Of interrupted pregnancies and life after
This year I had an ectopic pregnancy. It happened on March 1st, almost a year after I was surgically treated for a miscarriage, the one and only other time I’ve been pregnant. My life before was healthy and I had never been admitted to a hospital until my husband and I decided we wanted to have children. Life, how bizarre. I often think about those early days, the days we started to try, while traveling across America on an unusually long break we managed to take in the midst of our architectural careers. The first moments of untainted, uncomplicated bliss and naivety. The nervous optimism, the hopeful beginning of it all when we knew nothing about what was to come. I was thirty-four years old, a different person. Autumn’s crisp air pinging my legs – ten years later, I’ve become enough of a New Yorker not to find it strange going around without stocking this late in September – and I think that it’s that time of the year again. That beloved, tender time. Of nesting, of food, friends and family. Warmth. Looking back. The cards, the parties. I adore all of it, I can’t help it. Yet it has become more difficult. I wonder how I’m going to describe the year that is ending, to my relatives, to my friends, to my coworkers, without mentioning the secret loss we’ve been through. It’s all too private, I tell myself. When you have a kid, a kid is what happened to you that year and there is no hiding. In fact there’s sharing, almost every step of the way, the relentless sharing of transformative little joys with the Internet, as if everyone out there can relate. As if joy wasn’t as private of an emotion as pain is. On the contrary, there’s a lot of hiding in interrupted pregnancies, as if the world cannot be burdened. Yet those interrupted pregnancies are significant events, more defining and transformative than I knew or anticipated.
The defining moment was when they confirmed I had grown a pregnancy in my tube, and that the tube was compromised and had to be removed immediately. I burst into tears of fear and despair, worrying about the near and distant future in emotional, not articulate thoughts. I felt my heart disintegrate into pieces while with the corner of my eye I could see my husband bend his head down, once again, just like he did when we were told our creature had stopped growing the year before in Italy. We were there for my sister’s wedding and had been hiding the news, which we had planned to share after the wedding. The same semidarkness of the examination room, the same feeling of imploding, disappearing, holding hands to try not to lose it. But this time a sense of emergency kept us from getting lost. We needed to rush to the hospital as the tube had already started to erupt. The fact that I wasn’t in pain was unusual the doctor told me. I was mad at my body, for not working and not warning me, but I was alive and there was no time for anger. The doctor also told me that many of her patients managed to have kids years later. I registered the information in a daze, as at that moment time didn’t seem to exist. I liked the doctor, she kindly caressed my skin in a maternal way when delivering the news, the same maternal way my Italian doctor had when she had to tell me that there was no baby, not any longer. I thanked the Universe, that I found some humanity in the United States. I’ve encountered so many apologetic doctors in the States – sorry for touching my skin, my breast, for making any kind of contact, concealing any opinion that could be used against them – but not this time. She sent me to Columbia Presbyterian, the same hospital where many of my friends delivered their babies. Headed to the hospital for the second time I was pregnant but won’t deliver a baby, I realize it. Will I ever? How do we go from love to surgery? My brain asked, not really expecting to find an answer. In the cab ride, I called my mom. She didn’t know I was pregnant, she didn’t know I was about to lose my tube. I wished not to give her such pain, as I know how the Atlantic Ocean can intensify pain, that impossible distance. We hid the news from everyone, because we weren’t as fearless as the first time. We no longer believed everything would go well. We didn’t want people to worry, but we also weren’t ready to share, we weren’t ready for it to be real and potentially suffer again. There was no more hiding from that cab ride on.
What they don’t tell you about physical pain is that it keeps you very distracted from what’s happening to your soul for a while. The days after the surgery I felt the experience was not going to be insurmountable. For one, what we lost wasn’t a living creature – that made the loss less sad. And for a little while, having to survive and recover held me together, at least until I left my bed and entered the world again.
The world had gone on without me for a few weeks and I had to return to it as if nothing had happened. I suddenly realized how oblivious the working world is to women’s reality. I started to wonder how many as myself had been in the same situation quietly, coping with their own shock and pain, hiding day after day.
