Pregnant-But-Not-Really

Kim McAuliffe
Sep 29, 2016 · 8 min read

Previously I wrote about how, contrary to popular belief, it is possible to be “A Little Bit” Pregnant. This is a reluctant continuation of that story — for some, pregnancy is far from black-or-white.

We always wanted kids someday. After marrying at 32, we wanted time for ourselves, our relationship, and our careers before becoming parents. A few years later, the choice was yanked out of our hands with the words “Primary Ovarian Insufficiency.” It didn’t matter if we felt ready; it was now or never.

Our first pregnancy loss was devastating, but we didn’t know how much worse it could get. We only knew about that pregnancy for a few days. It ended before I was over the shock of finding out I could conceive and our lives were about to radically change.

I didn’t know it was possible to spend almost 7 weeks being pregnant-but-not-really, certainly not pregnant enough to celebrate or tell people or do anything other than hope and wait.

The worst things I told myself during those weeks were: “We should have tried sooner,” and “I should have frozen my eggs at 30.” I knew that waiting had been rolling the dice with my ability to get pregnant, but I thought we’d be okay. And if not, fertility medicine has been advancing, right? I couldn’t have known my real problem would be staying pregnant — a heartbreaking distinction.

I had a positive home test, and then a positive blood test, but my beta hCG levels weren’t “quite what we want to see at this point in a pregnancy.” I had to wait four agonizing days for a follow-up to see if the levels were rising, because the delta between the two is what reveals the most about an early pregnancy’s viability.

I spent days (and then weeks) having to live as though I were pregnant, abstaining from alcohol and anything else I thought needed to be avoided for a healthy pregnancy, the whole time fearing my pregnancy wasn’t “real” or viable and at any minute it might all end. Hoping that no one would notice me skipping the mimosas for plain OJ and give me a knowing smile that could only lead to awkwardness.

I even avoided things doctors and everyone else said were okay, like exercise and sex, because I wanted to give my barely-holding-on embryo every possible chance to stay put. I pleaded with God and the baby itself to “Please stay. Flourish. Thrive. Grow. Be healthy.”

I spent hours combing the internet, desperate for stories that offered hope, only to end up exactly where I started: obsessed and uncertain. Some pregnancies with low beta hCG levels result in healthy babies — but no one knows why, and plenty of similar stories end in ectopic pregnancies and/or loss.

I wondered what was wrong with me. Any woman can have an unexplained miscarriage, but two in a row is much less common. I felt defective, deficient, and guilty, because my partner was definitely not the problem.

I downloaded a pregnancy app just long enough to find my expected due date because I couldn’t stop myself. I deleted it before it could spam me with emails about my little “pomegranate seed” and shatter my heart.

A friend recommended Stitch Fix so I started creating a profile to check it out, but got stymied on the “Are you pregnant?” question and closed the browser.

I wondered how many more times I could handle this, how many more times I’d even want to try. At what point does the pain of not trying become preferable to the risk of another “almost?”

I saw babies and pregnant women everywhere. While standing outside of a cafe on hold with my doctor’s office, three baby-wearing women converged on me from different directions, chatting happily. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” came of my mouth involuntarily, but they never looked in my direction.

I took another home test, squinting critically at the lines to see if they were darker (indicating a rise in beta hCG.) I was hyper-aware of every pregnancy symptom I had or didn’t have, and worried that the former might be fading.

I wondered how some women manage to go straight from the joy of a positive stick to a healthy baby, skipping all of the uncertainty and despair in-between.

Somehow I made it through four endless days, unable to concentrate on anything else, getting no work done, snapping at my partner, useless at everything that didn’t involve sleeping, and even then I woke every night from vivid awful dreams.

I wondered, if my hopes weren’t extinguished by that next phone call, at what point I’d feel safe enough to celebrate. Seeing the heartbeat on screen? Hearing it ourselves? 12 weeks? 20 weeks? Would I ever? I wasn’t sure, and that felt like possibly the saddest part of the whole thing.

The phone call was bad. They said the pregnancy wasn’t viable and I should “get a period” in 7–10 days, as though it were any other normal period and not a failed pregnancy. I wondered if that level of obfuscation actually worked on anyone. Calling it a period is less upsetting, right? I was just “late.” There never was any baby.

But the levels weren’t dropping. They’d gone up a little — not enough to offer hope, not even enough for them to be concerned about a tubal pregnancy. I was now somewhere in the category of “still technically pregnant but not really.” I was told not to restart any meds I’d stopped “to be safe,” but also not to hold onto any hope. I was to come back in two days to see if beta hCG levels were dropping, and then I could restart my meds. They reminded me I’d have to keep coming back every week for testing, because until levels were < 5 I was still considered pregnant. Even though I definitely wasn’t. And no further fertility treatment or testing to see what was going wrong could happen until then.

