Things we used to wait for: the news, mercury in a thermometer to rise, letters from overseas, boats to come in from whaling expeditions, the fifth act, the fifth course, a turkey to roast in the oven, a pig to roast on a spit, the phone to ring, a tape to rewind, bread to rise, tea to brew, grapes to ferment … if waiting is lost, then will all the unconscious processes that take place during waiting get lost?
— Sarah Ruhl, 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write
On Friday we had two babies but by Monday we had none. Some light bleeding on Saturday led to some heavy googling on Sunday, and even though the internet told us bleeding can be common in early pregnancy (especially with multiples) my partner and I agreed it would be easiest not to hope.
Friday had been our first ultrasound, when the sonographer had seen two yolks — a figure-8 showing up on the monitor, rather than a wedding ring. She wrote ‘? twins’ on her printed report and told us to come back in a fortnight when they were bigger. We floated out of the hospital in dazed panic and exhilaration.
But over the next two days everything changed. After I noticed the first spot of blood on Saturday I tried to ignore it and went ahead with my plans, a family excursion to the winter solstice parade. Schoolchildren traipsed down the street in a procession, waving homemade lanterns to celebrate the shortest day of the year. Longer days were just around the corner.
I’d been so busy during this pregnancy, with our one-year-old daughter and with work, and I hadn’t had much time to stretch and meditate, to read pregnancy forums and books, as I had last time. It didn’t feel like I’d had much of a chance to get too attached. The most I’d done was download a pregnancy app and feel delighted (and terrified) by the close age gap our kids would share. Mostly, I felt grateful to be pregnant sooner rather than later. It meant this phase of my life would soon be finished; I’d be able to ‘get my life back’.
On Monday I went back for another ultrasound, this time at a private radiology clinic that was able to see me at short notice. I lay down on the bed and pulled my daughter’s pram closer, passing distraction-sized morsels of muffin to her. The sonographer, serious and matter-of-fact, told me she couldn’t see any foetal pole or heartbeat; she said it appeared that the baby, or babies (she wasn’t sure), had stopped growing at around six weeks.
I was eight weeks pregnant, except that of course I wasn’t. I put my jeans back on and tried to sweep the crumbs up off the floor with my hands, but the sonographer said not to worry. When I went out to the desk to pay I was waved away.
‘We don’t charge if it’s a miscarriage,’ the receptionist said kindly.
We’d found out about the pregnancy very early, well before my period was even due, and I’d felt nauseous from the very beginning. As the weeks passed my breasts got sorer, my body felt more tired, and I was already finding it uncomfortable to sleep on my back. The pregnancy had felt strong and persistent, so I wasn’t prepared for it not to be.
Afterwards, everyone told me that it’s normal: that from the moment you become aware of their existence, of course you’ll start to instil dreams and a future into these growing cells. But I was still shocked by how vividly I felt the loss.
The day the muffin crumbs fell over the sonographer’s floor I went home and cried. Called my partner. Called my mum. My brain understood that I wasn’t pregnant anymore, but my body still felt bloated and expectant. Over the next ten days the rest of me had to go through the process of catching up to what my brain knew was true.
I’d had a missed miscarriage,
also known as an incomplete or missed abortion, which is when the baby (or babies) have stopped growing but the body hasn’t expelled the pregnancy yet. I’d never heard of it.
My GP told me I had three options. I could keep watching and waiting for my body to deal with it on its own (that would involve heavy cramps and bleeding); I could go to a specialist who would give me the abortion pill to speed up the miscarriage, or I could go to hospital and have a suction D&C — a dilation and curettage where, under general anaesthetic, they would scoop out the remains of the pregnancy. This would be the most efficient way.
But I’d always trusted my body before, and I decided to wait a few more days to see if the miscarriage would happen naturally. I went about my normal business, wearing a pad like I was in early high school, thinking about how strange it was to be in the present tense of a miscarriage day after day. No-one, not even my doctor, could tell me how long this would go on for.
I had never known miscarriage as a verb, a thing that is continuing.
I didn’t know that I could be sending work emails and having a miscarriage, that I could be at lunch with friends and having a miscarriage, that I could be driving and having a miscarriage, that I could spend almost a fortnight having a miscarriage.
By the end of that week I’d still only had light bleeding. My doctor explained that the pregnancy hormone in my blood was dropping rapidly, which was a good sign, and that if I waited another week the ‘product’ might all be expelled naturally. But it felt like an emotional endurance test and I didn’t want to wait any longer. I wanted the D&C.
Waiting in a queue to make my appointment at the hospital’s Early Pregnancy Assessment Service (EPAS) unit, I found myself standing behind two bulbously pregnant women who were there for antenatal appointments. Across the corridor, a dazed dad collected his newborn in a scratchy new car capsule. When I reached the counter the receptionist stared at me, alarmed. That was when I felt tears, warm and wet, on my cheeks. ‘You shouldn’t be on this floor!’ she told me sternly when she discovered why I was there. ‘Go downstairs to the cafe. I’ll call you when the doctor is ready for you.’
The D&C was scheduled for the following Wednesday, five days away.
