We announced it at a family gathering, via a shirt on our two-year old son: I am being promoted to big brother. Little did we know, through the congratulations, celebrations, and inevitable wondering about what the sex might be, that the baby was already dead.
Technically, it was an embryo, but therein lies the dichotomy that I wrestled with throughout my miscarriage and beyond. Two versions of me responded to the same event. If I wasn't already (desperately) trying to finish my PhD thesis, I could write a thesis on this. But I'll try to keep it short.
Intellectual me recognized that at 6 ½ weeks of pregnancy, I was carrying an embryo. It had a functioning heart, paddles instead of hands, and was five millimeters across–about the size of a small blueberry. The fact that it was no longer alive was likely due to a lethal chromosomal abnormality.
Emotionally, I already loved it. I knew it was a girl. I called her blueberry.
The timing of the pregnancy was perfect: About five months after finishing my PhD, I would have my second child – a bigger age gap than I had wanted, but not a big deal. My husband would complete the house renovations, then we’d sell our house in the spring and move to the city where my postdoc was lined up.
It was almost too perfect–and it terrified me.
During the second dating ultrasound, the technician said blueberry seemed to be the same size as last time. I quietly thought about that, then suggested that was a bad sign. She agreed. As I lay on the table, waiting for her to return after consulting with the doctor, I let it sink in. This was happening to me. I was losing my baby. As soon as the doctor came into the room, his face perfectly sombre, my suspicions were confirmed. I would later wonder if the technician and the doctor told their partners, over dinner, about the poor woman who softly sobbed about losing her baby – or if it was just another day at the office.
I left the clinic as soon as I could. I remember a woman with two children held the door for me. She had what I had just lost: a second child. Despite the gratitude I felt for my son, that was part of the hardship. Because of him, I knew what was on the other side of a pregnancy: a little piece of my heart, wrapped in soft, warm baby chub.
It was a missed miscarriage. That means my body was in denial that the baby was dead. My placenta, still pumping out the hCG hormone, was firmly in place against the wall of my uterus, embracing the gestational sac that contained blueberry. For days, I waited for blueberry to make her exit – a private funeral march for a life that only a handful of people knew existed. But my body refused, such that pills were necessary to induce uterine contractions.
Intellectually, I wanted it to be over, so that I could restart the processes of ovulation and conception. Emotionally, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of blueberry leaving the warmth, safety, and love of her mother.
When the soft ball of tissues plunged, undignified, into the toilet bowl, I wanted to confirm the passage was complete. Being a biologist, I was curious about what it would look like. Emotionally, I couldn’t bear to flush blueberry into cold, dark, lonely waters.
Neither part of me was prepared for what I held: a dark red mass of tissue, attached to a transparent sac, that seemed heavier than it ought to be. Counter to my biological training, I didn’t poke, pop or prod. I wanted it exactly as it was: my blueberry safe in her gestational sac, attached to the placenta, the closest thing to a mother’s love she knew.
I have always hated being cold. Which is why I couldn’t bear to put blueberry in the freezer. So for that first night, swaddled in a white baby washcloth, tucked inside a Ziploc bag, blueberry remained by my bedside. I kissed the bag. Gooodnight, blueberry. The following day intellectual me made an executive decision to tuck blueberry in the freezer, but not before placing a rose from a bouquet my parents had sent me inside the bag. As I wrote this, that was 4 days ago.
A lifetime come and gone within two months.
About 20 per cent of pregnant women have a miscarriage in their first trimester, but thankfully one miscarriage is not a predictor of future fertility. Women aren’t supposed to talk about it, although I’m not sure why. Is it because being unable to carry an embryo to fruition is the ultimate shame – the antithesis of motherhood? Is it because the process of miscarriage is literally bloody, messy and by extension offensive to talk about? Is it because women are raised to avoid making others uncomfortable? It seems cruel, when a life has just ended, to have to go about life as usual as though everything is fine.
My husband, whom I love dearly, is stoic and logical. And while his response appealed to intellectual me, it wasn’t the only response I needed. I needed the emotional responses of my mother and sister. I needed the advice from friends who had gone through the same thing. I needed the support from other mothers in academia who had to keep working and mothering through it all. I am sad, but I am okay. I am not fine, but I am resilient.
The other day, as I was sifting through our son’s closet, I sadly showed my husband the shirt that had proclaimed his promotion to big brother and remarked that we would need to tuck it away. His response was a perfect blend of optimism and gratitude: It will just be a little tighter the next time he wears it.
Published in the Facts and Arguments column in the Globe and Mail, September 20th 2017