In this, the third post in a special series for The Spinoff Parents, Alicia Young writes about her journey towards motherhood after having IVF and finding out she is pregnant.
Content warning: Alicia Young talks about her experience of miscarriage in this post. If you have recently suffered a miscarriage this post may be upsetting for you. If you need support please visit SANDS New Zealand or call 0800 Sands4u (0800 726 374) or New Zealand Miscarriages Support. Sands New Zealand is a network of parent-run, non-profit groups supporting families who have experienced the death of a baby.
You lie on the white examination table in the dark room, ready to see your baby for the first time. The doctor inserts the scanner. She is silent for too long, measuring and re-measuring the images on the screen before speaking.
“There is a heartbeat,” she says. “But the baby looks small. We’ll send you for a second scan this afternoon. Come back and see us tomorrow morning.”
The second scan goes well, you think. It’s not until you return to the clinic the next morning that you realise the gravity of the situation. Your baby is not just small, it’s ‘prepare yourselves for the worst’ small. You’ll be back in a week for another scan that will confirm the bad news or reveal a miracle.
When you wake the next morning, the baby has died. Nothing in particular has changed, you just feel different. It’s your husband’s birthday, so you don’t mention anything. You go to work, tidy the house, make the food, wrap the presents, light the candles. Happy birthday.
Miscarriage occurs in one in four pregnancies, but there is precious little information about it in your pregnancy books. You turn to the internet and find a forum with a thread about ‘missed miscarriages’, which is what you think you’ve had. The thread follows the experiences of women who either waited for bleeding to start naturally, took a pill to bring on contractions or had dilation and curettage surgery. For some reason you’d always thought a miscarriage was like a heavy period. The comments on the forum soon put that idea to bed.
Theoretically, contractions could start at any time. You’re supposed to go on a Christmas work trip on a train. You do not want to have a miscarriage on a train, so you cancel and spend the day crying instead. That evening you go for a walk with your husband. You pass the Catholic Church you always pass. For the first time, your husband goes in and prays. Under the watchful gaze of the Virgin Mary he kneels and genuflects.
You’re in a confusing state of being pregnant and not pregnant. Your breasts are still tender and monstrous. Your stomach is still growing. You already agreed to spend the weekend at a campsite for your father-in-law’s birthday, but you’ve got a private cabin in case the worst happens. You feel frumpy in your hoodie, and embarrassed about your lack of enthusiasm for anything. You try to suppress any thoughts that the baby might still be alive. All the same, you conspicuously avoid alcohol and camembert.
But there is no miracle. No heartbeat at the next scan in the clinic. You go to the hospital during your lunch break, passing a line of baby shoes for sale on the obstetrics wing counter on the way into your consultation. The staff are very nice, and you are very brave until they ask if you would like to take the ‘pregnancy tissue’ home once it’s been tested. You cry so much you can’t speak. They book you in for surgery at the end of the week.
Knowing your baby is dead brings up every feeling of unfairness you’ve ever had. Over your lifetime you’ve acclimatised to the fact that other people are wealthier, smarter, prettier than you are. Even the infertility didn’t bother you too much – after all, everyone has their cross to bear. But your dead baby is one blow too many. It’s not fair, and you are pissed off.
You’ve eaten normally throughout your pregnancy but now you can’t do up your pants. By Wednesday evening you’ve worn the two work outfits you still fit, plus one ensemble you would normally only wear to the beach. Your husband takes you for a mercy dash to the mall. It’s closing in ten minutes, and in desperation you spend three times more than you usually would on a ‘tunic’ – an item of clothing previously unknown in your wardrobe.
You arrive at the hospital at 7am on Friday. You change into a hospital gown and take a drug to ‘relax’ your cervix. The drug is not relaxing. You’re wheeled into the pre-surgery waiting room where your husband sits with you as you sob. At last you are taken into the operating room.
Afterwards you hog the bathroom for an hour, alternately vomiting, crying and trying to pee. The painkillers wear off and you writhe on the bed. You’re given more drugs and drift into blissful oblivion. Later the surgeon comes and talks to you. The surgery went well, he says. You get dressed and leave the hospital – without your baby.
You wish you’d told more people what was happening. It would have been nice if someone had come over with a meal and a bunch of flowers. Your traumatised husband looks after you, but there is no one to look after him. You realise how hidden miscarriage is in society. You must have friends who’ve been through it, but you don’t know who they are.
You’ve got nothing to show for the last two months but an expensive tunic and a fat little tummy. You stash some boxes in the room that was going to be the baby’s room. Your maternity clothes, still in their plastic sleeves. The sheepskin you bought for the baby. The book for fathers that was going to be your husband’s Christmas present.
By Monday you’re starting to feel normal again, but that night you’re hit by a hormone tsunami and you take the next day off work with a headache and pain. You spend the day researching gender neutral names for dead babies.
The internet still thinks you’re pregnant. Ads for maternity clothes appear as you browse news sites. A new wave of ultrasound photos floods Facebook. A friend has twins. You try to book an appointment with a counsellor, but you don’t have a hope this close to Christmas. You can hear the disdain for your inconveniently-timed grief in their voices. Grief. You didn’t know that word before.
It’s cheesy, but you go into town hoping to find an angel for the top of your tree. It turns out that angels are sold out of every shop. It turns out that you weren’t ready to come into town. Not ready for the happy families shopping for one another, proud parents with sweet-faced children in tow, pregnant women smiling like Madonnas, shop windows festooned with baby clothes. You duck into an antique store to escape the display of fecundity. In the cool, dim, dustiness you see the twinkle of a vintage ring. It has one tiny diamond, small and perfect.
Soon you’ll fit your clothes again. The baby books on the coffee table will be stashed away. The list of names will be hidden in a drawer. Things will seem almost as they always have.
There is just one outward change, small and nearly imperceptible. It’s the marker of a little life, a little birth, a little death. It’s one tiny diamond on your finger, small and perfect.
Alicia Young has a master’s degree in creative writing from Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters. She has published several short stories and other works. This was the last post in her series for the Spinoff Parents about her attempts to become a mother.
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The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.