Maybe you’ve heard someone use that phrase before, in reference to a binary situation where everything is black or white but definitely not grey. “You can’t be just a little bit pregnant.”
It turns out, you can.
But as it turns out, you can. You can be pregnant for a weekend, long enough to wake your husband at 3:30 am Saturday morning to blink without comprehension at a plastic stick, staying up together the rest of the night too excited to sleep. Long enough to text your closest family at an unreasonable hour to share the news. But only those few people, “just in case,” because that’s what you’re supposed to do — not because you think anything will actually go wrong.
Long enough to post an innocuous selfie to Instagram, so that later you’ll have a picture from when it was first real, before everyone else knew, too. Long enough to imagine how the coming seasons will be made entirely different by this new expectation. December is a full month of milestones: your wedding anniversary, the holidays with family, and both of your birthdays.
Long enough to install four different pregnancy apps, and then immediately revoke all of their email privileges for abusing cutesy language and the color pink in their frenzied attempts to profit from your baby excitement with data-mining and targeted advertising. (1)
Long enough to fret about still not having found a house in your city’s ridiculous market, and to wonder how many of your personal goals can reasonably be achieved before they’ll have to go on the back burner for a while.
Long enough to be the only one wearing a stuffy dust mask all weekend during your woodworking class, just in case, even though it continually steams up your safety glasses.
Long enough to think that maybe the lack of morning sickness meant that you were one of the lucky ones, and not that somehow your baby didn’t “take.” Long enough to think about names, to wonder about gender, to imagine making your parents first-time grandparents, and giving your nieces (on your husband’s side) a cousin.
Long enough to change everything, and long enough to be completely devastated when it goes unmistakably wrong.
We grieved alone.
I was pregnant for 5 weeks, though we only knew it for a handful of days. To the rest of the world, it was a collection of cells, too tiny for even a sonogram. To my doctor, it was a “biochemical pregnancy” and “not going to be an optimal pregnancy for you.” To us, it was a baby and we lost it. We mourned, and only a few people ever knew, because no one talks about pregnancy loss.
We heard, “It’s so common.”
We heard that it had happened to friends of friends, and unnamed couples in our social circles. Almost everyone we told was very supportive, but in the end we grieved alone because we didn’t know anyone personally who shared our experience. It’s extremely lonely and isolating.
I don’t want to stay sad, but I don’t want to forget.
After the initial storm of emotional chaos moved on, the hardest thing for me was sometimes realizing I’d forgotten to be sad for a while. Or worse, when it felt like nothing had happened at all, because it was there and gone so quickly. It was like waking from a dream: vivid and visceral at first, but fading over time to a muted memory without the impact of reality.
For various reasons, we immediately tried to get pregnant again, and I threw myself into figuring out exactly how best to do that: taking my temperature daily, taking all of the right supplements, staying active. I downloaded a new fertility/period tracking app, because my old one deleted years’ worth of data as soon as I entered the positive pregnancy test. (2)
I was consumed with doing everything “right” that month to maximize our chances, but also deeply saddened by the idea that something we’d felt so intensely and cared about so much would become a footnote in our lives, rarely thought about or discussed, especially if we did go on to have other children.
I had no physical reminders of that baby, no stretch marks or sonogram photos, just a plastic pee stick whose digital interface would eventually go blank. People react to early pregnancy loss differently, and I’m not saying my experience is universal or that everyone should feel the way I did. But one of the saddest things for me was that I might forget that tiny life ever briefly existed, so I started considering a tattoo.
I wanted something beautiful but transitory, so I chose a flax flower, which blooms for less than a day. I took a chance and emailed an artist I’d long admired who wasn’t taking new clients, hoping she might have a cancellation. I wanted to do it before what I felt faded any further, and it had to happen before I got pregnant again. It was a long shot, but a little while later she had an unexpected opening and offered it to us. The week before Thanksgiving, we drove up and got it done. The artist was amazing and sensitive to both my unstable emotions and general anxiety, and I can’t thank her enough.
We haven’t gotten pregnant again yet. In fact, we can’t even try right now because [reasons]. I’m realizing there are unresolved feelings I only managed to postpone by focusing so much on immediately achieving another pregnancy. It’s strange how I can go from feeling disturbingly little emotion about the loss to feeling everything as new and raw as though it’s just happened. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
The holidays this year are a stretch of time to be endured, instead of a period of celebration. I’d like for that not to be the case, and I’m trying my best to find the joy that still exists. There are plenty of things to look forward to and be grateful for, but I know my grief is an unexploded grenade that will detonate randomly, without warning. I’m prematurely embarrassed right now, by the thought that I might cry at inopportune times.
