I have found it surprisingly easy to both talk about and write about my first miscarriage. Maybe because it was the beginning of everything. It’s easy for me to start things, to set the scene, to introduce the characters, to begin. When I was in school, I always wrote great introductions for my papers. Finishing things was harder. I have a lot of half-finished projects, a lot of unrealized aspirations. Finding a clear path through all the things that have happened since the beginning has been confusing. Determining what parts of my story are worth sharing is difficult. The beginning of my story lives as a crystal-clear picture in my head. The middle of my story lives as a big jumble – a ball of tangled yarn. And if I pull on it, I’m not entirely sure where it will go. Still I’m determined to continue the telling. I think it will be cathartic for me to follow the thread to the end.
After our first miscarriage, my husband and I waited two months before trying again. This was partly based on our doctor’s recommendation and partly based on how quickly my body recovered from the D&C (it took about 6 weeks for my cycle to return). Once again, we got pregnant quickly.
That summer I had been travelling a lot for work and was wrapping up a major project with our team in Tokyo, so we decided to use my last business trip as an opportunity to travel through Japan. During my final days of work, I was exhausted, and thought I might be pregnant. I had brought one pregnancy test with me from the US. I tried to wait to use it until after the first day of my missed period; I tried really hard. But I have never been a particularly patient person. When I buy new clothes, I wear them right away. When I buy someone a gift, I want them to open it immediately. I’m sure this says something about my need to learn to sit with feelings of anticipation or not knowing. I probably would have failed the “marshmallow test” as a child. Regardless, I took the test, and it was negative.
I was disappointed, but unconvinced. I still couldn’t shake the feeling I was pregnant. I closed out my project and we set off to explore Osaka and Kyoto. Our first morning as tourists, I dragged my husband through several hours of trying to find a pharmacy where we could buy another pregnancy test. I took it in the bathroom of a noodle restaurant. This time it was positive, and I was thrilled – and terrified.
Not the same terrified as I had been with the first pregnancy. Not the nervous anticipation of transitioning from woman to mother. I was terrified because I didn’t want to miscarry again. Japan is a lovely place to travel, but I was only partially present for it. Everything we did made me nervous. I was afraid to do too much walking and tax my body. I was anxious about all my meals since I wasn’t sure what Japanese food was ok to eat while pregnant. Returning to the US was a relief.
About two weeks later I started to spot. I called my doctor, who told me to come in for a blood test, which revealed that my hCG levels were low. This can indicate an ectopic pregnancy, so she scheduled me for a high definition ultrasound.
The ultrasound was conducted in the obstetrics unit of the hospital, in the same room as the exam which had confirmed my prior miscarriage. I hate that room, and I was expecting bad news. I was expecting all manner of pregnancy problems. What I was not expecting was for the ultrasound tech to say, “Actually, everything looks okay. See, there’s the heartbeat.” Hope began coursing through my veins as rapidly as that little “Flicker” fluttered.
My husband and I left the hospital and walked across the street to the clinic to review the results with our doctor. The nurse asked me to take a customary urine pregnancy test (why?) which suggested that I was NOT pregnant. I tried to explain that it was because I had consumed liters of water before the ultrasound, and that I had just seen my pregnancy, but she still tried to send me home. Ridiculous.
When we finally saw our doctor, we were a jumble of emotions. My hCG was still low, as was my progesterone, and I was still spotting, but there had been a heartbeat. She prescribed progesterone suppositories to support the pregnancy and told us to try as hard as we could to relax and proceed as if it was a normal pregnancy.
I tried to calm down but found it impossible. I didn’t want to do anything other than lie on my couch for nine months. I was afraid that breathing too hard might impact the pregnancy. I asked the little Flicker to hold on tightly. I promised it we would be excellent parents.
Several days later my spotting turned to outright bleeding. I remember laying on the floor of our living room with my knees bent enduring waves of cramps. They came about every 20 minutes and were always followed by a trip to the bathroom and the passing of a large clot. I’m pretty sure I know when I passed the gestational sac. It looked like a large grape. I squished it in the toilet paper between my fingers. I’m not sure why, I think I wanted to see if there was a baby inside. Instead it just crumbled into goop – like bloody cottage cheese. And I flushed it down the toilet.
What’s odd is that I while I knew I was miscarrying, after the bleeding stopped, there was a lingering hope in the back of my mind that everything was still ok. I think I expected there to be more blood than there had been, so I was able to weave an elegant narrative about shedding old lining in order for my body to support a new pregnancy. After all, I hadn’t seen the baby come out – just goop. Once again, I went down the dark and dreamy rabbit hole of Google grasping desperately at other women’s experiences: “I bled like crazy during my first pregnancy and now I have a healthy toddler;” “My hCG levels were slow to rise but now I’m 27 weeks pregnant;” and on and on; and on and on…
A trip to the doctor a week later confirmed the complete loss. I drove home, made myself a two-tiered vanilla cake with chocolate butter cream frosting and proceeded to eat a quarter of it. I “worked” from home for a week while watching Ally McBeal on Netflix but had to stop when she started seeing the dancing baby.
My feelings after the second loss are painful to describe. One loss seemed like bad luck. One loss was common. Sad and devastating, but common. Two losses indicated a pattern. Two losses confirmed my worst fears – that it was MY fault – that there was something wrong with ME. A loss after seeing a heartbeat was uncommon. The loss after seeing the heartbeat felt like a death. I had been able to rationalize my first loss. A blighted ovum almost certainly indicated a chromosomal problem – I couldn’t have controlled that – it wasn’t my fault. But losing that little Flicker, that felt like a complete personal failing.
Maybe the reason I’ve avoided telling this part of the story is because it’s sad. Revisiting these memories puts a pit in my stomach and lump in my throat. But maybe that’s also why the telling is valuable. Extracting a sad story from our psyche is like excising a malignant tumor from our body. The healing work continues, but we have been diagnosed. Telling my story separates me from it and allows me to evaluate it as a specimen under a microscope. The story is sad, but I am not sad. I can decouple those from one another now. Here is the harder one, the one I’m still healing from and working through: The pregnancy failed, but I am not a failure.