In September, I joined one of the loneliest clubs of all — a club that scares women into hiding the joy, and tragedy, of their pregnancies due to the fragility of life at its earliest stage. I miscarried a pregnancy just a week after it started, and this left me feeling like I’d failed myself, my husband, my in-laws, and most of all, my 1-year-old son.
Because miscarriages are more common than many people realize — 10 to 15 percent of known pregnancies end in loss — I’d had miscarriage fears throughout my first pregnancy, which thankfully ended with a healthy baby boy. Even though I was one of the lucky ones to have birthed a child before miscarrying, I was still devastated and surprised by what ended up feeling like the hardest part of the whole ordeal. Miscarrying stirred up memories of a childhood spent alone, and gave me crippling fear that my son would be destined for a similar youth without siblings.
As I’ve written before, I didn’t grow up with siblings the way most people do, and I never have a simple answer when I’m asked if I have any. My brothers and sisters, all half-siblings, are 7-12 years my senior. I can’t really remember a time when my brothers weren’t grownups. They lived elsewhere before going off to college, and my sister was in boarding school, so I spent a lot of time by myself. I opened presents solo on Christmas morning, colored as my parents engaged in adult conversation on family outings or vacations, and got lost in my thoughts and imagination in lieu of having someone to share these things with. I was basically an only child. My mom always said I had the best of both worlds. I could say I had siblings without the annoying day-to-day realities of living with them. I saw this as the worst of both worlds.
My parents were kind enough to buy me teen magazines during these lonely years, and I loved cutting out photos of my favorite celebrities — Leonardo DiCaprio, Lance Bass, and Celine Dion, among others — and displaying these images all over my bedroom. I talked to these photos at the end of every day, expressing burnout with my after-school daycare program and complaining about various classmates who’d mocked my pasty complexion or (admittedly ugly) pageboy haircut. It was almost as if I thought I really was communicating with them, that some other version of these rich and famous stars existed on my walls, only for me. I was embarrassed to change clothes and sleep with their eyes on me, and when I’d get scolded in their “presence.”
During my first year of junior high, I developed an obsession with the actor Frankie Muniz, who played a genius preteen on the comedy series Malcolm in the Middle. In the show, Muniz speaks directly to the camera, sharing his grievances about school and family the way I did with my pictures. Perhaps it was because of this similarity that I refused to part with my photo of Muniz. I carried the crumpled cutout of him with me to school and to friends’ houses. My best friend Crystal recalls me placing the picture on the couch beside us while we watched TV, saying aloud to the photo, “Can you see?” Disturbed by my delusions, Crystal tore it apart. She was right that my behavior wasn’t normal. But she had a younger brother she could always turn to when her life got messy. What did I have?
I thought about the loneliness of my (mostly) only childhood during the first week of August, when I found out I was pregnant for the second time. It was somewhat of a surprise, as my son was about to turn one and I’d hoped to hold off on preparing for another pregnancy for at least a couple more months. I’d always wanted kids with a small age difference, however, so I thought it might be nice in the long run to have two under two. The beginning would be stressful beyond my comprehension, but my kids would never know life without each other. When they couldn’t make sense of their childhood, they’d turn to each other. Something I would have killed for.
From the start, I tried to deny the peculiarities of this new pregnancy. My thyroid levels were normal, even though they went wild during my first pregnancy, a result of my hypothyroidism. I told myself that this was because I was on the right dosage of the medication Levothyroxine, and that a normal blood test was something to be thankful for, not worried about. I experienced consistent sharp cramps and assumed the pain was gastrointestinal, as I was not bleeding. Most of all, I had no morning sickness. I thought I was simply too distracted by my newly mobile toddler to notice any discomfort I may have been feeling. I could explain away all the red flags until my eight-week appointment, when coming face-to-face with my insides revealed the truth.
As soon as I stepped into my OB-GYN’s office, I was greeted by Pearl, the tireless front desk associate who had seen me through my first pregnancy and was pleased to hear I was expecting again.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, looking up at me with sparkling eyes.
“Surprisingly well, and that has me a little scared.”
She and her coworker laughed at this, saying it’s funny that women fret about everything in pregnancy — including feeling perfectly fine.
My OB-GYN called me back to a room. After applying some jelly onto my abdomen and waving around his wand, he was quiet.
“I can’t see much,” he said. “I think we need to do a transvaginal ultrasound; let me get one of the nurses.”
I scooted down on the examining table, covering my face with the crinkled scrap of paper listing questions related to my second pregnancy: Could I continue lifting weights? Was deli meat truly dangerous to eat? Could I safely visit one of my relatives undergoing chemotherapy? Could I keep wearing my 20+ pound son in the ErgoBaby wrap? I continued to look at these bullet points as the female nurse and doctor observed my womb in uncomfortable silence.
“So, what I’m seeing here is a pregnancy that stopped developing weeks ago. In some cases, women incorrectly time their ovulation when they come in for their first checkup, but you should definitely be further along than this. I’m sorry.”
