We were on a cobble-stoned street in central Rome when I got the voicemail. The hospital in Copenhagen where I was registered to give birth had called while my phone was in airplane mode saving battery, asking to call them back within the next 30 minutes or in the morning. I had had an amniocentesis done a couple of weeks before this, and knew a phone call meant nothing good: the preliminary results had come back “normal,” but we had been awaiting the full analysis — the one checking for the very rare chromosomal disorders.
We had been feeling confident and happy for the first time in this roller coaster of a first pregnancy; we’d made it through hematoma-related bleeding, a bad nuchal fold scan with an elevated risk for Edward’s Syndrome, and an inconclusive follow-up ultrasound. Now finally the common diseases were out of the way, our little girl was just a bit small, and that was nothing to worry about! We went to Rome fully expecting the news by post that our baby daughter was in fact just fine. We were not anticipating the bad news phone call.
I finally managed to reach the doctor in charge at the hospital before she left for the day. The news was grim: the baby had an extremely rare, fatal, non-genetic chromosomal disorder. Instead of having 2 copies of every chromosome, she had 3–69 chromosomes. We found a small side street, miraculously empty of people, while I digested this news. I had no choice: I would have to terminate the pregnancy. Not only that, but because I was at 18 weeks, in order to protect my life and ability to have children in the future this termination couldn’t be done surgically. I would have to deliver my dying daughter. She was, quote, “incompatible with life.”
I felt sick to my stomach. Minutes earlier, my feet and back had been screaming to get back to the hotel for a quick lie-down before another evening of Roman exploring with my husband. Now, my entire body was alert; I could have walked for six more hours. My husband sat next to me as I broke down in hiccuping sobs on this random alleyway in this beautiful city, on a vacation we had taken to relieve the stress of this pregnancy and begin to enjoy it.
Eventually I calmed down enough for us to finish the walk back to the hotel. We notified our immediate families. I cried over text with my mother and on the phone with my father. After hanging up with my dad, who was apartment-sitting for us in Copenhagen, I wrote to him and asked him to go to the shelf of baby stuff in our bedroom and hide the contents somewhere. We’d bought a mobile of clouds and stars, as well as a Darth Vader onesie, a fluffy cat winter hat, and a pink cotton blanket delicately decorated with small bunnies. I hated to make this request of my father but I wanted no visual reminders when we got home. My husband called his mother when he went out for a cigarette. Once that was done, we sat in bed for a couple of hours, alternating between silence and rambling. I’ve seen my husband cry exactly three times in the time I’ve known him. This was the third.
We managed to get ourselves together enough to venture out for a late dinner. I had my first sip of alcohol in over four months: a glass of wine with my pizza. In that moment, when the wine hit my mouth, I felt so guilty. But I knew then, too, that in a way, it was over.
With just one day left on the itinerary, we decided to finish our trip and enjoy a day of beautiful distractions before returning to the ugliest reality I could ever imagine. We saw Villa Borghese and its Galleria, and also ventured to the perhaps inappropriately morbid Capuchin crypt, home to a meticulously assembled installation using the skeletons of 3,700 dead monks. We ate well and discussed the baby as little as possible.
Going to bed that night, I was miserable in a way I had never experienced before. I felt a pit in my stomach, a hideous network of darkness. I took it out on my husband, refusing to cuddle and fighting sleep until almost 04.30. Boarding the plane back to Copenhagen at 07.20 the next morning felt like walking the plank, a last meal before an emotional execution. I couldn’t do it, and I didn’t want to try. I was returning home to deliver my failure.
I went straight from the airport to the hospital, for an 11.00 appointment to sign some papers, be informed about “the procedure” on Monday, and receive the pill that was to begin preparing my body for labor. I waited 42 minutes for the doctor to be ready. I was furious: I had taken an almost 500kr taxi to make an appointment I did not want to deal with any longer than I had to, only to be made to wait almost an hour. I was openly rude to the doctor and didn’t care.
