When the bough breaks, Part I

I originally wrote this post over a year ago. I’m not sure why I held off on publishing – as you know, I’m not one to shy away from difficult personal stories! – but it was right around the time that work started to pick up to pre-Covid levels, and I imagine I didn’t have the time to edit or proof, and so it sat in my “draft” box.

My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby this year, which stirred some things up for me, and I recalled this unpublished post. Reading it now, I can remember the pain I’d felt as I was putting words to paper, and I feel that pain anew. But pain is meant to be felt, and moved through, and so now, as is my wont, I’ll put this out into the universe.

I wasn’t one of those kids that played with dolls, or dreamt about my wedding dress, or fantasized about having my own children; I pretty much stuck to collecting horse figurines, body surfing, and practicing the piano. For many years I didn’t really see marriage in my future, and certainly not children; from college through early adulthood I was more interested in forging my way through the world.

I met my husband at the Curtis Institute of Music, where I began my degree a few years after graduating from university, and within a year we were living together – and within 4 years we were married. As struggling young musicians having babies really wasn’t initially in the cards, and it wasn’t until 6 years into our marriage, when we both won jobs with the Richmond Symphony and settled into our starter house, that we started contemplating the possibility.

Trigger warning: fertility, pregnancy loss.

I approached the idea of motherhood with a quiet excitement tinged with ambivalence. For someone who was keenly focused on their career, children would be challenge, particularly given that work travel, and a lot of it, was already in the cards. But deeper down, there was the pervasive feeling, after my father’s death by suicide the year after I was married, that the world was uncertain, unstable, unsafe. People could disappear from your life in the passing of a moment; how could I bring a new life into such a world?

Biology and the relative stability of both of us working in the same city prevailed, and so my husband and I decided to start trying.

We as a society too often equate childbearing with idyllic images of beaming couples cradling a growing bump, or an Instagram-worthy gender reveal cake; the reality is, of course, not at all picture perfect. We couldn’t conceive. After nearly six months of trying to no avail, we sought out reproductive health.

Even given the tremendous strides women have made in the larger universe, the world of motherhood is still in many ways foundational, fundamental. Our bodies are meant to grow life – it’s a biological imperative. So when that fundamental capacity seems non-functional, it feels like a failure, as if I couldn’t uphold the obligation – and power – of being a female of my species. It was difficult for me not to feel like it was my fault.

I was also aware that fertility wanes after one’s early 20s (did you know that pregnancy over the age of 35 is called “geriatric”?) and that it would be an uphill battle. So it was with some begrudging acceptance that I moved forward with reproductive assistance. We opted for an IUI – read about that here – and after two tries, we finally saw the faint pink plus-sign on our pregnancy test.

I don’t know if I was overjoyed or relieved, but it felt like an accomplishment, a battle won, and we were embarking on a new quest. We’d been warned about miscarriage in the first trimester, and to wait to share our news until after the 12th week. And so I remember dutifully keeping my mouth closed as I turned down a drink after a concert in LA, at a friend’s housewarming, at a holiday celebration – oh, no, nothing’s up, I just don’t feel like a glass of wine. I finally caved, at eleven weeks, and told my family over Christmas dinner, and I vividly remember feeling like some sort of blessed vessel, a glowing Madonna to be treated with gentle reverence. I was fulfilling my biological charge.

When we passed the first trimester mark, I keenly enjoyed the freedom of sharing my good news, and by week 13, it truly felt like we were in the clear; the ultrasounds looked good, the tiny heartbeat strong and steady. I jetted across the country for a concert that was also an audition for a music director position.

It was the middle of week 14 and the middle of the dress rehearsal when I started to bleed. Not a lot, but noticeably. And by the end of the rehearsal, feeling mild cramps, I knew something was wrong. The personnel manager took me to the emergency room, to yet another ultrasound. I didn’t need the technician to tell me the tiny heartbeat was gone.

