A little over six years ago while on our honeymoon, my husband and I decided we would take the “let’s see what happens” approach to starting a family. We weren’t going to try to get pregnant, but we weren’t going to try not to either. I recalled some of my friends’ painful stories of having difficulty conceiving, and I remember telling my husband “I’m almost 33, so don’t expect a baby right away – I could be pregnant in five minutes, or it could take five years, or it might not happen at all – we don’t know.” We approached the idea of starting a family with an open mind, knowing that we were not in control of the outcome.
A couple of weeks after our honeymoon, I took a couple of pregnancy tests out of curiosity, and they ended up negative. Finally, a couple of days later, I took another pregnancy test, and I saw two faint pink lines. I remember the feeling like it was yesterday: the weird exhaustion, nausea, and light-headedness I’d been feeling for the prior week all made sense. I called my husband, who was out of town for work, and I could literally hear the smile in his voice. He was over-the-moon. I, on the other hand, burst into tears. I was thrilled, but I was also already feeling hormonal, and a little gutted that I wasn’t able to share the news with my husband in person. He returned home two days later, with a comfy sweater that he thought would be nice to wear for pregnancy. It finally felt like we could celebrate.
My doctor confirmed a couple of days later that I was indeed pregnant, but he sent me for blood work to find out exactly how far along I was, because the urine test hadn’t made things clear. My hCG levels indicated that I was about 5 1/2 weeks pregnant at that point. I remember returning for a few more blood tests just to ensure the pregnancy was progressing smoothly – and each blood test indicated that it was – my hCG levels were rising consistently, as was my exhaustion. Everything was going smoothly, and our first ultrasound was scheduled for around week 11.
My husband and I decided we would keep the news to ourselves until I reached close to the end of the first trimester – until the high-risk period for miscarriage ends. It wouldn’t be easy – in fact, keeping the pregnancy news to ourselves was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Between exhaustion and nausea, I was *not* doing any part of the first trimester well. Also, it was the peak of summertime and outdoor gatherings – and I’ve never been the type to attend a social gathering without a cocktail in hand. It turns out though, when you BYOB to a barbecue, nobody actually checks your beer bottle to see that you’re actually drinking non-alcoholic beer. (I may or may not have kept a good grip on that beer label a few times, just to make sure). By the time early September rolled around, I was about ten weeks along, so we decided it should be safe to share the news with both of our moms at the same time, during my birthday dinner. They were both thrilled – but both a little surprised (as was I) that we managed to keep the news quiet for well over a month.
The first ultrasound was scheduled for that week – another week that my husband was travelling for work. He desperately wanted to be there, but by this point, we were just excited that the day finally came where we could see the baby in his or her first photo. I remember driving to the ultrasound appointment, and it dawned on me that for a few days, I was feeling strangely energetic. It somehow felt like I was coming out of the hormonal haze of the first trimester, even though I still had a couple of weeks to go. My mind told me that it was normal I was starting to feel better – but something deep in the gut of my instincts said I wasn’t supposed to feel that good yet.
I waited eagerly in the waiting room. When the ultrasound technician called my name, I accidentally veered towards the wrong corridor of the room, and I could see her frustration that I was taking too long “NO – you need to come HERE,” she said, with condescension in her voice. I got stuck with the ultrasound technician who either really didn’t like her job, or was having a bad day – but either way, I wasn’t feeling the warm-fuzzies from this lady at all. When it was finally time for the technician to look up at the screen, ultrasound wand pushed gently against my belly, I could see that her mood very quickly took a more serious, somber turn. I knew something was wrong.
As I lay on the exam table, uncontrollable tears started rolling down my cheeks.
“What’s wrong?,” I said – barely getting the words out. “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?”
“Well, I’m not allowed to say anything – your doctor has to look at it…”
“It’s not good news, is it??,” I struggled to speak.
All of a sudden, the unhappy, condescending ultrasound technician took on an exceptionally compassionate tone: “I’m so, so sorry – my job doesn’t allow me to speak to you about this, you need to speak with the doctor, but I will make sure he calls you immediately…” It didn’t matter what the technician said or didn’t say at that point; words are not needed when a person’s demeanour shifts so radically.
I left the ultrasound appointment that day, and called my husband and my mom to tell them there was no baby. I could barely get the words out I was crying so hard. My body had shown no signs of miscarriage at that point, but my instincts knew there was no baby. I felt like all the weeks of us working so hard to keep the news a surprise was a complete wasted effort. September 6, 2003 was the day I met my husband. September 6, 2012 was when I found out I was no longer pregnant with our first child. September 6 will forever be one of the best and one of the most difficult days of my life. Just like the scene in Marley And Me, where Jennifer Aniston’s character went home after her devastating ultrasound and cried helplessly while her beloved dog stood lovingly by her side, I did the exact same thing. I knew. My dog knew. My dog didn’t leave my side for the rest of the day.
