I’ve never been someone who makes a fuss over Valentine’s Day, but last year it just happened to be the day I got my contraceptive device removed. My partner and I had wine with dinner—what I planned to be my last glass in long time—and we were happy.
This is the story of the year that followed.
A quick note of warning: none of this is supposed to be medical advice. It’s just what happened to me. And there’s a lot to get through. So sit back, get comfy, pour yourself a glass of wine—ha! Kidding. If your bits are involved in baby making it’s best if you stop drinking. Yep, even if you’re the one bringing the tadpoles to the table. You think that’s rough? My sweet summer child, this is only just the beginning.
First up, there’s is a whole story in how I got to the point of wanting a child.
Once upon a time I was a carefree uni student who was terrified of holding babies in case I dropped them or I touched the soft spot or they pooed on me or something.
I did want kids of my own. Just … someday.
The whole Don’t Hand Me Your Baby aesthetic was working pretty well for me, until the day it wasn’t. My right ovary betrayed me Professor Quirrell style by growing an enormous cyst with designs on world domination. The ovary, cyst and associated fallopian tube had to be cut out of me. I was assured that my one remaining ovary and tube should be enough. I probably wouldn’t run into reproductive issues in the future because of what had happened.
I heard the italics loud and clear, and they frightened me.
They frightened me so much that I began to wonder about what Someday would look like. And when I realised it would take a long time for my life to look like that, I decided to get the process started immediately.
And then I developed a debilitating chronic illness. Even if my lonely ovary shot eggs like a machine gun, I might never be well enough to raise a child. I’ll spare you the full existential crisis that ensured. In short, one of the kindest cruelties of chronic illness is that it sharpens your priorities. I no longer wanted Someday, I wanted Now, and it looked like I might be getting Never.
But you already know it wasn’t Never. I was lucky. After a couple of years my health improved. Not completely (chronic illness rarely does that) but enough.
Giddy with hope and gratitude and still not quite believing I had reached this point, I had my birth control removed and …
… was not immediately pregnant.
Neither myself or my partner have nieces or nephews, and none of our friends had kids. Sex education in school led me to believe pregnancy was so likely it was almost impossible to avoid. I thought unsafe sex equalled BANG, up the duff, bun in the oven, here’s your free gift of a radiant glow, enjoy the giant tatas.
Not necessarily, it turns out.
You’d think this was basic uterus-owner know-how, but despite understanding the fundamentals of periods and cycles and whatnot, it never really clicked for me before this that you only get one shot at baby creation a month. That’s twelve or maybe thirteen chances a year. Obviously, I needed to track and better understand my cycle.
Don’t worry! There’s an app for that!
Actually, heaps of them.
A quick tip from someone who’s been there. Do not pick a period tracker app with a social media community attached to it. Do not pick an app that makes judgey comments disguised as ‘health insights’. Do not pick an app that asks personal questions about the state of your cervical mucus. (These guidelines can also be applied for choosing anything in life. You’re welcome).
I didn’t have anyone to warn me. I downloaded three. And that’s how I learned about TTC.
TTC stands for Trying To Conceive, but it’s more than just a text-friendly acronym. It’s a whole new world, a sub-culture for pre-pregnancy. It even had its own language which I had to spend a few hours decoding. You don’t do a test, you POAS (pee on a stick), and then the test isn’t negative, it’s a BFN (big fat negative). Or it might be a BFP (big fat positive). Or, maybe, a VVFL (very very faint line). Sex isn’t sex, it’s baby dancing, but preferably just BD. A period is tastefully referred to as Aunt Flo, and then even more tastefully abbreviated to AF.
All that probably helps some people. I can see how it could make you feel connected and how it might reassure you that everything you are experiencing and worrying about is normal. And if that’s you, fantastic. Enjoy.
But it wasn’t me. If I really must be discreet, I prefer having fun with it and tell people I’m collecting teabags for when Dracula pops round for a cuppa. And, more importantly, I was already scared. My previous health issues and single ovary had me off balance, and TTC gave me the final push. I fell down the rabbit hole and into a wonderland of anxiety.
Predictably, there’s a bunch of stuff companies sell you to help ease your fears.
