Picture: Celebrating the news that we would become a family of four in 9 months!
On this Mother’s Day eve, this is a special shout out to all the mothers for whom miscarriage was part of their journey of motherhood. It was for my mom, it was for me, and turns out it was for countless of my friends. But the thing is, we almost never talk about it. I mean, that’s why we have the “don’t tell anyone until after 12 weeks rule,” isn’t it? Because 80 percent of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, waiting gives us some assurance that we’re in the clear so that we don’t have to share the awful news when things don’t work out and we can walk through the world like it never happened, right?
I broke that rule with my second pregnancy and learned two lessons: one hard, one beautiful. The hard lesson was that I didn’t feel safe talking about miscarriage because I didn’t want to admit that I was questioning whether I was broken; I didn’t want to face the question of when I would try again because, trying again was apparently a given; and I didn’t know who would listen to all the gory details anyway, and boy were there gory details! The beautiful lesson was that when I risked telling someone what happened to me, many times, she inevitably had a story of her own to share. A colleague had not one, not two, not three, but seven, yes seven(!) miscarriages before giving birth to her beautiful boy! Two friends miscarried between their first and seconds and I had no idea.
The fact that there are no societal rituals to acknowledge and mourn miscarriage loss further reinforces our collective silence. There’s no death certificate, no funeral, and often, no burial.
For all the sacrifices we make as mothers, miscarriage was my least expected. As someone who was ambivalent, bordering on hostile at times, about having kids in the first place, the fact that my miscarriage has continued to stick with me, continues to surprise me.
For Mother’s Day, I wanted to share my story and invite you to share yours. Partners that includes you too! I want to be seen and I want to see you. I want us to gather in a collective embrace of one another and create safe places to share our sacred stories.
Right around what would have been our second child’s first birthday, my husband and I found ourselves unexpectedly mourning that we had one, not two, kids. We were two months into a three-month sabbatical through Asia focused on grieving my parent’s deaths, so we shouldn’t have been surprised when other griefs showed up too, but we were. Through bullet train rides between Seoul and Busan South Korea, searching for the last sakura blossoms in Kyoto, dips in naked hot spring after naked hot spring in Osaka, eating our fill at night markets in Taiwan, getting lost over and over again in Hong Kong, long bike rides in Vietnam, and finally landing for a month in Bali, grief over the fact that “the nugget” wasn’t meant to be was tucked into our carry-on luggage all along, like a silent little stowaway.
We had arrived in Bali the day before and my husband had been in a sour mood all day. When I probed, my usually self-aware, introspective spouse blurted out, much to both our surprises, that it hurts him that, when asked by an inquisitive stranger about whether we are going to have a second child, I retort by saying “Nope! This womb is closed for business.” Neither of us had realized that we hit a nerve.
We both brushed off the empty ovum miscarriage when it happened in November 2017 as a sad but normal thing. Honestly, I was a bit relieved. Because there was no fetus, only pregnancy parts–like the tiny, tangled, cream-colored umbilical cord that appeared in my underwear one early evening after most of the blood flow had lightened up–the possibility that these parts equaled a baby didn’t even feel real. But, the consequences of that ended pregnancy have felt all too real since then.
Every time we pass a two-kid family on the street, we are reminded of the loss. Every time my son asks for a baby sister ‘out of mommy’s tummy’ and I say ‘no,’ a tinge of guilt washes over me. Every time my son asks me to play with him because he’s lonely, I feel sad and responsible.
The reality is, I was ambivalent about having a second and just let it happen. Which is to say, I participated in the possibility making without putting up a fuss. I was this way with my first one too. I was more scared about the way that a child would change everything: my body, my marriage, my career, my time, my sleep that I couldn’t see the joy and meaning a child could create. It turned out that my son is the most precious gift I never knew I wanted, so I figured it would probably be that way with a second too, though my emotions had a lot of catching up to do.
After the pregnancy happened, my feelings were a record stuck on repeat. I was mostly stressed about how it would affect the job that I was growing increasingly disillusioned with, money, my physical health knowing that a second c-section was in my future, and figured that my microscopic excitement could divide and multiply along with the little fetus so that maybe they would start showing about the same time.
Right about the time my pants started to feel a little snug was about the time that the nagging nausea suddenly stopped. I remember feeling grateful for the relief a whole 3 weeks shy of my second trimester. The first time around, I didn’t feel good until week 22! My husband and I had started calling the baby “the nugget” and we were getting used to the idea that we would be a family of four rather than three.
