A disclaimer: please do not feel that you need to read this. Truly. This story is long, it’s sad, and at times, it’s gruesome. I am posting this because I feel that it’s important to share, but I will not fault you at all if you pass. I wrote this in early March of 2016, about a month after my first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. I knew at the time that I wanted to write down my story, and eventually share it, because reading other women’s brave, raw miscarriage stories was a huge part of my emotional recovery. Miscarriage is incredibly common, we know this, and yet we do not talk about it. And therefore, when you experience it, it is so, so easy to feel alone.
Before I talk in future posts about my pregnancy and my birth and what I packed in my hospital bag and how breastfeeding has gone, I need to start here. My miscarriage changed me as a woman and really, I believe, set the stage for my experience of motherhood. It is important, and it will always be important.
If you have in the past or are now experiencing a miscarriage, I am so sorry. My heart is with you. You are never alone. If you haven’t experienced a miscarriage but know someone who might appreciate my story, please send it along. And if you ever want to talk miscarriage with me, there is no such thing as too much information (as my friends and I say to each other). Reach out anytime. I’m here for you.
The morning that it started, I woke up with a strange sense of anxiety. It wasn’t connected to anything in particular—it was just a random sense of generalized dread that was causing my heart to flutter like a butterfly trapped in a jar, and my palms to sweat with a cold dampness. Before I got into the shower, I noticed that my doomed fiddlehead fig tree had lost yet another one of its floppy leaves—one of only four that remained. As I eyed that oversized piece of foliage with its forebodingly crispy edges splayed out tragically on the hardwood floor, it occurred to me that this may end up being a very, very bad day.
When I got out of the shower, I noticed that I had started to spot. Again. I had been dealing with a bit of pink spotting on and off since around 6 weeks, and it seemed harmless, since we had confirmed multiple times in ultrasounds that the baby’s heart rate was good and strong. But, seeing that bit of pink in that moment, I was so discouraged. I was already feeling strangely anxious, and now I had one more thing to worry about. I steeled myself and met my own gaze in the mirror, hair wet from the shower dripping around my shoulders. “I do not know how I am going to be able to get through this,” I half prayed/half muttered to myself. “Be brave,” was the divine answer that I heard in my head.
On that day, I was nine weeks and two days pregnant. This, my first pregnancy, had been a bit of a rollercoaster ride over the past few weeks. On the day of my first prenatal appointment, I was supposed to be about six weeks and two days along, according to my last period. At that time, a heartbeat should have been detectable by a transvaginal, or internal, ultrasound. But, my doctor couldn’t find the heartbeat, and found the fetus to be measuring only around five weeks, four days. She called in her colleague, another ob/gyn, who cheerily confirmed that the fetus looked great…but great for five weeks, four days, not the six weeks and two days that they had expected. My doctor took my husband and I (both of us sweaty and confused) into her office, where she confidently and briskly took us through pregnancy 101: no booze, limited caffeine, watch the sugar, choose Tylenol and not Advil. She handed over the sheet that explained all of the prenatal appointments that were coming up. She described some options for our birth, and we discussed benefits and drawbacks of both epidural and unmedicated labors. She sent us away with our first ultrasound photos, but not before pointing out a white “halo” around the black blob in one of our photos. Apparently, that “halo” meant the baby was healthy. As far as we knew, we were about 35 weeks away from becoming parents.
That first appointment left me a bit shaken. Although there wasn’t technically a reason for me to be upset, hearing the words “I’m not finding a heartbeat” is never something that a parent-to-be wants to hear during an ultrasound. I remember walking through the subway system after the appointment and hearing a young man with a beautiful voice belting out the Sam Smith song “Stay With Me,” which instantly brought me to tears. I dug into my pocket for some cash and dropped it into his open guitar case, grateful for his articulating what I could barely muster in my own heart: how badly I wanted this little life to stay snug and happy in my womb until he or she was full term and ready to meet the world.
Fortunately, when we went back to the doctor the next week for our follow-up appointment, the doctor exclaimed “Hallelujah!” and showed us that our baby had grown right on track, and there was, in fact, a heartbeat. She gave us a new, official due date of September 4th, and a new ultrasound photo, and off we went, feeling like we had won the lottery.