One popular way to waste your TTC dollars is with ovulation predictor kits. You pee on one each day until you get a positive or your cycle ends because, actually, they’re quite unreliable and it’s very possible they’ll miss ovulation altogether.
I tried them for one cycle, and I not only never got a positive result, but I managed to accidentally pee on myself three times. I do not recommend them unless you would rather have pee on your hands than money in your bank account. (And if you really would prefer pee on your hands than money in your bank account there are probably more entertaining ways to accomplish that).
Another favourite cash-vacuum is special fertility-friendly lube. This is for when you learn that standard lube acts as a barrier that makes it harder for sperm to score a touchdown, and then you panic that even though you rarely use the stuff it will still mess the whole thing up for you somehow, you don’t know how, maybe via astral projection or by selling your facebook data? (Anxiety doesn’t have to make sense, Karen, gosh).
The fertility-friendly stuff comes in a box plastered in photos of minors (babies), and even if you throw the box away the tube itself shouts CONCEIVE at you in giant, baby-pink letters. It’s basically a weaponised cold shower.
Despite my fears, at the end of my first cycle of unsafe sex, I was convinced it had worked and I was pregnant. My period was late and I had a heap of pregnancy symptoms (which, alas, I had been Googling). Also, it was coming up to our first wedding anniversary, so it would be narratively satisfying.
The negative test hit me like a slap in my silly, smug face.
It turned out I was just late—really late—because it can take a few cycles after stopping hormonal birth control for your Overlook elevator to flow regularly.
For my second cycle, I again thought I was pregnant. Shark week started early. I tried not to let it get to me (but it did). I was beginning to understand that I might have to face this many, many times.
At the end of my third cycle, I knew I wasn’t pregnant. I just knew. I had my usual PMS and was mentally bracing myself for the communists to take the funhouse, but I peed on a test, just in case. Of course it was negative. In fact, I spotted blood onto the test, which seemed like a major Up Yours from the universe.
That was the first negative that didn’t just get to me, it felt like an earth-shattering disaster. Even though I had been expecting it, even though I knew three negative cycles wasn’t unusual or unlikely or anything to be concerned about, I cried. And kept crying. And crying. It didn’t feel normal. Anything and everything set me off. And, despite the spotting, my period was late and getting later by the day.
So I took another test.
I promptly freaked out.
Growing up, I was led to believe that pregnancy was the worst thing that could happen to you. It came in just slightly above failing maths or wandering off alone at Halloween parties. Then, practically overnight, you’re an adult and you realise you never have to maths again unless you want to, but a large portion of the population will consider you an empty husk of a human if you don’t create a tiny screaming poo machine. Even so, you can’t just delete the knee-jerk Pregnancy Is Super Bad What Have You Done Your Life Is Ruined reaction from your mental operating system. (Sticking together at Halloween parties is always good advice, though; holiday-themed murderers only have to happen to you once).
On top of that, despite wanting a baby, I had never been sold on the whole pregnancy thing. To me it had always looked like level after level of throwing up, fainting and stretch marks culminating in a boss-fight of screaming, pain, vaginal tearing and pooing in front of people. Also, you might die. It’s a lot less likely these days, but still a pretty intense possibility.
Obviously I had signed up anyway, but I still had my misgivings.
I was right to. Unpopular opinion alert: pregnancy sucks.
I was constantly exhausted, hungry, busting for the toilet and on the brink of vomiting. Most of my cravings were for food I wasn’t allowed to eat, e.g. soft cheese and cold ham, and most of my food aversions were for things I was supposed to be eating lots of, e.g. vegetables. I got acne instead of a radiant glow, I kept crying randomly, and to top it all off the very thought of a cup of tea—my absolute favourite thing in the world and only comfort in times of distress—made me gag.
I’ll just repeat that to let the horror sink in: I couldn’t drink tea.
Don’t get me wrong, I was excited, too. I ordered a pregnancy book and carefully followed what features my baby was growing, what whimsical food item it was comparable to in size, and what strangely mutated creature it looked like this week. And it wasn’t a secret. I simply didn’t have the skills to navigate tricky questions like “so, how’s things?” without exploding with the news that inside me there was a mutant dinosaur the size of a sesame seed which had an actual spinal column and tail.
