Talking About Miscarriages
This is not a pregnancy announcement.
This is an ultrasound picture of a little pre-person who didn’t make it. One of four, in fact, which Mother Nature decided would not make the cut.
Losing a baby is a hard thing to talk about. That’s why I’m posting about it. I don’t want to alarm anyone reading this — losing four pregnancies in a row is unusual. But ordinarily our Facebook News Feeds are full of the ones that made it — the gurgling babies and chocolate-smothered toddlers. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone post about a miscarriage, and I know it would have helped me to know that I wasn’t alone going though my losses. So I want to share my experience in the hope that someone else reads this and knows that they aren’t the only one dealing with a special kind of secret grief.
My husband Chris and I first found out we were pregnant in the summer of 2015. We were lucky enough to get pregnant on our very first try, and immediately started brainstorming baby names. Anyone who has been pregnant will know this, but after you find out you are expecting, there is an agonizing wait until the first doctor’s appointment and ultrasound. There is really no way of knowing if everything is going to be ok.
When Chris and I showed up to the hospital at almost nine weeks pregnant, we were nervous but excited. It quickly became clear that something was wrong when the picture on the ultrasound machine didn’t resemble the ones I’d obsessively Googled. Our baby was alive, just; too small and with a very slow heartbeat. An ultrasound a week later confirmed the worst.
There are some options when you have what’s called a ‘missed’ miscarriage — the fetus didn’t make it, but your body hasn’t realized yet. You can take a pill to start the process, or you can have a procedure called a D&C which involves a metal scraper, a suction tube and some happy drugs. I opted for the latter in the hope of getting things over and done with as quickly as possible.
I’m a wimp when it comes to paper cuts, but it turns out I’m pretty stoic when it comes to unpleasant gynecological procedures. I was a champ in the operating chair, cracking jokes and planning vacations. A lovely nurse held my hand and told me to cry now, instead of holding back the tears for a later date. She was right of course.
Unfortunately, the procedure didn’t go as well as hoped. Five days later I was in the ER and intimately acquainted with a morphine IV. The doctors repeated the procedure, and it was much less fun the second time around. It was Labor Day, and the irony was not lost on me.
Flash forward to April 2016. Chris and I were lucky enough to be pregnant again, and feeling optimistic. The miscarriage was early, and happened at home. We were watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens on a Saturday night when I started cramping and bleeding. I talked to an on-call nurse who told me to take Tylenol, lie on my left side, and let nature take its course. I lay awake all night in agony, watching the red light on our smoke alarm blink on and off. Half delirious and without my glasses on, I could have sworn it was a pair of malevolent eyes staring back at me.
I found it hard to know how to feel after losing a pregnancy so early on. I felt guilty grieving over what was essentially just a handful of cells — we had so much else in our lives to be grateful for, and others go through much greater hardships. But it was still crushing. What I think makes losing a baby even harder is the fact that you aren’t supposed to talk about it. As soon as you find out you are pregnant, you have to start devising elaborate cover stories for why you aren’t drinking (or eating a ridiculously long list of foods). I imagine the idea is that you then avoid the heartbreak of having to tell friends and family if you subsequently miscarry. But the net effect is that the entire subject becomes taboo. At least one in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage for a woman my age, but I had no idea that it was a common occurrence. I would never encourage anyone to share something they weren’t comfortable doing so. But for me, the secrecy made everything worse. Was I supposed to be ashamed about what happened, as well as sad?
The third loss was definitely the worst. Fall of 2016 and things were going great. We were thrilled to make it to the second trimester, when the risk of miscarriage significantly reduces. This was it! Unfortunately, a blood test revealed a high risk of a devastating chromosomal abnormality, Trisomy 13. It’s the kind where you are unlikely to carry to term, and if you do the life expectancy for your baby is a matter of days. If you have a strong constitution, look it up on Wikipedia. There are pictures. When we got the test results, frankly, I lost it and cried for a whole afternoon. (I had a headache for a full 24 hours afterwards, since most painkillers aren’t recommended when you are pregnant. That sucked too.) But then I put on a brave face and decided to hope for the best — the test only has a 39% positive predictive value, so there was more chance of everything being ok than not. To find out for sure, I went into hospital for a Chorionic Villous Sampling (CVS) with a very jolly doctor from Texas so a sample of the placenta could be tested (and yes, the needle is as giant as everyone says it is). Somehow, it took almost two weeks to get the results. I went through the motions of daily life in the meantime. When our worst fears were confirmed, I was honestly just numb. I had worked so hard to stay positive, and the universe was telling me otherwise. For a confirmed optimist like me, this was almost as hard as losing the pregnancy.