When I did share, understanding wasn’t always there. I came to recognize the subtle yet immense difference between sympathy and empathy. The usual script made of “it wasn’t meant to be” or “you’ll have children eventually” were searching for explanations that triggered more isolation and pain. Painful was having to endure people’s silent assumptions that I could have been envious of other women pregnancies, jealous of others children, in this sort of odd competition. As if it is anything but luck that separates people with children from people without. Not ability, not desire, not worth: just luck – the inexplicable ways of Nature. The awkwardness surrounding my pain, suddenly broke me. The expectations carelessly expressed for years, suddenly started to threatening and haunting me like never before. I could hear them, as if they had been prophecies all along. You don’t know anything about life and love until you have kids. You don’t know how much your life will expand when you have kids. Children are a blessing. You just can’t understand, wait until you have kids. I started to realize how painful the language surrounding pregnancy and children could be for those who were not so blessed. I, for the first time since our reproductive troubles begin, felt inadequate, broken, half of a human being.
Those feelings triggered a depression that I didn’t see coming. My identity as a woman felt compromised. I was missing a piece, an important piece. I felt damaged, possibly unable to ever have a baby. I started to wonder what would become of us, my husband and I, if we never have children. The way people, even loved ones, would continue to look at us as something that didn’t work out, something that needed to be fixed. The way life might repeat itself, ever the same, without a tangible evolution of our love for each other. Just us, as we’ve always been till we no longer are. I felt a sudden and deep sadness, a sense of loss that I hadn’t known before.
With that sadness I traveled to Florida, to punch list a project I’ve worked on for the last five years, a retirement community. I continued to think of life and death, hard not to in that kind of place. As I witnessed how a person’s life is reduced into a storage unit, I wondered how is it possible, a whole life of a human being in a few objects? Is that what’s going to last of us? I realized those thoughts were irrational, but I couldn’t stop them and they continued to build up, spiral up.
One night I started to wonder what would happen if my sister and I never have children of our own. That thought never crossed my mind before. My husband’s brother was expecting a baby by then, so I knew he would be remembered, the stories of his family will be told. But I couldn’t stop thinking of my family of origin, the four of us. I imagined that my parent’s memory and history, who they were, who their parents were, and what they did for us, would be completely lost with our lives. And our own too, my sister and I. I suddenly couldn’t cope. I couldn’t cope with the thought that our little, imperfect but loving family, so close and so precious to me would be lost in space and time for eternity. That the knowledge of my father, my mother and my sister would end with us. I felt an infinite loneliness and emptiness. I couldn’t stop crying. It had been years I hadn’t cried so uncontrollably. I called my husband from my hotel room. He kept me company, calmed me down, and helped me breathe, until I fell asleep.
After that night, I continued to cry for days and I could barely recognize myself: 15 pounds thinner and hair cut short because I had to change something. Then I started to realize that I was losing my hair. It had been about three months from the surgery and all my doctors tell me that it happens. Stress, weight loss, hormonal changes. It’s not surprising. Yet the hair loss compounded the chipping away at a very vulnerable sense of self I was still hanging on to. I could no longer hide my anguish, as it was physically coming to the surface. My sense of identity and womanhood was threatened so deeply that the depression became deeper and panic and anxiety took over. I was completely paralyzed and absent from myself, I went from being sad to not being there at all. It was the lowest point, and one I couldn’t see myself coming out of.
A reminder for an appointment with a new obgyn that I had scheduled prior to the ectopic popped up. Though I had no reason to anymore, I figured to go anyway. She told me that I was just very unlucky and that there were no reasons not to try again whenever I was ready. No reason to despair. She asked me if I was depressed. Yes, I said. She gave me the name of a few therapists, and I chose the one that takes my insurance and is closest to my office, so that I wouldn’t bail out of it. I’d never been in therapy in my life, had never felt the urgency so much so to find the time. But at that time, I felt the urgency. I was dangerously low and lost, in need. I saw the therapist a few times prior leaving for a short trip to the mountains in California with my husband.
On our trip, my hair continued to fall out. Every day, as I could barely breathe, he reminded me of my worth and his love for me. We spent the days hiking, trying to let nature heal us, and we spent the nights crying. I’ve never felt such panic before in my life. My husband tells me he is praying for us, so I do that too. Our connection to God is not a linear one, but the line was never completely cut. We didn’t quite know what to do, but we knew that we had to hang on to each other and believe that we could overcome. That we would not be in pain forever, that it was temporary. That we could find inner strength.
