My wife and I make great kids. We’re just really bad at being pregnant.
It took us 18 months of trying to get pregnant the first time. Nothing fancy, we just got off birth control and let life ensue. When we finally did get pregnant, we hit the trifecta — preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and he was footling breech. For us, there was never any question of a natural birth. Instead there were injections, bed rest, and twice-weekly visits to check my wife’s blood-pressure. It was a race to 36 weeks to make sure our son’s lungs were complete and ready. That, against the possibility of my wife going into seizures.
The running joke was that whenever our doctor said, “There’s only a 10% chance of this bad thing happening”, it would invariably happen. None of it was disastrous, all of it was hard. We occasionally wished it was a little easier, but there was a promise of our son, and a duty to see him through, so we endured (I say ‘we’. It was mostly ‘she’).
The week we hit that magical goal of 36 weeks, we breathed a sigh of relief. We went for the next visit to our OB late in the afternoon, and as she took my wife’s blood pressure, she said, “Okay. What are you doing tonight?”
We glanced at each other. “Um — having a baby?”
Turns out my wife’s BP was something like 240/160. We had to deliver as soon as possible. But since she had eaten that day, we would have to postpone delivery until the next morning. We went home, trying to stay calm — no need to elevate her blood pressure more than it was.
The next morning we checked into the hospital and, just before noon, we became parents. Our son came out great. His mother, less so. She had a bad experience with the anesthesiologist, and felt like she couldn’t breathe through the whole delivery. But back in our room, just the three of us, she started to recover (though while I was at work a couple days later I got a call from her to tell me she was hiding in the bathroom with the baby, avoiding the militant La Leche woman who was bullying her for not producing milk fast enough).
The day our son came home, I had to drive my wife back to the hospital after she collapsed with a seizure. The gestational diabetes had vanished within hours of delivery, but no one had told us that eclampsia would continue for weeks. The bed rest would have to continue as well. Fun stuff. Thankfully my mother was in town to help us with the baby.
My wife recovered physically, but went through terrible post-partum depression. Suicidal thoughts, anger, listlessness, the whole works. I did what I could, and she was a hero — she knew it was chemical, knew she just had to soldier through. And she did. It was hard, but at the other end was our boy, who was and is a joy.
Growing up, I was a lonely only kid. I wanted my son to have a sibling. My wife, a middle child, agreed. So we tried, and got pregnant almost right away, only to lose it in an early miscarriage. We kept on, and got pregnant with our daughter. Despite my wife’s aunt, a nurse, assuring us that preeclampsia only happens in first pregnancy, we had it all again — the diabetes, the footling breech, and the preeclampsia. (I loved how her aunt simply denied the diagnosis to our face. “That doesn’t happen.” Apparently it happens 10% of the time).
So we went through the same steps, feeling like old pros. This time, when we reached that magical 36 weeks, it wasn’t my wife’s BP that forced us to deliver. Her amniotic fluid suddenly vanished, and our little girl would soon be in distress.
This time we had a better anesthesiologist, making the delivery much smoother. Once our daughter was out and I’d cut the cord, my wife and I held hands and looked to the doctor over the little curtain above my wife’s chest. “Okay,” we said.
“Okay? While I’m in here — we’re doing this? Are you sure?”
We nodded. We were tying my wife’s tubes — though that’s not how it’s done anymore. These days they cauterize the fallopian tubes, making surer than sure there would be no more babies.
Our doctor did the first, zapping the tube with the medical version of a soldering iron. Then she checked in again. “This is it. Are you sure?”
“Very sure,” we said. We’d tempted fate twice. We had all the family we could want. Two and out. An heir and a spare. Done.
It is not lost on me that, in any other century, my wife would have died in either pregnancy. I am grateful beyond words to our doctors and nurses, to modern medicine, and the love and support of family and friends.
It’s a shame none of them could help us with our next pregnancy.
It was three years later when my wife had a sudden craving for Cool Ranch Doritos. We both laughed, because she hated the things — except when she was pregnant. “Maybe I should go get a test,” I joked.
The next day she quietly asked if I would do just that. I did. She took it, and returned with a positive stick and a stricken look. We were pregnant again.
We rushed to her OB, who was stunned. She reviewed the charts, was absolutely sure the tubes were closed. But asking around, she found that other doctors had experienced this very rare occurrence. Even with properly closed tubes, an egg can slip out. Apparently there wasn’t even a 10% chance. More like .1%. I remember thinking of Jurassic Park and Jeff Goldblum saying, “Life finds a way.”
