Miscarriage Is Normal and Normal Hurts
It happens all the time. It’s supposed to happen. And it’s devastating. Here’s how it was for me.
At the beginning of all of this, I had a premonition. When I saw the spot of blood in the bathroom, I knew. “No!” I said out loud, involuntarily. But it was barely a spot — more like a very pale pink tinge. It could be the embryo implanting, I told myself. It could be a little first-trimester bleeding. Still, I looked myself in the eye as I washed my hands and told myself silently, “You can handle this.” I kept staring even when the water stopped running. “You are strong,” I told myself. “You’ll be ok.”
In the picture my friend’s husband took two weeks ago, we’re helping to hold another friend’s baby. My two girlfriends and I are beaming, the two of them happy and buzzed on pumpkin beer. I am stone-cold sober but glowing, housing my tiny secret. I might be pregnant, I am thinking. You don’t know how weirdly appropriate this photo is.
None of my clothes fit that night, but instead of feeling huffy and angrily tossing shirts out of my closet, I had happily tugged a loose sweater over my extra-large bra. This bra is usually reserved for two or three days of the month before I get my period; I’d been wearing it a whole week. My belly hung over my skinny jeans, too, a first since the magnificent Ten-Pound Month in college. I was elated.
My happy glow didn’t wear off the entire evening, even though I was barred from the beer festivities. (Officially, I was the designated driver for my husband Andrew.) I drank a soda and sniffed each glass as my friends tasted seemingly every pumpkin beer manufactured in the Puget Sound region. I leaned against the kitchen island and carefully avoided the pepperoni on the pizza, smiling.
I saw real blood just as I was leaving for work that day, a Monday afternoon. Shit, I thought. Shit shit shit. I called my husband. “It could be nothing,” I told him. “But I’m scared. I have cramps.” They’d started on a bike ride earlier in the day, but were so mild I thought nothing of them. Since taking the pregnancy test, I’d noticed every glimmer of a cramp, and a few had come and gone quickly. I was still getting used to the reality that I was pregnant. Not might be, was. But I’d just made an appointment to go to the doctor. It was too early even for an ultrasound.
But I could tell something was wrong when I saw dark red. I ran up the stairs and pulled out my remaining pregnancy test. I couldn’t take it — I didn’t have to pee. And besides, what would it prove? I put it away, ran back downstairs and dashed out the door, trying to make sure I had my water bottle, my keys, my wallet. I brought a maxipad just in case. “I’m going to be late,” I told Andrew.
“That’s okay,” he said. “That’s not important.”
The sky was overcast and I told myself to relax on the ride over, a traffic-less journey on route 90. I made up a mantra: Please stay, baby. But I didn’t want it to stay if it wasn’t ready to be here. I said the mantra, then I didn’t say it. I said it again. I couldn’t listen to music.
At work, I began to feel worse. I opened the door to the office building and ducked into the bathroom. More blood, dripping damningly into the toilet. It was good I had brought the pad. (But if I hadn’t brought it, would the blood have gone away? Would it have been nothing? The only snippet of magical thinking I allowed myself.) I went into the little room where I tutor students, unsmiling, trying to stay calm, trying not to get upset.
As I talked my students through calculus problems and private school entrance exams, I could hear my voice flatten. Could they tell? Why didn’t one of them ask me what was wrong? I flipped the flimsy pages of a textbook and pointed to a problem. The minutes passed by in a steady stream, neither slowly nor quickly. I signed another student in and signed her out. The clock on the wall was my talisman; if I’m still bleeding after this student, I told myself, I’ll text Andrew. If I’m still bleeding after this hour, I’ll call my mom.
The hours passed. It all got worse. In between students, on a ten-minute break, I went out to my car and called my mom. My dad picked up, his voice sounding ultra-cheery. “Hey, baby!” he said. I didn’t want to make him sad but I kept my voice flat. I did want to make him sad. I felt like I was melting into the damp asphalt. I had been waiting to cry all evening.
“Can I talk to Mom?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. He must have realized something was wrong. “Do you need her right now?”
My dad didn’t try to make small talk while we waited for her to get off the other line. I remained silent, still not crying.
My mom finally picked up. I had six minutes until my next student. “I think I’m having a miscarriage,” I told her, without saying hello.
“Oh, honey,” she said.
“I only took a pregnancy test last week,” I said, and then, finally, I started to cry.
One in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, though they are rarely portrayed on TV or in movies. Mine was something called a blighted ovum, which is when the fertilized egg never gets past the blastocyst stage, the ball of cells that burrows into your womb. The blastocyst didn’t have arms or legs or even a face, and it didn’t have a heartbeat. But my body kept making placenta for a few extra days. And then it stopped.
Even though it was a very early miscarriage, too early to have much physical effect beyond cramping, it hurt a lot. Miscarriages are difficult, and because they are rarely talked about, bewildering. At first, I didn’t even know if mine qualified.
