We both knew something was up when Thanksgiving came and M still wasn’t having any PMS. None of those things were happening that had happened every other time – the could-be-PMS-or-could-be-pregnancy symptoms. She was feeling fine. A little irritable now and then, for maybe 15 seconds at a time, but nothing really notable. I could picture in my head the one-word answer the pee stick would give us. I almost wanted her to just go ahead and do it before all the family showed up. I knew they would ask; I knew I’d feel like I was jinxing it if I said “We’re waiting right now, but I think she might be pregnant.” Instead, I paused and smiled and said, “If and when she gets another period, we’ll try again.” It’s our stock response, cleared with HR and Legal.
The day after everyone left – the second after they left – she hit the potty.
Now, there are a thousand ways that I, the one whose body does not produce sperm, am disconnected from this process. Authors of books on the matter ruminate on the feeling of being a spectator in the making of their own child. I wouldn’t necessarily go that far, but there have been moments I’ve flirted with the feeling. The testing process, on the other hand, allows me to have a little bit more stock in the situation. She pees into a cup, exclaims “Done!” I come get the cup, unwrap the stick, stand in front of the microwave, set the timer, and dunk for exactly 20 seconds. The instructions are, after all, quite clear that, should you dunk the stick for 19 or 21 seconds, you will be smitten by the rod of Zeus and your baby will be born with four arms and only nine toes.
Once the dunking timer hits exactly 20 seconds, you are to cap the stick, lay it exactly horizontally (kitchen counters are good for this) and step away from the scene for exactly three minutes (microwave timers suffice).
We’ve been through all of this a few times. Six times to be exact. Each time, I rediscover the lengths to which my absurd suspicions stretch. The first time, I spent those three minutes visualizing the word “Pregnant” on the stick. That word was indeed there, but so was the bonus word: “Not.” So the next time I tried a different plan: staring at the stick until the blinking sand timer thing gave way to the words. Again, “Not Pregnant.” (I’m willing to let it go that they capitalize both words in the phrase.)
The third through fifth times, I busied myself with other things – reading articles, straightening the living room, wandering the house aimlessly searching for a matching sock or something. I don’t know. Not Pregnant, Not Pregnant, Not Pregnant.
I have no recollection what I did in these three minutes this time. I think I just sat at the table and waited. Played on my phone. M was still on the toilet, reading mommy blogs, probably, on her iPad. Finally, the microwave beeped and beeped, I casually, slowly got up to check the scene.
There was no “Not” on the stick. Just the one word: Pregnant. Capitalized, like a headline, like a name.
I picked it up and held it like it was a delicate little hand, stared at it, and walked it into the bathroom. As a person who tells stories for a living, I knew the way I told her would be something that would make it into future stories, so the pressure was on. Unable to come up with any words, I just showed her the stick. She stared at it for a few seconds and smiled. We both smiled. I cried for the first of three times that day. We texted a photo of the tiny computer screen to our friends who have been trying at the same time as us; to my best friend in Brooklyn. (When this process began, we each designated a friend whom we could tell immediately, as we paused to devise the most poetic and memorable way to tell family and everyone else.) We did the math. If all was well, we could share the news with M’s family on Christmas day, when we’d all be gathered in Albuquerque. We’d get a book about grandparenting for her mother – whose birthday is on Christmas – and slide an ultrasound picture into its pages. Let her piece it together herself.
We went to yoga and the focus of the class was on “pronoia” – the opposite of paranoia. Instead of assuming the world is out to get you, you assume the world is there to support you. I cried.
We went to lunch and M had a kale salad (good for fertility), and I cried again. I’m a sensitive Cancer. This was big news. I couldn’t imagine how I could get to Christmas without telling anyone; I knew I must get to Christmas without telling anyone. Some secrets are extraordinary and worth waiting for the right minute.
We spent the weekend relaxing and reveling in the news. On Monday, M went in for a blood test, and that’s when the steering wheel turned. That’s when the needle scratched the record.
The nurse called to say her hcG was about 12. “We’d like to see it a little bit higher, but the most important thing is that it doubles in 48 hours.” She went back on Wednesday for another test. Her hcG was 20.5. Almost double but not quite. Commence Google.
Online sources (such as they are) told me that the doubling every 36-72 hours was normal. To not make too much out of hcG levels. To just relax and hold out for the 8-week ultrasound. The spectrum of “normal” hcG levels was a spectrum for a reason. Women with an initial (week 4) hcG of 5 had normal pregnancies, and women with an initial hcg of 426 had normal pregnancies. 12 was in the spectrum. Everything could be just fine, right?
M was not so convinced. She returned on Monday for another blood test and her level was now 75. I made a chart with variations allowed for doubling every 48-72 hours. I made a chart with variations allowed for increasing by 60% every 48 hours – another rate at which the internet told me everything was normal. According to my calculations, the 60% predictions and the doubling every 72 hours predictions both had us perfectly on track. (Who the hell am I all of the sudden anyway? Dr. Bunsen Honeydew?)
Meanwhile, M was at work, sharing an office with a prenatal doc who’s getting phone calls about far higher hcG levels and telling the women that those sound about normal. She became convinced it was a miscarriage. I became convinced we needed to breathe and wait and learn as we go. Naturally, we headed to the acupuncturist, who taught me how to wave a magic smoke wand over M’s big toes for five minutes at a time, to stop uterine bleeding. I was totally game. Magic happens, right.
