I unpack the bag and pluck out my fears—
used tissues pinched by fingertips—
the truth of me smeared and hidden
lest anyone see I’m leaking.
Cringe and flinch at the caricature
my husband’s ex must make of me,
the time she caught me coveting her
well-lit composition and poise.
My finger tap, a signal
she was neither out of sight nor out of mind.
My envy was lint in the side pocket
that, unballed, began as threads
from past betrayals and itchy scabs
I picked until they oozed.
In youth I feared deep loneliness,
the loss of power in a room of men,
a roving eye that paused for me but never
Now the vows babies mortgages
bind me tight just as I wished.
In exchange, my solitude, a price I paid
with loose pennies from my purse.
I was as round as a meal, as pregnant as a pause, a hen in the chicken coop tending to my eggs. Our friends outside circled around the picnic and my blood drained out in clumps. The fibrous exodus of a hoped-for future inscribed farewells on the surface of the water. I sealed my heart to slow the flood And returned to the party, a tomb.
Here’s the thing about motherhood—it is the entrance into a perpetual, fluid experience that you can influence, but you cannot control.
It is a state of relationship to a child born, unborn, yearned for and not yet. It is a moment where you cease to be the primary protagonist of your story. Your storyline splits and there are two versions: the you that you knew before and the us. This is not to say that your needs or desires as a person cease to exist, but rather that your purpose becomes deeply intertwined with something other. Your locus of control shifts. Diverts. It’s no longer just about you.
Getting to motherhood is messy, regardless of how it happens. Whether it was an instance of failed birth control, or an exhausting marathon of hormone injections and timing, or a phone call on an afternoon that the paperwork is complete, the stars aligned, and you’ve been granted the chance to share a life with a child you haven’t met. None of us gets a guarantee.
I have been pregnant twice but have one child. Like so many, my path to motherhood didn’t progress in a linear fashion. My husband and I experienced a pregnancy loss the first time we conceived. It was devastating. There was nothing we could have done to change the outcome, and it was a too-personal example of the unpredictability of life.
I adore my son. He is light and exploration. He is curious and confident. His hunger is a guttural grumble that will not cease, and even when I’m cleaning bodily fluid off of his tiny body and mine, the exquisite intimacy of our duality is palpable. I reflect often on the specialness of this force we set into motion that grows and learns of his own accord. I can influence, but I cannot control.
I watch him first observe, then practice, then emulate basic words. His shaky muscles propel a reach and a grasp until, after repetition and willpower, they push and pull his body into sturdiness. His brain makes connections between events that I did not weave together. The light switch and the lightbulb. The drop of the spoon and the clatter on the ground. The wiggling fingers lifted in salute, and the corresponding wave from the stranger on the sidewalk. No amount of organic food, scheduled sleep and wake windows, educational toys, or screen time limits can ensure who he will be. I can influence, but I cannot control.
His firsts are my firsts, too. I flex shaky muscles in ways they haven’t been used. I learn to navigate a new body, unfamiliar in both its form and its habits. Thinned hair, widened hips, a moon cycle unpredictable in its intensity. I toddle through the world in continual surprise that the assumptions I took for granted have changed. A yoga squat is easy. A full body plank is hard. I learn how to hold the squiggly line of a kid as I thread him through a sweater. I realize he has preferences as he smacks the spoon of chicken and lentils away from his mouth. I become proficient in a language I didn’t know—one where pitch and tone of a cry tells me the depth of pain or the shallow unease of over-tiredness.
On this Mother’s Day I lay in bed for ten greedy minutes and suppress the guilt that my husband is doing all of the morning child-rearing tasks. Because of the holiday I can get that guilt into a dense, flat circle about the size of a dime, but it never goes away. With the space left behind from that guilt vacuum, I instead write this:
If you, too, are in the slippery throes of uncertainty, the unease of newness, the frustration of circumstances you used to be able to hold tightly in your grasp, hello. I am here, too. Even if no one brings you French toast in bed, or your child is waiting on a diagnosis, or you are in the umpteenth round of IVF and can’t see the reward on the horizon, know that you are part of something larger than yourself. We are here, the other mothers swaying in the breezes of change, and we see you. Big hugs on this day, of all days. You are enough.
Artists and interior decorators know the meaningful impact negative space can make. It is the high ceiling, the white canvas around a complex shape, the emphasis of that which is not the center of attention. And sometimes, they play with this concept. What can the piece be if the negative space is the focus, when more is actually less, when the absence centers us and brings us something we hadn’t expected? It is Rubin’s vase, Escher’s tessellations, the Japanese garden.