Unfortunately, after that appointment, the spotting began. Spotting can be very common in early pregnancy, and it doesn’t always preclude miscarriage. Still, when the light bleeding continued to stubbornly disappear and reappear day after day, I made another appointment for a follow-up ultrasound. This time, I saw a different doctor at the practice (my usual ob/gyn wasn’t in that day), and her dry sense of humor and kind eyes were a relief after a week of stress. She let me listen to that “good, strong heartbeat” (167!) for a few beautiful seconds before assuring me that all looked well. Once again, I skipped out of the office, and with relief assured my husband and various friends and family that we were still en route to becoming parents. Plus, a heartbeat in the seventh week is a great sign that the pregnancy would continue—I finally, truly believed that I was almost out of the woods, and I didn’t have to work as hard to convince myself to be joyful, hopeful, and grateful (my three-word mantra during my pregnancy).
That is, until that Tuesday, when my racing heart and now-familiar spotting on the toilet paper signaled to me that something might be seriously wrong. I was stubbornly determined to be positive, refusing to be “one of those women” who was wringing her hands every week of her pregnancy and needing constant ultrasounds for assurance. I wanted to be confident in my baby, and confident in my ability to successfully carry him or her. I went to work, but my worries accelerated when the pink spotting eventually turned to red blood. I knew that red blood wasn’t a good sign. And then, the next day, the cramps started.
Early pregnancy is a very funny thing. The changes to one’s body (other than, of course, extreme nausea and vomiting, which I didn’t have), are noticeable, yet pretty subtle. Every little thing that happens, whether it’s loss of breast tenderness, a bit of spotting, or a headache can be either par for the course, or signs of impending doom. You can search all of Doctor Google’s archives, and fret on the phone with your nurse or with your friends, but until an ultrasound confirms a heartbeat, no one can tell you whether that little person is safe or not. Growing a life really is just that precarious and delicate, and just that maddeningly mysterious. There were really no answers out there on the internet to be found about how my pregnancy was going to go. Every single pregnancy is different, just as every woman and every baby are unique. The reality is that we don’t have control over many of the most important things in life. But just in case you’d like to hold on to even a bit of false hope that you’re in the driver’s seat of your own life, pregnancy will remind you of exactly how powerless you are in the face of God’s plan/fate/the course of nature/whatever it is that you believe.
On that Wednesday when I started to feel cramps, I decided to call the doctor’s office, all the while trying to convince myself that the anxiety I had been feeling was probably just causing some stomach pains. When they told me to come right in, I told myself that this would hopefully be just another opportunity to hear my little one’s heart beating away. However, when I got to the doctor’s office and clumps of blood collected in my urine sample, my heart sank even lower. It took awhile for the nurse to call my name and lead me into an exam room. By then, my cramps had gotten stronger. The nurse took my heart rate and blood pressure, and soon my doctor came in.
Until that moment that the doctor walked in, I had been praying my heart out, as I had over the nine-ish weeks that I had been pregnant. I read the book of Luke on my way into the office, and pondered the miracles that had been performed by Jesus to those that said to him “Lord, if it be your will, I will be healed.” I believed with every ounce of my being that if God wanted that baby to live, that he or she would. “I don’t care if I’m bleeding or cramping or if all seems lost,” I prayed while perched in a paper apron in that cold, white room. “You are God, and nothing is impossible with you. Please, save my baby.” The doctor eventually came in, asked some questions, and had me lie on my back. Without explanation, she inserted a speculum and swabbed around with a giant Q-Tip, as if she was doing a Pap smear. (Ouch.) I saw her dispose of the bloody instrument as she asked me “So, you’ve been having some cramping?” “Well yeah, and whatever you did just now didn’t feel great,” I replied. She simply nodded, with no reassurance of what might be going on. I think it was then that I started to realize and accept what was happening. By the time she began the ultrasound, I had no desire to look at the screen. I stared into space while she frittered away with the machine. Finally, she asked if I was supposed to be nine weeks. “Yes,” I replied. Nine weeks and three days, I thought to myself. She asked me to look at the screen.
She told me that the baby had died at eight weeks, demonstrating with the measurement tool on the ultrasound. The screen showed a little peanut, swimming in a dark black sac that was clearly too large for it. And, she pointed out, there was no heartbeat. I closed my eyes. I felt my heart fade to black. The doctor was quiet, professional, and not unkind. When I said, “But the heartbeat was so strong! 167!” She simply said, “I know.” She invited me to get dressed, call my husband, and meet her in her office.