‘It’s a very popular procedure,’ the obstetrician explained breezily when I asked why it was such a long wait.
On Saturday night, three days before the appointment, I was getting ready to go out to a friend’s house for her birthday dinner. I went to the toilet and saw a clot on my pad, but it wasn’t like any I’d seen before. It was the size of a jelly baby, and the texture arrested me; it had small indentations, indistinct ridges. I didn’t want to flush it, so I shoved the whole pad into a zip-lock bag and put it in the freezer. My partner didn’t want to look at it, which I could understand, but I had seen it and it made me sad. That night I tried to be excited about being able to drink again, but my wine tasted horrible.
The next day the cramps hit me out of nowhere. I was driving home from the city when I felt my insides tightening and loosening in spasmodic waves. The pain made the short distance between the accelerator and the brake almost unreachable. Some cruel, natural instinct made me start practising the breathing I’d used for my last labour, and when I made it home I lay down with a heat pack for a few hours. There was a lot of bleeding, but it made me feel optimistic: at last, at least, maybe it was over.
On the phone to the hospital I explained what had happened, that I didn’t think I’d need to have the procedure anymore, but I was told to come back anyway to see if there was anything left. My heart sank at the prospect — yet another ultrasound.
So a week and a half after the bleeding first began, my partner took the day off work and drove me to the hospital. We saw the same sonographer who had done the first ultrasound, the one who told us we might be having twins. She turned off the monitor facing the bed so I couldn’t see, and another nurse came in to the room as per the hospital policy for internal ultrasounds.
My partner was stuck in the corner of the tiny room, barricaded by our daughter’s bulky pram, and he couldn’t get across to hold my hand like he always did. The nurse tried to distract me by asking questions about our daughter, but I couldn’t answer. The ultrasound hurt. She moved closer and gave me her hand to hold and I cried.
I needed the D&C.
The nurse who admitted me to day surgery offered us a drawstring pouch made of cloth and satin ribbon. Inside was a miniature pair of white booties and a beanie, knitted by volunteers for couples who suffer a loss through miscarriage.
‘You’ll always be the mum of these little ones,’ she said, ‘you just won’t get to cradle them’.
Usually I would have secretly rolled my eyes at something so corny, but in that moment her words brought me comfort. There was something about the way she said it— with warmth and compassion, but as if she were reciting the lines of a play — that signalled to me she’d said the same thing many times before, to many other women. I wasn’t the only one.
As two elderly orderlies wheeled me in to theatre making lighthearted banter— ‘Hey Lorelei, don’t you think Frank and I should start a moving company?’ ‘Yeah, but Pete, we wouldn’t make much money because we’re so slow’ — I felt myself choking up again. Who are all these people who help other people? I had felt so frustrated for days because I hadn’t been able to do anything except wait. But here, finally, in day surgery, all these people were here to get me through. I was in tears again because everyone was so kind, and Pete or Frank, I don’t know who, stayed with me until I went under.
For ten days, the miscarriage was a place I visited, a landscape I travelled through, and each day was different; I did the things I would usually do, but the air felt foreign, and as the days went on I became more and more desperate to leave. I hated that I was forced to dwell here; it was too definitive.
I hated that my miscarriage was always going to end the same way, with a miscarriage. But it took time.
It’s been over a week since the surgery and I’m still bleeding lightly. I tell anyone I meet that it happened, because it makes me feel better that people know. I don’t know why. I was walking the dog and child around the park and ran into a woman who was in my Pilates class. ‘How are you!’ she asked, and I remembered that just before the course ended I’d told her, only her, about the pregnancy, because her mat was next to mine and she overheard the teacher offering me the alternative, pregnancy-friendly poses. ‘I had a miscarriage,’ I said, and for a moment it was weird, but neither of us minded. She said she was sorry and the conversation moved on.
I found out from the internet and talking to friends that miscarriages happen all the time, that it’s no-one’s fault. I heard quite a few stories of women miscarrying their second pregnancy; that is, miscarrying after they already have one child. It seems a very lucky group to be a part of, if you want to count your blessings. And I do. Now, my first child seems like a massive fluke. Now, every child seems like a fluke.
I felt such relief after the surgery and was on a high for a few days after. I could finally move on. But now I find myself getting teary again at odd moments. An unexpected sadness, heavier than before, has thrown me, because now there really is nothing left of those two months when I was pregnant, and then the weeks I spent being not-yet-not.
My doctor reminds me it’s normal to be upset, that I should take as much time as I need to grieve, but the sorrow descends unexpectedly and it feels silly. I’m impatient, and I don’t want to dwell on something that never really was. But the persistent feeling in my body, that shock of emptiness, is stronger than I am. My body wants to be back in that place as soon as possible, the pregnant place, the full place, where the days are long again because something is waiting to be born, but now it’s my brain that needs time to catch up.
Lorelei Vashti is a Melbourne writer and editor. Her book, Dress Memory: A Memoir of My Twenties in Dresses (based on her blog), is published by Allen & Unwin. She is a contributor to and co-curator of the popular Women of Letters series, has written for many magazines, and used to write a TV column for the Age. She is currently writing a book about the modern baby surname dilemma.