I reflect today on what Ursula K. LeGuin translates from the Tao Te Ching as “The Uses of Not.” I am often focused on what I need to do, who I need to be, the things I must provide. My best friends share, half with laughter and half in lament, about their chronic exhaustion. They are the best and brightest among us, and we are all tired. Why? Who whispered in our ears that to be of value we had to give it all? I question if we should want the brass ring if the contest emaciates us in the process.
I was very tired yesterday evening. I pushed through a long day of work and back-to-back meetings with that five o’clock hour shining like heaven from my pit of darkness. That peaceful light was an illusion, however, since leaving work means clocking in as a mom, holding down the fort as my husband, Alex, walks the dog, planning for dinner, sneaking in some laundry or dishwashing, and also choosing between quality time with Alex, relaxation, reading, writing, and exercise. I squeeze so much of my favorite parts of life into the last hours of the day. Most of what I live for happens after the sun has already descended.
Somehow, I pushed myself to a yoga class. I knew my body needed to move after sitting still for so long. In those sixty minutes, our teacher led us through a series of asanas, or poses, designed to help us reconnect our minds with the reality of our bodies. She encouraged us to set down the busyness at the edge of our mats and, each time our minds reached out to pick that busyness up, to gently bring our attention away from there and back to our breath.
I found myself expending effort to unweave exactly the mindset I’d worked all day to knot together. The efficiency and rapid multitasking I used from 8:00 to 5:00 were crowding into the rest of my life. I felt guilty when not accomplishing two things at once or missing items on my personal To Do list. I constantly calculated the opportunity cost of choosing one priority over another. I needed to carve negative space back into my day. The air moving in and out of my lungs was the focus.
Hollowed out, clay makes the pot.
Today, as I plan my day and week, I am working to protect moments of rest throughout my schedule. In those minutes where I am not obligated to do anything, I can replenish my resources and strengthen my mental acuity for the realities of my professional life. I bring my best, most empathetic and strategic self when my wick isn’t burned down into the candle wax.
What about you? Does rest feel like a luxury that you need to deprioritize for more urgent matters? Is it a reward that you crave once the work is done? What if the work is never done? Perhaps you, too, could be sustained by the reminder that rest is not a reward, and it’s not meant for occasional self-care. It’s a basic human need. And living without it is diminishing our creativity, our empathy, and the core quality of our lives.
It starts with comparison.
I pull the measuring tape taut,
square it off, count the hashes.
Pencil the number on a crumpled receipt
and chant the incantation:
Money back within thirty days.
Discrepancy makes me a sorcerer’s apprentice
multiplying not brooms, but yardsticks.
All things transmogrify
in service of appraisal:
The floor length mirror.
The business card.
The photographs of Rome.
The published byline.
The summer cabin.
Trust fund disbursement.
A baby’s push up.
The marathon stamina.
The youthful skin.
The influential family name.
The bullish trade.
The glowing skyline.
The time, the time, the time.
It is tiresome to carry the scales of justice
door to door.
To feel a thing blindly, to evaluate its heft
by the space it occupies
and the space it does not.
My arm shakes, the muscles fail,
and in reluctant setting down,
the graceless letting go,
amid the shards of expectation
I inherit the wealth I am due:
I am enough.
Oh god, the ship lap. The careful, muted walls covered in shades of gray, or rooms baptized in splashes of whitewash. For years HGTV proselytized the gospel of earth tones with home renovation shows. It was an aesthetic reborn over the years as farmhouse or shabby chic (even when the homeowners lived in the suburbs and had no agricultural experience). The original goal for decorators was, no doubt, to design spaces that felt organic, homegrown, and natural, but now the rustic trends were just tired and overused. As I traipsed through the drab housewares collections in home decor stores looking for a spark of inspiration, I could only ponder, Why did we erase the visual variety and spice from our homes?
The Pantone Color Institute, an organization that influences global color trends for fashion and design industries, announced two colors would share the title for 2021 Color of the Year: Ultimate Gray and Illuminating. That’s right—gray and yellow. After a year of worldwide illness and death, economic loss, and collective suffering, even the trendsetters had one foot in the grave.
I, for one, saw my share of loss and sadness over the course of the last year, and these depressing hues reflected the sentiment back to me. In the mornings I stood in the closet vacillating between a worn hoodie or a pale sweater. What goes best with stained sweatpants? The options were bleak. And then, I had a revelation: I’m too interesting for this shit. I want color back in my life.