Less than 24 hours later, my doctor called. He validated what I already knew, saying my pregnancy was not viable – but also had some more surprises to share with me: had it been a viable pregnancy, it would have been a twin pregnancy. Two amniotic sacs developed, but the embryos never properly developed. My body treated it as a pregnancy – hormones and all, but at no point was the pregnancy ever viable.
My doctor also continued, rather alarmingly: “Now, I need you to drop everything you’re doing, and come into my office and see me as soon as possible. The ultrasound shows that this may actually be a molar pregnancy, and you’ll need to go to the emergency room and have a D & C done as soon as possible. I know the OBGYN on call and he will help you.”
I was headed to a work meeting when I took my doctor’s phone call, on my way to meet a coworker who I had a heated disagreement with less than one week prior to that. We resolved our issue, but things were still a little awkward between us, and I still wasn’t sure how to tell her I wasn’t going to make the meeting. I decided to be truthful: “I can’t make our appointment, because I need to go to the ER. I’m having a miscarriage, and there could be complications.” This coworker, who only one week prior had caused me to set a stern professional boundary, stepped up to the plate with an army of support: “Oh my God, I am so, so sorry. Please take care of yourself. Do you need help? Can I drive you??” My only ask of her was to keep things confidential. “Absolutely,” she said.
After waiting an excruciatingly long twelve hours in the ER, I was finally wheeled into the OR at 2 a.m. by the OBGYN. Tears were again streaming down my cheeks as they were about to put me under with anaesthesia.
“Are you OK?,” he said?
“I’ll be OK. But right now, I’m sad.”
“Don’t worry, it will all be okay,” he said. The empathy in his voice was genuine.
I woke up from the short surgery in a world of pain – it felt like my uterus had been lit on fire. I was still emotional and in tears, and when I asked if I could have some pain medication, the recovery nurse displayed the polar opposite of bedside manner – telling me she had experienced eight miscarriages and five D & C’s already. Her tone said everything; in not so many words, she told me to suck it up. While I could appreciate that she had pain of her own, I was in a raw, vulnerable state in that moment; it was my first pregnancy, and my first miscarriage – and I was fresh out of surgery. Surely a nurse who had been through the same thing herself should know these things take time to process? I learned very quickly from this painful experience that insensitive people can destroy you, and compassionate people can restore your faith in humanity.
The next morning around 10 a.m., I was met with the best of compassion. The same OBGYN who had performed my surgery showed up at the end of his twenty-four hour shift, just to make sure I was okay. He had already changed from his scrubs to his regular street clothes, and was clearly exhausted, yet he still made sure to check in. I’ll never forget how much it helped me to have a doctor who cared, especially considering that surely this doctor had seen the same situation hundreds if not thousands of times in his career. He reported back that the pregnancy was thankfully not a molar pregnancy, and to come back to see him in six weeks.
The next six weeks passed with a bit of a blur. Someone probably should have told me not to Google anything and everything related to miscarriage before discharging me from the hospital, but naturally, that was exactly what I did. Slowly, I began to process what happened. In a way, I was thankful that we shared our pregnancy news a little too early – most people wait until the first trimester is over before making a big pregnancy announcement so they don’t have to explain the trauma of miscarriage if it does happen – but in our situation, we had already told enough people the news that we were forced to talk about it. And you know what I learned? That talking about it helps the recovery process. Moms and dads who have endured the pain of miscarriage often do so silently, because there still seems to be an unspoken, unnecessary stigma surrounding the topic. I learned by being open that many of my friends and family had been through the same thing – and that I was not alone.
When I returned for my follow-up with the doctor, my mood sank when I noticed that I was surrounded by a room full of pregnant women in the waiting room. Anything that I’d even begun to process about having a miscarriage completely unravelled in that moment of being surrounded by round baby bellies and joyful expectant mothers. The doctor finally called me into his office, and before I could say a word, he acknowledged to me: “I’m so sorry to bring you in for this follow-up visit with a room full of pregnant ladies. It was the best day to fit you in. Soon enough, you’ll be right there with them.”
I looked at the doctor and said “Can you help me understand what happened a little better? Everyone keeps telling me that I did nothing wrong, but I can’t help but feel that something went wrong?”