For 24 hours I embraced the possibility. Okay. Three kids. We can do this. I started building up the positive thoughts we would need. I’m a ‘magical thinker’, I’m told. I try to will good things to happen. So I started to nurture a little kernel of excitement.
I said something along these lines to my wife, and I saw her face freeze like a deer in the open. “I don’t know if I can do this again,” she told me. She loves our kids. She didn’t want to disappoint me. But she was terrified.
She was right to be.
When we went in that day for another set of tests, her blood pressure was already rising dangerously. Worse, her creatine numbers were spiking, far too early. As our OB later told another doctor, “One of them wasn’t making it out of that pregnancy alive.”
But she never came right out to say that to us. She couldn’t. She’s part of a prestigious practice, one that doesn’t want trouble with protestors or gotcha undercover videos. Without telling us flat-out how truly dangerous this pregnancy would be, she made it very clear by her slow recitation of facts, figures, percentages, complications, and more than anything by her demeanor, that this was likely fatal. She hinted, but didn’t want to ever be accused of leading us towards the inevitable conclusion.
Thus the word ‘abortion’ was never mentioned, even behind closed doors, until we said it. Up until then, our doctor had spoken only of “weighing our options,” and “depending on what you want to do.”
What we wanted to do was keep my wife alive. “Should we have an abortion?”
“If that’s what you choose,” she told us, clearly relieved, “I can get you the number for Planned Parenthood.” That was as far as she could go, and only after we’d asked.
How I wish she had been able to take care of us through the rest of it. She had kept my wife alive twice before. We trusted her completely, and still do. But her hands were tied. For whatever reason — legal, political, professional — she couldn’t prescribe the necessary drugs.
Sometimes we wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t picked up on the signals. If we had decided to risk it, without fully understanding the dangers. And we wonder, too, if there are other patients who miss similar signals, glaring semaphores though they may be. We fear for them.
Already unnerved and scared, we called Planned Parenthood, only to be made even more anxious when they said they couldn’t help us for another month. At which time we’d be past the point where we could have a medical abortion. It would have to be surgical.
That seemed insane, especially with my wife’s rising blood pressure. So we found another clinic in the city that performed abortions. We made an appointment, and then held each other and tried not to cry in front of our kids.
On the day of the first appointment — there have to be two — we drove around until we found the back entrance to their parking lot. We’d been told to come in that way. Why? For our protection. There were covered fences around the lot, and a few desultory people with signs beyond, protesting. It wasn’t loud, but we knew they were there.
I felt a surge of anger. Who were they, to judge us? I took it very personally. I wanted to go shout at them, tell them they weren’t helping. They should go volunteer at a homeless shelter, or a daycare, or a hospital! Do something that helped people!
In truth, they were helping, if in a perverse way. It helped having someone to be angry at.
We went inside and checked in. It wasn’t exactly dim, just softly lit, with TVs high in several corners to distract those waiting — a few young women with their parents, a couple of men each waiting for someone. No one made eye contact. No one talked on their phones. We didn’t want to know each others’ stories. My wife and I just sat and held hands. Then they called her into the intake room.
I found out a lot of things that day. I found out that the two doors leading outside were each separately buzzed, and were bulletproof. That mail deliveries were screened for bombs or powders. That we couldn’t have an abortion on the day of the first appointment, because too many women come in with fake pregnancies to try and catch the doctors doing some imagined wrong. That I wasn’t allowed to be with my wife when she was interviewed by the nurse, because too many women are pressured into having abortions.
Afterwards, through tears, my wife told me about her interview with the intake nurse. An older woman, very grandmotherly, she reviewed my wife’s charts as they talked about our situation. She asked all the questions to make sure this decision was not being made lightly or under duress. She learned we had two children already, and we were both happily married and employed.
When she saw that my wife’s tubes had been tied, she rose from her chair to hug my wife and very kindly said, “Oh honey. You shouldn’t be here.”
We left, and came back two days later for the medicine. This time I was allowed to be with her. The doctor had to watch her take the first set of pills, in case she didn’t swallow them but instead palmed them to smuggle them out. Then she gave us the other pills, with instructions, and sent us home.
It was awful, and painful. My wife lay on the bathroom floor, while I tried to occupy our two kids. “Mommy’s sick,” I told them. I was glad to have something to do that was useful. Because there was nothing I could do for her.
