The Unexpected: Grieving the Loss of a Surprise Pregnancy

When I fantasized about leaving New York City, three things shone brightest on my mental wish list. Most obviously, a garbage disposal. You never realize how useful they are until you’re not allowed to have one.

Also, stairs. Ah, the luxury of spreading out vertically, of stretching one’s calf, of having a depository for misplaced items awaiting transportation to their proper location.

But most importantly and pressingly, I longed for a cat. 

I longed for a cat in a way most women my age were beginning to long for children. But, apartment rules: no cats. No real cats anyway. Do you remember those advertisements for Fresh Step, with a cat Photoshopped to look like he was crossing his legs in an effort to avoid using an unsuitable litter box? I cut one out, named him Pajamas, and deposited him subtly on my husband’s bedside table.

The countdown to NYexit was on.

Our first apartment in Portland, while it did not have stairs, did have a garbage disposal. And it had no rules against pets. Imagine those cartoons in which someone runs so quickly that she appears stuck for a moment, a blur exiting her motionless frame before her body catches up with her excitement. That was me, heading to the Oregon Humane Society to adopt our real life Pajamas.

Pajamas was a fluffy black-and-white sweetheart with a penchant for tuna. He had markings on his face that resembled human facial hair, making him appear somehow both wise and befuddled. We both doted on him, even my humoring husband.

And then, I got pregnant.

The positive test was surprising, but not unwelcome. The timing worked. We were ready, even if we hadn’t really considered having children quite yet.

The next day, I started bleeding.

It was the day I normally would have gotten my period. “Maybe my body is just confused,” I reasoned to myself.

I found an OB. She scheduled me for an ultrasound.

“Sometimes people just bleed,” she assured me.

But the bleeding got worse, nearly every time I went to the bathroom now.

I went in for the ultrasound. The baby was small. Too small. 

“It’s unusual for it to be this small at this point,” said the ultrasound technician. “This is likely what we call a blighted ovum. It failed to divide properly. Let’s see you again in another week.”

I came home and held Pajamas, crying into his white and black fur.

Then Pajamas got sick. I remember tucking him into a little cocoon of blanket, partially covering his body with it, making him cozy. My husband and I left to go out to dinner. When we arrived home several hours later, the blanket hadn’t moved. Neither had Pajamas. My heart sank. I knew something was wrong.

“Do you think he’s depressed?” I asked my husband.

He laughed, deservedly so. But a lump remained in my throat. 

I brought Pajamas in to an emergency vet that night. As they drew blood, the technician complimented his black and white markings, and then sadly said, “It’s unusual for a cat to be this docile when we take blood.”

The words of the two technicians combined.

I went back to my technician. The growth had stopped. A miscarriage was inevitable.

I felt trapped. I no longer had a baby growing inside me. I had something dying inside me, dead already. I felt its death, lodged in the pit of my stomach and in the bottom of my heart. And I wanted it out.

The blood smears mocked me every time I went to the bathroom. Finally, through tears of anger, frustration, sadness, “Just come out already!” I cried.

The next day, it did. The experience was painful, but a relief. I sat on the toilet doubled over, while thick clots of blood came out. It was, I now know, three children later, labor – the cramps identical to the real thing, the forcible expulsion less joyous, but just as much a milestone. My uterus was finally in on what my brain and my heart had known for weeks.

There was no baby.

I called in sick to work. And then I took another day. I watched “Sex and the City” from the first episode up until the one when Charlotte miscarries. Pajamas, feeling decent on a healthy dose of steroids, stuck close by me.

I Googled obsessively, switching between my own symptoms and my cat’s. I wondered if I would ever be able to have a baby. I wondered if Pajamas would get better. I wondered if children, something my husband and I had so cavalierly assumed “someday,” were not going to be in our future.

I called my dad. “I lost the baby,” I sobbed. I felt such guilt. “And Pajamas is going to die.”

Pajamas did die. But not before I continued with the steroids and fed him tuna water, anything, to get him to eat. A few weeks later, I came home from work, and when he got up to run to me, he walked sideways until he hit a wall. He had feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), a relentless, fatal cat disease.

I called the vet in tears, but there was nothing more to do. I held him in my arms until it was time to bring him in. I gently placed him on the metal table. The vet administered the shot. “Can I hold him?” I asked. “Of course,” the vet said.

“Is he gone?”

“Oh yes. He’s gone.”

I don’t know if I had him in my arms in time. I don’t know if his last sensation was of my warm body or of the metal table. I don’t know if the last thing he saw were my tears, or my unexpectedly empty arms.