I thought maybe my mother and my doctor would brush it away with a bottle of ibuprofen. But my mom cried when I told her we’d only just found out and that I’d only just made a doctor’s appointment for us. When I called the doctor the next morning, she had me come in right away, at nine. And when my husband and I showed up at her office together, she gave me a hug.
I had never done anything like this before. I’m twenty-eight, and I had never been pregnant, let alone lost a pregnancy. I didn’t know if I was supposed to make Andrew come into the doctor’s appointment with me, or if I was supposed to experience it alone. I didn’t even know if I should make him drive me over. In the kitchen while we were getting breakfast, I told him it might be a good idea for him to come, because what if something bad happened and I needed to go to the hospital? “I can get to the doctor’s office pretty quickly,” he said. When he saw my face, he added, “But if you want me to come, I’m there.”
“I kind of want you to come,” I said. I felt very small, like a tiny clay doll that had dried too soon and was cracking.
“Then I’ll come,” he said. “What time do we leave?”
I didn’t want to look normal and none of my clothes felt comfortable, anyway. I put on sneakers and leggings and pinned my unwashed hair back. I looked like a mess, but that seemed appropriate. In Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” she writes about how people used to wear black to show they were in mourning. Why don’t we do that anymore?
I felt like trash as I sat in the doctor’s office and she took my blood pressure and palpated my abdomen. She drew blood from my arm while I lay on the table and made jokes about the first time I had to get blood drawn (“Lie back down,” the phlebotomist told me. “Your lips are white.”)
At the end of it, we sat opposite my doctor, who is actually a nurse practitioner and midwife. “You’re probably having an early miscarriage,” she confirmed. It could be harmless bleeding — lots of women bleed in their first trimester — but the cramps were a bad sign. She would test my blood for hcg, human growth hormone, which is the same hormone that home pregnancy tests detect. If my hcg level was lower than normal, then I was having a miscarriage for sure. If it was normal, then I’d have to test it again in two days to see if the hcg doubled, which is what hcg typically does in the first trimester. If it was doubling, then she would send me for an ultrasound to find out what was going on. But there was no point in doing that now; if it was a miscarriage, nothing could be done about it, and if it wasn’t, nothing could be done about that, either.
“You should take it easy for a couple of days,” she said. At some point, she told me, if it was a miscarriage — and it probably was — I’d have contraction-like cramps and bleed a lot. “I want you to call me if you see a clot bigger than a lime,” she said. “But call me from the emergency room.” A lime? I thought, terrified.
I still thought maybe I should go into work — these cramps now were manageable, and I could take ibuprofen. I could just leave if they get bad.
“Do you think it would be a good idea to cancel her classes?” Andrew asked.
“I do,” the doctor said. “I think it would be a good idea for your body, but also for your self-care. You should be kind to yourself.”
“Okay,” I said, relieved at not having to decide. I never would have canceled my classes if Andrew hadn’t asked. I was so glad he was sitting next to me in the room, so glad my doctor answered him so clearly and definitely.
We stopped by a drugstore on our way home and I bought $32 worth of maxipads and a box of hot chocolate. But on the off-off chance that I was still pregnant, I didn’t drink any cocoa that day, to avoid the tiny bit of caffeine.
The next morning my cramps were gone. I was bleeding, but it didn’t seem as serious. There had been no clots, lime-sized or otherwise. Maybe…I thought, and then didn’t allow myself to think. But at midmorning my cramps started again and it was as though all of a sudden, all the good hormones that had been making me pudgy and happy left my body. I stood beside the shower and felt drained. I stepped in and started crying. It was real; it wasn’t harmless bleeding; I was having a miscarriage. It was the second time I’d realized it in 48 hours, and it was by far the worst. I cried all through my shower, great big sobs, and then I sat down in the bathtub and cried some more while Andrew came up from where he’d been working from home on his computer and stood outside, in our bedroom, and talked to me.
I got out of the shower and dripped blood on the bathmat before I could notice it. Embarrassed, I dashed back at first to cover it up before Andrew could see. But then I thought, Why? This was happening, and it was difficult. I got blood on another towel and piled them up in the bathroom. We could do laundry. That was a solvable problem.
When I spoke to the doctor later on the phone, she confirmed what I had already figured out: my hcg levels were very low.
In an instant, things changed from potentially everything to definitely nothing. My breasts, which had not only swollen but also become reassuringly sore each morning since taking my pregnancy test, were now reduced to their normal size and totally pain-free. In the bathroom mirror, I saw the curve of my stomach muscles, which I hadn’t seen for weeks. My face looked white and tired. But at night, I dutifully swallowed a green prenatal vitamin. My doctor told me to keep taking them, so that when I got pregnant again, the vitamins would still be in my system (ideally, the vitamins should be there for a few months before pregnancy). There is nothing quite so shitty as having to take a prenatal vitamin when there is absolutely no chance that you are pregnant, I told my husband. Oh, baby, he said, and gave me a hug.