His answer, at least for me, could not have been any closer to what I needed to hear: “Not to sound crass or anything, but in order to conceive a healthy, normal baby, so much has to go *right*. It’s thought that up to 50% of early pregnancies end in miscarriage – with at least half of those miscarriages presenting as a slightly late or heavy period. Many women miscarry and don’t even know it. If you have more than three miscarriages, we might begin to do some investigating, but even then, there’s usually nothing to worry about. Everything looks great today – you can try for a baby again as soon as you’re ready.”
For me, personally, I could not have asked for a better doctor while going through this. He provided the perfect balance of understanding, objective data, and hope. It was the right balance of empathy for my sadness, mixed with the statistical reality that so many women face the same thing, and that I wasn’t alone. Not only did this doctor’s words help me to begin to heal, but I decided that if and when I did finally become pregnant, that this was the doctor I wanted to work with.
I didn’t think I would be ready physically or emotionally to try for a baby again for a while. During the next couple of months, I had quite a few open conversations with so many women – including one woman who had to birth her stillborn baby at only six months pregnant, but found herself overjoyed to be pregnant again. Her grace and strength hit me like a ton of bricks; she had processed so much pain, loss, and devastation, but was somehow able to celebrate the joy in her current pregnancy. Between many of these conversations, and what the doctor told me after my D & C, I felt that there were many, many people out there that needed to know they were not alone. As such, I started to write about my experience, thinking that one day, my words might help someone.
As fate would have it, less than three months later, I was 80 pages into writing about miscarriage, and we were met with the incredible surprise of being pregnant again. I never did finish my writing, because I felt that a surprise pregnancy was the universe’s way of telling me that the timing was not right for my miscarriage story to be told. Perhaps, those 80 pages were simply meant to be cathartic, in order to prepare myself for my upcoming journey as a parent.
Now, over six years and two kids later, I am sharing my story today. I believe the invisible stigma surrounding miscarriage needs to vanish. I believe we should all feel comfortable with sharing our stories, because sharing helps the healing process. I believe women everywhere need to know that if they have experienced the painful loss of miscarriage, that they are not alone.
My husband and I are incredibly lucky that we were able to conceive shortly after our miscarriage, and I will never take that for granted. Because of what happened during my first pregnancy, my second pregnancy was monitored very closely – we had an early ultrasound at only 7 weeks, and for the first time ever, we saw our baby girl’s strong heartbeat. Everything from that point forward progressed smoothly, other than the fact that in the back of my mind, I was never able to fully celebrate my pregnancy with my daughter because I was hyperaware that something could go wrong at any time. Looking back though, there’s always a gift in every difficult experience. I was incredibly grateful for all the challenging aspects of my second pregnancy: every bout of nausea, every sore joint, and every bit of exhaustion – because it meant that my pregnancy was progressing as it should.
Going through this experience also gave me a greater sense of empathy and understanding towards women who have miscarried and/or struggle to conceive. We live in a world where we want to always say the “right thing” or “fix things” for someone who struggling, and if this experience taught me anything, it’s that the only thing that is needed in these situations is compassion. You don’t need to say the right thing, or to have the perfect words; you just need to be able to sit with and acknowledge a person’s pain. Let them share their stories with you without judgement. Be there for all their feelings. Don’t try to “fix things” for them – because honestly, some situations or feelings just cannot be fixed.
Most of the comments I received were supportive and compassionate, but for sure I had my share of “I didn’t think miscarriage ran in our family?,” or “Well at least you know you can *get* pregnant,” or, “Well, it wasn’t actually a *real* pregnancy – at least you didn’t see a heartbeat and have it disappear…” comments. While these comments are almost always well-meaning, they invalidate a person’s grief and the emotions they are trying to process during a very, very difficult time.
When I was almost seven months pregnant with my daughter, just before my baby shower, I reached out to a friend that had openly been struggling to conceive for many years, to let her know “Hey – it’s not selfish if you need to sit this one out. Please do not feel obligated to come if it’s too painful for you – you need to take care of yourself and do what feels right.” She thanked me sincerely for the compassion – but the truth is, that I only had the foresight to reach out to her because I remembered that painful day in a waiting room full of pregnant ladies, immediately after my own miscarriage. I can thank my miscarriage for helping me to learn how to be more sincerely empathetic, and to not be afraid to acknowledge a person’s pain without trying to “fix it.”
If you are reading this, and you have experienced one or more miscarriages, please know you’re not alone. Please know that you have an army of support. Please know that you did *nothing* wrong. Please know that it’s okay to talk about it, to write about it, and to share your story. Please know that your feelings are seen, heard, validated, and shared by others.