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.
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.