It’s been a long time, a very, very, long time since I have updated this blog. Partially I have stayed away because I had reservations about whether I truly wanted to be honest and vulnerable with strangers (or anyone really), and then life just got in the way, the every day things of being a mommy and wife and a person independent of those roles with her own sets of needs and goals for her day. And then something big happened and I knew that I needed to share it with people but I wasn’t quite ready. I’ve been thinking of this moment for weeks now and feeling nervous and unsure but today my husband is out with our three-year-old and the house is quiet and suddenly the words were calling to me, begging to find a space and life outside of my head. So here is the story – be warned, it’s a bit of a sad story – but it’s both completely mine and also somewhat universal and today it feels like it needs a voice.
Everything began on one of those beautiful fall days in mid-September when the East coast was bathed in a pleasant warmth. It was a week of Indian Summer and I was awash with joy. My mood enhanced by the knowledge everything was changing and very soon sun-dappled trees would lay bare under frost and ice and arms now welcoming a gentle breeze would hide from the bitter wind under layers upon layers of wool and down and whatever substance makes outwear truly water-resistant. I gripped my daughter’s hand as we crossed the street.
“You know what momma?”
“Sometimes, babies don’t come out of their mommy’s tummy, because they die when they are still really little.”
As is common, I feel completely unprepared for this parenting moment even though I suppose I should have been expecting it. My daughter had two obsessions all spring and summer – babies and death. Babies have been one of her favorite topics since she was able to talk, all little children both real and imaginary fascinate her. If you added up all the hours we have spent diapering and rocking and tucking in imaginary babies it would be an astounding figure, surely more than enough time to have written hundreds of these blog posts. So babies have been a staple in conversation in our house for two years but death is a new topic. I would like to blame Disney because it was in fact our very first viewing of Frozen that seemed to set off this obsession. My daughter’s toddler face crumpled upon the realization that Elsa and Anna’s parents were not coming back and from that moment on she saw death everywhere. Every fairy tale we had been reading for months she realized contained this motif of parental loss, every child on the street who was not visibly with both parents she turned into an orphan in her imagination and every day contained an ongoing battle wherein she commanded that she was not going to ever die and neither were any of the people she loved. So I would like to blame Disney for my daughter’s obsession with death but I know that just like babies, it is actually a very common topic for children to become fixated on at this age. But I really had not expected that babies and death would meet in my daughter’s mind and so I struggled for a microsecond to decide what I should say to her right now.
“Yes, you are right. Sometimes that does happen.”
This was the response I settled on because for the most part I believe in being honest with my child unless it is something that I think she really can’t handle or will destroy the magic and wonder of her childhood. And since she initiated the topic I decided it would be better to give her space to voice her thoughts and feelings rather than declaring it to be taboo.
“Yes. Yes. And then the mommy and daddy are very sad. Right momma?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Why are they sad?”
“Because mommies and daddies don’t want their babies to die. They love their babies and they want to be with them and protect them and play with them.”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right.”
And then somehow one or the other of us changed the topic abruptly and we went about our day. Later I laughed it off with my husband as we were debriefing in our room after our daughter was asleep. It seemed like one of those silly, strange, kids-say-the-darndest-things parenting moments. And truthfully it was easier to laugh about it than to admit the reality that in that moment my daughter had given voice to one of my deepest fears. She didn’t know that I was currently 7 weeks pregnant and excited and nervous about the changes going on in my body. She also didn’t really understand death, because thankfully she has never had to cope with real loss and grief. So it was easier to just ignore her comments and move on but as the days passed the words haunted me because in some strange way my daughter who doesn’t really understand babies or death had been prescient in touching upon what lay ahead for our family.
Five days later I woke up with a start from a very vivid dream. In the dream I had gone to the ER because I had been experiencing cramping and pain. I waited and waited alone in a room until finally I screamed at a nurse or doctor to help me.
“We’re waiting for you to push. Just push and let it happen.” He said.
“No – I can’t. Don’t you understand. He’s too little. It’s too early. I can’t.” I cried.
“I know. There’s nothing we can do. Just push and it will be over.” He said and then he walked away. I rushed out of the room and found my husband and told him we had to go back home because they weren’t going to help me. We needed to leave because they were not going to protect the baby. And then I woke up.
Later on that morning I told my husband the dream and he was unphased. “I had crazy dreams last night too.” He said as he went upstairs to shower and get dressed. I was equal parts annoyed, amused, and somewhat relieved by his response. As a rational person I knew that dreams are usually nothing more than a reflection of our worries and desires and it was natural that the idea of a miscarriage would worry me. But part of me was rattled as we went about our day picking apples and then making mini pies from scratch. I was exhausted and sometime that afternoon I started spotting. This is normal, I told myself, same thing happened during my first pregnancy, nothing to be worried about. I busied myself in household tasks and drank some extra water. The rest of the weekend passed relatively uneventfully.