As I left the doctor’s office, discarding the suddenly useless list of questions on my way out, I couldn’t stop thinking about why my miscarriage hadn’t passed on its own. Oddly enough, my first informal introduction to miscarriage was through Marley and Me, in which a miscarriage plays out in a similar way to my own. In the film, a newly pregnant Jennifer Aniston goes to the doctor for her first prenatal appointment, and after the nurse silently listens to her belly, she learns there is no heartbeat.
I feared this sort of thing more than a miscarriage characterized by spotting and heavy clotting, because it is hidden and only presents itself in a medical setting, where others could watch me process this letdown in real time. I wondered why all of that cramping I’d experienced hadn’t led to bleeding. The only conclusion I could come to was that whoever this person might have become simply didn’t want to leave me. I was also told that I would have bled eventually, and that my reproductive system hadn’t gotten the message yet that it was lugging around dead tissue. This only made me angrier with my body, which was not only inhospitable to my second child, but couldn’t even expel the contents of its failure in a timely manner. I’d failed twofold.
I’d had miscarriage worries during my first pregnancy. Every trip to the bathroom was accompanied by thoughts of finding blood on the toilet paper. I instinctively looked away at the start of my ultrasound appointments, not wanting to see the technician’s face in case a heartbeat was no longer detected. I started to relax a little after 12 weeks and decided to frame my relationship with my unborn child to that of a host and a guest. I told myself it was important for my son to feel welcome, confident, and safe with me. No one likes going to a party in which the host is frazzled and secretly waiting for everyone to go home.
So when I learned that I had a blighted ovum with my second pregnancy, meaning my egg fertilized but never really moved beyond the beginning phase of pregnancy, I didn’t know how to view the situation. I was pregnant, but there was no baby. Instead of being a bad host, I was a host without anyone to celebrate. I had everything ready for my guest of honor, but he never showed.
And yet, I didn’t see a set of cells that never divided. I saw a fully formed, red-haired boy posing in front of a tree in a dark blue alligator polo for his senior portrait. I envisioned him resembling the actor Lucas Hedges, who, like me, has reddish hair, a lanky frame, and pale skin. I saw myself separating him and his older brother for the millionth time, and almost felt the distress of a mother of two with young, rambunctious boys. I saw myself trading in my new BOB stroller for a double. I saw myself waking up extra early on Christmas morning to make myself a cup of coffee and breakfast before my boys could come bug me to start the present-opening process. I even pictured them ganging up on me and told myself that even though this would make me feel outnumbered and perhaps powerless, I’d feel thankful that I gave them something better than life itself: a constant companion. Only they could understand what it is like to be raised by me, and that would bind them forever. But there would be no “they” in this chapter of our lives, or possibly ever.
Being a stay-at-home mom has been the loneliest, most isolating experience of my life, second only to growing up without siblings in the traditional sense. This state of being caused me to push others away and assume the worst in people after my miscarriage, feeling hurt by what someone said or didn’t say to make me feel better. By the radio silence from those I was certain would reach out.
The only person I could consistently talk to was my toddler, a stark contrast to my days of working in open-plan offices, around adults all day, in the years leading up to his arrival. Suddenly, my world had shrunk to one.
In the months following my pregnancy loss, I called back to this former life by mumbling to myself as if I were conversing with an old colleague I used to see every day. I imagined conversations with people who knew me before I was a mom. In my head, these folks were sounding boards for my loneliness — not individuals with their own experiences, thoughts, and opinions about me. It was a revised take on my childhood habit of telling the posters on my wall or the crumpled photo of Frankie Muniz all about my personal dramas. Another, healthier coping mechanism has entailed taking my son to Gymboree and the park as much as possible. He gets to play with other kids while I can find solace in other moms — or, more commonly, the nannies, who are always happier than the mothers.
The other day at the playground, my son sat for half an hour on the jungle gym watching a pair of sisters, ages five and three, play together on the tube slide. Most of the time, he wants me to push him down the slide at least 10 times in a row, but that afternoon, he committed to studying the girls as they roared with laughter, spoke in a language they created, climbed up the slide, and each refused to go down it without the other. He couldn’t take his eyes off the bond between two sisters who had just been fighting and were now having the time of their lives. This interaction was unfamiliar territory for him, and I wonder if that was the moment he first discovered what he’s been missing this whole time.
I found myself experiencing feelings of guilt for not being able to give my son the endless entertainment, friendship, and, yes, frustration of a little brother or sister. With my hypothyroidism, which unfortunately is linked to miscarriage and fertility issues, it’s possible he may never have a sibling. I understand that many women who miscarry go on to have healthy pregnancies, but until this happens for me, I’m left wondering if I’ll experience the same heartbreak all over again if I do try for another child.
Even though I am his mother, I know I won’t always be enough for my son. He will need someone on his level. Someone who doesn’t look at him with confusion when he spouts a made-up word. Someone he can relate to and blow off steam with. Someone who can understand better than anyone else how challenging his parents can be at times. I don’t know if I will ever be able to give him the one thing I desperately needed growing up.
My son, of course, isn’t the only one who loses here. I’ve always wanted a big family, and I’m seeing that whether I can have this naturally has never been within my control. Nor do I have any control over whether a pregnancy will end itself, or whether my son will feel satisfied with his childhood. None of this has ever been in my hands, and how my son navigates the precariousness of life is going to be up to him — alone or otherwise.