She tried to explain what the baby had and I interrupted her: “Triploidy.” “Yes, triploidy, so you know about-” “Yes. I Googled it. I don’t really need to hear more, it won’t change anything.” I knew that babies who had this disorder had no hope for a life. The doctor brought up future pregnancies and kept saying the word “baby.” I repeatedly asked her to stop discussing anything past Monday, and to stop referring to the fetus as a baby. She wouldn’t listen, and when I was told to go home and come back that day to receive the pill — permission had to be received to give it, since I was past 12 weeks; “it’s just formulaic” — I said I would wait and wanted a room. I was stubborn, confused, angry, and unappreciative of her insistence on following procedure versus reading the situation.
I got the pill in an otherwise-unassuming white envelope. I was given a piece of paper with information in Danish on the procedure, given in a jarring sort of FAQ format. None of it was revealing or detailed. I didn’t feel more prepared having this shitty piece of paper in my hands.
I came home and melted into the couch for the next six hours. My dad was in town on business; through the weekend until Monday morning, he was at our apartment every night, making dinner and distracting my husband and I to the best of his ability. I eventually found sleep.
The next day was Saturday: pill day. I had been instructed to take it in the morning with some bread, as it could cause nausea and early bleeding. I knew from my own research that it had to be taken 36–48 hours before procedure time. I had calculated 48 hours to be 09.00. Up since 08.30, I procrastinated as long as I could. My husband was at work and my dad was out running a quick errand when I finally took the pill at 10.47. With our cat watching, oddly sympathetic, I cried alone in the apartment.
I had so many questions, and no appropriate reactions to anything. My dad got home and eventually asked innocently if I had taken the pill, and if I had to take more than one. I broke down at this: he’d opened a floodgate. I expressed my dissatisfaction with the prenatal care I had received at my assigned hospital. I told him I was scared of dying during the termination, of returning to work, of ever trying for a child again — of everything. He didn’t know what to say, really. But he sat on the couch as I cried laying down, and he hugged me and told me everything would be ok and that he was proud of me. I felt like I was seven years old.
The rest of that day and Sunday passed in a haze. I felt nauseous Saturday evening but it passed with a Coke. Sunday night, bleeding began. In between I spent hours on my phone, desperately searching for any real information on this type of second-term abortion. Message boards were my best source; they gave me personal accounts and the correct term to search for: I had been googling “late-term abortion,” “induced abortion,” “labor abortion,” and I should have just googled “tfmr.” Tfmr stands for “terminated for medical reasons.” It didn’t give me better results, but it at least filtered out the ones that weren’t applicable.
This was incredibly frustrating. I wasn’t far enough along to have attended any prenatal classes yet; my first midwife appointment had been just a week or two prior, and we had received information on such classes then. I didn’t know anything about labor or pain-relief techniques. I had no idea what to expect, and the internet for once was giving me very little in return.
A Jezebel interview serendipitously appeared on my Twitter feed in relation to current abortion rights debates happening in the States. It was a remarkably candid and in-depth interview with an American woman who had recently undergone an abortion at 32 weeks. This was the most revealing source I found. I forwarded it to my husband, who said it helped him enormously; although the woman was weeks farther along than I was, our pregnancies had many parallels. She also felt that things were over with a first sip of bourbon. The comments in the thread leading to finding this interview calling women like myself irresponsible murderers who shouldn’t have children (or sex) were worth it for the article.
Monday arrived, appropriately grey and foggier than I had seen Copenhagen in a very long time. My appointment was scheduled for 09.00. My husband and I held hands in the taxi. We were first dropped off at the wrong entrance. When we found the correct building, I was told my appointment hadn’t been “registered,” but she would “check a minute.” I was livid. I took out all of my feelings on the staff that morning, as well as my husband.
