternity leave meant that she didn’t have to worry about going back right away. Everything seemed perfect: she had a stable career, a wonderful partner, and the desire to start a family.
But life had other plans.
Dance has been part of Katja’s life since she was just 5 years old. She fell in love with the movement and spent her youth studying ballet, jazz, modern, and ballroom dance–just to name a few. And once she got older and dance became more serious, she narrowed her focus to American styles of dance from the Jazz age and Swing era. She’s spent her years learning, perfecting, and performing–and at 38, she’s at the top of her game. As a highly sought after performer and choreographer, she spends much of her time traveling the world to teach at workshops, festivals, and dance events. Her hectic schedule and devotion to her career were the center of her world.
Katja was never one of those women who dreamed about having children. “For me, it was more important to find the right partner in life,” she says. And she found that partner in Blaž. She figured that once she met the right person, her natural mother instinct would kick in–and she was right. “Right away, it was very clear that I wanted to have a family with him. And it was the same for him.”
As one of the top dancers and teachers in her field, Katja decided it was a good time to start trying for a baby. Her position in the dance troupe would be waiting for her when she came back from maternity leave, and she knew that her position in the dance world meant that work would keep coming in, even after she’d given birth. Although she was worried about how her body would change after baby, she knew that becoming a mother was worth the risk. So she and Blaž started trying.
Six months passed. And then, without warning, she missed her period. She took a test: positive.
They were overjoyed: “we wanted to tell everyone!” says Katja. However, knowledge of her sister’s previous miscarriage made her reluctant to spread the good news too early. They told their families and a few close friends, and tried to stay patient as the early weeks ticked by. Six, seven, eight. At week nine, she had a check-up. The baby was small, but everything looked fine. Breathe. Wait. Patience. Nine, ten, eleven.
Week twelve. The big week.
Katja was so nervous she felt sick. “What if there’s nothing?” she asked Blaž, panicked, the night before her appointment. He was confused. Although she hardly understood why she was saying it, she just knew something was wrong. She had a strange feeling in her body. She wasn’t exactly sure how she was supposed to feel–but this wasn’t it.
She tried to stay relaxed at the doctor’s office the next day. She lay down on the bed, waxy paper crinkling beneath her body, and pulled her shirt up. There was a pit in her stomach. They smoothed the cold gel on her belly. She tried to steady her breath. And then the doctor turned the ultrasound screen towards her.
“We saw a tiny little human being. Very tiny, too tiny. And it was still. And there was no heartbeat. My heart broke.”
She’ll never forget that moment. She broke down and wept, tears streaming down her face. Blaž wept, too. Their baby was gone.
It didn’t feel real, but they had to tell everyone. Every time she tried to talk about it, Katja would start crying. It was just too hard.
“I kept it inside me for a long time.” Keeping it in meant that it wasn’t truly real yet. In a way, it meant that it hadn’t really happened. This had all been a bad dream. Her baby was still there, healthy, growing inside of her, safe.
Except she knew that wasn’t true. She knew she had to come to terms with what had happened–and she had to say goodbye. “Letting go was one of the hardest things I’ve ever [gone] through,” she says.
Katja and Blaž were offered therapy–standard practice for couples experiencing loss in Slovenia–but she declined. She didn’t want it. She was too busy trying to stay strong, forget, and act like everything was fine.
But she wasn’t fine–and neither was Blaž. He hid his grief, stayed strong for Katja, but it took its toll. “He didn’t have time to break down or process it because he needed to be there for me,” says Katja. “I was there for him when his time for grief came.”
She buried herself in work, travel, and partying to fill the emptiness in her own heart; but it didn’t work. She knew she had to accept what had happened–accept that she loved and lost her child–and that nothing would bring them back. “I never got over it, but I accepted it so I could move on.”
Over time, they healed–slowly but surely, and they started to think about trying again. Except this time, nothing seemed to click. Months ticked by, and still, Katja wasn’t getting pregnant. Soon, a year had passed. Because she was in her mid 30s, she knew it was time to see a specialist, and they were encouraged to consider IVF.
Their IVF journey wasn’t a smooth one (but whose is?). “It’s a constant battle in your head–it is a mixture of hope, trying not to get too excited so you won’t hurt too much again.”
Their first round didn’t work, and Katja’s body wasn’t cooperating. The doctors thought she may be undergoing premature menopause with no real cause. Those words came as a blow.
But they hit Blaž even harder. The thought of never having kids was painful for him to accept. This time, Katja was his rock.
They did a second round of IVF: no luck. Katja accepted that she’d never become a mother. At least she had dance, and at least she and Blaž had each other. She buried herself in work and moved on, and didn’t bother going on birth control.
And then… it happened.
A sluggish workout, sore breasts, and an overdue period later, Katja took a test. There was that second line she’d waited so long for–hoped for, dreamed for, and given up on. Finally, finally, she was pregnant.
Then reality hit: Take another test. Positive. Yes! Call the doctor. Make an appointment. Another test. Positive. Tell the parents. Celebrate. Wait. Weeks tick by. Nine, ten, eleven.
Katja felt sick with fear. She couldn’t stop thinking about the last time she was here for a 12 week appointment. Deep breaths, she told herself. And this time, when the doctor turned the screen to her, she gasped with joy. The baby wasn’t tiny, and it was moving–moving!–inside her belly. They heard her heartbeat. She was real, and she was healthy.
They were cautiously optimistic, and let a few close friends and family in on the good news. They had a morphology test done because of Katja’s age, and had to wait until week 20 for the results. They came back: perfect.
“Can I finally be happy?” Blaž asked her.
With tears in her eyes, Katja responded, “Yes.”
Katja finally gave herself permission to enjoy being pregnant. And she was rewarded for her patience with an easy pregnancy. No morning sickness, no major issues, and she was still able to work and travel until the beginning of her third trimester. “It finished with a very long and exhausting but beautiful birthing experience,” Katja says. On Tuesday, May 12, they welcomed their precious little girl into the world. Their family was finally complete.
Motherhood is hard, and a delayed return to work due to the pandemic means that Katja’s life is in limbo at the moment. Every day isn’t perfect, but every day she gets to hold her precious little girl, and that fills her with joy.
The long, painful journey had a happy ending–but Katja still wishes she’d seen a therapist sooner. “I needed some time, but as soon as I started talking about my loss, I immediately felt better,” she says. “It was a huge relief.”
If you’ve gone through something similar, we (and Katja) encourage you to speak to someone. And if therapy or outside help isn’t available to you at the moment, try writing about your experience, and if you feel comfortable, share it. “It helps me process [my feelings]. And it also helps other women to realise they are not alone. We all have struggles, and we need to support and inspire each other.
That’s why I’m telling you all about what happened to me.”