Strike Three! Or, I Had 2 Miscarriages and an Ectopic Pregnancy Within 6 Months, and It Sucked
I cannot name a time in my life when I would say I was “dying to have kids.” At no point did I picture myself as a mom and imagine this as an unconditional, non-negotiable aspect of my identity as an adult. This is not true for some of my loved ones, whose urge to become a parent has been so real, so visceral, that the prospect of this desire going unfulfilled floods them with despair and devastation. I also have loved ones who are just as viscerally filled with despair and devastation at the mere notion of becoming a parent. I consider it a blessing not to know what either end of that spectrum really feels like, even now. (Maybe that even makes it better that my losses happened to me — not, say, to someone with a noisy biological clock.) In any case, that lack of certainty, my comfort in decision-making limbo, is what landed me in the boat that I was in last year: inviting a pregnancy into my body for the first time at the age of forty.
It’s a true and rare blessing to have a partner who’s been on the same page as me throughout this process — happy not to have kids, but, over the course of several months, exploring and arriving at a mutual decision: OK, let’s just have some unprotected sex and see what happens, what the hell. Well, what happened is that we quickly learned that I’m apparently not that bad at getting pregnant. Staying pregnant, it turns out, is a different matter.
Even all added together, my 3 pregnancies would land me less than halfway through a full term. I have no idea what the second trimester (or beyond) feels like. But I do know now that spending half a year going through the first trimester, over and over again, is bonkers.
We discovered my first pregnancy on Christmas Eve. Right away, I was flooded with classical pregnancy signs: everything smelled terrible, I wanted to sleep all the time, my boobs were killing me (which is terrible around the holidays, when there are so many people to hug). But then I miscarried fairly early, just in week 5, right after the New Year.
We found out I was pregnant again while visiting family for Easter. This pregnancy felt pretty different — intense cravings, lots of crying. The miscarriage began just hours before my first prenatal appointment, in week 6, and it was nothing like the previous one either. It lasted a little over a week, but only the first 2 or 3 days were physically rough. Emotionally, it was not as devastating as the last one — maybe because I’d been careful to stay realistic about a potential loss, this time.
And so, just a month and a half later, I was pretty wary about giving it a whirl again. My husband had a good feeling about it, though, so we said “what the hell” once more. One more shot at the first trimester roller coaster, what the hell. And boom, his hunch turned out to be right. I had a blood test in week 5 this time, and the numbers looked good. Painful boobs, major nausea — I wasn’t in the mood to eat anything, which was a drag, but seemed like a decent sign.
My first prenatal appointment was scheduled for just after the 7 week mark. The short version of that terrible day is that it started with canceling my scheduled appointment, and ended with my inability to poop or pee for several hours, with a bunch of pain (but nothing sharp or unilateral) in between. That night, we drove to the same hospital we’d gone to almost 12 weeks earlier; we were admitted to the very same room. The ER doctor did an abdominal ultrasound and said, “Well, I think I’ve found the source of your problems: you have a very full bladder!” which was a stupid thing to say, as I didn’t need an ultrasound to know that, and because it was a symptom (of what, though?), not a source. He said that I would be catheterized, which scared the hell out of me. He assured me, “Trust me, you’re going to feel like a million dollars afterwards.”
When they drained me of over 1200 mL of urine (that’s more than a quart), I felt pretty relieved, but I wouldn’t say I felt like a million dollars. For anyone given the choice, I would not recommend catheterization. I would recommend peeing the good old-fashioned way, if you can help it. Anyway, after that was done, the doctor did another ultrasound, and said, “Look, there’s the heartbeat,” which felt like the only silver lining at the end of a total shitshow of a day. But what a silver lining! Once a heartbeat is observed, all sorts of risks drop precipitously. And for us, it was also a true milestone worth celebrating.
So we had just about 36 hours to think, “OK, this time for real. Here we go.” We went in for the (rescheduled) prenatal visit, expecting for once to have a routine appointment that was finally routine. Instead, we were told that this embryo, the one whose heart we’d seen flickering on a monitor, was in the wrong place. And then the kind staff thoughtfully told us that nothing was scheduled for that exam room for the rest of the afternoon, and we could stay there as long as we wanted, which we gratefully accepted, making good use of that time and space in which to cry our eyes out.
The hours leading up to the surgery, and the weeks afterwards, were exhausting, painful, and blurry. Memorable and noteworthy: my husband speaking sharply to the phlebotomist who dug at my veins when she couldn’t successfully draw blood. Being told after surgery that it was “miraculous” that my Fallopian tube had not ruptured, because what was removed was “the size of a plum.” Wondering when my post-laparoscopy belly would finally deflate so that I could wear normal pants again (answer: several weeks). Learning that several people wanted a word with that cavalier, negligent ER doctor who had spotted a heartbeat on my ultrasound, but not the fact that it wasn’t in my uterus. Simple tasks taking a very long time, in the absence of any abdominal strength: lying down, getting up, getting on and off a toilet. The two hematomae that covered both sides of my abdomen for weeks afterward [warning: optional view of graphic image of big bruise in link!]. Realizing that going through all this with the support of a partner, family, and friends is a real privilege.
Reflecting on the fact that efforts are being made to change laws, to prevent a woman from terminating a pregnancy — even a non-viable one. (This was a non-viable pregnancy. Both this embryo and I would undeniably have died, if not for a surgery to remove it from my body. Ectopic pregnancy is still the leading cause of first trimester maternal mortality in this country. Where does the line get drawn, in determining which women can end a pregnancy (even a wanted pregnancy) growing inside them, and which can’t? Who gets a say in drawing that line?)