If people don’t talk about miscarriages, they certainly don’t talk about terminations. We consulted my doctor and our genetic counselor, and they both said they had never come across a patient who had continued with a known Trisomy 13 pregnancy. I was booked in for the earliest possible surgery slot.
The procedure was pretty much the same as last time, but since I was by this time 15 weeks along, they put me under. I hadn’t had a general anesthetic since I was eleven so wasn’t super excited at the prospect. The timing was spectacular — I missed a long-awaited work event (the amazing Black Leadership Day!) and a trip to LA. And then found myself the very next day watching the third US presidential debate, listening to comments on abortion by now-President Trump. I did not set out to write a political essay, but I will say that based on my experience, it’s very painful to listen to the most personal of decisions play out as a political debate — an opportunity to score points. It was devastating having to terminate a baby who was desperately wanted, but I’m so grateful that medical science is advanced enough that we had the information, and the ability to avoid further heartbreak and pain not just for us but for our unborn child.
To add insult to injury, weeks later the CVS results posted to the online portal for my healthcare provider. Although I hadn’t wanted to know the sex of our child, it was right there in the small print: MALE. We would have had a little boy.
I lost my fourth pregnancy two weeks ago, on a flight to Hong Kong from San Francisco. Hard to imagine a worse time for it to happen than alone on a fifteen-hour flight. I couldn’t bear to tell my husband Chris the news over a message on patchy Wi-Fi, so I counted down the hours until I could call and hear his voice. Clearly the plane was not about to reverse course for me. Should I turn around and fly home again when I landed? I decided to stay and make the best of my trip, which I did thanks to some amazing friends and coworkers. I was only a few weeks along, but it doesn’t get much easier. I think you just get stronger and gain more perspective.
This is an aside, but an important one. There are many apps and forums on the internet for expectant parents. If you sign up, don’t ever give them your mailing address unless you want them to send you samples of diapers and baby shampoo in perpetuity. The latest box arrived just yesterday.
I will leave you with three thoughts.
First, please know that if you are pregnant or a parent, I am thrilled for you and my experience doesn’t make me any less excited. Baby-making isn’t a zero-sum game! Please continue to share your joy, and your challenges. Being a parent is truly a miracle.
Second, I am so grateful to work at a place where I am incredibly supported by my colleagues and friends. I have no hesitation revealing that I am trying to become a parent, because Facebook is the kind of place where you can bring all of yourself to work without being judged. After my first miscarriage, I shared my experience with two of the people I admire most at work, and they both had exactly the same reaction — they hugged me and told me they loved me. That is the kind of place you want to work! #fbfamily
Finally, I would not have got through this without the support of my amazing family and friends. My husband Chris, for those of you who don’t know him well, is a superhero. Simply the kindest and most wonderful man alive. Thank you to my loving parents who comforted me at all hours of the day and night. And thank you to my friends who cheered me up with spa days, my favorite coffee mailed all the way from New York, flowers, wine (LOTS OF IT!!), cards, and cocktails in Hong Kong. I appreciate it more than you could know.
I wish I had some inspiring lessons learned to share. What I do know is that I am incredibly lucky. I am living my best life — an amazing family and job, in one of the greatest cities in the world. Chris and I are both happy and healthy, and I’m sure we’ll get another shot at a family if it’s meant to be. What has happened still feels surreal, like something you would read about in a women’s magazine — something that happens to someone else, not you. But compared to the hardships many face, this is a minor speedbump. If it happens to you, or someone you love, perhaps you will consider sharing your experience, if you are comfortable doing so, even with just one friend. You most definitely aren’t alone. The most important thing I have realized is that I’m stronger than I thought. And I’m sure you are too.