We were given a room, off to the side from others. I had a bathroom just outside the door, and was instructed to use the bedpan placed over the toilet if I needed to do anything. The nurse was kind, even as I was openly obstinate. She explained what would happen, and asked if I had any questions or requests. I said I didn’t want it referred to as a baby, and I didn’t want to see anything. I didn’t want to discuss what was happening and just wanted to be told what to do. She kept asking why I felt this way, and if I had or wanted to talk about it with someone. I said if I hoped to make it through the day, I needed things to be detached and clinical. She would ask me all of this again later, but I would ignore her.
I was told that every three hours until labor began, I would be given two pills vaginally to induce contractions. This could happen up to five times, and if labor still didn’t occur we would try again the following day. My research online had given me no indication of what to expect: I had read instances of the whole thing taking 2 hours and another that took 52 hours. I assumed contractions were short, sharp pains that came and went with increasing frequency. I figured we would be home in time for dinner.
The first pills were inserted. It was an embarrassingly vulnerable moment over which I had no control — though by the day’s end I would have no shame left. My husband sat by my head as the pills were administered and I was given two Panodil (paracetamol) and told to lay down for 30 minutes.
The first dose was ok; I didn’t have much pain, really. I actually managed a nap that my husband later told me was quite peaceful. Three hours later, at around 13.00, I still wasn’t bleeding, so the second round of pills was given, with two more Panodil.
This is when something started happening. I soon discovered a horrible reality: contractions aren’t at all like in the movies. It’s not a sharp, quick pain. It begins as a bearable sort of gas pain, and in prolonged waves increases to an incredibly painful tightening that can last minutes until it ebbs again. It never stops, it only lessens. If I had to draw what contractions feel like, I would draw a soundwave. Nobody had prepared me for this.
I managed for a bit before needing to call for a nurse. Panodil doesn’t cure a hangover headache, so I wasn’t really sure how it was expected to provide any relief in this instance. No adrenaline was kicking in for me: this wasn’t a labor of love or joy. I was fucking sad and I didn’t want to do it. The nurse returned with more Panodil and 5mg of morphine. This did nothing. I was so angry and sad — I’ll repeat these adjectives over and over; they’re simply the most appropriate. I took it out on my husband: I asked him to leave several times, feeling how horrible I was being and totally unable to stop it. He refused. I remember thinking, “This is how this ends people’s relationships.” I was scared.
My husband told me I slept again, but this time sporadically moaning and yelling out in pain. I don’t really remember this. At 16.00, a new nurse came. She was both more no-nonsense and more attentive than the first. I liked and hated this woman. The third dose of pills was given with another Panodil and 5mg of morphine.
At this point, I was quite ill from the morphine. I broke out in a fever and vomited. I walked hunched over to the bathroom when I needed it. Eventually, I was so warm and out of it that I took the pillow off the bed, propped my legs up on a chair, and fitfully slept on the cool floor — despite my husband’s pleas to try to relax in bed — for some relief. Sometime later, I was freezing, and crawled my way into the bed. No position was comfortable and I was angry, sad, and tired.
I kept telling my husband, “I can’t do this.” I was crying and felt pitiful, and embarrassed I couldn’t be stronger for the little failing life still inside me. He told me he was proud of me and that I had to and could do this. He sat by the bed and held my hand, and stroked my hair. He looked so sad. The whole thing felt like a movie. It was so dramatic and so unreal. My pain, the crying, being on the floor on all fours trying to find a position to provide relief: it felt like I was acting, even though I wasn’t.
I called the nurse and said I wanted an epidural. I couldn’t keep taking morphine, I felt like I was dangerously sick at this point. The epidural would have to be administered in another department so she had to make a call. But until then I got a proper dose of morphine via syringe in my thigh. This did nothing but continue to make me feel like shit. The contractions were horrific; at this point, I remember feeling terrible for just wanting it to be over with. I wanted to let go for my own physical relief but didn’t want to for my emotional safety.
