A Christmas card we received on the day we found out.
Death surrounds new life, but it largely goes unnoticed. It starts in a womb where the death, birth, and growth of cells happen every month. A tiny fertilized egg trusts its fate to this volatile environment. Sometimes, it works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t.
About one year ago, I wrote these words in one of the final chapters of my book, Becoming Mother.
I just recently lived to experience the pain of these words.
Truth be told, I had a miscarriage before I was pregnant with my daughter. But it happened immediately after I got a positive home pregnancy test. Just as quickly as the news came, it was taken away. It felt like a mistake. Oops! That wasn’t meant for you.
I was never able to really own that pregnancy.
But this miscarriage, this one that just happened, this one is all mine.
This pregnancy was different. Every pregnancy is different, they all say. But from the day of ovulation to the day this baby’s heart stopped, I felt that something was off. Although I’ve never been one to place much trust in intuition, my radar was on high alert this whole pregnancy.
On the day I ovulated, I felt like I had a war going on inside of me. My right ovary hurt, my right Fallopian tube ached, my uterus contracted and tugged in hot spasms. I had never felt anything quite like this, so my brain settled on the idea that I was miscarrying. Although… how could that be? I’m just now ovulating!
I came home from work, still in pain, still confused. By the next day, the pain was gone, but I was so bloated and swollen I had to wear loose fitting pants.
As timing would have it, my annual gynecological exam was the following week and my midwife told me that it had probably been a ruptured ovarian cyst, especially since the pain was now gone.
Okay, an ovarian cyst… Strike one. But maybe I can still get pregnant.
And I did.
After I got the positive pregnancy test, I calculated my expected due date: August 1, 2016.
Huh… That doesn’t sound right.
I re-entered the date of my last period. Same answer. Of course, it was the same answer, but it didn’t seem right. It didn’t feel right.
I gave the pregnancy test to my daughter and told her to give to my husband. I thought it would be cute. He was still in bed, still groggy. He rolled over, looked at it, and asked if there were two lines there. I said yes.
He seemed underwhelmed, so I asked him what was wrong.
“I’d just feel more comfortable about this if you hadn’t had so much pain when you were ovulating.”
Husband doubting the good news. Strike two.
At five weeks pregnant, I was reeling. I had lost my emotional footing. I was so irritable that I couldn’t stand myself. Absolutely everyone was pissing me off. A colleague belaboring a point. My husband leaving dishes in the sink. My daughter not wanting to get in her car seat. My students not doing the reading. Every time someone pissed me off, I had to talk myself through it. This is a stupid thing to be upset about. You’re only feeling this way because you’re pregnant. Calm down and don’t say something that you’ll regret later.
And then the foggy thinking. I was so much foggier than I remember being at the end of the third trimester with my daughter. One day, my brain switched over from knowing it was Tuesday to thinking it was Wednesday. I rushed to create a lesson plan for my Wednesday class in one hour when I had another day to do it. Only as I was about to walk to the class did I realize that it was really Tuesday.
At six weeks pregnant, the extreme fatigue started. No. Let’s be real. It was extreme exhaustion. Between 1:00 and 3:00 p.m. every day, I was utterly useless. I had to work, sure, but I was completely checked out mentally. If I could leave work early, I did. Once I made it into our house, I immediately crashed on the sofa. Not enough energy to get upstairs.
This baby was kicking my ass. And I still wasn’t telling anyone about it, save my mother.
Then at seven weeks pregnant, on the morning of Monday, December 14th, I was brushing my teeth and looking in the mirror. And I had a horrible thought.
I’m not pregnant anymore.
I wasn’t reeling.
I wasn’t foggy.
That day, I was tired, but not nearly as exhausted as I had been.
Maybe I’m not pregnant anymore.
What a morbid thought! What the hell is the matter with you! Think positive. Maybe this is just going to be an easy pregnancy.
That week, my digestion slowed to an absolute crawl. I started eating smaller meals more frequently, and I felt better. Then, the nausea started to kick in and I took comfort in it.
See? There. I told you.
At eight weeks and one day, I went in for the first ultrasound. For days, I had been prepping myself mentally for this.
I had never had an ultrasound where a doctor had given me bad news. They had always been exciting. I had always left with either good stats or pictures to show off.
Yet in my head, I went over the scenarios.
A baby in a Fallopian tube.
