This essay is adapted from Angela Garbes’ new book, Like a Mother: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy.
Four years ago, six weeks into a wanted pregnancy, I woke up bleeding. Thick globs of blood and tangles of tissue dropped out of me, staining my inner thighs and clothing. I called a consulting nurse, who calmly walked me through a few questions. Bleeding is normal, she assured me, as I sat silently on the other end of the line, not believing a single word that came out of her mouth. I hated her. I hated my body for what felt like a betrayal.
The nurse told me to wait a few hours and, if I was still bleeding, to come in so they could draw my blood to check my hCG level. Human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, is a hormone that doubles every two to three days during early pregnancy.
That afternoon, the bleeding had become heavier. I went in for the blood test. The next morning, my doctor called with the results, telling me that they were inconclusive and that I should probably come in for another test tomorrow. But I didn’t need another test to tell me what I already knew.
It was a full week before I stopped bleeding. To me, what I was losing was matter, cells—not a baby. And yet the matter annihilated my rational mind. In just six weeks of pregnancy, nothing in my life had really changed. And yet, as it slipped and oozed out of me and I was powerless to stop it, it was replaced by a screaming sense of loss.
* * *
The experience of pregnancy loss can be wildly divergent, even within one life.
My first miscarriage happened eight years ago, just days after a doctor’s appointment. My doctor at the time had asked me a routine question—the date of my last period. I couldn’t quite remember, and then I realized it had been more than six weeks earlier.
She ordered a urine test; I was pregnant. I wandered out of the clinic and called a friend, who within minutes picked me up in a nearby IHOP parking lot. A few hours later, my boyfriend, who would later become my husband, picked me up at her apartment, where I had been sitting on the couch crying.
I—we—did not want to be pregnant. Two days later I started bleeding. I went back to the doctor’s office, where they performed an intrauterine ultrasound with a long wand. “There is nothing in there now,” I remember someone saying. “You must have miscarried.”
I didn’t ask any questions. I don’t remember feeling anything besides relief. My body had made an executive decision, and I felt grateful to it for that. But five years later, when I was pregnant again and my husband and I were excitedly planning to tell our families at Christmas, the circumstances had changed. I still remember, on that morning when I began bleeding heavily, hanging up with the doctor and starting to walk the three feet from my bedroom to my bathroom and not getting all the way there. Instead, I lay down on the carpet in the hallway and sobbed for an hour.
My husband recently reminded me of something I’d forgotten. He said that the next day, when I was bleeding the heaviest, I had called him into the bathroom. I was sitting on the toilet passing large blood clots. I wiped them away and held out the piece of toilet paper to show him. I apologized because apologizing seemed like the polite thing to do, but I didn’t mean it. I was glad that I had done it. That he had seen it, too.
It was gelatinous, and the deepest shade of red I’ve ever seen—nearly black. As it fell out of me, I looked closely, both hoping and fearing that I would see something recognizable—a tadpole, a cashew-shaped alien, a tiny eye the size of a poppy seed on something that vaguely resembled a head. I was fascinated by the stuff. It may not have been a baby, but it was part of me—something I grew with my own body. And now it was leaving me. I rolled it in my fingers. It was warm. It was not alive.
* * *
On a cold morning two months after my second pregnancy loss, I stood in the darkness of my bedroom on the phone with my doctor. I was the same slight mess I had been for weeks, only now I was pregnant. My first thought was if there was any greater chance that I would miscarry. I had already Googled this weeks before and knew that the risk was about 25 percent, barely higher than someone who has never lost a pregnancy, but it didn’t stop me from asking.
“This probably isn’t what you want to hear,” my doctor said. “But I wouldn’t consider you abnormal until this”—pregnancy loss—“happened to you three times in a row.”
“So what do I do now?” I asked.
“Live your life. Come see me in a month.”
Despite his reassurances, I spent that month—and the two months after—still suspicious that I might actually be abnormal. As much as I tried to live my life—to be grateful for and enjoy this unexpected pregnancy—I was anxious and worried that that stress might cause me to miscarry again. I waited until I was fourteen weeks pregnant with the little being that would become my daughter before I started telling people. And even then, I was still scared. I don’t remember when exactly I let go of it, but I do know that, when I told others, it was their happiness that began to make the pregnancy seem viable and real. They seemed to have nothing but hope and belief. Perhaps it was that warmth that slowly melted my fear.
We are often told to accept life’s difficult circumstances, in part because we can learn from them. Gradually, we think of them less as things that happened but as things that are a part of us. The same can be true for pregnancy loss.
I picture pregnancy loss as a primordial river rushing through me; it carries forces so big, they eclipse my imagination. It runs through my femoral artery and vena cava, through my spleen, my brain, and the chambers of my heart. At first, this force is strong like rapids, flooding everything. With time it slows, but it never goes away. It rearranges my cells like stones in a riverbed. It never stops running, even after I can no longer see or feel it.
Miscarriage helped me understand that we become mothers not, as books and websites tell us, when our babies reach the size of an avocado or butternut squash but simply when we declare ourselves so. I cannot argue with my friend who, having lost a pregnancy and given birth to two babies, considers herself, always, a mother of three. That is her life, the reality her body knows with certainty.
Someone once suggested that if I hadn’t lost a pregnancy, I wouldn’t have the beautiful child I have now. She was trying to make me feel better, I think, or to help me make sense of things. It was a mistake. I remember looking at her face and thinking that if I hadn’t experienced that loss, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.
From the book LIKE A MOTHER: A Feminist Journey Through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes. Copyright © 2018 by Angela Garbes. Published on May 1, 2018 by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
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