Eventually, I was allowed to be transferred to the maternity ward for an epidural and the remainder of my delivery. My husband speedwalked alongside the bed as we whizzed along hallways and in an elevator down to maternity. I don’t remember much but I have an image of peeking into rooms as we rolled by to see if there were a lot of healthy moms. There were none. I was safe.
We were wheeled into a private room. You could tell it was normally reserved for healthy deliveries by the tub in the corner for water births. But this was thankfully the only sign of that: there were no posters with smiling mothers or babies on them, no other indication that this room was more often used to bring joy into the world.
The midwife introduced herself to us and informed us she would be with us for the rest of the night. She was both warm and professional at once. The anesthesiologist came in to administer the epidural. After explaining the risks, we began the process of inserting the epidural. I was instructed to sit up hunched over. A local anesthetic was administered, and then the epidural. My back was taped up and I laid on my back to try to spread the medicine evenly. A sort of fishing line was taped to my collarbone, and a device attached to continuously pump medication through my body.
Finally, I had no pain. My energy came back, and I couldn’t feel anything. The midwife was incredible. She gently asked if we were sure we didn’t want to see the fetus (we were sure). She wanted to make sure we got the closure we needed; if we changed our minds, photographs would be available at any time. For the next six hours she stayed with us, talking and answering our questions and making us toast and coffee and juice. We felt safe to be sad and confused with her. I think she saved both of us, in a way.
When my husband stepped out of the room, I got the courage to ask her something about which I was incredibly nervous: could the baby cry? She explained that it couldn’t, but it could happen that as it was delivered, the lungs expanded and a sort of gasping sound might be heard. This wouldn’t mean the fetus was alive, though — we should know that. I felt calmer knowing this.
We asked her questions about future pregnancies. Could this happen again? She said she had never heard of this particular abnormality occurring twice; it was incredibly rare as it is. Would having this happen increase the risk of complications in a second pregnancy? She said no, and that if there was any bright spot in all of this, I might actually be able to have a quicker labor the next time if my body recognized this as a first labor. Could I drink a beer tomorrow? Yes. She smiled at this one.
We talked about Donald Trump. We asked childish questions: what happens if someone poops during a water birth? (The midwife gets gloves and removes it; the pregnant woman is also offered something beforehand to help empty her of all contents.) Has she had anyone ask to keep the placenta to eat it? She hadn’t, though in her training she’d learned a lot of different recipes in case someone did ask.
With a whiteboard behind her loudly displaying the depressing length of my pregnancy (18+1), she told me that the only reason this life had survived as long as it did with this sickness was because of the care I had given to myself and to it: my vitamins, eating habits, and pregnancy lifestyle had sustained what should have been our daughter far beyond the norm for a triploidy pregnancy. This broke my heart into a million pieces in a way I had never experienced in my life, and yet it was exactly what I needed to hear.
I was told I’d be given pills to stop the production of milk. I was very grateful for this. I had read about women whose milk came in after the procedure, and the thought of it was so bizarre and upsetting. I am still hoping the pills worked, and that I won’t have to deal with that.
By around 21.30, I had been given a 1/2L of fluid via IV and had consumed almost a liter of juice. I should have had to go to the bathroom, but didn’t feel a need to due to the effects of the epidural. The medicine hadn’t spread evenly — quite normal, I was informed — so my right leg was completely asleep. I attempted to stand up to use the toilet, but it wasn’t happening. The midwife insisted I empty my bladder before her next examination and dose of pills, so I was given a catheter. Completely senseless, it was just one more out-of-body experience in this day. My husband and I laughed with the midwife as I sat and filled a bag with 400mL of urine. I guess I’d had to go after all.
The fourth round of pills had been inserted at around 19.00 after the epidural. I had now been in the hospital for 13 1/2 hours. I was exhausted, and — after feeling pain-free for a few hours and being able to discuss the emotional side of things with this magnificent woman — physically ready to let go. There was nothing left to do but wait.