It’s weird to be so sad about something that’s invisible to everyone else.
It’s so common — but no one talks about it.
Culturally, we don’t talk about pregnancy loss. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that, trying to figure out why. When people do share their losses, it’s often within the greater narrative of finally experiencing a successful pregnancy, like when Mark Zuckerberg posted on the subject. Couples with his and Priscilla Chan’s level of visibility probably get a pass on staying quiet about their struggles, but what’s stopping the rest of us? Is there a stigma attached to failing to stay pregnant? It can definitely feel like a failure. Is it a desire for privacy? Is it because even in today’s “enlightened workplaces” women still don’t want everyone to know they’ve been trying to get pregnant because it could limit their career opportunities? I began writing this thinking I would never post it, because I might be in the market for a job sometime next year. Even in 2016, a woman hoping to start a family can be seen as less hire-able than other candidates.
The media we consume doesn’t talk about it, either.
Pregnancy loss is not often represented in media. Soap operas use miscarriage as a plot device to heighten drama, and anything bloody and traumatic has been on a medical drama at least once. But without a web search, I can’t think of a serious, realistic representation of pregnancy loss on any mainstream TV show. It’s not entertaining, it doesn’t have a reason for happening, and it’s sad. It’s not something viewers want to watch. And yet the dearth of told stories on the subject means that those of us who experience this loss (and there are many, or so I hear) feel like the only ones in the world going through it.
It wasn’t a “real baby” yet.
This final idea may be controversial, but I also think if you are pro-choice there is pressure to frame discussion and visualization of early pregnancy in strictly clinical terms: fetus, blastocyst, embryo, cells. If you believe in the need for safe and legal abortion to exist, which for various reasons in our broken system I do, those are the words that make sense. But the knock-on effect is that when a wanted pregnancy is lost early, there’s a sense both internally and externally that you can’t really be all that sad about a ball of cells. It wasn’t a real baby yet. Well-meaning friends said that at least it was only a bunch of cells, that it would have been so much worse if I’d been further along. And yes, it probably would have been worse (I can only imagine, without firsthand knowledge), but my heart was entirely broken for weeks, and it was so much more than a ball of cells to us.
It happened to us.
With all of my thinking, I am not much closer to knowing why we don’t talk about early pregnancy loss. Probably there is no one clear reason. But I wish it was something we talked about more; I wish someone had told us about their struggle so that when we needed someone who knew, there was someone to turn to.
Which is why, in spite of apprehension over how this may be received and wanting to hold my hurt close where no one else can see it, I will eventually publish this. It is me saying, “Hey, it happened to us,” so if someday you need someone to understand, you’ll be able to find at least one person who does.
Footnotes: Apps! The Good, the Bad, and the Eye-rolling
- All of the pregnancy apps will collect as much data as you’re willing to give them. They all require email addresses to sign up, and one of them will sell it to Similac, so for weeks you’ll keep getting unwanted mail about formula for a baby you’ll never have, which is a stab in the heart every time “unsubscribe” fails to work. (“Mark as Spam” is a better option.) BabyBump was the worst offender in regard to the overuse of pink, and sent several emails using the phrase “Golly gee!” without irony, causing me to seriously question if any actual women even looked at the app while in development. Ovia was the least intrusive and spammy, with a simple teal interface, and the one I’d be most likely to download again. All of them had a disturbing similarity with the assumption that pregnant women can only properly grasp the size of a growing fetus as compared to food items. (If you are developing a pregnancy app right now, please, please come up with something more interesting/clever/appealing to nauseated women who don’t want to think about food.)
- According to Glow customer service, the app deletes all previous data when your status changes to “pregnant,” to avoid contaminating the prediction algorithm with old data when you resume tracking after [the assumed-to-be-successful] pregnancy. This status change happens automatically when you mark a test positive — It doesn’t wait for you to manually change your status yourself. Obviously situations like mine (however common) weren’t accounted for. I’ve been told but cannot verify that a recent patch has changed the functionality that deletes that data. They’ve restored my data, but the app never worked properly again. For those in the market for period tracking/fertility apps, Clue is less naggy and has a cleaner interface, but I haven’t used it long enough to vouch for their cycle prediction.