Then I had some more spotting and was sent for an early scan. Everything looked fine. The foetus was a smidge smaller than it was supposed to be, but I was assured that in most cases that’s just because your cycle didn’t match the average. To confirm its developmental dates, I had a second scan two weeks later.
At this scan, there was a big screen on the wall. The first thing I saw was the heartbeat. It was a little white flicker. For the first time since seeing the two lines on the test, the low level panic faded away. For a moment, everything was perfect.
She explained that it was still too small. In fact, it looked as if over the last two weeks it had only managed three days worth of growth.
“But it will be okay,” I said, because of course it would be.
When I got back to the doctor, she stressed that she’d seen cases like this where everything turned out fine. A heartbeat was good. Still, we should be prepared for a miscarriage.
I had to wait another two weeks for a third scan. I held on to that flickering heartbeat as hard as I could, but I felt like the box for Schrodinger’s cat. Was it growing, or was it gone? Was I pregnant or wasn’t I?
I didn’t cope well with the uncertainty. I spent every spare moment wrapped into an igloo of blankets either sleeping or reading so that I didn’t have to think about the fact that, no matter how hard I wanted to hold on, I could feel my body letting go.
My symptoms faded, and however unpleasant they were this was not how I wanted to be free of them. I started having cramps, constant sharp reminders of what was happening inside me. One night I bled, but not very much, not enough for it to be over.
I made it to the third scan.
The baby didn’t.
There was no white flicker, no heartbeat. It had stopped growing, only measuring five weeks and six days even though it was supposed to be ten weeks.
It never even looked like a tiny mutant dinosaur.
The sonogrammer left us alone for a few minutes. My partner hugged me, and I sobbed briefly because it seemed like the right time to do that. Then I put myself back together and proceeded to the next logical step.
I had to.
It wasn’t over. It was still inside me. I was a living tomb.
Two days after the scan, I had a surgical procedure called a D&C to remove it. I woke up feeling like I’d been having good dreams but couldn’t quite remember what they were. I was given a cheese sandwich and a cup of tea.
And then I could go home, and it was all over.
Only it wasn’t over.
It was a kind of horror story. I had taken a wrong turn and ended up in an alternate universe. At family gatherings people handed me glasses of wine, and I drank them. I ate soft cheese and deli meats. I lived the life of non-pregnant Lucy, knowing all the time that I was pregnant Lucy and everything around me was wrong. I knew when we should have been telling people, but there was nothing to tell. I knew when I should have started seeing a bump, but it never came. I knew we should have a nursery, but it was just a spare room.
We waited for several months before trying again.
But it still wasn’t over.
Every time I got my period, I was lying back on a wheeled bed in a darkened room watching a heartbeat on the wall. Every time, I was plunged back into that moment of broken wonder that wouldn’t end. Every time, I came apart. And every time, I had to put myself back together so that I would be ready to come apart again, next month.
And then it was Christmastime, and I couldn’t bear it anymore.
In that alternate universe, the one I accidentally stumbled out of, I would be eight months pregnant. In this new world, my period was due and I dreaded it. If it came, I was going to have to stop.
I was aware, however, that if it didn’t come, if I was pregnant, then the time with the highest risk of miscarriage would be Christmas and the due month of the first pregnancy. When I explained this to a friend, she said, “It would almost be better if you weren’t pregnant this month.”
But I was.
My cyclic depression stopped. It seemed miraculous, a gift. It came at just at the right time to save me.
(Although it wasn’t over. The night before Christmas I dreamed of blood. It was so vivid I could smell it, and I woke up in the darkened room with the heartbeat on the wall.)
I had an early scan again.
A quick note about early scans.
Everything is so small at this stage that it’s difficult to see. It helps if your bladder is full, so you are instructed to drink water beforehand. But if you drink too much, drink too little or vomit up all the water, then you might need an internal scan to get a clear enough picture.
Internal scans are exactly what it says on the box. And they are … weird. Jelly is involved. The ultrasound thingamie is an intimidating size (but don’t worry, just the tip). There is that element of violation you get from anything of this sort that, even if you have okayed for practical reasons, you are not super enthusiastic about.
But I had a heap of them through this whole business, and (at least for me) they weren’t that bad. Pap smears are more uncomfortable. In fact, my first tampon was worse.