Preparing to administer the fifth and final round of pills for that day at around 22.30, the midwife told us she could see the amniotic fluid of the baby: there was a bubble (that I couldn’t feel) now visible. She wasn’t sure more pills would be necessary, and the chief midwife was called in to consult. Equally warm and open, this woman examined me and determined we should wait an hour or so, since a lot had happened in the last few hours and it looked as though I might deliver without the assistance of more of these strong pills.
The end was coming. The midwife we’d been with told us her shift was coming to an end and introduced us to the woman who would be taking over for the remainder of the procedure. She ended up staying past her shift by almost half an hour with us. I can’t thank this woman enough. I can’t put into words the amount of strength she gave to both of us. Those six hours were so immediately intimate, and ones I will never forget.
We waited. After hours of contractions and no dilation and pain, it had come down to a bubble. I was concerned with the probable need for an outpatient surgery to remove the placenta following the birth, but decided to focus on that after the fact. Our miracle midwife hugged us when she left, giving us one more burst of hope and strength as she did.
The new midwife was just as calming as those we had met so far. She had been told of our wish to not see anything. While the hospital didn’t have a curtain, she found a large sheet and placed it strategically over my knees after maneuvering my legs into stirrups. Neither my husband, seated near my head, nor I could see any of it. We thanked her.
After some minutes, she examined me and this bubble again. She gently explained that she might ask me to push, “as though you’re going to the toilet,” if I was ok with that. I said I was. She informed us that she would remove the fetus from the room as quickly as possible following delivery, in accordance with our wishes. She promised she would return after doing so. We thanked her.
As she prepared a syringe of Oxytocin, to be administered immediately after delivery to help stop bleeding, I grabbed my husband’s hand. I asked him if he was ok, if he was ready. He said he was. This was the fourth time I’ve seen my husband cry. Holding his hand, knowing that in minutes this would all be over, I could see his tears building up through my own. I told him not to cry, and he said ok, but I immediately said that wasn’t fair and that he should cry as much as he needed to.
The midwife said to push. This was it: I pushed. It really did feel like going to the toilet…or actually it felt like nothing. Less than two minutes later, I felt a gush of liquid. I assumed this was my water breaking, but in fact that was it. It was over — and the placenta had come with it, eliminating the need for an outpatient surgery. There was no sound from the fetus. It felt so abrupt, and like nothing. It didn’t feel worthy of the importance of this little life that moments before had still been inside of me. It felt like failure.
I told my husband later that in that moment, when I realized how nothing the moment felt physically, I knew. I knew this life was unsustainable, I could feel its smallness, its sickness. Before the midwife removed her from the room, I morbidly snuck a peek at the table, looking for a sign of a life somewhere there, perhaps a baby-sized lump under a blanket. I didn’t tell my husband about this. There was nothing. She was so small, the table looked the same.
We were given toast and juice and coffee. I had to wait in the hospital for some time, to make sure I wasn’t bleeding too much or feeling sick. At around 02.30, I was told I was ok to go home, but because it was so late, we were welcome to stay in the hospital. I tried to get out of bed and could stand (the epidural had worn off), but was dizzy from lack of food and fluids. We decided to stay overnight.
We were brought back to the room where it all began. My husband was given a bed, and I received hospital clothes to sleep in: white underwear, white pants, and a white shirt. (With a cigarette, I would have looked like a member of the Guilty Remnant on The Leftovers.) I couldn’t sleep, so I put on the TV and killed time on my phone for hours until sleep finally came. My husband slept almost immediately. He looked so peaceful, and oddly far away and childlike in the bed just feet from me.
We went home the next morning. That day and the next were oddly normal; I cried a bit but generally kept myself distracted enough with sleep and activity to not be a basket case. The second day I even ventured out for a haircut. Except for excessive bleeding, I felt physically fine. I spent time with my husband, and dad and brother-in-law. We had a beer and pretended everything was normal.
