The display flashed “Great workout!” and a sense of dread dug its claws deep in my belly. I stepped off the treadmill feeling like I was still moving, my heart doing that flutter thing again. I waited for the sensation to pass. It always passed, I told myself. Always. Hadn’t the doctor said staying active would help improve my mood? If it was supposed to help, I wondered, then why did I feel like I’d just been punched in the gut?
The bathroom stall was dark, but not so dark that I couldn’t see the contrast of red on white. A single drop of blood stained my underwear. It was a mistake to run. I should have kept it to a brisk walk. Or better yet, I should have done something else on my lunch break.
The nurse on the other end of the line sounded distracted. “How much blood is there?”
Was she joking? Was there any good amount of blood for someone in my condition?
“Uh, a couple drops, but I’m not supposed to be bleeding, right?” I said.
She assured me that some spotting was normal, common even, but I should come in anyway, “just in case.”
My husband met me in the doctor’s office waiting room. When the nurse called my name he squeezed my hand. “Don’t worry, everything is going to be fine,” he said.
Everything was not fine. The ultrasound confirmed we had lost the baby. My first thought was, “What have I done?” Was it the run, the stress? Our son, Owen, had been so easy. No sooner were we home from our honeymoon than I was pregnant. But that was four years ago.
The cause of the miscarriage, my doctor informed us, was most likely a chance chromosomal or genetic abnormality or less likely, a hormonal imbalance or problem with my uterus. She recommended I undergo testing to rule out the latter two. I did, and both results were normal.
When I became pregnant again a few months later, my doctor prescribed baby aspirin to protect against a rare blood-clotting disorder.
“Will it help?” I asked hopefully.
“Probably not, but it can’t hurt,” she said.
I stopped running on the treadmill and started doing yoga. I tried to be optimistic. Lots of women have miscarriages, I reasoned. I’m not special. It was all going well, until my ten-week ultrasound appointment. Lying on the table, my swollen belly covered in gel, the look on the sonographer’s face said it all.
I stopped doing yoga. I stopped doing anything that required physical exertion. There was no medical reason for this; it just felt like the right thing to do.
After waiting the requisite three months, we started trying again. By then, I could recognize the signs that I’d conceived within days of the event. I’d be sitting at my desk and all of a sudden I’d have a craving for a cheeseburger (I’m a vegetarian) and I’d know something had changed. Seven months—they felt like years—after our second miscarriage, I was pregnant again. And again, we braced ourselves for the worst.
My doctor had me take all the usual precautions: the baby aspirin, the vitamins. She also had me come in for weekly blood tests. When I was eight weeks along, one of those tests revealed my hormone levels were going in the wrong direction, and poof, another pregnancy was gone.
In the days following the surgery to remove my third pregnancy, the guilt set in. I passed my recovery time by quietly speculating on all the things I’d done wrong: I caught a bad cold. I was exposed to paint fumes in my dentist’s newly remodeled waiting room. I took Tylenol, twice. I petted my cat after she used the litter box. I stopped short in traffic. I drank a cappuccino. I toasted the New Year with a sip of champagne. I worried too much. I cried too often.
We didn’t talk about the miscarriages. We joined a support group, where we listened, most of the time in disbelief, to other people’s stories. One couple talked about how they had a funeral for a baby they lost at nine weeks. A funeral! I wanted to ask them what they put in the casket.
The midwife who facilitated the group, who had birthed hundreds of babies but never had any of her own, suggested we name our unborn babies. I had a problem with the fact that she kept referring to them as babies. Sure, they had the potential to be babies, but my little guys—or maybe they were girls?—more closely resembled sea monkeys than babies. Why would we name sea monkeys?
We tried to avoid the subject of babies at dinner parties. This was no easy task. Whenever you have one child, people always wanted know when you planned on having another. Unsolicited advice was common. People liked to suggest alternative treatments they’d read about online like acupuncture or meditation. Although family and friends meant well, they often said things like “you can always try again” and “at least you have Owen.” My sister-in-law, who has four kids, suggested we get a puppy.
One evening at dinner, my husband announced he wanted to stop trying. “Maybe God is trying to tell us something,” he said.
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like maybe we should quit while we’re ahead,” he said.
I pretended not to hear him. That night, I dreamed I had a baby, a girl. She had almond-shaped eyes and a dimple on her left cheek. She looked healthy. In a hospital bed I cradled her in my arms and sang to her softly until a nurse came to take her away.
A year later, I fell pregnant again.
My husband, despite his fears, was overjoyed. I wasn’t so sure. On the outside, I wore a brave face, but inside, I was holding my breath. I held it through the hospital visits and the blood tests. I held it despite all the assurances my pregnancy was progressing normally. I even held it through the ultrasounds that showed ten tiny fingers and ten tiny toes.
It wasn’t until I heard my daughter cry for the first time that I exhaled.
Gwen has been a part of our lives for almost a year now, and I still sneak into the nursery every night to check on her. How easily reality can tilt and slip in those dark hours when no one else is awake.
I know I should be filled with joy at her existence. Yet her presence in my life does not feel permanent, cemented. I watch her as she sleeps in her crib, so peaceful, so unaware of the world around her and how hard we fought to bring her into it. I examine the dimple on her left cheek and think again about her genes and chromosomes. Please God, let them be strong enough to sustain her. Please let her be different from the rest, let her live.
Her eyelids twitch and I wonder if she ever dreams, like I do, of the ones who came before her, the ones who weren’t as strong as she. As I rock in the chair next to her crib, slowly, as if on waves, I contemplate this—until finally, listening to the sound of her breath, sleep comes to take me away.