The Pain of Miscarriage and the Crisis of Faith That Follows

It’s hard to believe there is a plan for your life when the path you so desperately want is just out of reach. And finding a new path after miscarriage feels impossible.

A few months shy of my 37th birthday, I was single and experiencing what felt like Fertility DEFCON-1, so I started the process of having a kid on my own.

Insemination is expensive and time consuming. It involves meds, blood work, ultrasounds, and home ovulation predictor kits. You go to a clinic several times a week, always between the hours of 7:3o and 8:30 a.m. These clinics should be warmly lit and play R&B slow jams, but they are not and do not.

When you check in, they give you a buzzer like they do at Applebee’s that flashes and vibrates when your table is ready. People look bored and a little unhappy, like they do in most doctors’ waiting rooms. No one looks as miserable as the men do.

Everything builds up to the two-day period in the 28-day menstrual cycle in which pregnancy is possible. Once you’re inseminated, you wait two weeks to find out if you’re pregnant.

I thought I was pregnant for the entire two weeks.

I wasn’t.

After my third insemination, I found myself dispirited. There was a 15 percent chance of it working each time. Technically, that meant that I could do it a thousand times without it ever working.

But I was pregnant. On my first Mother’s Day as a mother-to-be, my breasts were sore and I was ecstatic. I went to Cape Cod by myself, staying in my grandmother’s cottage on the beach. I read books and felt my symptoms and took walks. I thought about the year to come: I’d need to get started on the “baby’s room,” to be located in the hallway of my apartment. I’d need a larger winter coat.

My fetus, I learned from a site that sent me weekly updates, had sprouted a spinal cord and backbone. Its heart and circulatory systems were forming. Its nose, mouth, and ears were starting to take shape. Its intestines were developing. It was the size of a lentil.

On the day my fetus was six weeks old I looked for six beautiful stones on the beach and put them in the kitchen windowsill.

I returned to New York for my first ultrasound with my mother in tow. 

My doctor looked at the screen and she looked and she looked and she didn’t say anything for a minute or so until she said that she could see a fetal sack but didn’t hear a heartbeat.

Oh, keep looking, I thought.

But it wasn’t there. She said that it was possible that it was too early to detect the heartbeat, that I should come back in a week.   

The news obliterated me and it obliterated my mother. 

We decided to be hopeful, though. On the pregnancy websites we read dozens of testimonials from women whose doctors couldn’t hear a heartbeat at six weeks, but did at seven weeks.

The next night I covered a science museum gala for the Wall Street Journal where I frequently worked. I felt extremely hormonal and my breasts were still swollen and sore, which reassured me that my baby’s heartbeat would soon be heard.

The evening was a great distraction and that week I went about the business of my life. I felt very much pregnant.

But I wasn’t. The second ultrasound confirmed that my baby didn’t have a heartbeat. 

I unsubscribed from the fetus update emails. One by one, I told all of the people I’d told I was pregnant that I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

There are only three times in my life that I’ve seen my mother truly bereft: when her mother died, when her brother died, and when she had a miscarriage.

I was five at the time. We’d all been so excited that she was pregnant. I had told all of my friends from school that I was going to be a big sister. And then one day, my father took my brother and me to McDonalds and explained that our mother wasn’t pregnant anymore. When I got home, I peeked in on her. She was asleep and I could feel the sadness in her bedroom.

I went in for a D&C – a process that removes the fetal tissue from the mother’s body – but there was some part of that pregnancy that no miscarriage and no D&C and no amount of time could take away. I had known what it was to carry a child. I had been a mother.

The doctors were very kind. My anesthesiologist was a theater lover and we exchanged recommendations while they strapped me onto the operating table.

“Do you have any questions?” the doctor asked.

“No,” I said. But I did have a question. “Actually, could you check and be sure that my baby doesn’t have a heartbeat?”

It was really – still – hard to believe that I wasn’t pregnant. I could feel the empathetic response at my request. He nodded. He checked. There was a fetal sack. There was no heartbeat.

Once you’ve had a miscarriage you have to wait until you get your period before you can start trying to get pregnant again, and you don’t know how long that will take.

My most spiritually-minded friend, Dorie, said that these circumstances offered me the opportunity to improve on my “waiting and not knowing” skills. “Motherhood is often about waiting without knowing,” she said.

In the bigger picture, she insisted, I wasn’t off track. “You don’t know what’s coming next, but you don’t need to.” I wrote that on a Post-it note and stuck it to the wall where I worked every day.