Thursday, the third day, is when it hit me. There was no life inside of me anymore. I had already felt like a mother to this creature, this being with no potential for life. And now I didn’t have to. The flatness of my stomach infuriated me. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of pointlessness: the same ferocity with which I had approached being a dancer, I had felt about being a mother. The thought of returning to work, to have to use this body that had failed me and a life, filled me with dread. The sound of a baby crying in our courtyard put me over the edge. I spent the day in bed, crying during reruns of RuPaul’s Drag Race and hiding from the world.
It’s only been days, but every hour is different. When it hits, it hits like a truck. There are spans where I don’t think about it, and then something jolts it back into my memory along with a dose of guilt for momentarily forgetting. The knowledge that the baby would never have lived is no comfort: I still feel responsible for this unavoidable thing that occurred at conception. I still feel like I should have been able to fix it. My husband returned to work, and was promoted a few days after this. I find myself resenting him sometimes for his ability to function in the real world, for his logical mind and calm demeanor. He doesn’t have to bleed.
I think about the people online who call people like me murderers, who say we are irresponsible and thoughtless and — worst of all — selfish, who declare we shouldn’t have children. To them I say: I wish you could know how very wrong you are. How wrong you are for thinking this is a walk in the park, a decision made as easily as what flavor ice cream to have. How wrong you are for thinking some of us have a choice at all: I didn’t. My baby had no chance, and I had no choice. How wrong you are for thinking that having to deliver a dying or deceased fetus is something that renders a woman irresponsible or selfish. Going through what I went through, what many other women go through, was the most responsible thing I’ve ever done in my life — for me and my daughter. I went through physical pain for over 15 hours, and am still going through emotional torment, for the good of the fetus and myself. The only “choice” I had would have been to carry a death sentence inside of me for a bit longer.
So with all due respect: screw you and your hateful speech. I hated doing what I had to do. The love I felt for this life was unlike any I’ve felt before, and ending it in this way was the most painful thing I have ever had to do. I would never wish this amount of responsibility or hurt on anybody — not even you.
As I sit here bleeding, enduring a constant and colorful physical reminder of the newfound emptiness of my womb, I have no idea how to begin moving on. I feel an unshakable impatience to try again and an equal terror at doing so. I find myself willing my body to stop reminding me, using every superstitious opportunity to wish away the bloody reminders of our loss currently plaguing my body. I desperately want to feel something resembling stable; I want to be able to walk down the street without resenting those wheeling prams or enjoying the nearby park with their children, I want to stop the sudden moments of unfair resentment I feel towards my husband for his ability to function in the face of tragedy.
I want to be able to handle navigating the Danish health system to get us the psychological counseling we need without having to sit by on a waiting list for weeks as my mental stability deteriorates. I want to be done with physical doctor appointments for a while; I am sick of hospitals and doctors and blood and urine tests and worrying that my body is anything less than adequate and able to support another life. My newfound and extreme social discomfort is yet another thing I have to deal with in the aftermath of this horrible time. None of my reactions these days are predictable or appropriate.
I want to believe that this isn’t the end for us as parents and that my body does actually have the capacity to bring a life into this world, that this was just winning the worst kind of lottery. Meeting with my general doctor exactly a week after the procedure, he encouraged us strongly to try again soon; in his professionally positive opinion, “I feel strongly that your next pregnancy will be a healthy one, and the best thing for both of you is a pregnancy when you [to me] are physically ready.” His optimism gave us a brief moment of hope — something we both need more of right now.
I want to be strong enough to pull up the positives from this horrible time. To realize that through my rapidly decreasing moments of resentment towards him, I have never felt closer to or more in love with my husband. Find comfort in the fact that I see both of us emerging from this wanting parenthood more than ever, and see more clearly than ever how great of a father my husband will be. Cherishing the moments when I’m able to feel normal without guilt lurking in the background.
But more than any of this, I want to get to a place where I can remember our daughter — yes, I realize the fetus was not alive, but she was still our daughter in my mind — with love. I want to be in a place where it’s ok to remember, without wanting so badly to forget.