When my best friend in all the world miscarried at six months, she was huge, she'd seen the heartbeat, she knew the baby's sex, and she and her husband had picked out a name. I miscarried three times -- each time in the first trimester -- and I don't imagine that my pain can compare to my friend's. Of course, it's silly to talk of "comparing" pain, and whenever this comes up in conversation between us, she always says that she can't imagine my pain of having a miscarriage three times over. To which I always respond: Think of the women who have had six miscarriages, or eight. And who persist, trying and trying again.
Trying once again -- or again and again -- to conceive afterrepeated miscarriages is a leap of faith, an act of amazing persistence, pure will, and even, one might say, stubbornness. For one thing, after three miscarriages, you're dubbed a "habitual aborter" by the medical profession, which is enough to make anyone take a vow of celibacy.
I married late (at 37) and -- presto! -- became pregnant on my Italian honeymoon. No biological clock worries for me, I thought smugly. During that first pregnancy, which I now view as an Edenic, innocent time, I filled my blender with fruit (it was summer) and made one super-healthy yogurt shake after another. I bought, for the first time in my life, a huge bag of sunflower seeds and dutifully littered my salads with them. I swam long, slow, meditative laps in a pool.
Then, at 10 weeks, I went to have CVS (chorionic villus sampling), the test recommended for pregnant women over 35 that gives earlier results than amniocentesis. As a prelude to the test, a technician did a sonogram to determine the baby's position. My husband noticed before I did that her face betrayed something very wrong. We were not yet experienced readers of sonograms, had not yet trained our eyes to pick through the moonscape of the at-first-unintelligible picture on the monitor. The explanation was grim: No heartbeat. It took a moment or two before the corollary to "no heartbeat" sunk in: No baby.
During the ensuing painful days, I kept saying to myself: Baby. Not baby. Baby. Not baby. Like some insane version of "He loves me; he loves me not," my mind repeated this little chant as I brushed my teeth, as I reheated food in the microwave, as I sat at my office computer. It was so sudden, so stark, such an abrupt change. From being on the path to motherhood to...what? I had no guidelines for how to think about this.
Thankfully, I got pregnant again before too many months went by. But this time, I treated my pregnancy far differently. Perhaps in some sort of bizarre rebellion against my body and what "it" had done to "me," I was far less careful, drinking more than the occasional cup of coffee and giving absolutely no thought to those sunflower seeds, now stored in the uppermost reaches of my kitchen cabinet.
On a sad June night when, as bad luck would have it, my husband was out of town, I began to bleed. The next day, another of those sonograms that I was rapidly becoming skilled at deciphering, confirmed that, yet again, there was no heartbeat. The superstitious, guilty part of me worried that, somehow, I'd brought on this miscarriage with my less-healthy habits, but testing exonerated me: The fetus had had a trisomy (three of a particular chromosome, rather than the normal two) and had been doomed from the very start. I learned that such genetic abnormalities were common in "older" mothers. My usually optimistic outlook on life began to disintegrate.
We settled into a period of "trying" -- one of the most unfortunate locutions in the English language -- what an old boss of my husband's calls "the forced march." And -- yes! -- I became pregnant again fairly quickly. This time, my attitude did a wideswing in the other direction: I went back to more circumspect eating and drinking (though still not as abstinently as my more cautious husband would have liked). I was upbeat and happy. My doctor assured me that I had just had some bad luck and that everything would be fine. I believed her calming assurances -- after all, I couldn't possibly miscarry a third time.
This pregnancy progressed well -- we actually made it through our CVS appointment. And at that visit, we saw the by-now-familiar sonogram, with the black-and-white cartoon character that looked so very much like a baby. We saw it moving, dancing; we saw its blinking light of a heart. And then, a week or so after the test, at a routine doctor's visit, once again: No heartbeat. No baby. The doctor swore that the CVS didn't cause this miscarriage, but we certainly had our doubts (the procedure does pose risks). It was this third miscarriage that did me in, the third trip to the green-ceilinged operating room for a D&C that made me start to fray around the edges.
