When I told my husband I was pregnant with our first child, it was Father’s Day. I kept it secret for two days while he was away. When he got home, he sat in his robe holding the Father’s Day card and the positive pregnancy test I’d handed him. He stared at both while our boxer sniffed the wrapping paper that had encased the tiny onesie I had bought. Then he stood and hugged me. “Congratulations,” he said.
“To the both of us!” I said. “Right?”
“Both of us. Of course.”
My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was twelve. Filling my body with a child because I had a dead dad is a cliché. Still, when I grew up and got married, I hoped that if I confronted the stranglehold of death with new life, I would heal. I believed I’d exhausted every other possible method: sporadic bouts of therapy, self-medicating, cross-country moves. Even the unrelenting march of time hadn’t dimmed the grief. Perhaps, I thought, a child could help loosen its grip.
My first pregnancy was a breeze. I had few expectations. It never occurred to me to worry about whether the fetus would stick—for some reason, I knew it would.
When the doctor placed my daughter on my chest, I looked at her with complete and total confusion. She was here, a real live human who clutched my finger, whose eyes bored into mine like I was supposed to do something for her. Her face was still a little purple—she’d briefly gotten stuck in the birth canal—and her hair was still matted with amniotic fluid. Blood from her cut umbilical cord had splattered onto my face. I was so overwhelmed with the responsibility I uttered nonsense. I willed tears to come so I wouldn’t be found out as a fraud.
And they did, once she wormed her way onto my breast, where she stayed for the next two hours. She was mine, and I was hers.
I know two types of people trying to have children: those who face pregnancy with hope, and those who are eventually driven to desperation. Those like me.
My father’s death when I was young taught me about the impermanence of the body, the permanence of death, how it felt to lack control. Following my daughter’s birth, as we tried and tried for another child, I learned that pregnancy, too, was out of my control. Pregnancy is so powerful. A fallible body is attempting to bring forth something new. Its power is largely unseen, and therefore hard to understand—much to the chagrin of expectant mothers like me.
At one point, late in trying for our second child, my husband backed out mid-coitus. He feared what I could become if I got pregnant and then lost another pregnancy. He loved our daughter, but he’d be fine with just one child.
Could I be?
I remember every second of both pregnancies that ended.
I remember eating scrambled eggs at my mother’s house and nearly throwing up, giddy because feeling sick was a good sign. I remember how fast my breasts grew, the scratch of the Sea Bands I wore due to severe nausea. I can still taste the ginger chews I gnawed constantly to ebb the waves of sickness.
I remember being in Fort Worth, Texas, at a bed and breakfast, when I started spotting the first time. The ice that gripped my chest, each and every delusion I fed myself to keep going. The feeling of carrying around death inside. I remember the expelled fetus at the bottom of my toilet bowl, resting in a sea of bloodied water. With the second, I remember precisely how it felt when the sac whooshed out and landed with a plop in a crowded movie theater bathroom.
My husband left for a work trip two days after. He texted me cheerful assurance of his safe arrival when he landed in New York. I was in the lobby of my daughter’s dance studio 1,700 miles away, surrounded by chattering moms, pretending I wasn’t losing my second pregnancy in six months.
I went to the doctor alone. She told me, after she confirmed the miscarriage was complete, that she’d had two miscarriages herself and felt grateful for them. “It’s the body’s way of doing everything it can to ensure a healthy birth and a healthy living child.” She touched my knee. “It’s nature trying to protect us. Does that make sense?”
I wanted to find solace in her words. I could see how a miscarriage could be a kind of mercy. But mercy isn’t always palatable, even if it’s right.
“How could you leave me?” I said to my husband on the phone that night. “You left me to deal with this myself.”
“You didn’t say I couldn’t go,” he said. “What do you want me to do about it now?”
“Come home, now.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Yes, it is.” Then something terrible occurred to me. “Did you want to leave?”
He paused. Then he said, “I just needed some space from this. From all of it. I’m so sorry.”
When he got home, he confessed that he had been a little relieved. He was concerned and sad for me, of course, but he hadn’t been ready to try again. He was too afraid to tell me.
I sat on our sofa listening to him, imagining hurling myself at him and beating his chest. What stopped me was a small voice inside that asked if he was right. I had been so consumed with erasing the pain and torment of the first miscarriage that I hadn’t let myself grieve or heal.
When I was young, I had a blue three-ring binder in which I kept lists of all the people I wanted to be when I grew up: teacher, doctor, “business person,” and Julia Roberts. The list of selves I could become was varied but, in my mind, always possible. When my dad was ripped from my life, that changed—all the potential I’d once felt was gone.
I felt the same way now, after the pair of miscarriages. I didn’t know where to go from here.
Over the next few months, we went to California to visit friends and family, to drink wine in Sonoma. I took our daughter Sadie to the Pacific, which she ran toward without abandon, digging her tiny fingers into the moist, cold sand and flinging it into the waves.
I spent my weekly therapy sessions on healing, forging ahead, repairing what I believed to be broken. I tried to forget about all the selves that could have been—the ones from the binder, the pregnancies, the life a girl with a living father—they were never mine to begin with.
Finally, many months later, I felt like I could breathe without being stifled by regret and sadness. I laughed with my daughter, played with Legos, drew monsters and princesses by her side. I was okay. I get to be okay, I thought.
One day, driving to nursery school, Sadie sat in the back wearing leopard-print sunglasses, singing to Katy Perry. I imagined myself again swollen with pregnancy, a striped maternity shirt hugging my rounded belly. I was smiling in this vision, cradling the baby inside. Instead of madness, there was hope.
If I tried one more time and failed, I decided, I would give up.
On the day when two pink lines stared up at me, I wondered which set of events I had set in motion this time. A baby? Or not a baby?
Multiple losses get you upgraded to earlier appointments at my OB’s office. Normally, you have to wait until eight or nine weeks for an ultrasound, but I got to go in my sixth, the earliest potential time the sac or fetus could be seen.
I laid back on the the crinkly sheet of paper. My OB smeared the warm gel on my stomach and pressed the wand to my skin. I flinched and held my breath, although my eyes stayed glued to the screen. She moved the wand around for maybe a second before we saw it: a little blob of a thing with a tiny flicker of a heartbeat, beat, beating away. The measurements were good; the size was good. The doctor handed me a printout of the pictures, and I clutched them to my chest.
In seven months, I would give birth to a baby boy who would share his grandfather’s middle name.
Before, I’d wanted a baby to be the anchor pulling me back toward my past self. I wanted a way to take control after the shock of my father’s death. Before, I knew nothing. I could not have conceived of what it means to hold a child in your body, then in your arms.
I’m still the person I was before my dad died, before I had kids. I’ve grown in many ways, but deep down I still want to control everything. I still plan myself into a corner. And yet I’m someone I could not even have imagined when I made that blue three-ring binder long ago.
Even now, with two children, I still carry the weight of losing my dad at a young age. But because of my children, I don’t notice it as much. In the end, I did get what I wanted: to be tethered to something, to feel whole, to experience more joy than sadness. Every day, now, I get to make choices and care for the people I love. Every day, I choose to see what I have instead of what I’ve lost.