As the days of painful, confusing, miscommunicated waiting dragged on, I waved the smokey wand five minutes over each big toe, twice a day. We both fell asleep most nights with our hands over M’s belly. We named it Buster the Cluster and talked to it to cheer it on, even though updates on my BabyCenter app told me it was only the size of a poppy seed; a sesame seed; a pumpkin seed, with no ears, then with webbed toes, etc. There was a flux happening which I was able to convince myself could be toppled in one direction or another through the power of positive thinking. Even when M started bleeding, I told myself it was better to be optimistic than to sit around worrying and being afraid while we waited for absolution. M was more difficult to convince, but there was no option but the waiting.
Finally, the fourth blood test revealed the hcG had fallen to something like 36. The most conclusive thing we’d heard so far. More tears, but this time there was release, defeat, disappointment and sadness, yes, but also a sort of relief that the questioning could end.
I stopped Googling. M’s body started producing a brownish blackish substance for several days. We met with the doctor who called the whole thing a “chemical pregnancy,” and he and M discussed in medical jargon how sometimes the level of scrutiny afforded by the TTC (trying-to-conceive) fertility medicine process tells us there’s a pregnancy before the pregnancy has really become a pregnancy. Doctors in the research triangle of NC (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) have taken to calling it a chemical pregnancy, because a sperm has, in fact, fertilized an egg. The fertilized egg has grown and implanted in the uterine lining. The implantation has spurred the ovaries to produce increased levels of hcG – the pregnancy hormone – but the whole thing was basically doomed before it started, for whatever reason, and never progressed beyond that.
We told him we’d like to just not test hcG next time, so I can stay off Google and M can hear medical information at work without thinking it might apply to her. He agreed their level of scrutiny sometimes makes patients feel more comfortable; other times it turns them into Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. So, onward.
We left the fertility clinic and drove out to see our acupuncturist. She gave us warm pillows for our shoulders, which smelled of eucalyptus and lavendar. She sat us down in a dimmed room and played a CD with the sounds of the sea and natural rhythms. She put away the magic smoke wand and instead pushed tiny pins into M’s head, belly, and feet, and sent us off with the foulest dirt-and-mushrooms nasty powder either of us has ever smelled. M was to mix eight disgusting, aromatically offensive scoops into water and drink it twice a day, an hour away from food.
A couple of days later, we were off to Albuquerque with the “dirt juice” mix instead of the grandparenting book (we had bought Anne Lamott’s Some Assembly Required). We hemmed and hawed about how and when to clue everyone in. At Christmas, surrounded by children, stressed and tired and with a body that’s pushing out an unsuccessful chemical pregnancy, M was uninspired for a big family talk. I was too. I quietly told her mother one morning before Christmas and we just left it at that.
Everyone says “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Which, yes. At least we know that. But the expunging of the extra cells in M’s body took a couple of weeks. Weeks of cramping and brown-black crud and emotions and exhaustion and sadness and confusion. Weeks where neither of us could really tell much of anyone about what was happening because we had chosen – as you’re told to do, as makes sense to do – not to tell anyone right away that the pregnancy had occurred.
More than once, I got thinking about this antiquated set of expectations on women. How many women have miscarried in sad, disappointed silence, alone in their discomfort until the whole thing passes. (Indeed, one in three pregnancies miscarries – you have better odds at a successful pregnancy than traditional marriage these days, but barely.)
Pregnancy is a freakish miracle, everyone wants to be a part of it. You want to post ultrasound photos on Facebook, and everyone you ever went to high school with or met at a party, or sat next to in class, wants to congratulate you on the miracle growing inside your body. The ten months of cell division is a strange and exciting and roller coaster experience. But thirty percent of the time, this other thing happens that nobody talks about until it happens to them, or to someone else they know. Like marital problems or sexual harassment - we keep these secrets until we see others struggling with them. Wouldn’t the struggle be lessened if those heading into it knew it was just a part of life? A normal thing, a typical roadblock, not something that happens to “bad moms” or women who wear low-cut shirts to work?
My mother miscarried her second pregnancy. Granted, she went on to have three more children, but… She miscarried before Roe v. Wade, a time when a D&C (dilation and curettage) was an abortive procedure which was not afforded to women like herself. Women in her position, who were further along than M, had to carry around the dead fetus until it either passed on its own or turned into an infection which required medical treatment. That, to me, is horrifying.
My sisters both had one miscarriage (and three successful pregnancies apiece). My sister-in-law had two, but now her baby is due in a couple of weeks. This is a thing which happens. Like falling off your bike or having a fender bender or failing a test or slicing into a melon that’s rotten in the center. Terrible analogies, all of them, but it’s just a thing, just a moment. It happens and you move on because – at least for both of us – ending the journey here is not an option.
I’ve never understood why it’s indelicate to openly discuss the parts of life that are most painful and confusing and difficult. Those are the times we most need to connect. But then came this Christmas, and there we were, keeping our cards to our chest because no time was a good time. Suddenly I had a glimpse of understanding that, yes, tragedy happens, but so does time. Sometimes choosing to spend that time celebrating is more useful than choosing to mourn.
One day, the story will be - We thought you were going to come, but we were wrong. So we had Christmas and we went to the spa and we had some delicious meals with the family. We breathed and gave ourselves some room, then we went home and tried again.