At first, we only told our parents. I emailed my boss that I was sick and canceled with my students, leaving voicemails over and over again that I was really sorry, but I was sick and had to stay home. It was fine. I didn’t want to tell them what was really happening at all.
I did want to tell my two girlfriends from the photo, who live nearby, and who work with Andrew. It was a good idea. “Do you need food? Girl time?” one texted me. Another left me a voicemail: “I just realized you probably don’t want to talk, but if you do, I’ll be around, you can call me anytime.” I called her and I told her the story. Already it was a story, even as it was happening to me— a few rehearsed sentences that didn’t convey how confused and unsure and scared I was. We made plans to hang out over the weekend, in a few days. I found out that both of their mothers had had miscarriages — one had two, the other had three. As it happened, both my mother and Andrew’s mother miscarried before we were born. When I got back to work, I explained to my boss what happened. It had happened twice to his wife.
The strangest part about miscarriage is that this is how it is supposed to work. The fertilized egg develops until something happens that is “incompatible with life,” as my doctor put it. And then it stops. That’s good; it would be really awful if mothers had to carry fetuses that were incompatible with life longer, or even to term. When they do have to do that, it’s very sad — to me, sadder than losing a pregnancy. It becomes the death of an infant, the death of a child, which is a loss I cannot fathom.
But this loss, a miscarriage, is a part of life. It is common, natural, and normal. “Incompatible with life” mutations are supposed to put an end to development, and beyond that, mutations are supposed to happen. Without mutations, we wouldn’t get genetic freaks like Michael Phelps. More to the point, we wouldn’t have the human race — the result of millions of tiny mutations, most of them unsuccessful.
I wonder if the reason that no one in a primetime drama has ever had a miscarriage is because there is nothing to be done about it. There is no cure, nothing I can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. There’s no research to fundraise for, no reason to “raise awareness.” Or maybe it is just too commonplace. Maybe we don’t like to talk about it because we’re afraid of jinxing ourselves.
But it is very sad. Andrew and I spent most of our waking hours sleeping while I stayed home and Andrew worked from home for a week. It is the defense mechanism we both have against sadness: napping. I took walks and knit some gloves, but I was fundamentally exhausted.
“You’ll get through it,” my dad told me on the phone. “My baby,” he added. “My little baby.” But I didn’t feel like I was getting through it. I felt like I was in muck. When the weekend arrived, Andrew and I took a long walk. I felt almost energetic again as we looped through neighborhoods full of old houses and down towards the main strip. We stopped in a coffee shop to get some breakfast.
As soon as we sat down and I sipped my normal, caffeinated chai, I felt the tears start. “What am I going to do for all the hours that are left?” I asked.
“The hours until what?” Andrew asked.
“Until I die,” I said, smiling blackly, trying to make a joke about my bleak mood. But I had to stop myself from actually crying.
Before we could finish our donuts, a pregnant woman with white-blonde hair walked in. “Oh, it’s another coffee shop baby!” the woman behind the counter exclaimed. I couldn’t look as I listened to them chatter about the blonde woman’s due date, but I imagined them touching her stomach. I didn’t hate the blonde woman; I just wanted to drop a grenade on the entire building and watch it all go up in flames. How could they be so unfeelingly happy? What if someone in the vicinity was sad? Like really sad?
At the end of the week, anxious to get out of the house, we had walked down the street to the next neighborhood to get dinner at a bar. I drank two beers and felt loopy, not having had anything to drink in a month. I felt the familiar wall that alcohol gives me between the world and me and my feelings. I was alive. I was well. I had the important things: love, family, friends. This lasted until we got home and I was alone in bed, waiting for Andrew to brush his teeth (what a goddamn responsible person). All the happy distraction disappeared and I was exhausted, spent, and encompassed by sadness. I felt it: total loneliness.
As a writer and as a person, I have always held my independence in high regard. But this experience showed me that my independence was a lie. I couldn’t imagine steeling myself to go into work on my own. I couldn’t imagine sitting at home alone, wondering what was happening to me. I wasn’t independent at all; I was totally dependent on Andrew, my mother, my father, my doctor, and my friends. What a lucky person I am, to be so dependent.
And while I was pregnant, I felt so wonderfully depended upon. I stopped jaywalking and crossed at the light. I held my hand over my stomach, anticipating. I wondered if I would ever downhill ski again. Maybe not! It was spectacular feeling so needed, so special. Other people could go skiing — but not me. I would have another person to look out for, for the rest of my life.
When I was pregnant, I felt like I extended beyond my skin. I was connected to life, to the universe, to everything. I was a carrier for another soul. That was deep, dude. And when I had the miscarriage, I was surprised — I didn’t feel mad at my body, the way I usually do when I get my period. I was only sad, because the little hovery glow I imagined behind my navel was leaving me behind. I was just me again, alone, normal. It hasn’t worn off. I am still surprised at how empty normal feels.