A communal miscarriage

After many discouraging years on the academic job market, waiting for our lives to settle into stability, my husband and I agreed we couldn’t wait too much longer and we started trying for a baby. We were living in New Jersey at the time, close to my family and many of our friends. That year, the eighth in a row of applications, interviews, and waiting, my husband finally landed a tenure track job at a research university in the Midwest. We got the news right after the new year in 2007. I immediately started looking for jobs and was lucky enough to find one in Chicago, at a school close to my husband’s. That March, the pregnancy test was positive. That May we flew out for five days and bought a condo. And my new boss invited me to a conference he was organizing before I officially started, so that June, I flew back alone to Chicago, trying to imagine the life changes that would be unfolding for us in this next year. Two new jobs, a new home, a new baby in a new city where we didn’t know a soul. It was a lot. Though it was early in the pregnancy, we decided not to wait to tell our family, friends, and colleagues, because we wanted to share the news with them in person before we said good-bye.

So there I was, in the University Conference Center, a warren of windowless, carpeted rooms, in my professional conference-going clothes, talking teaching and learning with people I’d just met, introducing myself again and again. Luckily, a former colleague was also there; it was nice to see a familiar face.  I didn’t know her well, but I liked her. We made plans to meet for dinner the next night.

On a bathroom break that first day, my mind was still on the session that had just ended, and the conversations that were swirling around. Then, blood on the toilet paper.  Bright, red, undeniable. What? No, that can’t be, because I’m pregnant. What? What? What?

Upstairs in the dorm room where I was staying, I called my husband: “honey, something’s wrong with the baby.” He stayed on the line while I found the nearest hospital on my laptop. In a taxi driving up Michigan Avenue as the afternoon light gave way to evening, the bright shop windows and street lights buzzing with urban life, I tried to suppress my fear of the worst case scenario. It’s going to be okay, I whispered to myself. Hang on, hang on, I told the baby.

I walked through the wide automatic emergency room doors of Northwestern Memorial Hospital to the low counter of the main desk. A young nurse finished her conversation with a laugh as she slowly turned to me and said, “Can I help you?” “Um, I’m 10 or 11 weeks pregnant, and I’m having some bleeding,” I said as my right hand landed on my abdomen. Her expression changed instantly and she said quietly, arm extended, “Come with me.”

The curtained-off bed in a busy, noisy emergency room in the middle of a large city with nurses and doctors coming and going, poking and prodding and peering into your body, is one of the loneliest places in the world. I felt the miles separating me from home and safety and comfort, even as I hung on to my husband’s voice on the phone, trying to conjure his presence as best I could while I cried, pulled myself together, and then cried again. “I don’t know why, but I kept imagining it was a boy,” I said. I could hear the strain in his voice from the helplessness he felt.

In between my bouts of crying, I studied the people who were supposed to be helping me, fascinated by how each handled the spectacle of my distress and their own discomfort. Each new nurse was sympathetic in her own way, but brisk and business-like. “The doctor will be with you shortly,” they said on their way out. Then the intern came in, rolling a machine in with him. Yes, a transvaginal ultrasound is as fun as it sounds, especially when administered by a 20-something male intern who looks 15 and who seemed slightly mortified about having to do the procedure. Were his cheeks naturally ruddy or was he actually blushing as he explained in a quiet voice what he needed to do? After he left, more waiting and more nurses. Then two obstetrics residents came to repeat the ultrasound, just to be sure or maybe just to practice. The young Asian American resident with ponytail and glasses wearing blue scrubs chattered with her colleague, but wouldn’t look me in the eye. The other woman, a blonde in a white coat, had a better bedside manner, and acknowledged me with a “I’m so sorry” as they left. I noticed the sparkly engagement ring on her finger as she patted my arm.

Finally, the inevitable confirmation from the attending physician – no heartbeat, the fetal sac had stopped growing at about 8 or 9 weeks. He – a tall white man with a squarish face and preppy haircut – said in a gentle but matter-of-fact tone that of course, with advanced maternal age, I was at greater risk for miscarriage, as if to downplay the whole thing, as if to say, it’s not our fault you’re old. The discharge papers said “missed abortion.”

Back in my room, I was nothing if not organized in the face of my calamity. I:

  • changed my flight so I could leave the next day;
  • called my mother, who, in her disappointment, said I shouldn’t have gotten on an airplane so early in my condition;
  • called my brother to complain about my mother, who said in his sympathetic, doctorly way, “she doesn’t understand about these things. . .”;
  • wrote an email to my boss asking her if she could tell everyone who knew of my pregnancy so I wouldn’t have to do it;
  • called my colleague and left a message saying I couldn’t meet for dinner because something had come up unexpectedly.

Like those medical professionals, I had my own ways of coping: stay busy, make another list, avoid eye contact with the dead dream inside me. I called my husband one last time before turning off the lights and trying to sleep in the cold, barely heated room with not enough blankets, wondering how I could be so unlucky.