Finally, coming to terms with a realization: I don’t need to keep doing this. Also, there are so many kids already out there who need parents, but that is a whole process too, and can take way more effort and planning and money than getting knocked up (which, in some cases, can certainly take effort, planning, and money). And then parenthood itself — the most effortful, expensive plan of all! Maybe I just don’t want to be a parent that badly. Parenthood — even the decision to have a stab at it — is a gamble, a crapshoot, and I went to that casino 3 times, and lost each time, and it cost me a body part too. That adventure was actually not super fun for me. Anyway, I’ve already won the real prize of a partner who is still on the same page as me: we agree, our pre-gambling life was pretty great. We don’t need to keep visiting that casino.
Those were the thoughts and moments that stood out, as my mind cleared and my body healed.
Most memorable and noteworthy of all were the interactions I had after losing that last pregnancy. I should note that everyone with whom I shared my experience, to the best of his or her ability, offered me nothing but support, kindness, love, and concern. But it is interesting to discover the things people feel compelled to say upon hearing something like, “I’ve just had abdominal surgery to remove an ectopic pregnancy. This is the third pregnancy I’ve lost in these past 6 months.”
1. “Next time we see you, it will be with your baby — you’ll see!”
2. “You’re still young!”
3. “This happened to [so-and-so], and look at her now, with her kids!”
4. “You say you don’t want kids now, but you might change your mind.”
5. “It’s just as well, since I don’t know anyone who’s started a family after 40 and not divorced.”
6. “Just watch — now that you’re not trying, it’ll just happen!”
7. “Maybe you should have waited longer between tries.”
8. “Just don’t wait too long before you start trying again — you’re not that young…”
Footnotes to these examples:
#1–3 were said, obviously, under the (inaccurate) assumption that I would want to continue trying to have children. Also, speaker of #2, I was 40 years old when you said this.
Incredibly, the person who said #4 is herself child-free by choice. Why feel the need to say this? YOU might change your mind too, but I don’t tell you that. (Actually, the difference between us is that I have actually tried doing this. And that is how I now know I no longer want to try doing this.)
Person who said #5: I really have no idea what to say. Other than maybe you need to meet more people?
#6 — That’s possible, sure, but why say it, upon hearing that I am hoping it won’t?
#7 and #8 — you guys duke it out; I’m gonna go have a nice drink over here.
Again, I know that all these things were said without any malicious intent. However, a gentle suggestion: it is always safer to extend an offer to listen, before sharing your own thoughts — and then following through on that offer. You might be surprised what you hear — and relieved that you waited before you spoke.
It’s fine to say nothing. “I really don’t know what to say” is a beautifully honest statement in itself. Also, for someone who is wiped out from both pain and painkillers, compulsive chatter is neither soothing nor helpful.
If saying nothing feels awkward, uncomfortable, or challenging, you might try saying any of these excellent things that I was lucky enough to hear:
• “I’m so sorry.”
• “Do you want to talk about it?” [ONLY say this if you are, in fact, interested in actually listening to this person.]
• “What would be helpful for you?”
• “Do you feel like company today?”
• “Can I bring you anything?”
Open-ended questions are great. Not-so-great are questions that contain, and are based on, an existing assumption (an example from a different situation: the time I was asked, by a close relative, whether I was “comfortable with my decision not to have kids” — awkwardly enough, this was asked DURING my first pregnancy, and BEFORE I’d had any conversation with this person, regarding any potential interest in having kids).
I suppose one lesson from these conversations was this: when it comes to parenthood, or the prospect thereof, your thoughts and feelings are not always as interesting or important to people as their perception of your thoughts and feelings. And sometimes, their desire to share their opinions based on those perceptions is overwhelming.
Special and particular recognition should go to the folks I spoke with who themselves had experienced loss. Amazingly (or maybe unsurprisingly), NONE of them said to me, “I know how you feel!” I went to see one dear friend right after we learned of the ectopic pregnancy, and she said, “If you want, I can see if my Mom can take my daughter for a while; I remember how hard it was for me to be around babies when I went through my losses.” (I didn’t mind seeing her sweet girl at all, but was so touched that this was something she even considered.)
Friends who had not suffered this kind of loss, but who spoke frankly from their own experience (of pregnancy, of parenthood, of remaining child-free), and who allowed me to share mine, were also welcome sources of love and support. Perhaps it sounds strange, but I was so happy to hear from a friend who asked, “Didn’t you have a great solution for constipation and hemorrhoids? I didn’t have this during my other pregnancy, but I do now, and nothing’s worked so far,” because it meant she recognized and remembered that I had gone through pregnancy too. And because pretending that my pregnancies hadn’t happened was not as important to her as getting rid of hemorrhoids.
I wrote this earlier this week, on what would have been the due date for the last of those 3 brief, lost pregnancies. If you’re wondering whether my partner and I still feel sad — sometimes we still do. If you’re wondering whether we’ve changed our minds and are trying again — we’re not. If you’re wondering whether it’s tough to be around you or your baby or your pregnant belly — only if you’re annoying, ha. And if this experience has happened to you or someone you love — feel free to reach out. Each loss is unique, but it’s not a unique experience. You’re not alone.