In the early hours of Monday morning I woke up feeling like I needed to use the bathroom, which was pretty standard for being pregnant. But then as I sat down to pee I heard things falling out of my body and my heart stopped. I wiped and sure enough – blood, real red blood was there. I went back to bed and lay there in the dark, wondering what to do or say. Maybe I had pushed myself too hard running at the gym? Maybe if I had been in better shape before I got pregnant this wouldn’t have happened? Maybe this was a punishment for the fact that I secretly had mixed feelings about going through the whole sleep-deprived infant stage for a second time? Maybe it was because I had been ungrateful and craving a glass of red wine every night for the last few weeks? Maybe we didn’t have our life together enough? Maybe God had decided we weren’t strong enough to raise another child or a child with a disability? After awhile I worked up the courage to speak.
“I think I’m having a miscarriage.” I had to say it several times before my sleeping husband registered the words.
“What’s happening?” He finally asked.
I described the symptoms and then I said “I’m sorry.”
I heard him shift closer to me. “You don’t need to apologize” he said, as he wrapped his arms around me and offered some expression of sympathy and then we just laid there quietly. He fell back asleep for awhile, I think, but I didn’t. Nothing felt right with my body and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do or say. I thought about all the people I know in my life who have lost a baby, friends, family members and wondered how they did it. Many of them experienced much worse than I and yet in those early morning hours I could not fathom life ever going back to normal.
Eventually the sun rose and the day started. My husband offered to take my daughter to work with him but I declined because there was no way he could effectively lecture to medical students with a three-year-old sitting in his office chair. I called the number for the OBGYN practice I had decided to use for my pregnancy. I hadn’t even had my first appointment with them yet because it was still so early, but I didn’t know who else to call. The doctor on call talked to me for a few minutes and told me to call the office when they opened at 9 am. So that’s what I did. They couldn’t get me an ultrasound appointment until 2:30 pm so there was nothing to do but wait for the time to pass or the bleeding and pain to get so bad that it necessitated a trip to the ER. My husband called and I told him not to bother rushing home after his morning lecture was done. He agreed to come home around lunch time. I texted my sister who was the only other person who knew about the pregnancy and we talked for a bit. Mostly I spent the morning on the sofa watching cartoons and stroking my daughter’s hair, wondering about the uncertainty and fragility and beauty of life. I felt so blessed to have a healthy child and at the same time my heart was breaking for the new life I was just starting to love. I tried not to cry too much or say too much to my daughter other than “mommy is sick”, because I didn’t want her to worry. By the time my husband came home from work the pain was increasing and the simple acts of taking a shower and getting dressed were exhausting. I felt sorry for myself for a second and then thought – no, it should hurt, death should be painful. For awhile I tired to embrace the pain as a connection with whatever was going on inside my body. I thought about being pro-Choice, something I had never questioned before, and the strange juxtaposition of my grief and my conviction in the absolute moral rightness of reproductive freedoms and rights.
I went to the hospital alone so my husband could take our daughter to swimming lessons. I had him drive me though because the cramping was so bad I didn’t know if I could focus on the road. I waited for an hour for the ultrasound and then a young tech took me back and showed me a baby – a living baby with a heart beat. The positioning was bad she said and the heart beat low but there it was, life. Suddenly a seed of doubt grew in my mind. I went up to my doctor’s office and the nurse and an older physician told me “Everything looks good. The heart is beating so that was a good scan. Come back for your regularly scheduled appointment next week.” I had so many questions but all my worries were met with a simple statement over and over again – the baby was alive. I was instructed to go home and continue with life as usual, come back if you start gushing blood was the only instruction given. My family went out to dinner that night because no one had energy to cook. My pain was so severe that I had to sit in the booth rocking back and forth like I had some kind of serious neurochemical imbalance. I went to the bathroom every five minutes both as an excuse to move around and to stay relatively clean.
Over the next three days the cramping continued and every day things like going to the grocery store or driving my daughter to preschool were incredibly draining. I had to call my best friend and tell her I wouldn’t be to drive down for her baby shower on Sunday because even 10 minutes with a seat belt pressing on my abdomen felt like torture.