Two weeks after the nausea stopped, I had my first ultrasound. After discussing that I was due on June 11, but that we should schedule the c-section for early to mid-May to prevent my uterus from rupturing from my son’s surgical birth, my O.B. asked me to lie back, put my feet in the metal stirrups, and lift up my shirt, so she could place the fetal doppler on my belly to listen for the heartbeat. Shit just got real, I thought.
“Hmmm, I’m having a hard time finding the heartbeat, but 8 weeks is early, so maybe we’ll have better luck next week. Let’s see what else we can find.” She then grabbed the ultrasonic gel from its warmer, squirting some on the end of the probe, she rooted around my abdomen looking for signs of life. “Here’s the sac,” she mumbled more to herself than to me. Pressing harder on my groin without taking her eyes off the grainy black and white monitor, she went on, “I’m still having trouble finding the heartbeat.” Turning to me finally, she said, “It could be that the baby is hiding behind your fibroid (the grapefruit-sized reason that my son had a surgical birth). The machines we have in the clinic aren’t as strong as the ones in the imaging center and I think a vaginal probe would help us see around it. Plus, you’re still early, so let’s get you scheduled for an ultrasound ASAP. Oh, and by the way, you’re overdue for a pap, so let’s take care of that before you leave.”
I tried to relax by exhaling as she inserted the cold metal speculum into my vagina. “Why the hell don’t they make warmers for those?” I grumbled to myself. My cervix is nestled low and deep, which makes it hard to find. After trying a few other ice-cold torture implements of different sizes and lengths, jamming two gloved fingers as deep as they could go and then rotating them in clockwise fashion, and finally the eureka moment we’d been waiting for, the quick swipe of the cotton swab on my cervix was over soon enough. Feeling grateful that I didn’t have to endure that particular indignity for another 3 years, I sat up, wiped off the excess ultrasound gel, pulled my pants up and my shirt down, and promised to pick up my after-visit papers from off the printer on my way out.
The spotting started later that evening. I didn’t think anything of it because I usually spot after pap smears and compared to the big gush of blood I had one night while ironing when I was pregnant with my son, the streaks of crimson on the toilet paper after I wiped didn’t seem like anything to be concerned about.
The imaging center was able to fit me in the very next day. In the waiting room, I guzzled water from my orange hydroflask to properly fill my bladder and hoped silently that I wouldn’t have to pee at the halfway point. A nurse with an eastern-European accent called my name and led me back to my room. I took my cell phone out of my purse and placed it on the bed so that I could take a video for my husband who I told not to come since this all seemed routine. I undressed from the waist down, scooted my butt to the far edge of the table until I felt I was about to fall off (not my first rodeo), then place my socked feet into the cold metal stirrups, and pulled the paper sheet over my thighs. The tech walked back in and we began.
As she slid the slimy doppler across my abdomen, I tried to watch the monitor expectantly, but it was at a weird angle that made my neck ache. I asked for a pillow and then we began again. I clutched my cell phone in my right hand so that I could pounce on the moment we located the nugget. My fibroid came into full view, but no nugget. The tech suggested that we try the transvaginal probe instead.
“A little pressure,” she warned as she inserted the long, phallic probe into me. At least this one wasn’t cold or metal, I comforted myself. The search began again. With each passing moment, the tech seemed to grow more and more distant, quiet, and concerned. I clutched my cellphone tighter and tried to deny the fact that things seemed to take a turn for the worst. My denial spell was broken when the nurse turned the monitor away from my view, pulled the probe out, quickly wrapped it in a towel placing it out of view, and disappeared for what seemed like a long while. When she came back, she asked how long I had been spotting. I told her that I had just had a pap smear and that I always spot after pap smears.
She acted like this was the least relevant information anyone had ever told her and then reinserted the probe. She moved the head of the probe this way and that, sniffing around the nooks and crannies of my womb bit by bit, and then finally called the search party off. Pulling out the probe, which I could now see was covered in bloody mucus, she excused herself to consult with the radiologist.
In the minutes that took the doctor to arrive, foreboding numbness settled over my whole body. Could this really be happening? Wait, what exactly is happening? Clearly this was bad. Clearly this was the end of something. But what exactly? I knew I needed to be prepared for something big and life altering. I quickly cleaned myself up, dressed, balled up the bloody sheet I had been laying on, tossed it in the wastebasket, weighed whether I should ask for a sanitary pad, and sat on the plastic chair next to the examination table.
