“If you start to miscarry on the airplane, take two of these and then get to the nearest ER,” my doctor said, placing two Vicodins in the palm of my hand. I nodded and tucked them in my purse not considering that I might really need them nor that if I did take them there would be no way I’d make it to an ER as half a Vicodin knocks me out cold. Instead I stood tall, threw my shoulders back and marched out on my way to catch a flight to take me to interview for a lucrative job with IBM in Dallas, Texas. Because I was a strong woman – strong enough to be 17 weeks pregnant with a dead baby waiting to “miscarry naturally” and still interview with one of the largest companies in the world. I could do it all.
Until I couldn’t. It turns out I was a 21-year-old kid who’d just finished graduate school and knew nothing about the real world. I was the top of my class in Computer Information Systems but I couldn’t read the simple map in the rental car to find my hotel. Instead, as the rain pounded down so hard that it bounced back up off the pavement to soak me from both directions, I wandered through downtown Dallas at one o’clock in the morning sobbing and begging someone to help me. Eventually I got someone to give me directions – through two inches of bullet proof glass – and collapsed in a different hotel at 3 a.m., just a few hours before my interview.
As I laid on the bed, the phone rang. It was my husband, calling in a panic as he’d been trying to find me all evening since my plane had landed and I hadn’t called. “Are you having a miscarriage? Are you okay?” he asked. All I could do was sob. I cried so hard I threw up. And then I washed my face, reapplied my makeup and went to my interview to try and convince grown ups that I was one of them.
I made it home without miscarrying but it was a curse as much as a blessing because the baby camped out in me was still dead and I was still in a limbo pregnancy – showing all the signs of it, except, you know, the only important one. And so at nearly 20 weeks pregnant I had to go to the hospital to have a surgical D&C where they scraped out all the dead tissue with a sharp-edged ice cream scoop. I woke up and thought the nightmare was done. The next day was Thanksgiving and I came down with a raging infection, thanks to my careless doctor who had perforated my uterus with his ice cream scoop of death. More pain meds, IV antibiotics and cramps so bad that even today, 13 years later, my uterus shudders with the memory of them. Oh and throw in a few panic attacks for good measure. The next day I got the job offer from IBM: they wanted me for their huge Enron project.
Being as sick as I was gave me a lot of time to think, especially about what I really wanted out of my life and compare that to what I could reasonably do. I had thought that I’d wanted it all – kids, house, fancy job, dog, the whole “dream” – and I’d been told that if I just worked hard enough I could have all that. The Dallas trip had been a major disillusionment (and not just because Enron would just a year later explode in one of the worst corporate corruption cases in recent history). Looking back, I feel like God gave me that experience to help me choose what was really important to me. What did I really want? Did I really want kids? Did I really want a prestigious job with a fat paycheck and a 70-hour workweek to match? Because what was glaringly apparent was that I could have it all… but I couldn’t have it all at the same time.
I had naively thought that having kids would be a simple process for me and I’d sail through pregnancy by sheer force of will but my body wasn’t up to it. My first pregnancy ended in a “chemical miscarriage” meaning the day after I got the positive pregnancy test I got my period. My second pregnancy was the 20-week horror show above. And still no baby. Would there be a third try? After a lot of tearful prayers and conversations with my husband, I turned down the IBM job and accepted a much less stressful position as a professor at a small college in Seattle.
We moved to the west coast, settled into life in Seattle and when I wasn’t teaching – which I LOVED by the way – I worked on learning to manage my stress – particularly in tackling my crippling panic attacks and episodes of irritable bowel syndrome. I volunteered at a battered women’s shelter in my free time, hoping that helping women in crisis would help me put my own problems into perspective. And it helped. It all helped. I didn’t have the fancy career I’d dreamed of but I had finally regained my health. And I got pregnant for a third time.
This time everything seemed to be going miraculously perfect and my husband and I were thrilled when we saw the first little kick on the ultrasound. He put together a crib and I hand-painted a changing table. We discussed names. And then before the paint even dried we found out that she too was dying, of a genetic disease that only affects girls (that had probably also killed our previous baby although we didn’t have her tested so I can’t know for sure). That night, as I lay feeling her hiccup happily in my womb, my husband brought a children’s book into my room and started reading it to my tummy. “What are you doing, silly?” I asked him.
“I want to read my daughter a book so she can hear my voice, in case she dies before she can hear me tell her how much I love her on the outside.”