We keep repeating that to each other as we are standing in front of the Sequoias, learning about how they thrive in fires, when everything else succumbs. Their scars are majestic and they seem to carry those with authority, not shame. They’re raw and beautiful; you can read the pain and the strength in every contorted line. My husband touches them, to absorb centuries of resiliency.
We keep repeating that we’ll overcome, as we are standing in front of Half Dome for the first time, that overwhelming, otherworldly vision. I think of Alex Hannold, paralyzed on the belay ledge. I picture myself in his struggle as I too stopped on a ledge, paralyzed. I too stayed there for moments that felt like infinity. Terrified of falling, dying. It’s not pain that I should have feared I realize now, but apathy. I closed my eyes and cried, sobbing. That was the defining moment I started to believe that I would eventually feel again. That eventually I would take one step. It was the moment I realized that I could find heaven while going through hell. That pain and joy can coexist, that I didn’t have to wait for goodness. I didn’t have to wait to be healed to live. I didn’t have to wait. Experience the moment, I told myself, nothing to be ashamed of. Experience the sense of loss, weakness, sadness, self-doubt and then the sense of strength, courage, resilience, and acceptance. I accepted all of it. Life is good in its entirety, life just is.
When we came back, I stopped hiding. I started calling my state by its name and I started answering to the how-are-you questions that didn’t quite demand an answer with the truth. I had an ectopic pregnancy in March and I’ve been very depressed since. I’m losing my hair. But I’m seeing a therapist. It was liberating. It was never a matter of privacy as much as it was a matter of shame, I realized. It’s so easy to feel ashamed for not being in a good place. For not having any good news to deliver. For making people uncomfortable with your pain. But not being ashamed, not being afraid of those words and feelings, was the first step for me.
Six months after the surgery, almost to the day, I felt fully back to life. As September came around with its suspended sunsets, I felt alive again. My body is no longer drained, my hair no longer dry. I’m no longer nauseated, and food and drinks taste good again. I’m full. I am no longer in the inescapable pain I was, and it truly feels like a miracle. I found myself feeling happy and optimistic while walking down the street and that’s my miracle, that’s my baby. When I see a pregnant woman now, I no longer feel like half of human being. What used to remind me of my pain, now reminds of my courage. When the subtle but distinct pain of the surgery wakens, I no longer picture myself waking up in a hospital. I no longer feel violated and damaged, or the damage doesn’t hurt me as deeply: it’s a fact of life that happened to me. But it doesn’t go completely unnoticed either, and that now makes me profoundly grateful. I know it will serve me well as pain will come and go from our life. I hope to remember to whether it without denial, to embrace it without rushing it, to not feel ashamed of it, especially that. I hope to remember how overcoming pain has enhanced the experience of joy, has made it all the more vibrant and real.
People still talk about their kids, telling me that I can’t understand life without them. Even those who know what happened, still feel compelled to say that I’ll eventually have children. But now they’re more worried than I am. They still make the assumption that’s what’s going to heal me, failing to recognize that I am already healed. I let them be inappropriate, as I smile inside because I realize that it takes a lot of courage to be an interrupted parent, to carry it around with you. My experience made me more forgiving. I know I don’t understand the extent of their joy, I know it all too well. But they will never know the extent of my pain, the strength it took my husband and me to overcome, to find meaning and purpose and joy as human beings, right where we are, in the present moment, in the present sorrow, with the present uncertainty.
That is what has happened to us this year; that is what has happened to our life. I’m not the same person I was six months ago and I don’t wish to be. I treasure the experience that was given to us, our unexpected troubles. How we learned not to wait for goodness to feel good, not to wait for love to love. I have experienced a new depth of love, in a different shape and form than I expected, for my husband and myself. I have experienced new depths of self-resiliency and of sacrifice, for a life that didn’t even become. Of acceptance. Because it takes everything you have to accept life as it comes, to use everything that it gives you, pain and joy, fear and courage, sadness and happiness, tiny ledges and massive fires, to just keep living it.
Barbara T. Parker