I spent the months afterward reading up on recurrent miscarriage. I made my ever-calm doctor run every possible test, explain every possible explanation. My husband and I saw a fertility specialist. We began to investigate adoption. The accumulated swells of hope and letdown, excitement and disappointment, had become, if not a constant in my life, then awfully familiar. It felt like the sea: the rising tide of happiness, the falling, pulling backwash of mourning. The upswing of expectation and thrill, mounting with each day and week, and then, sure and strong, the downswing of the pit in the stomach, the lump in the throat.
I didn't get pregnant for almost a year, which, given my age and the number of miscarriages I'd had, seemed an unending eternity. To see myself through, I acquired a feisty black-and-white kitten and a skittish full-grown cat with a regal bearing and a fluffed-out tail. I spent many sad evenings burrowing into their comforting fur. And when I went to bed, I dreamed gory, terrifying dreams about babies and cats and rescue and loss and danger.
Eventually, I got pregnant again. This time I was, I think, numb. Long past the traditional don't-tell mark of the first trimester, I was loathe to acknowledge the pregnancy. It wasn't until about the seventh month that I would talk unhesitatingly about it. Up until then, I'd bark at anyone who asked, and, of course, as my belly protruded more and more, people felt free to do just that.
I refused to buy maternity clothes, making do with the huge old button-down shirts of my 6'2" father. My best friend, who after her late miscarriage bore beautiful twin boys, had been stockpiling baby stuff for me, although I'd told her, after the second miscarriage, that I couldn't bear any more discussions of what was worth saving and what should go to Goodwill. She and my mother live near each other, hundreds of miles from me, and together they conspired to hoard the clothes, toys, changing table, and nursing rocker they wanted so badly for me to need someday. They sorted and boxed and arranged, filling giant trashbags with bunnies and bears and Onesies and Polarfleece jackets and battered books full of barnyard animals and babies' faces, crossing their fingers as they worked, hoping that this pregnancy would last.
I can't remember exactly when I started to believe that, maybe, just maybe, this baby would make it. Although I wouldn't permit myself to call it "baby." It was first a fetus, then later, Junior or Future Baby. And, no question, I did not want to know the sex. For if I didn't know the sex, I couldn't refer to it as "she" or "he." And it would stay just a little less real. Which was safer.
But then came the day, late in the pregnancy, somewhere around 32 weeks, when my doctor, cautiously, tentatively, circumspectly, informed me that with neonatal units being what they are today, if the baby were born right then, it would "most likely" survive and be okay. For the first time, I dared to think: Baby. Baby.Around 36 weeks, a decrease in my amniotic fluid provided a bit of a scare and meant that I would be induced a couple of weeks early. But strangely, I wasn't worried, although the drop in fluid did, my doctor said, represent some danger to the baby. I continued going to work. I slowly -- increasingly slowly as the pregnancy wore on -- put one foot in front of the other, at long last calling my mother and my best friend and arranging for a shipping company to come for their hoarded treasure. When the appointed day came and we went to the hospital, the Pitocin didn't kick in the way it was supposed to, and during labor, the baby's heartbeat dipped, but somehow, still, I didn't worry. We'd made it this far, my soon-to-be baby and I. When he, froglike, slippery with blood, was placed on my chest, I asked if it was safe to touch him. And it was.
Now he's here, he's been here for more than two years -- my reallive baby boy, a full-blown toddler with likes and dislikes all his own, talking and dancing and on the verge of being potty-trained -- no hoped-for creature in the process of becoming, no ghostly apparition on a sonogram screen, with features that although they eerily, tantalizingly resemble those of a human being, can at any moment disappear into the sorrow of the might have been. He lives, he breathes, he falls down, he is covered in mosquito bites! He laughs, he crams huge pieces of juicy peach into his snaggle-toothed mouth! And the sadness almost -- but never quite completely -- fades away.
Anne Glusker, a former Washington Post editor, is a writer living in Takoma Park, Maryland.