Our timing was so perfect. We tried casually to conceive for a couple months, then got pregnant the first month I charted my temperatures. Our baby would be born in May, a month I thought was perfect to have a baby. I’d be off all summer on maternity leave, and I’d still be thirty–a milestone that felt like a relief after our decision to start a family seemed to come not a moment too soon. I had almost made it to the end of the first trimester when I started spotting. We went in for an ultrasound and the baby measured 9 weeks, when I knew for sure I should have been closer to 10 weeks… but there was a heartbeat! We had some sweet relief for a week, in which I felt comfortable telling a few more people at work–because the chance of losing your baby after you’ve seen or heard the heartbeat goes down dramatically. But then my hormone levels seemed to be falling after another blood draw. Dr. Google told us that it was normal for HCG levels to fall later in the first trimester, so we tried not to go wild with worry over a weekend spent waiting for Monday’s ultrasound.
Our baby had grown and developed more in the week since we had last seen it, and there was still a heartbeat. The ultrasound tech spent a long time looking at the baby, doing things we didn’t really understand like examining the blood flow. She gave us a couple pictures and said “good luck with everything.” We went back into the waiting room for the midwife on call to let us know the results. They handed me the phone across the front desk and she started by telling me that yes, there was a heartbeat and that was a good sign, but… BUT. The nuchal fold looked thickened, which was a sign of a chromosomal abnormality. We would need further tests and they would help me get the screening scheduled. She was going to come in to talk to us more. I looked across the room at Jed in utter terror. He rushed over to me and I couldn’t believe I was getting this news over the phone in the middle of the waiting room. I started crying instantly and they ushered us into an empty exam room.
We held each other, crying and afraid, until the midwife came in to expand on the bad news. What the tech saw in the ultrasound didn’t look good–the thick nuchal fold and an omphalocele, I would probably miscarry. In the meantime we would go to a big nearby hospital for a better ultrasound. Either way, we would probably “have some decisions to make.”
That was a Monday. The next ultrasound was on Friday. Neither of us went to work that week. We stayed in, crying, devastated. I needed help getting out of bed every morning because the sadness was paralyzing. We distracted ourselves by painting the kitchen and baking zucchini bread. Our 4th anniversary was on Thursday. I was 11 weeks pregnant with a dying baby.
Friday arrived and we trekked through the hospital to Maternal and Fetal Medicine and one of the top ultrasound doctors in the country. The room had a second ultrasound screen on the wall facing the exam chair, so the mamas can have good views of their babies. I couldn’t decide how much I wanted to look. My husband wanted to punch the resident who hovered around, looking at the screen with barely veiled repulsion. I didn’t notice; I was busy trying to survive. After a really long exam, we sat in a meeting room with the doctor and a couple nurses, where the doctor explained that our baby had edema–cystic hygroma–all over its body, to a level that indicated a chromosomal abnormality so severe the baby wouldn’t survive. There was no way to predict how long I would stay pregnant. I could miscarry that day, or I could go to term and deliver a baby with a certain death sentence.
Termination for medical reasons was suddenly an option they would help me look into.
We went home in shock. It was impossible to comprehend the gravity of this most horrible thing that had ever happened to us. We made the heartbreaking choice to terminate our much-wanted pregnancy and scheduled the appointment. There were only a couple places in our area where I could get an elective termination, despite it being for a pregnancy with no chance of a positive outcome. My midwife wanted to help me but there was nothing they could do in their office.
While we waited for that awful date to arrive we both went back to work. I was like a ghost. People were sad for me and each hug made me cry. I also kept catching myself in “preparing for parenthood” mode—bookmarking an article about librarianship and parenthood, making note of the book about treating common childhood illnesses at home, realizing my new shirt would also make a good maternity shirt. Telling a coworker about how we thought we might dress up our 5-month-old as an acorn for Halloween next year. Falling silent and trying not to start sobbing. I realized my life wasn’t in that place anymore, but my heart hadn’t caught up. I hadn’t yet fallen out of the habit of preparing for baby.
Late that week I felt like my symptoms were diminishing–my nausea was suddenly totally gone. I made a last-minute appointment with the midwife to check for a heartbeat. If there wasn’t a heartbeat, I wouldn’t have to go for the termination and I could stay in the care of my midwife for whatever happened next. The ultrasound tech–who I now reflexively hated–told me I didn’t have to look at the screen while she checked for, and found, the heartbeat. It felt so cruelly wrong that I had almost been hoping for the opposite. I wanted the suffering to be over, for us and my poor sick baby. The midwife understood my emotional state and emphasized that when abnormalities this severe are found this early, there is no chance of survival.
That weekend we went to have dinner at my parents’ house. We’re close with our families, and in a terrible piece of timing, my parents had been in France this whole time and dealing with our news on their vacation. This also meant seeing my sister-in-law who was also pregnant, with the same due date as mine. You read that right. She’s not the most empathetic person, and this was the first day of the next seven months she spent avoiding us.
The next day we arrived at the family planning clinic at a different big hospital in the area, first thing in the morning. The only other people in the waiting room were a small cluster of people centered on a very sad woman. They were obviously there for the same reasons we were–the pain bubbles around all of us were huge. We got in to see the doctor and asked if we had any options as far as anesthesia, because we had been told that today we’d decide with the doctor whether I’d be put to sleep. This seemed like news to the doctor, who kept talking about how it was less expensive to do it the way they usually did–local anesthesia only, awake the whole time. That was pretty much the last of our concerns, not to mention the fact that amazingly my insurance was going to cover it either way and we ended up paying $47. But we just numbly moved forward. It was happening. She flipped on the ultrasound and we saw our baby for the last time, laying peacefully in my womb, no heartbeat. I suppose we could have walked out right then, but it was over for our baby, and we wanted it all to be over so we could move on with our grief. Three hours later, the baby was no longer a part of me and we were on our way home, empty. The D&C was painful and traumatic. It couldn’t have taken long, but it felt like forever. The physical pain was a distraction, but so inconsequential to this pain I was positive was going to be lifelong.
Our terrible limbo was over, but this was only the beginning of our suffering. I write this now almost a year out from the nightmare, with a baby girl who appears to be healthy kicking in my belly, but the intervening months–and subsequent bonus chemical pregnancy just to show how very cruel life can be–have changed me forever. I will never have the innocence of getting pregnant and assuming I’m going to have a baby. I can still place myself right back in the pain and terror of the slog of grief.