I upped my self-care routine: yoga, meditation, time with friends. Once while meditating, images came into my head of being at my grandmother’s cottage and taking a much sadder version of myself for a swim in the pond at dusk. I then brushed her tangled hair while she dried off on the sand, and brought her back to the deck on the ocean. I gave sad me a clean pair of jeans and a tee-shirt to change into, then poured us a glass of wine.

I went back to Cape Cod soon after that vision. It was early June, still the off-season, so the beaches were empty, the restaurants had no lines, and the library was stocked with well-reviewed, recently-published books. 

It was a difficult week. My mind was unsteady, and fell into bleak stretches. But my family was there, and their company helped quite a bit. By the time I was set to leave, I felt better than I had in quite some time.

On my last night there I took myself to the pond at dusk. I swam. And then I brushed my hair. I went back to the house and put on a clean pair of jeans and a tee-shirt and had a glass of wine on the deck. It felt like a punctuation mark. Maybe I was done grieving, I thought.

But I wasn’t done grieving. Shortly after my return to New York, I was on the my way to the theater on a very crowded subway. I suddenly started sobbing uncontrollably. I hid my face in my arms, with a person sitting inches to my left, a person inches perpendicular to me, people standing inches in front of me.

The woman sitting to my left said, “What are you upset about?”

I couldn’t speak.

She said, “Is it a man? They’re not worth it.” And she kept saying, “They’re not worth it,” so I finally said, “It’s not about a man.”  

“Is it your mother?” she asked.

“I lost a pregnancy,” I said, and then sobbed some more.

“What?” she replied. She couldn’t make out what I’d said.

“I lost a pregnancy.”

She still didn’t get it. She didn’t hear very well.

“I had a miscarriage,” I said, clearly elucidating and projecting for everyone at our end of the car. 

“Oh,” she said, before launching into a stream of consciousness monologue about loss, God, motherhood, and her cats.

There was nowhere for me to go. From time to time she interrupted her train of thought to ask questions that just turned the faucet up:

“Was it a boy or a girl?”

“Did you have names picked out?”

“How did they get rid of the fetus?”

“Does your husband take good care of you?”

“Do you believe that God knows what he’s doing and that God has a plan for you?”

That last question was essentially what my spiritually-minded friend had asked me: do you have faith? I wasn’t sure anymore. I was mourning a miscarriage and having hormone withdrawal, plus I was anxious about being single. Together it coalesced into a crisis of faith, not that the universe was Godless, not that the universe was without a plan for me, but that the plan might be for me to be single. That the plan for me did not include motherhood.

The woman on the train told me that she was 71, never married, childless, with four cats. God’s plan for me could be something like that.

We got to the end of the line, and got out of the train. I thanked her for comforting me, and I gave her a hug.

“God bless you,” she said. “Your baby died only inches away from your heart, which is the best place for it to die.”

A few days later my grandmother’s friend Dian paid me a visit and I told her what was going on in my life: That I might be having a crisis of faith. That I had begun the process of having a child on my own, but miscarried and was waiting for the return of my menstrual cycle. That I was single and hoping to meet a man. That I knew my editor was leaving at some point, but I didn’t know when, and I didn’t know what the transition would be like.

“It’s a caesura,” she said.

I didn’t know what that meant.

“Latin,” she said. “For the pause in a poem.”

After 5 Miscarriages, A Letter to My Only Child on Her First Birthday

After much heartbreak, it’s still hard to believe we’re lucky enough to have you- our perfect baby who’s growing up so fast.

My Dearest Bee,

Here we are, it’s your birthday. You’re a year old today! Happy birthday, my beautiful little girl.

Two years ago, if someone had told me that I’d be celebrating my first child’s first birthday today, I would have laughed. Me? Having a child? It’s not that I didn’t want to be a mom, or that I didn’t want you, it’s that I didn’t think I could have you.

During the 8 years leading up to your birth, I had 5 miscarriages. I went to multiple doctors and nobody could tell me what was wrong. After months of tests and all the money we spent, we had no answers. The doctors could only tell us to keep trying, and hope for the best.

But it’s hard to hope for the best after so many years and so many lost babies. Your daddy and I had resigned ourselves to believing that we would never meet you. That we would never be blessed with your presence in our lives. You were all we ever wanted, and we thought we wouldn’t get to have you.

I remember the day I realized I was pregnant with you. After five previous pregnancies, I could just tell. It was right before Thanksgiving weekend, and your aunt and uncle were coming to visit us.

I was terrified to take a test.  I knew that if I took a pregnancy test and it came back positive, I’d lose you. Just like I lost your five older siblings. So, I didn’t test for a while. I quit drinking alcohol. I quit drinking caffeine. I quit my addiction to Mountain Dew. I lost 10 pounds those first few weeks. I wasn’t sick, I just had a change in taste. I started eating less of the fatty, unhealthy foods I normally ate, and started eating fruits, salads, and whole grains! I waited until 8 weeks before taking the pregnancy test that would confirm what I had already knew.

