Three Surprising Things Pregnancy Has Taught Me
FORMER LOSS DOESN’T ENSURE FUTURE STOICISM
When you have difficulty conceiving or staying pregnant, everything around you suddenly teems with fecundity. You do your best to keep optimistic, but it feels like you’re playing high-stakes polo on a club-footed donkey. You find yourself downloading free software that promises to replace each adorable FB picture of your friends’ babies with an image of a decidedly spayed cat. Which is somehow worse and much creepier: seeing that guy from high school who would wipe down his truck gun rack now post high-res pics of sleepy tabby after sleepy tabby.
I had several early losses before this pregnancy took. Dan and I were fortunate enough to conceive each time we tried, but due to a clotting issue or slightly elevated sugar levels or some other still mysterious condition, I found myself miscarrying between 5 and 6 weeks, almost to the day. The third miscarriage started happening on a routine morning at the office, booking a Disney vacation. I was on the phone with a customer service rep named Trixie. When Trixie needed to check something she would say, “OK, just let me sprinkle some Trixie dust!” I had called to get the exact dimensions on a trundle bed at Port Orleans Resort for a mother who didn’t seem to care that her toddler was licking my paperweight. The paperweight he had first smeared his boogers on.
While I managed to practice enough mindfulness to not resent the good child-bearing fortune of my close friends and family, I was adamant about one thing: if I stayed pregnant, I would never become one of those women who whinges about symptoms and side-effects. Morning sickness couldn’t possibly be that bad. And how trying is it, really, to give up craft beer? Or to cancel a trip to Six Flags because of an unplanned fourth pregnancy? For God’s sake, just microwave your deli meat. Wear compression socks. There are worse fates than not seeing your feet in a full body selfie. Be grateful.
And then it happened, only a few months later: I was pregnant. Like, for real pregnant. Rotisserie chicken-aversion pregnant. Constipating, heartburning, abiding pregnant. I managed not to gripe so much the first trimester, but as more time passed, and I watched my memory of pain recede like the wake from a pleasure boat, I abandoned my once staunch resolution. My true crossing-over moment was the afternoon I tried on an Old Navy maternity swimsuit and modeled it in a three-way mirror and sent my friend a text that read: “I’m the manatee the other manatees call fat.“
It isn’t so much that I’ve forgotten my struggle with fertility, or that I’ve become unsympathetic to those currently struggling, but that I’ve given myself permission to trust enough to relax into complaining . I surprised myself with my ability to meet pregnancy without misgivings when there should have been so many. Or maybe I prattle on about calf cramps and bloody noses as a safeguard against negative outcome. Either way, sometimes it feels like forsaking my sisters in loss. It bothers me.
PREGNANCY IS SCARIER IN THE ABSTRACT
As someone who never wanted a child until her 30’s, who even last week was less interested in the newborn the next table over than her arugula salad with candied pecans, I was always afraid of pregnancy. I would see a beatific woman with a gigantic belly heaving herself down the street and flash to that scene in Alien when Kane is choking at dinner and the crew restrains him on the table and he bites into a fork to quell the convulsing pain and a bloody half beluga/half periscope creature bursts through his stomach.
One upside of repeat pregnancy loss is that it clarifies what you maybe weren’t so sure about before. By the time I felt comfortable announcing to family that we were expecting, I had no doubts that I really, really wanted a child. Still, I needed to know what the baby would feel like inside me. I was nearly desperate in my quest for this knowledge. What does a baby feel like inside you? I repeatedly asked my female friends with kids, or Google. The problem with hanging out with mostly poets is that they try to assuage your Alien fears by offering responses like “minnows darting in and out of the Infinite” or “a salt shaker filled with pepper.” But the internet wasn’t nearly romantic enough. “Gas” and “popcorn popping” were frequent forum answers. I read about quickening, the term for when a woman first feels her baby move. Back in 16th century France, for example, a lady of the court might not even have suspected she was pregnant until a bite of mutton felt less like indigestion and more like….an angry Huguenot banging his steel-plated fist against a wall?
At my 12 week ultrasound, my doctor informed me that I had an anterior placenta. “This means you might not feel the baby until twenty weeks, maybe more.” At 15 weeks, with no discernable spasms or taps or clawing, I packed up my 1999 Camry and drove 18 hours to Nebraska to begin a three week poetry residency. I became preoccupied with writing poems about carrying a baby and not feeling said baby. I didn’t experience anxiety as a gnawing sense that something bad had happened to my son, but rather as a restless angst at being shorted an owed experience. I bought a stuffed animal cardinal from the local Arbor Lodge gift store. When you squeezed it, it imitated a real cardinal’s song. I pressed it against my belly and birdcalled to the baby on the hour like a goading clock. I drank ice water and laid on my side. I blasted the Dawson’s Creek theme song at unconscionable levels – not even the Paula Cole version, but the shitty Jann Arden “Run Like Mad” Netflix knockoff – to try to illicit some reaction from this kid. Nothing.
