I had a miscarriage in December, I confess on the updated medical history form at my dentist, proud I can write that and continue with my day. The hygienist calls me back. I slip onto the leather exam chair and she hands me unfashionable sunglasses.
She looks at my paperwork and then at me. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” she says.
I nod. I thank her. I would like to move on because I don’t know her and my miscarriage is not relevant to scraping tartar off my teeth. Except that it sort of is. The last time I was in this office, I was the tiniest bit pregnant but didn’t know it yet. So they took x-rays. Two months later I had a miscarriage. And I have not stopped thinking about it since, even though everyone assures me it couldn’t have been the x-rays.
“Do you have any children or was this your first try?” the hygienist asks once her hands are in my mouth.
I shake my head, then nod and mumble. She pulls her hands out.
“The first try.”
“Well don’t stop trying,” she says with blaring cheer, “it’s worth it when it happens.” I nod again, her hands back in my mouth. I’m grateful for the conversational barrier.
When she’s done, I sit up and reach for my purse. “Good luck,” she chirps. “Next time you’re due for x-rays, but if you’re ineligible, we don’t have to do it.”
Ineligible. This is precisely how I feel. Ineligible for carrying a baby inside me. Ineligible for motherhood.
My miscarriage happened on New Year’s Eve, ten days after I sat alone in a cold ultrasound room, heard the words no heartbeat, made the sobbing phone call to my husband.
By the time Mother’s Day arrived, when I should’ve been seven months pregnant, I’d decided I could brave the idea of trying again. I’d bought a new planner because I’d already written all my midwife appointments and due date, in heartbreaking ink, in the old one. Now I’ve renumbered the calendar squares so it’s not Mother’s Day anymore. It’s not even May 8. It’s Day 28. Too early for a pregnancy test but not too early to obsess. All day I swallow the lump in my throat as I buy my mom a card, make a salad for our family picnic, cuddle my niece, do my best to avoid Facebook’s ruthless stream of babies, babies, babies, pregnant bellies, glowing moms, and more babies.
Trying to get pregnant after a miscarriage takes an invisible, relentless kind of courage. To ward off cheerful hygienists, to endure the social media baby parade, to keep trying after another negative test.
Sometimes I wish I could just not want it anymore. That I could flip the switch off and be over the whole baby thing: Well that didn’t work, let’s do something else with our lives. But it’s as if my miscarriage created an emptiness that I am ravenous to fill. Month after month, I try not to look at the test as the timer on my phone runs down to zero. That single bold red line is a hostile middle finger from my reproductive system. Not even a hint of a second line.
The week that my belly should be nine months round, our should-be-baby due any day, my husband and I pack up our station wagon for a Fourth of July camping trip. Maybe the ponderosas and the clear rushing river will scrub my heart, give me some perspective. But as we loop through the umpteenth full campground, trolling for a campsite and cursing ourselves for not making a reservation, I start to cry. Quietly at first and then uncontrollably.
“What do you want to do?” my husband sighs, just as discouraged at the prospect of driving three hours home after a failed camping attempt.
“I don’t know,” I say, trying to sniff back tears. “I just want to camp.”
“Well we need to make a decision,” he says, and I can hear his increasing frustration. “Do you want to go home? Find a hotel?”
“Can you just stop somewhere?” I ask.
He pulls into a park full of adorable kids splashing in the water, and I walk around alone for five minutes before slinking back into the passenger seat. I tell my husband what he probably already knows, which is this isn’t about finding a campsite. This is about one more thing I can’t control. One more thing I want but can’t have.
Were it anyone else’s story, I would’ve stopped reading months ago, or skipped to the end. But when you are trying to get pregnant, you have no ending. Only the dark, confusing, endless middle, the part of the story that has rambled on far too long. The problem with your own story is you can’t put it down, no matter how much you hate it. Every month, you are forced back into it, forced to follow along as nothing happens, to read the same chapter over and over: the two week wait of avoiding wine; the caffeine drawdown; analyzing every physical sensation that could potentially be an early pregnancy symptom (but could also, maddeningly, be your period); devastation when your period inevitably does arrive; the pep talk to give it another go; the resurgence of hope; restart.
When my husband and I plan a last-minute trip and only buy two plane tickets, or I spontaneously meet a friend for drinks after work or write all morning in a coffee shop, I think: freedom. But in those moments I also know the day of my cycle. I know what my temperature was that morning, if I’m about to ovulate, how many days are left until I can take a test. I no longer feel like a whole person, just a woman who wants a baby but does not have a baby and has been trying and failing for a year to have a baby. I am so tired of that woman’s story.
Then, a Wednesday morning in March, the plot finally changes. Like every test I’ve taken over the last 14 months, I expect this one to be negative. I place it on the back of the toilet and get in the shower so I won’t stare at it for the next five minutes. I even try not to look until I’ve wrapped my towel around me, but I can’t help it. There it is. The second red line.
I stop by the grocery store after work to buy a get-well card for my husband, who went home sick earlier with a cold. Maybe this will make you feel better! I write, tucking my pregnancy test inside the card. He picks me up and spins me around, which he didn’t do the first time because we were both so stunned that we’d gotten pregnant on the first try. This time we know what that small word—try—actually means.
I tiptoe cautiously through the early weeks of my second pregnancy. People like to talk about the glow, but not the fear. I try to ward it off by thinking up unscientific reasons why this time will be different: It’s the beginning of spring instead of the beginning of winter—trees blooming instead of dying—and most importantly, there have been no x-rays. Some days I can go along for hours, believing everything will be fine, coming up with names—and then I feel a weird twinge, worry that it’s a cramp, check for blood. I climb back down the ladder of hope, reminded that I still have to make it to my first ultrasound.
My husband’s attempts at conversation wash over me as we drive to our first midwife appointment. I am an island, unreachable until I hear a heartbeat. Terrified I will learn once again that I am ineligible. When the ultrasound tech covers my belly in cold gel, I am instantly transported back to the last ultrasound room. During the prolonged moments that the screen is just fuzzy black and white, my heart relocates to my throat and I forget to breathe—until we see the faint flutter of a tiny beating heart and my husband squeezes my hand too hard.
The mother’s heart, it turns out, is slightly displaced during pregnancy. It literally shifts, a bit to the left, to make room for the baby that is slowly expanding into the rib cage. But my heart was displaced the first time, creating a hollow space where a baby should have been. Perhaps that’s what makes room for so much hope and so much fear to exist at once, in one person, for so long.
Even when I make it to the second trimester and then the third, I never jump ahead on the pregnancy apps to see what size fruit my baby will be next week. I’m afraid to tempt fate by reading about fingernails or eyelashes that haven’t yet formed. Six weeks from my due date, I watch my daughter perform acrobatics just beneath my skin. I breathe a sigh of relief with each kick—and then resume holding my breath.
Guest essay written by Kaitlin Barker Davis. Kaitlin is a writer and mother living in Portland, OR. Her essays on travel and motherhood have appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Narratively, The Rumpus and Motherwell and you can find her on Instagram. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Seattle Pacific University and is the communications designer at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
Photo by Lottie Caiella.