Reaching the beginning of my second trimester was easily one of the happiest days of my life.  During prior pregnancies, I’d never made it through the first trimester. At thirteen weeks, an ultrasound told us you were healthy, and growing normally.   

My pregnancy was relatively uneventful up until the last couple days. I had a mild case of gestational diabetes which was extremely easy to manage as long as I didn’t drink soda, and I avoided fast food. 

The Wednesday before you were born, I went in to see my doctor and my blood pressure was sky-high. I was immediately sent to the hospital for a non-stress test. You were fine, my blood pressure decreased, and I was sent home on bed rest pending the results of a urinalysis that would tell us whether or not I had pre-eclampsia.

Thursday evening we learned I did have a mild case of pre-eclampsia. My doctor sent me in for another non-stress test on Friday morning. My blood pressure was high with no sign of it coming down again. Between the pre-eclampsia and gestational diabetes, my doctor and I decided the best option was to induce me that day, one week before your due date.

I spent the first twelve hours laboring slowly and uneventfully. It wasn’t until about 1 AM Saturday morning – after 14 hours of labor – that the pain became too intense. I received an epidural a half hour later (and just about fell in love with the anesthesiologist that administered it).

After 30 hours of labor I was only 6cm dilated, with a full fever, and it was recommended I have a C-section.

You were born at 4:38 PM that Saturday. And you were smallest, prettiest little baby I’d ever seen, weighing in at just 5 pounds, 15 ounces.

The day you were born was, and will always be, without question, the happiest day of my life.  It was a day I didn’t expect I’d ever get to experience. A day I thought was nothing but a pipe dream.

And now here we are,  one year later. You are my first child, my first daughter. The first person to poop on me, the first person to projectile vomit all over me.  You’re the first baby I’ve nursed, the first baby that’s slept on my chest. You’re the first person to teach me what unconditional love is, and the first person that I’d die for, no questions asked. 

Little Bee, you are all my firsts. And you may also be all my lasts. Whether Daddy and I can give you a little brother or sister is unknown to us. Giving you a sibling would be one of the greatest gifts, but nobody knows if we will be able to have more children.

I’m completely happy with the thought of only having you. You’re the child I thought I’d never have, you are my world, my everything. Life without you seems unfathomable now, when just a couple years ago life with you seemed impossible.

Your turning a year old is bittersweet. That sleepy little infant I had is long gone, replaced by the cutest, funniest little girl I know. I miss the infant you once were, but I adore the wonderful little girl you are becoming.  You are the child I’ve always wanted, and I’m so thankful that I have you.

So happy birthday, Bee. You’re the greatest thing that has ever happened to us. I hope you know how wanted, and how loved, you really, truly are. 

Grieving a Due Date

Dealing with the grief of a miscarriage is even harder when trying to manage the interplay of work and family life.

I found out I was pregnant early in the morning on the Friday before Labor Day. I grinned as I asked my husband to read the digital test out loud and immediately began to imagine what life as a family of four would be like.

That afternoon I bought my son the customary “big brother” tee-shirt and snapped a few pictures to send to my family who, after finally noting the script across my boy’s chest, called with their laughter and teary congratulations.

I told a few close friends, I started a “new baby” folder on my desktop with a list of potential names, links to baby bedding and articles about sibling bonding.

And then, as suddenly as it came, it was gone.

I knew I was pregnant for just a week before the doctor called to say that the pregnancy was likely ectopic and that my levels weren’t rising like they should be.

My best case scenario became miscarrying naturally. I cried, my husband cried and my family cried. My toddler continued to pat my belly and whisper “baby, baby” long after there wasn’t any baby at all.

I had a miscarriage before I had my son, I was ten weeks along when it’s little heart stopped beating and I had the D&C to remove it, and, at the time I didn’t know how I would move past the grief. This time though, as devastated as I was, I moved forward more quickly.

I took my son for a walk a few hours after I started to bleed, we went to Music Together as I cramped. I shut my office door at work but didn’t take any time off. There were likely several reasons for my brusqueness regarding this miscarriage. I was further along last time and had had more time to settle into the thought of motherhood. I had a toddler this time, one whose daily care removed the possibility of curling into bed or sleeping away the hurt.

The first time I wondered if I would ever be a mother, this time I had a trust that things would work out eventually because my son, beautiful and perfect, wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t lost my first pregnancy.

