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.”