Suddenly on Thursday I started to feel better and we spent a nice weekend away at a church retreat that left me feeling spiritually and emotionally full. The following Wednesday I went to my doctor’s appointment. I expected a long conversation about symptoms and another ultrasound and received neither. I was treated like any other patient coming in for the first exam. Halfway through the appointment I realized that the doctor didn’t remember me from last week and I had to be the one to say “Umm we actually met a week ago, I’m the patient who came in with bleeding.” Needless to say, this is an awkward conversation starter especially when you are naked and about to receive an internal exam. She felt badly about not recognizing me and I could tell when we got back to her office she was fumbling to pull up a note or any record she had made of the hallway conversation we had a week prior. From her face it appeared like she had probably failed to document the encounter. As I usually do in these types of situations, I downplayed my own feelings in an effort to make her feel less awkward.
The conversation moved forward and again she was very nonchalant about all the symptoms. What about the low heart rate? – the baby was alive on the scan so everything should be fine. What about the cramping and tissue I passed? – bleeding and cramping can be normal first trimester experiences, since the bleeding has stopped everything should be fine. What about the poor positioning? I finally found a topic that got a response other than “it’s normal” and she agreed to a repeat ultrasound in a few days. Throughout the appointment I was told the same thing, congratulations, everything looks good, you are due in mid-May.
Friday I returned for the ultrasound alone again. I waited for a while and as before when it was my turn a very young, petite ultrasound tech escorted me back to a room. She asked me if I wanted to insert the vaginal probe myself and I declined. Then she asked if she had it in the right place. This was slightly concerning to me because seeing as how she was a trained technician and also a woman I figured the location of my vagina should be relatively obvious, but the exam moved on. She was very quiet except to remark on how much trouble she was having visualizing my ovaries and then finally she found them and the exam was over.
“Well, I didn’t see any sign of that gestational sac that we found last week. So it appears you have passed the pregnancy. That is why your bleeding has stopped. It was probably for the best because the positioning was so poor.” These are the first words she says to me after taking off her gloves. I am still naked from the waist down and haven’t even had a chance to go to the bathroom to wipe off the lubricant from the probe. I am in shock.
“I need to go review the images with my supervisor. Stay here just in case they decide they want to get a clearer picture of your right ovary. It looked fine last time but just in case.”
Then she left the room and I grabbed my phone to text my husband. He called and asked me if I wanted him to come to the hospital or go be with our daughter – it’s almost time for her preschool to be over and the plan had been to meet there where his aunt is picking her up since I was likely going to run late. I don’t know what to say but it will take him at least 15-20 minutes to get here so I tell him to go to the preschool and I’ll meet him there. The tech returns and starts in again.
“I called your doctor’s office and the physician you saw wasn’t there but another doctor from the practice said to tell you to cancel your next appointment and reschedule for next week. And if the bleeding starts up again and is heavy you should come in immediately.”
“Ok.” My mind is reeling from the cognitive dissonance. Another doctor had said everything looked ok two days ago. This tech couldn’t find my ovaries, maybe she was just incompetent. I didn’t say that, but the thought kept looping as we talked. “I would like to talk to a doctor.” I finally manage to say. She pushes back against the idea for a minute and then agrees to bring someone in. She suggests I might be more comfortable if I get dressed. I do and she returns with a radiologist who really lives up to expectations by being unable to make eye contact as he rotely says “I have reviewed the scans. The previously visualized pregancy is not there. Any symptoms you are still experiencing are a result of the fact that it may take several days or weeks for your hormone levels to stabilize. Any questions?” I take a steadying breath. “No.” I say softly and he is gone in an instant. The technician hovers explaining that she still has charting to do but I should feel free to ignore her and stay as long as I want. I stand in a corner crying for a minute before I work up the composure to walk past her and down the hall to the nearest bathroom. Once inside the real tears come. Ugly, painful, face contorting, silent sobs. But it’s a public bathroom and so after a minute I swallow my emotions and finally exit the ultrasound suite with the grief that my baby had died and also that I had not noticed the exact moment when it happened. I had flushed the tiny body down the drain and returned to my daily life.
It’s been six weeks since that day. And the grief continues to come and go. I know that there will be a time when I won’t think about it anymore. But for now it’s still very raw. It’s there when I feel envy and sadness infiltrating my joy over one friend’s new baby and another’s pregnancy. It’s there every time I see a mother with an infant or siblings playing together and my heart aches. It’s there when my daughter interrupts evening prayers to say spontaneously, with no coaching or awareness of any of this “Dear God, please send us a new baby for our family.” It’s there when people say “maybe it was for the best” or instruct me in the proper ways to manage my grief – cry more, cry less, wallow, move forward. It is there aa I continue to get bills from the hospital for the “care” I received. It was there when my Facebook feed was saturated with posts on National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Day and I realized that I wasn’t quite ready yet. And I felt ashamed of my reticence. And it was there last night as I cried into my pillow and told my husband that I was still sad. “I know you are.” He said as he wrapped his arms around me. “I’m still sad too.”