Warning: graphic post about infertility and loss. No food this time. Read at the risk of being a little shocked; this is not for the faint of heart. This post is in honor of National Infertility Awareness Week, as part of its Bust a Myth campaign.
It seems to be an unwritten rule. You don't talk about the bad things that can happen during pregnancy, and you especially don't talk about them to pregnant women. Sure, you can share stories or morning sickness and cramps and aches and cravings, but the really awful things are taboo. Pregnancy always ends in live, healthy birth in our happy little world. And you particularly shouldn't be complaining if you already have a child; you've got no right to demand another.
I was 32 when I had our son. It was a picture perfect pregnancy. I didn't even experience morning sickness. I was on top of the world with my pregnancy glow. Though the birth wasn't easy, I got a healthy baby. I knew that things could go wrong; one of my friends' children was stillborn. But I thought somehow that I was safe ... after all, I'd given birth. Other children would come, too, if I wanted them.
And then, loss. The first was early, just six weeks. My son was two. I'd made an appointment for my first prenatal visit, and the day before I was supposed to go, I saw pink in the bathroom. No, I said to myself. Shit, no. I tried to believe that it wasn't happening. They took my blood, and confirmed that my hCG levels were dropping. I bled, and I mourned the loss of that baby, its potential. I knew when I'd passed the clot that had contained that small life, and I felt sick; I could no longer trust my body to carry a child to term.
A year later, again. This time, much later; I was just about to begin my second trimester. I had passed the six week mark, and thought, again, that perhaps this time I would be safe. I was developing a baby bump already.
And then, I saw the blood. A light pink stain as I cleaned up in the bathroom at work. Oh, shit, I said, under my breath. No, no. Not again. Oh, god, please. No. I talked myself into believing that it was nothing. That I would check again later. That I was imagining things. But I knew I wasn’t imagining things the next time. I called the doctor, and they said I should come in that day, even though I had a scheduled appointment on Monday, to see the baby, to see that everything was all right. They seemed so confident, that I believed them. I didn’t call my husband. It wasn’t necessary.
Until I saw the monitor, and the technician, searching. Measuring. Quietly. Looking for something that she wasn’t finding. I’m sorry, she said, I’m just not finding a heartbeat. Oh, god, I said. Oh, no. I covered my mouth, open, like an o. They took me to another room, said some things about what I should expect next, let me go. I cried a little. I hugged the midwife as she went to close the door and leave me to collect myself. I thanked her. I dried my tears and opened the door to the waiting room, walking through a sea of pregnant bellies. I saw a woman I knew in the parking lot, with her sick son. I sympathized, told her I would check on them this week. She didn’t ask why I was there. I drove home.
I became methodical: I emailed the people I knew who had known about it. I called the woman who had offered me her maternity clothes to tell her to give them to someone else. I went through the house, throwing away the prenatal paperwork that I was supposed to return on Monday. I threw away the container they’d given me for my first morning urine specimen. I threw away the pamphlets on prenatal nutrition. I threw away the paperwork to register for maternity stay. I told my husband. I cooked dinner, I bathed and put my son to bed, I checked work email, I went to bed.
On Friday, my car battery was dead. I was tired of death. My husband jumped my car. I went to work. I went for a run, not sure if I could, not sure if I should. My body protested. I could feel the blood coming. I walked back. I went to a lunch meeting of mothers, sympathizing with people’s day care stories, feeling like I was talking in a tunnel, listening to myself in some other body. I bled more, and now even more. I excused myself, staggered to the bathroom, hoping that I was not leaving a bloody trail on the historic carpet. In the bathroom, I began to feel as if my body was emptying in great waves of blood and islands of slippery tissue. Would the bleeding never stop? I returned to my office and finished the work day. I drove home. I fed my family, I bathed and put my son to bed. I went to the grocery store to do my Friday night shopping, walking slowly. I came home, put away the groceries. Checked email. Went to bed. Lay awake, listening to nothing.