Then I had the Buddhist realization (after reading a lot of Jack Gilbert) that maybe not feeling the baby was a kind of feeling. I pondered this koan in line at the supermarket or while inching along on icy sidewalks. Movement in no movement. There grew to be a treasured peace in sitting with my son in stillness. I stopped waiting for his dramatic reveal, and in doing so, now can’t even remember the first time I felt him. His stirrings are like everything described above and yet completely beyond language – I experience them as perfect reassurance and calm (although I could do without his feet making a xylophone of my ribs), and I have trouble remembering what it was like to think fetuses were predators. This gives me hope for childbirth/breastfeeding/parenting.
I AM LESS ANXIOUS AS A PREGNANT WOMAN
This is the revelation I still can’t quite wrap my head around. I’ve always been a worrier. In fourth grade, I ate a warning note from my teacher about too many tardies (in my defense, it was small) that I was supposed to take home in my folder. My thinking was that if I threw it away the janitor would find it, and if I flushed it, the plumber would piece it back together. Either that, or the school’s Rats of NIMH would use it to practice their decoding skills.
Before getting pregnant, the first thing I’d do when I went to a new friend’s house was size up their basement/bathtub/closet as a tornado shelter. I’d lift up my feet whenever riding past a cemetery. I wouldn’t eat any food beyond its expiration date, wouldn’t shower during a thunderstorm, wouldn’t drive behind a truck with a loose-hanging ladder, wouldn’t send a gossipy email until I’d triple-checked that the person I was gossiping about wasn’t accidentally cc’d, wouldn’t stick my hand in a garbage disposal, and most certainly wouldn’t fall asleep without telling Dan that I love him just in case that armed robbery/alien abduction/asteroid extinction finally happened. I’m not saying all of this has changed, but it’s certainly gotten better.
I give off a free spirit fanciful vibe that seems to run counter to my wish for complete control and omniscience. I haven’t intentionally cultivated this temperament. I think it must be like the eye of a storm, that the crazy rotation in my head has created a seemingly calm core that actually belies a heightened tension. Knowing this about myself, there could have been nothing crueler than getting pregnant only to miscarry for no known reason. After the second loss, doctors told me it was coincidence, bad luck, that it would be rare to have a third, and that if I needed a statistic, I had a 99% chance of carrying the next baby to term. And then: I miscarried, again.
Initially, I went down the rabbit hole of thinking this is happening because I’m anxious about it happening, so if I stop being anxious, it won’t happen, stop being anxious about being anxious! I needed to feel in control of something, anything, so I researched guided excursions to the Amazon, wrote up a trip proposal and handed it to my boss, and a month later, was in the Ecuadorian jungle eating tree larvae. Because I believed my body had betrayed me, I picked a location that would place the highest demands on it to exact a kind of revenge. There were the necessary live vaccinations and malaria pills, not to mention the rigors of scaling waterfalls and trekking through wet heat. I seemed to be saying: Take that, uterus!, even when a shaman, knowing nothing about me, painted the sign formother on my forehead in achiote paste.
When I got home, Dan and I took a break from trying, and then in the fall, I started an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink regiment of baby aspirin, Metformin, progesterone, and folic acid. I didn’t expect much from the next positive pregnancy test, even though I tucked the strip into the lining of my purse. I’m agnostic and don’t believe in God, at least not in the traditional sense, but at one point I prayed on the dirty floor of a Cracker Barrel bathroom. I took out the positive pregnancy strip, set it up on the back of the toilet like a votive candle, and uttered part of my favorite excerpt from Bishop’s journals: I believe, that the steamship will support me on the water, & that the aeroplane will conduct me over the mountain…”
When I say that pregnancy has made me less anxious, I don’t mean those initial 8 weeks. I was a fucking crazy lady. I was scared to take warm baths, or do the Electric Slide at a wedding, or eat soft serve. I expected blood each time I wiped. I imagined that every thought, every act, had immediate and irreversible repercussions. I obsessively checked a week-by-week miscarriage statistic chart. As an aggregate of tests, my odds were grim. As an individual person, they were excellent.
I’m terrible at time now, at measuring it. At some point, I stopped worrying so much about the baby, and as an extension, myself, and Dan, and the world our son will be born into. Maybe it’s hormones. But I think the responsibility of growing and raising another human has somehow short-circuited inveterate distress responders. The sheer magnitude of what I’ve taken on has allowed mindful self-preservation to kick in. It’s like how heavy gas molecules move more slowly than light ones. When weighted down with the thought of so many dire possibilities – flippers in lieu of arms, SIDS, baby tongue darting in and out of uncovered outlet – the only sustainable mode of being is to stop, breathe, and enjoy a cup of caffeinated coffee. I can’t state this clearly enough: There is literally an unending succession of worries so I don’t worry. I’ve experienced a boon of creativity (writing, music) that correlates to a newfound confidence in not striving but just being. Here’s to its continuation.