I stayed in this limbo for weeks.

But right after that phone call, letting go of all hope was impossible. At that point, there was nothing tangibly wrong other than data on a chart. I felt fine. I visited betabase.info and saw that numbers worse than mine had magically turned into real babies. Until something undeniably bad happened, I couldn’t help wishing for a miracle.

After the third test, my levels were still shitty but rising. No entries in the betabase offered hope for my stats anymore. Now I had no real hope, and my doctor was concerned about a dangerous ectopic pregnancy.

The next week I had an ultrasound. My uterus on screen was unchanged and empty. I’d expected this, but it still felt like the death of all hope. The nurse reiterated that it was probably a “biochemical pregnancy.” There was nothing there and there hadn’t been for a while, but my body never got the memo. There was also no evidence of an ectopic pregnancy, at least. They asked me to come in over the weekend for another test but I refused. Now that I knew there wasn’t imminent danger, I just wanted a few days free of needles and waiting by the phone. There was nothing to do but wait for the next scan or the end, whichever came first.

They arrived somewhat simultaneously. That morning I started spotting, and the ultrasound was still empty. At least a gestational sac should have been visible by then. The scans were also getting more painful as a lot of pressure was being applied to get the best visibility. No one could tell me why this was happening again. Only some of the staff felt like they had a human response to offer. I cried getting dressed and left as fast as I could. My doctor was unavailable to speak to me in person until weeks later. All of my tests, scans, and communication for the duration of this ordeal were with her staff. This was normal procedure, but I felt abandoned. My beta hCG dropped a bit, signaling the beginning of the end.

Just kidding! The next week it had risen slightly! I just wanted the misery to end. When I saw my doctor, she talked about “products of conception” not clearing out and gave me a choice between waiting for things to resolve, or a D&C to get it over with. I had read about D&C’s potentially causing Asherman’s Syndrome (and additional fertility issues,) so I declined. When I asked about Asherman’s, she said they’re so careful with the procedure that she didn’t consider it a concern. I still wished she’d mentioned it as a potential risk and then talked about how they mitigate that risk.

I also had to press her on testing for causes of repeat miscarriage like clotting disorders and immune issues — it was clear that to her, neither of my pregnancies were real and the losses weren’t “miscarriages.” They were “biochemical pregnancies” because of when they stopped developing, not worth investigating.

I wondered how she couldn’t see that these pregnancies were as real to me as anyone else’s — normal pregnancies often don’t have any tangible evidence until around the time my losses happened. Her cold clinical dismissal challenged the validity of my grief and made me feel stupid for mourning what had only been “real” to me and my husband.

I wanted to break into tears at her chipper insistence that the lost pregnancies were a good thing, that we just needed to keep trying and eventually one would stick. Instead of crying, I detached myself from feelings completely. Blank and numb, I told her I could not try again without finding or changing something. She proposed using additional hormones to support a potential pregnancy the next time, which I clung to like a lifeline.

Two days later, there was another round of bleeding. My next beta hCG was negative. I was finally officially not pregnant anymore, but all I felt was nothing.

None of the tests came back indicating a problem. This was good, but I’d been hoping for some easy fix. My next obsession was researching how to prevent/address repeat miscarriages. I spent too much on supplements for egg health and fertility — I had nothing to lose. I bought a fertility yoga DVD and started fertility acupuncture. I hoped that hormones + supplements + yoga + acupuncture might be the magic formula for a viable pregnancy, the next time.

I’ve tried to stop thinking about how we should have started trying earlier, because those thoughts don’t help me. But I still want to shout from the rooftops so that others know what they might be risking — because I didn’t, not completely. I didn’t know things could be so much worse than needing some help to get pregnant. Surprisingly, getting pregnant hasn’t been that hard. Losing those pregnancies has been harder than I could have imagined.

It’s not fair and it sucks that women who want kids often have to choose between their dreams and their fertility, and men pretty much don’t. It’s shitty and unfair, but pretending this conflict of hopes doesn’t exist achieves nothing. Egg-freezing doesn’t seem like an extravagant or weird thing to me anymore.

When my period returned, I held the bottle of pills that would begin it all again like a cliff diver steeling herself for a terrifying plunge. Was I really ready to jump on that emotional rollercoaster again?

Kim McAuliffe

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Author and senior game designer. Hufflepuff. She/her. Former Xbox. Made text role-playing game about body image "The Mirror" http://mirrorga.me (desktop only)