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How My Mother’s Miscarriage Held Clues About My Own Infertility

As a little girl, I didn’t play with baby dolls, pretending to be a mother — I wrote stories in my room or tried to convince my brother and sister to have “reading parties” with me. In my 20s, a child was still the last thing on my mind. I was focused on building my career as a writer, proving that I could make a living with my words. It wasn’t until recently that I began to look at babies and wonder: Could I be a mother and also the writer I wanted to be and the wife and the woman, individual and apart from these complicated, beautiful burdens? I hoped so. For the first time in my life, I wanted to try.

How naive, how self-involved, to think that because I had finally come around, conception would be easy. As if an unmade baby were waiting in the ether for me to say, “Come — we’re ready for you now.” That isn’t how it works; at least not for my mother and not for me.

* * *

It was late 1983, and the peso’s devaluation had hit my border hometown hard. Seven hundred businesses closed their doors, and unemployment jumped from 10 percent to almost 30 percent. Laredo, Texas, felt like the aftermath of a bomb, a ghost town full of stunned, baffled wanderers.

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My mom taught English at the community college, but my dad owned an electrical supply store. With no more homes being built, there were no builders to supply to — the store was all stock and no sales. My parents sold their new home while they still could, moving into a tiny rodent-infested condo. My dad migrated four hours north, sleeping in a house with undocumented laborers while he tried to establish a discount lighting showroom in Austin.

Meanwhile, my mother miscarried.

She was devastated. After two years of trying, who knew how long it would take to conceive again? Who knew if she’d be able to carry full-term? But then, weeks later, my dad had a dream. In it, the Virgin Mary told him that all would be well with this child, a child newly conceived. She was gentle, serene, firm — beyond the snaking reach of doubt. My dad woke up convinced that my mother would give birth.

And she did.

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The story of my mother’s miscarriage always seemed mythic to me — perhaps because I was the happy ending (followed by my brother 18 months later and my sister two years after that). And because of that, it was somehow easy to forget the miscarriage itself and the two years of disappointment before it.

* * *

For 16 months, I made up excuses. My hormones are regulating after birth control. I’m just stressed. We haven’t gotten the timing right. Maybe it’s for the best; it’s been a tough year.

But it turns out I have polycystic ovarian syndrome.

The hallmark of PCOS — which affects between 5 and 10 percent of women of reproductive age — is insulin resistance, a catalyst for such symptoms as obesity, diabetes, hirsutism, acne, irregular cycles and, of course, infertility.

The diagnosis was a blow. I had an ideal BMI, ate fairly well (I thought) and was physically active. On the surface, I was not a likely candidate for PCOS. Except for one thing: Because of the disease’s hereditary component, it’s not just possible but likely that my mother suffered from it too.

It’s a strange grief, mourning the loss of something I never had. Something I didn’t even want until recently. I can’t help remembering all the times I panicked because my period came late. Times I couldn’t have been pregnant, even if I were ovulating, but my fear didn’t care about the math, only about those dizzy quicksilver moments of waiting for lines to emerge on a pregnancy test. Only one every time.

Then there was the night I touched my belly in the shower and whispered, “If you’re there, show me — show me so I can take care of you.” I was startled by my disappointment the next day when my period came after all.

I ache for my younger self, for all I didn’t know. Every late period, not a harbinger of new life, but a warning sign. My body desperately trying to communicate its imbalance.

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Since learning about PCOS, I no longer see conception as an end goal, but as a byproduct of a healthy body. Oddly, it’s a kind of gift because it means I’m no longer relegated to the passive perdition of waiting — for the next cycle of medication, to ovulate, to take a pregnancy test, to start all over again. It means I have some control. By dramatically changing my diet to sharpen insulin resistance, I now have the opportunity to help my body reboot, to prepare for the one-day task of caring for another. Only when my body is healthy will it be ready not just to create life, but to sustain it.

When will that day come? I don’t know. But my mother is the first to point out how profoundly fortunate I am despite my diagnosis and how profoundly fortunate she was despite her miscarriage. She’s right. And at least for now, that gives me peace.

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