What surprised me in my grief, though it shouldn’t have with the amount of thought I put into it before I got pregnant, was the loss of my May due date.

[su_pullquote align=”right”]For me, it’s not enough for someone to tell me I should stop and smell the flowers; that my kids will be grown before I know it and I should remember to pay attention to them now.[/su_pullquote]

My husband is a teacher and I ran a youth development program that, while active over the summer, is much more time and labor intensive during school months. I’d had my IUD removed in late spring and charted my cycles all summer to make sure that I had a great shot of getting pregnant when August came.

When it actually worked, and I became pregnant just when I wanted, I couldn’t believe my luck- it seemed my husband and I really would be able to spend the early months of our new baby’s life together as a family.

Thoughts of a shared leave with my husband excited me, but the primary driver of my desire to have a May baby was that it would be the least disruptive time for me to step away from work, which, in turn, would allow me to feel less guilty about getting pregnant in the first place.

I’d started my position with the organization just over two and a half years before, I was fresh out of graduate school and eight weeks pregnant with my son. I told my boss of my pregnancy at my thirty day evaluation with an apology and promise that I would work extra-hard until my due-date and return full-force eight weeks later. As my belly grew, I felt I owed my office mates, people who I had met just months earlier but who would, for the time I was out, be doing my job, a constant apology.

I wondered if I should get them thank-you cards or some sort of gift of appreciation but I wasn’t sure what was appropriate. It never crossed my mind that it was my offices lack of maternity leave policy or willingness to hire a contract worker that would leave my colleagues with extra work, not my pregnancy alone.

It never crossed my mind that it was my offices lack of maternity leave policy or willingness to hire a contract worker that would leave my colleagues with extra work, not my pregnancy alone.

In the twenty-one months since my son’s birth I’d become more comfortable with my colleagues and with my own professionalism. The quality of my work was evident and I felt confident that my co-workers would be happy for me should I become pregnant again.

Still though, I had a nagging fear that others will resent me for stepping out, if only for a brief time, or that in my absence I’d miss something that left me perpetually behind, unable to keep up with my colleagues who don’t have kids.

This May baby was my good faith effort to show that I was a team player, that I was willing to do my part to minimize any disruption that my brief leave would cause. We had started trying again right away after my first loss but when the May baby disappeared I didn’t know whether I should try again, or if I should I wait, an entire year, to try again for another spring due date.

If I were to be successful in getting pregnant right away, I would likely deliver in the fall, the most labor intensive season of my work. If I were to wait though, and try again for a spring baby, there would be a chance I wouldn’t get pregnant in time or that the next baby wouldn’t stick either.

The loss, and decision making process regarding trying again, brought to mind larger questions about the weight each should carry in the interplay of work and family life.

A part of me wanted to simply disregard any influence that my job calendar might have on my childbearing- I would be, after all, creating life, which is a pretty big deal. I loved my job though, and wanted to ensure that it got done well. A larger part of me than I’d like to admit also cared a lot what others thought, I wanted people to like me and feared that they won’t if the birth of my baby forced them into longer work hours.

After recognizing that the plans we make for pregnancy may be more fragile than we would hope, my husband and I decided to start try again.

We calculated and we planned but, ultimately, life happened. The growing of a baby is both unpredictable and miraculous and I just didn’t want to wait. In the months following my loss, when I saw another woman pick up her newborn or caress her growing belly, I felt an actual ache. I felt ready to become a mother again, for the flutter of kicks from the inside out, for the tightness of contractions, for newness of a just-born baby, all flexing fingers and blinking eyes.

I wanted my son and his future sibling to be close in age and I wanted to leave room for more babies after that if I so chose. In the moment, these desires seemed more pressing than the opinions of co-workers or the timing of the eight week’s I’d be out of work.

We began trying right away despite our concerns about work and, in the funny way life works, my husband and I both switched jobs within months of our loss but have yet to get pregnant.

Though neither of us are now in positions with a clear “least-bad” time to step away with a newborn, starting anew has brought to light new concerns. Now, we worry that if we get pregnant soon, which we hope we will be, we won’t have worked at our organizations long enough to build up the goodwill that negotiating a reasonable leave requires. And again, I worry what people will think and how my co-workers will feel about my potential absence.

As it turns out, being a working parent is hard and there really never is a perfect time to have a baby.

It’s been five months of trying and we’re hoping that it won’t be much longer. Until then, we’ll work hard, plan as best we can and hope that when we do become pregnant our co-workers will be happy for us, our bosses will help us make a plan for leave and we’ll grow a happy, healthy baby.

Readers, as you planned your pregnancies how much did your work, or work schedule, impact your plans?