Neil didn’t pick up his phone, so I went in to discuss my options with the doctor. She recommended a D&C, or a dilation and curettage, which is a minor surgery that takes the guesswork and potential for extreme blood loss out of the miscarriage process. In my less optimistic moments of my pregnancy, I had read enough about miscarriage to understand that, unassisted, a miscarriage can take days, weeks, or even months for the body to complete on its own. Still, I resisted this attempt at making the slow, natural process that my body had already started into something quick and efficient. No, I insisted. I wanted to handle the process on my own, at home, as scary as it was. But painkillers? Oh yes, please, give me all of the drugs.
I stumbled out of the office in a daze. I called my husband in the depressingly gray hallway outside the office and tearfully told him the news, my heart breaking as I heard the optimism in his voice die. I headed out into the rainy day, got on the subway and headed home, picking up a double order of exorbitantly expensive but insanely delicious matzoh ball soup (Mile End Deli, it will help whatever ails you) on the way to my apartment to give me strength for whatever came next.
What came next was blood. A lot of it. And cramps galore. My husband and I stumbled to the same drugstore where I had giddily picked up extra pregnancy tests after I got that first glorious positive—this time, we were in the store filling my painkiller prescription and buying the largest sanitary napkins they had. After buying seltzer, snacks, and the required three scoops each of artisanal ice cream, we headed home to the couch, where I would essentially perch for the next six days, bleeding, drinking cups of tea, popping Percocets, microwaving my heating pad over and over again, and waiting. It rained, it snowed, the sun came out…and I bled through it all.
I was relatively blessed in that my miscarriage happened early on in the pregnancy, and therefore the process was like a very heavy, very long period. Still, the combination of having to emotionally process the doomed pregnancy while also physically processing it was incredibly difficult. Every night, I’d go to bed on top of a beach towel, afraid that I would wake up in the middle of the night hemorrhaging (my husband would read my favorite book from childhood, The Princess Bride, out loud to me every night to help me relax before bed). Crashing hormones and an ever-dropping iron level made going through the already-wrought steps of grief even more extreme. Denial, self-blame, depression, acceptance…more depression, more acceptance. Every morning, I’d wake up with a new thought about how I potentially doomed the pregnancy (was it the runny egg I ate at brunch? The turkey sandwich? The hormone-sabotaging chemicals leaching out of our plastic electric tea kettle? For what it’s worth, I did throw out the tea kettle). While I am glad that I chose the long, natural route over a short and more invasive process (I always felt that I wanted to allow my body to “do its thing” in its own time if I was able to), I do believe now that—of course—there is no easy or desirable way to lose a baby. There is only the method that the mother feels in her gut is right for her.
I believe that I will get pregnant again. I believe that it will likely be soon. I even believe that this baby’s soul might come back and join us on earth in a stronger, healthier body (insert praying-hands emoji here). In the world of miscarriages, what I’ve experienced is basically a walk in the goddamn park. Reproductively speaking, I am still extremely lucky. And yet.
And yet, I still yearn for my September baby, the one that I felt was meant to be because of the sapphires in the wedding ring that my husband had designed years ago. He or she would have been a Virgo, just like my best friend and my youngest brother. I already miss joking with my friends about how I was going to make it through a long, hot New York City summer being enormously pregnant. I even miss bracing myself for what I was sure would be a long labor and a large baby (my husband was ten pounds; I have a large head). Maybe most of all, I miss my husband coming over to me multiple times a day without warning, tugging up my shirt, to kiss and chat with the baby in my ever-so-slightly protruding belly. I miss that feeling that there was a third in our little nest. We were already a family, the three of us. I have faith that one day, we may have closure or even a sense that we understand why this baby left us after only eight short weeks. But in the meantime, I mourn, I grieve, and I hope with all my heart that when we do meet our first baby on her or her birthday, I will recognize the spirit of this first one in his or her eyes—and that I will have that chance to know and raise this child, our sapphire baby, once again.
(I recently sent this picture, taken about a month after my miscarriage, to an Instagram friend after she posted about grieving her miscarriage. I wrote to her “I remember just wanting to remember that moment, because as horrible as it was, I wanted to be able to show it to my child one day. And be like, ‘This is the face of a woman who was yearning so, so badly for you. I wanted you more than anything. I missed you before I knew you.'”)