A dead baby.
A baby with no head.
A baby with no legs.
Two babies, both dead.
After each scenario, I would chide myself.
What the hell is the matter with you! What kind of mother are you to be thinking such morbid thoughts? You’re going to become a self-fulfilling prophecy if you’re not careful.
Imagining my child dead. Strike three.
In the days after I received the bad news that the baby had stopped growing at six weeks and six days (i.e. the day before I had my first thought that I was no longer pregnant), I felt the full gamut of emotions.
I wanted to know where I had been when this baby’s heart stopped beating on Sunday, December 13th.
Was I in church? Had I been reciting the liturgy? Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord?
Was I singing “We Need a Little Christmas” to my daughter as we drove home from church?
Was I napping?
Was I doing a prenatal yoga video, my hand resting over my abdomen in shavasana pose?
I was so furious.
“How are you doing, baby girl?” my husband asked me on the day after we found out. The house was quiet. Our daughter in bed. Christmas Eve still a day away.
“What are you thinking?” he asked.
“Pshhh… You’re not going to like what I have to say.”
“Just say it.”
“What am I thinking? I’m thinking, what a waste of time. What a waste of effort. We had this all planned out so that I’d have the longest maternity leave possible, given the holidays and the academic year. And now, it’s just all gone. All that coping with irritability and the fatigue and the nausea… All of that time… My birthday, Thanksgiving, our anniversary, and now Christmas… all of it spent emotionally invested in this thing that didn’t go anywhere. That’s what I’m thinking.”
But I held back.
I didn’t tell him that I was also thinking, Let’s just get this over with so I can move on. Let’s cut this thing out of me so I can replace this empty hole with something living. Something more worth my time. Let’s just get on with this so that I can stop being so damned depressed and start feeling happy again.
Doug leaned back in his chair, a frown on his face.
“It wasn’t a waste of time, Sweets. Don’t think that.”
I shook my head.
“It wasn’t a waste. We made something special. Yeah, it didn’t last very long, but it was something we made together. And I think that’s nice.”
His words cut me. And what I bled was the truth that had been too painful for me to admit.
I had loved this baby.
Yes, this six-week-six-day-old baby, which medical textbooks call a “fetus.”
I loved it.
Me. The pro-choice woman who had also been comfortable using the word “fetus” instead of “baby.”
I loved this baby.
All of my anger and frustration had been window dressing for the simple fact that I was sad to lose someone that I had loved.
And here I was, denying it. Because denial was easier than facing the truth. That I had lost someone that I had loved. That I could feel so strongly about this baby that I would never meet.
I would be the only person on this planet that would ever know this baby the way that I did. And here I was, calling it a waste of time. A waste of effort.
I was so ashamed.
I said my good-bye to this baby on Christmas Eve after a long, desperately needed workout. Sweating, lying on the floor in the back room of our house, I rested my hand over my abdomen and cried.
I don’t want you to think that I didn’t love you because you couldn’t live up to my expectations. Just because your heart stopped beating… it doesn’t mean I didn’t love you. You didn’t have to be perfect. You didn’t even need to be fully formed. I still loved you. It doesn’t help me to imagine that you might be better off dead if you had some chromosomal abnormality–because I know I would have loved you no matter what your problems were. I would have taken you in whatever form you came.
Because that’s love.
This miscarriage has brought gratitude into full view again. When we’re deep in pain, we’re suddenly able to look back and identify all those moments when we should have been feeling gratitude–but we chose to feel a thousand other emotions.
Like it or not, I’m re-learning the humility of waiting. Waiting to heal. Waiting to pick myself back up. Waiting to try again.
But perhaps the waiting will be good for the part of me that foolishly believed that I could just remove death and replace it with life, just like that. A switcheroo before I would have time to deal with the pain of this loss. In a Facebook world brimming with good news and happy times, loss has become even harder to deal with. “Happiness” becomes the new default setting, and everyone seems to be experiencing it. And so it’s easier these days for loss to feel abnormal.
But the truth is, the abnormal is often the normal that we just don’t talk about in polite company.
Perhaps I need to learn that again. Perhaps I need to remember my own words.
Motherhood does take away. But it also replaces. Sometimes our hands are empty and sometimes they are full. And accepting this truth helps me find contentment and joy.
About one year ago, I wrote these words.
But it was just recently that I was reminded of their power.