On Saturday, I baked banana bread while I made breakfast for my son. I walked with him to the library, promising him a trip to the store for a treat. I went to the bathroom in the library. I knew something was coming, and I had to push, but it came — whatever it was, a mass of blood and cells and tissue — it looked like a human heart. It was my heart. I looked into the toilet, trying to see the baby I knew must have been in there, as my son sat reading Dora’s Valentine on the bathroom floor. I knew I couldn’t look much longer before my son would come over, and I didn’t want him to see what I saw. It was surreal. I flushed it away, feeling sick, knowing what I had just done, washed my hands, ushered out my son, closed the door. The pain was unbearable. I walked home, every step a torture. I made my son lunch, put him in the car. I drove the hour to my mother’s house to get her settled after her return from the knee surgery rehab. I ordered her dinner. I entertained my son while feeding him dinner. I drove home, made lemon poppy cake, checked work email, prepped my Sunday RE class. I went to bed, listening to the roaring of my heart and blood in my ears. I lay awake for hours, shifting to make the pain subside. It would not.
On Sunday, I made breakfast, collected our things, drove to church, set out the cakes and fruit for coffee hour. I washed dishes and made polite conversation about the minister’s pregnant wife, due a week before I would have given birth. I drove home, made lunch, returned to church. I taught a sex ed class, beginning with a memorial service for the co-teacher who had died this week of a sudden heart attack in traffic. I drove home, went to the park, watched my son play in the puddles in his rain boots. I came back home, I made dinner, I put my son to bed. I baked a red velvet cake. I took hours to frost it. I roamed aimlessly; I lay awake for hours.
I felt hollow. Empty. A shell full of nothing. I was just tired; not sad, not angry. I was just nothing.
I thought about the minister’s wife, how she would have a baby in August. I thought about my friend, who would have her baby even earlier, in May. Another friend, in May. Another, in June. I wondered how that would feel to me. I would have no baby. I would have no reason to post “pregnant” as my Facebook status. I would have no maternity leave in the fall. I would do the same things I do every day. Nothing would change. My changed plans had changed back to unchanged plans. I felt cheated, maybe even jealous.
I began to wonder if I didn’t want this one, or the last one, for that matter, badly enough. If they knew this, and left my inhospitable body. I began to think about all of the things I might have done: not enough thyroid hormone. A mistake at Starbucks, when a barista might have given me caffeinated coffee. A piece of chocolate cake. Too much exercise. Overheating. A hot shower. Stress. Negativity. I knew, intellectually, that it was not my fault. That didn’t seem to matter to my superego.
And it didn't matter that I already had a child.
No one tells you that you are going to experience something like labor and lose the baby that could have been in the toilet of the public library. They just give you a slip of paper to get your blood drawn when you stop bleeding, to make sure your levels are at zero. You are done bleeding, and they take blood. The irony of this was not lost on me.
Another year, another loss, and then it seemed I couldn't even get pregnant. I went to my ob/gyn, and they told me that I was now officially high risk, that my losses and my age and the length of time it was taking us to conceive meant that I was infertile. I couldn't understand; how was this possible, when I'd given birth to a healthy child? They handed me a slip of paper with "INFERTILITY" written in big block letters across the top, with the names of several clinics, and suggested that I call to make an appointment. There was no explanation for my loss, for my empty body. I felt marked. I felt like a failed woman. I was unable to do the one thing my body was supposedly built to do. I could not create or support life. And the fact that I had a beautiful son whom I loved didn't change how that label, and those losses, made me feel.
Though I did, just this past February, successfully carry a second child to term--thanks, I believe, to an endocrinologist who was willing to listen and who believed that there was something he could do--that pregnancy was full of anxiety. I hold tightly to the children I have been gifted, knowing just how precious life really is, but their presence does not erase the losses that came before. I also know that it would have been good to know more people like me, to know that I was not alone, to know that others had stories, too. To know that one successful pregnancy doesn't equal fertility, and that to have difficulty carrying a child to term after a successful first pregnancy was also normal. And I wish that the stories of loss and infertility were less taboo, so that we could perhaps help other women to be less alone. We should not assume that the woman in our playgroup is fertile. We should not assume that the childless woman doesn't want children.
The other day, one of the bloggers I follow posted a link to a video from a Japanese classroom, as a way of illustrating the Buddhist principle of transforming suffering into happiness. I was struck by the students' display of empathy, and it got me thinking about blogging, about how being able to share a story with an empathetic community can both tap the silent suffering of others and make us stronger people, offering us a new perspective on our own stories. Healing would happen so much more often if we just stopped making assumptions about each other and started listening deeply, instead. I thought that I would share the video here, as a way of ending this post, and as a way of encouraging others to write their own "letters," too. It's about time your voice was heard.
See RESOLVE for a basic understanding of infertility: http://www.resolve.org/infertility101 and for more information about National Infertility Awareness Week® (NIAW): http://www.resolve.org/takecharge.