Cultures the world over embrace a hodgepodge of vibrance—from traditions like the Hindu festival of Holi to Japanese New Year, Ghanaian kente cloth to Indonesian kebaya. So many people celebrate the sumptuous messiness of bold color, and yet here we were in the United States buying prairie dresses in faded taupe to match our exhausted souls.
I needed a refresher on how to color clash. I turned to the Internet’s sartorial sherpas and began to collect photos of Instagram influencer Baddie Winkle and the iconic Iris Apfel. I pinned snapshots of playful street art and crafting kits. I’d had enough of the constant sadness, and as I scoured online stores for their chunkiest acetate necklaces, I decided I’d like to dress like a veritable birthday cake.
Give me the beaded earrings that look like multicolored sprinkles. I choose the shoes emblazoned with lemons. I proudly donned a turquoise scarf with a peach jumpsuit and ordered a loud, overstated botanical print blazer. More is more, I thought as I looked around for other ways to infuse joy into my surroundings.
My husband had recently completed some drywall repair in our dining room as part of ongoing home improvements, and I came to him with a request: Give me your blessing to paint a wall pink. The other accents and color schemes in our home included blue, white, gray, green—cool tones traditionally associated with masculinity. I argued that the right shade of pink could also be neutral, that it wouldn’t be the chalky Pepto Bismol pink he feared. I was cooped up with a husband and a male dog, pregnant with a baby boy. I’m surrounded by penises! I exclaimed. Let me have this wall! He reluctantly agreed.
I waltzed out of the house to retrieve paint swatches that afternoon. After carefully contrasting them against the blank white space, I chose a color that would both act as a statement and coordinate well with the adjacent art in the room. A quick call to our neighborhood hardware store confirmed they could have the shade of blush available within an hour.
I prepped the space with painter’s tape and drop cloths, and I removed my festive summer scarf to protect it from inevitable drips and splashes. After pressing play on an upbeat Spotify soundtrack I cracked open the gallon of Creamy Peach. And as I submerged my paintbrush, I also dipped into a brightly-colored well of hope.
I ran until air was a precious resource. Each breath, a pickaxe in my chest. Surely this time Chase would choose me. The leggy boys outpaced those of us in the remaining pack. They pivoted to face us, arms aloft. “Here, here!” they chanted.
I ducked and darted around them, determined to render my shortcoming of height irrelevant. I propelled my body into the emptiest green space down field. “Here, here,” I joined their chorus.
Chase’s eyes panned horizontally. I marked the turn of his head as he jogged back and forth. He saw me—the air was clear between him and I. The makeshift end zone was a breath away. As Chase turned left, he severed the link I imagined between us. In an instant the football spiralled skyward to Armando, our 5th grade Goliath. Armando scooped the ball inward and swaddled it with his body. He danced el jarabe tapatío around the fingertips of ten boys and into the end zone. In celebration, he spiked his precious cargo against the ground. The boys cheered.
The next time our loose alliance gained custody of the ball, we regrouped. I lined up left of center. Chase shouted, “Hut!” and I weaved frenetically through the forest of beckoning arms. I juked to the right and lost my ponytail holder. A brunette tangle of curls unfurled behind me like a comet’s tail. One completed pass, and I could be the Emmitt Smith to his Troy Aikman, I thought. But the day’s recess elapsed, and I made no catch. Wednesday and Thursday saw slower boys receive Chase’s passes. By Friday I knew I was permanently on defense. Even though I couldn’t see the cloth with my eyes, this playground team already had matching jerseys. And no matter how fancy my footwork, I was wearing the wrong color.
Traffic around us accelerated. A glimmer of silver approached from the onramp. I watched the vehicle carefully through the passenger side mirror. I felt Adam Smith’s invisible hand push cars to surround my navy Honda Accord. Pop music blared from the radio. I matched the speed of the other cars and steered the sedan deftly into the left lane.
Matt peered over his shoulder to joke with Dylan and Ben in the backseat. I enjoyed the company of these male friends. I fancied myself relatable, drama-free, and funny, and they must have agreed with my conclusions. The four of us were exuberant about the night’s activity: a local band would play an 18 and up show at The Underground. Our admittance was only contingent upon a wad of dollar bills and the black, Sharpie marker X’s on the backs of our hands.
I’d navigated this interstate many times under Dad’s watchful eye. My sixteenth birthday delivered both a driver’s license and a prohibition: Dad forbade me to drive on the highway until he personally signed off on my merging skills. Now that I held his approval, I volunteered to drive during group outings. I liked independence. My friends liked the affordable gas bill.