A short-haired, greying, Asian woman appeared in a white hospital robe in the doorway. With a flat expression, she explained that “I must know what had happened.”
“No, I don’t know thank you. My body might know, my soul might know, but my heart is too busy playing dead, and my mind too numb to see the obvious you bitch. Just fucking deliver the bad news already!” I silently screamed. Out loud I said, “Ummm, I know something is wrong. Can you please tell me what has happened?”
With the bloody transvaginal probe in full view, the doctor explained that I was in the process of miscarrying. That I had what’s called a blighted ovum and that this type of miscarriage was common. I should consider whether I wanted to schedule a D&C or let the tissue pass on its own. She told me to watch for foul-smelling discharge and any sign of infection and call my doctor right away if any of these occurred. With a barely audible, “I’m sorry for your loss,” she turned on her heels and walked out of the room.
Looking apologetic, the helpless tech also backed out of the room and I was left alone with my thoughts and my soon to be empty womb.
I walked out of the Capitol Hill Kaiser Permanent campus and headed west on east John towards the Capitol Hill light rail station to go back to work—because this was my default for dealing with strong emotions: stay busy, stay distracted. I was thankful for the steep downhill slope propelling me forward. Had the way been flat or god forbid uphill, I probably would not have made it. After I passed the Safeway on 15th, I fished out my cellphone and called my husband to tell him that there “was no nugget.” I explained that my plan was to finish out the workday and then we could talk about it later that night.
At first, I felt numb. Then the waves of disappointment started to wash over me. I felt like I had made it to the final round of interviews for my dream job, but they chose the other candidate. Or, like I had lost a big jackpot, even though I had really good odds of winning. My biggest immediate concern was whether the tissue would pass on its own or whether I would need to schedule a D&C.
I got my answer later that weekend when the bleeding started in earnest. The miscarriage itself was like one of the most horrible, crampy, bloody, clot-filled periods I’d ever had. I stayed in bed over the whole first day and barely ventured out of my room the next.
The worst part, at least initially, was not emotional, but that the heavy bleeding didn’t stop! I bled for 2-3 week stretches every month for the next 7 months! It was if my body was grieving what my emotions wouldn’t, until now that is.
I thought about the possibility of trying again in between trips to the bathroom to change yet another pair of pants I had bled through despite the ultra-sized tampon and overnight pad I had applied only an hour earlier; but my body seemed to be staging a merciless bloody revolution and I wasn’t sure I could beat back the mutiny even if I had decided I wanted to.
Then, three months after the miscarriage, my mom died. Hemorrhaging or not, whatever emotional capacity I had to sustain the long road of trying, potential disappointments, or exhaustion-filled success, dried up.
Two months after my mom’s funeral, exhausted, anemic, and grieving, I got an IUD. Thanks to the merciful gods of medical science, my bleeding gradually became normal and then miraculously all but disappeared! The demon monster who took up residence in my womb after the nugget vacated was finally appeased or just tired of tormenting me.
With bodily sanity restored, I had time and energy to consider my life and I had to admit I didn’t see a second biological child as part of it.
When my husband and I were talking through all these things that night in Bali, we agreed that circumstances, in many ways, had decided against a second biological child for us. In theory, we reasoned that even if I got my IUD removed when we got home—wherever that was since we sold our house—and we started trying again, the reality of my almost 38-year old body, and the no home, no job, no grandparents on my side, and the nomadic lifestyle we were living, didn’t exactly measure up to ideal circumstances. Furthermore, even in the best-case scenario, my son wouldn’t have a sibling (or gasp multiples!) for at least another year, at which point he’d be almost 6 and many years out from a viable playmate, which was part of our motivation for having another, at least in the short-term. If by some undeserved grace we’re spared from all the other horrible risks of “advanced maternal age”: chromosomal abnormalities, another miscarriage, still birth, risks to my life; yes, we’d know what another miniature “us” would look like/be like and my son would have another human to share his experience with his crazy parents. But the physical and emotional price of another biological child felt too high.
For all these reasons, this miscarriage marked the end of the road for us to have a second biological child. Perhaps, that’s why it has stuck with both my husband and I. Considering that “the nugget” was due to be born at some point in May, he or she would have been two this month. Empty ovum miscarriage or not, the nugget is still a part of our family’s story and always will be.
For all the mothers with nonliving children, I know that Mother’s Day can be more complicated than happy. I see you and I honor you.