I don’t remember much after that, except that the personnel manager and I went to In-n-Out to get burgers and shakes (my request) and that she sat with me for a long, long time. I managed to pull off the concert without breaking down, but the next day in my job interview I felt dead to the world, and had to divulge what had happened. I’ll never forget the blank stares and the discomfort of much of the search committee, nor the knowing pain behind the silent chairwoman’s eyes. I didn’t get the job.

If my inability to conceive felt like a failure, my miscarriage felt doubly so. And like nearly any woman who experiences such loss, my immediate thoughts were to my own deficiencies – what was wrong with me? Was it something I did? Something I didn’t do? Should I have stopped running? Should I have taken more folate? Should I have not flown across the country to audition for a position?

By the time the interview day was over I was bleeding pretty heavily, experiencing painful cramps, and feeling exhausted. I was prescribed some painkillers and given the green light to return home. This is probably the worst of it, the nurse at the clinic said. You may be passing blood and tissue, but that’s normal. Fly home, get some rest, see your doctor in a bit.

I got home, made an appointment for a few days later, and crawled into bed. What I didn’t realize then was that at 14 weeks a fetus is the size of a kiwi, and there is a good amount of tissue. The next morning, as my husband was at a rehearsal, my body pushed out, slowly and painfully, what was left of my little kiwi.

I’m not sure how I had the presence of mind, as I was heaving sobs, to go to the kitchen and find a pair of chopsticks. I’m not sure how I had the forethought to pick the mass of cells out of the toilet, to put it into a plastic bag and then a tupperware, and to put it in our refrigerator. My doctor had told us that testing could be done for chromosomal abnormalities and I was determined to know if genetic issues were at play.

Weeks later we would learn that this wasn’t the case; there wasn’t anything that pointed to a specific reason the pregnancy wasn’t viable. In the meantime, I spent my days curled up (oh, the irony) in the fetal position, my body aching, tears dropping steadily from my eyes, clutching my empty womb.

Miscarriage is not a part of common discourse, then or now. Instead it’s spoken of in hushed tones, a “private loss”. But I couldn’t think of anything more public, as friends and colleagues and acquaintances waited for my bump to swell, and had to be told why it didn’t. Conversations usually ended at that point. No one wants to talk about it. Few people know what to say.

And those who said anything were often so misinformed or ignorant as to exacerbate my pain. Was it because you lift weights? Were you too stressed? Maybe you should’t be working so much? Did you drink coffee? Because you shouldn’t drink coffee. Even the most well-meaning responses treated the loss of pregnancy (or, more accurately, “spontaneous abortion” – a neutral medical term laden with political undertones) as an avoidable outcome, if only I had been “doing it right”, as if it were my fault.

The irony, of course, is that 10-15% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, and that it’s more likely than not that we know women who have experienced it. I learned then that a handful of friends over the years had quietly suffered their own losses; most didn’t know who to reach out to as the topic felt so strangely taboo. And so they had borne their pain, supported by their partners, but feeling isolated in their grief.

And bringing up the topic of miscarriage still feels strangely taboo, as if the world still doesn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. And so I’ve told my story many times, whenever I could, as my own way of opening the conversation, of creating that language around loss of pregnancy. Because not every pregnancy ends in a joyful birth, or a birth at all. Because we are better served understanding our own biology. Because life and loss move in mysterious ways.

(To be continued)

3 thoughts on “When the bough breaks, Part I

  1. Joseph King says:

    I am so sorry for your loss. I hope that time and your sharing of this tragic experience will help you and your husband continue to recover.


  2. Your story sounds very much like my eldest daughter’s story from earlier this year. You are right, Sarah. This happens to more women than we realize, until it happens to someone we know and the stories come out. Thank you for sharing your story. I’m so sorry you experienced this loss and I hope that by writing it down here, you may find some peace and healing from it. God bless.


  3. Sylvain B. Cote says:

    My sympathies for your loss, Sarah and Paul.

    My Cambodian niece and her French Canadian husband went through a similar experience. It wasn’t easy for anyone including the parents and relatives. We gave them emotional support as much as we could.


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