As I signaled my intent to swoop between moving cars, Dylan chirped from the backseat: You drive like a guy! I responded with a Thank you. Pride welled inside my chest, and I took the exit with a swiftness. It wasn’t necessary to ask what he meant. This was an endorsement of my prowess. Dylan felt I was strong, capable, assertive. At ten years old, I practiced the bob and weave on the playground yard. I learned to contort my body and adapt to make space for the boys. Now, my informal gridiron lessons paid off. I held the keys to a powerful new tool—I knew how to make men comfortable, even when I was in the driver’s seat.
Twelve months. The Midwest job I accepted the previous year was a golden road to financial stability. I no longer needed to pick up childcare shifts and manage reservations at The Whiskey Kitchen to supplement my salary. The god of industry required a sacrifice, however. It compelled me to exit my tight-knit community of Nashvillians and relocate across the country. Twelve months passed before I could arrange a homecoming visit to see old friends.
Now, we perched at a high top table on the patio of Mafiaoza’s. The 12th Avenue spot once served as our favorite Nashville rendezvous point for pizza and beer. My friends and former roommates, Lauren and Yves, sat across the table. I recounted the rigorous project management and software training I completed in the time since we last connected. Yves inquired about the role’s requisite domestic travel.
Between sips of beer I leaned forward energetically, elbows on the table. I missed my friends, and the conversation was comfortable and warm. I first met Lauren in the cinder block hallways of our alma mater. She rode a folding bicycle maniacally through the building, and I was enamored of her offbeat humor. We then shared an apartment during the early days of her relationship with Yves. The housing situation came full circle years later when I rented Yves’ spare bedroom for a time. And when they eventually married, I officiated their wedding.
Despite years of history together, I noticed Yves’ face change. He observed my casual posture and assertive gesticulation. You sit like a man, he interjected. The comment surprised me. I’d known Yves for years, even lived with him. He knew I loved big earrings, Joni Mitchell, and a well-timed makeover. I knew his bluntness. But when I inquired about his meaning, he could not articulate it.
I ruminated on the exchange over subsequent days of the trip. The comment followed me onto the return flight home. I formed a mental checklist of the evening’s elements. I had worn women’s clothing during dinner, and my haircut was a traditional curly bob. I sported lipstick and jewelry. I had not premeditated conversation topics nor made an effort to rebrand myself. To my mind, whatever personality changes I experienced over the year had been gradual.
I closed my eyes, and I heard the words. He said I sit like a man, but he meant to say that I sit like a woman in power. I had not noticed the self-possession and confidence I accrued from my adventure in a new city. In my new work world pressure was a privilege, and I had more professional responsibility leading teams and high dollar projects than ever before in twenty four years. And men, even male friends, were startled to find these traits separate from their gender.
I presented myself, newly actualized, enthusiastic, and wearing lipstick, and Yves’ instinct was that I had inherited his tribe’s persona. In actuality, independence merely sharpened the tools I always possessed. I no longer skipped and jumped around men to prove my belonging. I didn’t need to wave my arms and chant, “Here, here!” for their consideration. I stopped the chase, picked up the ball, and threw it. I’d always worn the right color.
When I started spotting, the rust seemed surprising but potentially harmless, according to what I read on the Internet. I felt a little crampy down low in my abdomen, the familiar ache of my lower back, like the monthly rites I’d observed since I was twelve. Another unexplained pain that I’d inherited from the mothers of mothers before me. Most of my wider social circles didn’t yet know that I was pregnant. My husband, Alex, and I had only begun to tell close friends and family the weekend before. I wanted to eschew the convention of waiting until the end of the first trimester to spread the news. After all, if I lost the pregnancy, I’d be telling the people in my life anyway, and I felt the traditional silence during the first three months contributes to a misunderstanding of how common pregnancy loss really is. I’m not superstitious, I thought, and pregnancies are not gained or lost by words.
Over the weeks that passed, I was observant. I know my body well, but I’d never known my body under these conditions. So when the cramping started I tried to give it grace. I chanted silently, please, please, please, as I applied the loving heat of my warm palms to the full throb underneath my belly’s softness, pressing against the pain. I talked to the unknown person inside me, the person who was doing the hard work of becoming.
I was sweaty, sticky like the late summer heat that hung in the air, as I sat across the patio from friends and shared our good news. No I haven’t been experiencing morning sickness, and I feel very fortunate, but they aren’t kidding when they say you’ll be exhausted. Yes, we are excited. Thank you.