The awkward stuff out the way, the sonnogrammer told us that this time it was twins.
Not one little mutant dinosaur, but two.
I never thought I would have twins. There are no twins in my family, none at all, and I had thought (wrongly, it turned out) that having one of my ovaries removed would reduce the chance even further.
Twins was some kind of magic.
I had tried not to get too attached early in this pregnancy, but knowing it was twins made it impossible. (It was impossible anyway). I started looking up the meaning of names and thinking about double-prams and bracing myself for the c-section that was way more likely now.
Twins also meant double symptoms, and my symptoms had not been minor with a single pregnancy. The only thing that helped the nausea was eating, and the up side to this is that I understand food now. You have not experienced food in its truest form until you’ve eaten a burger while pregnant with twins. My partner insists otherwise, but I’m pretty sure the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight transported me and that burger to heaven. Eating chips was like soaring through nebula on a cosmic narwhal. Bacon was beyond the capabilities of the human mind.
I was due to have a second scan on the same day my first baby would have been born, but I couldn’t do that. (It wasn’t over). We booked it for the day after instead.
I could see it on the screen even before the sonnogrammer explained. I was somewhat familiar with ultrasounds by this point. I could see the sacs that had been on the previous scan. I could see they were significantly larger. I could see there was nothing in them.
I have heard people say that you aren’t a proper adult, or university student, or city person, or anything until you have broken down and cried in public and been too far gone to feel any shame. I have done that, with a blood nose thrown in the mix for extra points, and I don’t think it has anything on ugly crying in a tiny room in front of a stranger and not having any emotions left over to care that they’re wiggling a condom-sheathed ultrasound thingamie inside you.
Again, we were told not to give up hope and sent home to wait two more weeks for a third scan. Again, that final scan confirmed what we already knew.
Our twins were not there. They had never been there.
I want to take a quick break from the story to check in with you. How are you coping with all this? Are you doing okay?
A confession. I could have told this story differently. I could have cut out the jokes about apps and fertility friendly lube. I could have mentally prepared you from the first line, signalled sooner this was a tragedy and half the cast would be dead (would have never existed) by the final curtain.
But no one warned me.
After the first miscarriage all the doctors and nurses and sonnogrammers told me this was common. I heard different statistics. Sometimes it was one in six pregnancies end in miscarriage, sometimes one in four. The pamphlet the hospital gave me said one in three. Whatever the exact number, it means that there are a lot of not-quite-parents out there.
And yet when I went into that first final ultrasound, I had never had a conversation with someone who I knew had wanted a pregnancy and lost it.
I have since. They had been there all along, hiding in the foreground. It’s like belonging to a secret club. As soon as people know you’ve had a miscarriage, they let you know about theirs or their friend’s or their sister’s best friend’s cousins. But there’s some kind of block—a taboo—about discussing it with the uninitiated.
That taboo meant that when it happened to me the first time, I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what to do or how to cope in the two weeks between the second scan and the final one. I didn’t even realise waiting and uncertainty could be part of a miscarriage—I assumed you either thought everything was fine or knew it was over. That taboo meant I was afraid doctors would think I was weird for crying, and I was afraid they would think I was callous for not crying. It meant I had no blueprint for how to grieve, and I had no reassurance that everything I felt was normal.
So I’m breaking the taboo. I’m talking about it. And if you end up in that dark room with too few heartbeats, then at the very least you’ll have one story in there with you.
(And if it’s not you in that room but someone you know, then you won’t say “at least you know you’re fertile” because you will understand that some things are not replaceable, some situations are too broken to run smoothly a second time, and some silver-linings are so sharp they cut.)
My babies (foetuses, empty sacs) do not have birthdays. They do not have death certificates. They do not have tombstones. They only exist in my medical records and in the space they carve out in people’s minds. They only exist if I tell you about them.
And they exist more if it hurts.
Are you doing okay?
I had a second D&C. I woke up feeling as though I had dreamed good dreams, and then I remembered where I was and why I was there. I ate my cheese sandwich. I drank my cup of tea.
And the next day was Valentine’s Day, again.
We stayed in, again. We sat on the couch, again. We had a glass of wine, again.
Nothing had changed. Everything had changed.
And it isn’t over.
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