The pain passed. The pregnancy ended. But that wasn’t the end. My wife had all the joys of post-partum again, this time with enormous doses of guilt, sadness, and rage. Especially rage. Her anger would flare in stunning ways — never at work, rarely around the kids. Just with me. Not at me. But I was allowed to see it.
Her rage frightened me so much that I convinced her to see a grief counselor. We found an excellent one. The counselor talked to our doctor, learned everything about us, cut her rate in half so we could afford her, and took my wife on as a client. It was to her that our OB said we wouldn’t have made it out alive, and she passed that comment along to help assuage my wife’s guilt.
It’s years later. My wife’s rage is better, though not gone. Same with her sadness. She had to end her grief counseling when the counselor retired. She wasn’t interested in starting over again with someone new. I understand, but wish she had gotten to finish, to stop of her own volition. There are days where I can see her fighting the depression and the rage. Mostly she wins. Sometimes it’s a draw.
And me? I turned it off. Cauterized it. Shut it out. There is a wall I simply do not go behind. For that way lies, if not madness, lasting sadness. And to no point. There is no one to blame. In hindsight, I should have gotten a vasectomy at the same time her tubes were tied. We took more precautions after, of course.
We love each other just as much. It hasn’t affected how we live, how we raise our children, how we talk, or our sex life. But it’s here, with us. Made worse because we can’t talk to people about it. There are a handful of friends who know — her close friends from whom she needed (and got) support; a couple of my friends who live far away, whom I could write to but not see. My parents know, but not hers. Especially not her extended family. They’re overtly religious, and while we could have used comfort, we didn’t trust them to comfort us. Their track record for being non-judgmental has been less than stellar.
We tell a lot of stories, my wife and I. We talk about everything. Except this. We don’t tell this story. We don’t talk about this. Is it because we’re afraid? Because there is nothing to say? Or is it because we are not allowed?
Writing the story briefly to one friend just afterwards, he responded: “I am so sorry. I don’t even know what to say. When people equate ‘pro-choice’ with ‘pro-abortion’, they need to hear stories like this one. I don’t know anyone who is pro-abortion, but the real world is too complicated to put anything into buzz words or absolutes.”
I answered that I didn’t want to expose my wife to the flood of hate that would come her way. He answered: “That is the tragedy in all of this. The stories are too painful and too personal to share and invite the hatred. Then the other side can pretend they don’t exist. Please give her my best. Your whole family is in my prayers.”
Thing is, he’s right. These stories do need to be out there. Because here’s the rub — ours would be considered an elective abortion. This wasn’t a ‘life of the mother’ exception, as my wife was not at the point of death when we acted. We would be considered among those who chose to end a pregnancy. And make no mistake, we did make a choice. Hobsen’s Choice, perhaps. But a choice. One I wanted to explain to the protestors outside. One I want to tell every anti-abortion activist. One I want to scream about.
Because I sat in that room, with those people, on the worst day of their lives. The worst day of our lives. You know what we all needed then? Compassion. Kindness. Understanding. The last thing we needed was to be judged.
For years we haven’t spoken of it publicly, because we still don’t want to be judged. We don’t want this to define us — among our friends, among strangers, even between ourselves. It could endanger our livelihoods, change the way we live our lives. So we are silent.
We know we’re lucky. We’re lucky to live where there are clinics to help. We’re lucky to have gotten through what would have killed my wife in any other era. We know we’re lucky. I certainly am. My wife, my partner, the love of my life, is alive. We have two beautiful children growing up healthy and whole with their mother still here to love them. There is no doubt in my mind that we made the correct choice. Never do I pause to consider a different one.
That does nothing for the sadness or the rage. There are simply things that one must take a deep breath and live through.
“Oh honey — you shouldn’t be here.” Those words have stayed with us ever since. They were meant as comfort, and taken as such. But in the years since, my wife has wondered if that means there are women who should be here. Was ours a ‘good’ abortion? Is it somehow palatable because of the medical dangers? Because of our age, or our already having a family? There is an inherent judgment in those words. Judging others for being young, or foolish, or careless, or lazy. As if they had not also found themselves in an unexpected position, frightened and judged and ashamed, and had to make a hard decision and then endure the worst day of their lives.
Even if what the nurse said was true, that we shouldn’t have been there, it makes no difference. We don’t live in a world of ‘should’s. We live in this world. We do what we have to do.
It could have just been made a little easier.