No one told me that I would politely excuse myself, barricading the bathroom door to discreetly take stock of what was happening down there. When I saw the first blood clot, I gasped Oh no reflexively, before my brain understood what I’d said. I returned to the table outside, resumed the friendly small talk, quietly tapped out a message to my doctor on the smartphone under the table.
When I finally got the call in the morning from the nurse, she was the first one who needed me to speak the truth of the situation into the world—to describe the timing, the color, the consistency. I hadn’t even mentioned the symptoms to Alex yet, hoping the conversation would be moot before I’d need to share. But the nurse needed to know, so I began. She was polite, professional. “The doctor does want to see you at 6:00 tonight, given your symptoms. It’s not a bad idea to do more than just order some bloodwork to be done, but no need to panic.”
My first prenatal visit would be two weeks earlier than scheduled, and it would be to hear the OB/GYN walk a verbal tightrope as she explained the possibilities. “The abdominal beta test will likely be inconclusive, it’s too early to tell, but we will do it just in case it could offer reassurance.” Alex sat nervously as she palpated my lower torso, looking for any signs that indicated the embryo had attached somewhere outside the designated area where babies grow.
They scheduled additional lab work and a Friday morning ultrasound, at which point I would have more conclusive answers. No one told me that I would manage several work calls and a training seminar while I waited for results, pretending professionally that the world I’d hoped for wasn’t crumbling around me. The stuffed dinosaur I bought, the one baby toy I gave in to purchase this early in my pregnancy was the only witness when I cried during my lunch break. Later, Alex would find me weeping as I cleaned the bathroom, coaxing me to lie down, letting me cry into his shoulder as I talked about my feelings of grief and loss and frustration at having to start again.
No one told me this, so I will tell you. At least one in four pregnancies end in a loss. 25%. One quarter. That number is so much higher than is publicly understood. Although people use the term miscarriage, I find the word itself is a misnomer, a lame attempt to describe a complex event in a single word. As if the person whose body carries the baby has much control over the intricate assembly of DNA occurring within. As if that potential life has been misplaced or mismanaged. As if it were simply a mistake made.
The truth is that many early pregnancy losses are unexplained. According to Emily Oster’s “Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know,” roughly 90% are due to chromosomal complexities that cannot be tracked at this stage. The genetic building blocks aren’t piecing together correctly and the system shuts down—the foreman says gruffly, “Start over,” and hits the button to halt the assembly line.
What I didn’t know until I experienced this myself is that it would take several days before my body was done clearing the debris, and during this time I’d get to experience the creative ways my brain deals with grief. It’s not an instantaneous moment of trauma, like a car wreck. It’s more of a tsunami that leveled my town. I still had to wade through the ankle-high water as I went about picking up the pieces, worrying about aftershocks and flooding even once the damage was done. It was an exercise in endurance, where eventually I stopped thinking about how sad I was that I was losing the pregnancy and started waiting for the moment when the pregnancy was fully lost. At least then I could grieve without the abdominal pain. At least then we could start over.
Before the loss, Alex and I sat around a backyard fire with a couple who are expecting. We had just shared our good news, excited to be in the same cohort with them as first-time parents. As we stared into the flickering glow, we shared our concerns and fears about bringing a new and vulnerable life into the world in the midst of a pandemic, in a society awash with violence, selfishness, greed, and resultant political unrest.
We thought about the ways we had been wounded in our own lives, our complicated relationships with our parents, the tools we wish we’d had on hand to navigate the hardships of life. And there was one thing on which we agreed: to bring a child into the world is the physical manifestation of hope. It is the tiny step forward, a whispered vow, an existential contribution to the greater beauty that could be amidst the pain that is. We can offer up our best efforts to imbue a sense of empathy and bravery into a child beyond simply wishing for high test scores, physical prowess, or creative acumen. But true courage is in knowing that we will not be able to control the world around them or the choices they make and choosing to move forward anyway.
Despite the abrupt collapse of our expectations for a child in the next 40ish weeks, Alex and I are already parents. It’s just that our journey to embody hope in a broken world starts with how we move through grief to begin again. We’ve been forced to live the kind of brave that we hope our future children will be—to lay a foundation before we know who will live in the house or when they will move in. It’s scary. It sucks. But, it can also be beautiful.
If you’ve experienced pregnancy loss, please know you are not alone. Below are a few resources that have been helpful for me.