We held each other and sobbed. For months. We waited through endless tests, hoping for a misdiagnosis or if not that, a miracle. Miracles happen, right? Not for us, not that time. She died at birth. After hours of grueling labor we finally held her in our arms. We waited for her to breathe and even though her little lips looked ready to try they remained in perfect stillness, poised for life but perfect in death. We all inhaled. She did not. That moment is the heartbreak of my life.
Three pregnancies, three years, three million tears, no babies. I felt angry and sad and betrayed. I’d given up everything! I’d sacrificed so much. And for what? A broken heart? Yet we’d named her Faith, a symbol of our dedication. And so we tried again. Which is how I found myself, nine months later, finally holding a living baby boy in my arms. It had taken us four years to get him here and we could not have been more happy. Or scared. See, once you know a baby can die your innocence is lost. Pregnancy will never not be fraught again. Even so we had two more sons and finally got our girl – our miracle girl, in spite of the doctor’s warnings about the genetic disease we still carried in our traitorous cells.
If you were to simply look at us now, a snapshot on any given day, you’d see a happy family. You might even think it was easy for us to get to where we are. But you wouldn’t see the two missing children. And you wouldn’t see the decade of tests, trials, medicines, and other indignities I endured to bring them here – living or dead.
I tell you all this not to make you cry at your desk or make you swear off ever having children but because I was reminded of the need to share my story and stories like it when I read an interview with Tanya Selvaratnam, the author of the new book called The Big Lie: Motherhood, Feminism, and the Reality of the Biological Clock that’s been making some major waves. Of her book, she says, “The Big Lie is that we can do things on our own timetables. The Big Lie is that we can manipulate evolution. The Big Lie is that we don’t need feminism anymore. And in the book I ask and attempt to answer: Are these lies or willing deceptions?”
Then in the interview, she speaks of her own multiple miscarriages and how they were a rude awakening to her, saying, “I was one of those many women who looked at celebrities and friends having babies seemingly without any difficulties in their late 30s and 40s and thought I would be like them. Those who struggle often hide their stories.”
I recently interviewed several doctors for a piece for Shape about what women need to know before getting pregnant and I was surprised when one doctor candidly admitted that the main thing she wished that women knew was that they don’t have unlimited time or fertility. “Due to social media, we see 46-year-olds giving birth to twins and it’s misleading. Those are probably not their own eggs. You have a window of fertility that ends around age 40, and after that the miscarriage rate is over fifty percent,” she said. “But women don’t want to hear that. They still think they can do things on their own time frame but nature doesn’t work like that.” The doctor went on to explain that not only does she wish more doctors would be upfront with their patients about family planning (in all senses) but that she wished we could all candidly discuss options like egg banking, fertility treatments and the effect the father’s health has on conception.
“It’s become a kind of taboo for a woman to say that she wants to have a family before her career,” said another doctor. “We’re encouraged to have this ‘if it is meant to be it will just happen’ attitude when the reality is that it can be a lot of work and sacrifice to have a baby. You have to really decide if you want kids and if you do you’d be better off to plan for it. We teach women plenty about how to plan to prevent a pregnancy but then we teach them almost nothing about how to plan for one because we don’t want to offend them? It’s not politics, it’s science.”
Now, I’m evidence that things often do not go according to plan and that you can have difficulty having a child even in your 20’s but I think their points are well made. Just like we’re supposed to make being thin and pretty look easy, we’re also supposed to make pregnancy and motherhood look easy. I understand why many women choose not to tell people they’re pregnant until after the first trimester is successfully completed and the major risk of miscarriage is past but part of me is sad that we feel like we can’t trust other women with our loss. Selvaratnam says, “Even though it is so common (25 percent of clinically recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage), we still feel like failures when it happens to us. It’s a deeply emotional and physiologically trying experience, and it’s hard in general to talk about pain.” I would add that fertility treatments and struggles are equally taboo topics as well. What are we so afraid of?
Personally, I am immensely grateful for the way my life has turned out. I think IBM would have given me ulcers (and also: ENRON. ahem.). My kids are also probably giving me ulcers but they give me so much back it’s worth it. I don’t regret any of it – except perhaps the ice cream scoop from bell – but In the end whether or not we want kids, how we choose to bring our kids into our families, and how we feel about all of that are deeply, intensely personal experiences. And I would never dream to tell anyone how to make those decisions for themselves. But I agree with Selvaratnam and the doctors I interviewed that the conversation needs to be happening a lot more than it is. We can’t make the best decision if we don’t have all the facts.