Maybe my mother was right. I should have been more careful. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken that brisk walk at the lunch break, never mind that the fetus had died many days before that. Maybe that doctor was right – I’m too old to have kids.

I wasn’t one of those women who’s always known she wanted children. My husband was even more agnostic on the question. He’d never thought he’d have kids or want them, and only after we got married did he even consider it a possibility, a distant one, something to consider for the future. We spent our 20’s in graduate school, preparing for our careers, we met when we were 27, got married at 30, criss-crossed the country a few times for our jobs. In the middle of my 30s, my father fell ill and died two years later. Now at age 38, maybe it was too much and too late to want a child too. What arrogance to think we could just decide and have what we wanted!

When I got to the airport the next morning, desperate to be home, and found that my flight had been canceled, it seemed a clear sign that I was indeed cursed. Why me? Why. Me.  After so much professional disappointment, after the harrowing years before and after my father’s death, I had thought the universe would finally be kind. Now, just when we thought we were getting a fresh start, this – a bright red stain on our happy future.

When I got home, I saw my doctor, who sent me to the lab without a lot of information about what to expect. I spent the night doubled over, bleeding into the toilet in regular intervals of what I later understood to be contractions. During that long night, I thought about the handful of other women I knew who had had miscarriages: a cousin and a close friend from grad school who’d both struggled with secondary infertility; another close friend who’d lost her baby in the second trimester, news I didn’t learn until months later because we hadn’t been in regular touch at that point in our lives.

Some days after that night of painful contractions, I felt I owed my former colleague a fuller explanation of why I had bailed on dinner, because I hate being thought of as flaky. I sent her an email, and she wrote back shortly after with this: The very same night that I’d gone to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, she, too, had ended up there with her boyfriend, because she was also 10 or 11 weeks pregnant at the time, and she, too, had her miscarriage confirmed that night.

I read her email again in disbelief. I read it to my husband. Two acquaintances at the same conference in the same city far from their homes, in the same goddamn hospital experiencing the same loss. I wondered if the same doctors and nurses had seen us, had to do the same tests, tell us the same awful news. What are the chances?

It turned out chances are not as slim as I thought. Over the course of the next few weeks, as I shared this incredible tale of simultaneous miscarriage, I heard stories from family, friends, and colleagues, in person, over the phone, via email. As we were sitting on the linoleum floor of her kitchen, playing with her toddler daughter, our friend W told me about her early miscarriage, very similar to my own. Another friend told me about her mother’s miscarriages. Another, her aunt’s or sister’s or friend’s. Two women, decades apart in age, told me about their ectopic pregnancies. With the accumulation of these stories I understood how common, and yet how unspoken, these experiences were.

Back at work, my co-worker J, a mother of two teenagers, came to my office to give me a hug and share an article by Peggy Orenstein about her miscarriage in Japan and about exactly this silence. In Japan, there are Buddhist shrines dedicated to dead fetuses where people can come to mourn and say good-bye. Our culture has no such shrines or rituals, no publicly recognized ways to express, much less understand, this kind of loss, this kind of grief.

Orenstein writes: “Without form, there is no content. So even in this era of compulsive confession, women don’t speak publicly of their loss. It is only if your pregnancy is among the unlucky ones that fail that you begin to hear the stories spoken in confidence, almost whispered. Your aunt. Your grandmother. Your friends. Your colleagues. Women you have known for years – sometimes your whole life – who have had this happen, sometimes over and over and over again. They tell only if you become one of them.” Once again, another woman’s experience mirrored my own.

In that dorm room back in Chicago, I had regretted telling our friends and family so early. Because now there was all this heartache and bad news we had to share. But, hearing these stories, I felt connected to all these women, generations of them, friends and strangers alike. I was grateful for every one of their stories. I wasn’t cursed, I wasn’t so special after all, and that was such a relief. All of these stories became the form into which my husband and I could pour our sadness; they held us and assured us that we would be okay. Maybe we could try again. Precisely because it wasn’t customary to talk openly about this kind of loss, I understood more profoundly than I could have after my father’s death that privacy isn’t necessarily what we need in our grief. And because we’d shared the news of our pregnancy and its loss with our friends, when two couples later had their own losses, one in the second trimester, we found we could be the containers for their pain.

About six months after that conference in Chicago, I ran into my former colleague again at the Modern Language Association conference. We hugged and shared pleasantries in the crowded, noisy hotel lobby, our unspoken questions hanging in the air. When we connected on Facebook almost a year later and I posted photos of my son and saw photos of her son, born just a couple of months apart, we were unreservedly happy for each other. I don’t know if her loss had been as public as mine, but I’m so glad she shared her story with me in that email. It’s when you can turn a common experience into a communal one that healing can begin.

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