Motherhood Won and Lost: One Woman’s Story of Miscarriage

For today’s post, we’re cross-posting a deeply moving guest piece by “Grace,” a fellow tenure-track academic, who shares her experience of a recent miscarriage. She wished to share her story of miscarriage, because reading the stories of others comforted and guided her as she experienced her own. This post originally appeared last week on Kate Clancy’s blog Context & Variation. Please feel free to share supportive comments for Grace, or to tell your own stories. We also recommend Kate Clancy’s science post on miscarriage, When a Beginning is Not a Beginning

At 27, getting pregnant was hard, but staying pregnant was easy. It took 17 months before I got a positive pregnancy test, but from that time on the baby developed perfectly on schedule and arrived one day before the due date. Seven years on, the child is happy and healthy. This is the motherhood story we like to hear and which is told millions of times over by delighted parents.

At 34, getting pregnant was easy, but staying pregnant was hard. We got pregnant the very first month off of birth control, but staying pregnant was… unsuccessful. At my first ultrasound, at 8 weeks, there was an embryo with no heartbeat. This is the motherhood story that we don’t often hear or tell, but happens with approximately 30% of all pregnancies. This is the story that I want to tell, because reading the few stories I could find was a key source of information and solace for me as I responded to the shock of the terrible ultrasound. 

(Disclaimer: I am neither a ladybusiness anthropologist nor a medical doctor, so please consult your doctor before making your own health decisions.)

As a busy pre-tenure woman, I was thrilled when I got the positive pregnancy test 32 days after the start of my last period. The due date was near the beginning of spring semester, so I would be able to take almost 8 months “off” before resuming teaching. And I wouldn’t have to face months of crushing disappointment of my period arriving unwanted, signaling my failure to procreate. This was off to an insanely good start. But it also felt too good to be true, and, truthfully, a little surreal. It happened so quickly that I hadn’t quite wrapped my head around the possibility of my life changing dramatically in nine months.

Within days of the pregnancy test, I had the classic early pregnancy symptoms, sore breasts, a pulling, stretching feeling at the base of my belly, an aversion to my favorite tea, and the fatigue. Oh the fatigue. I remembered that one from the first time around, and I pulled out my old pregnancy journal to see when it peaked and how long it lasted. I was glad I didn’t feel really any nausea, just as I didn’t with my first pregnancy.

I called and scheduled an appointment with the local ob/gyn practice, something with a midwife in week 7. My husband and I started to toss around names. It started to seem a bit more…likely, but that surreal quality never really dissipated. And I never felt at ease about this thing growing in my abdomen. In the seven years since my first pregnancy, I’d heard a few stories, read some things on the Internet, and grown a lot more circumspect about the possible ways a pregnancy can go. My 27-year-old self seemed naïve to have told family at 6 weeks and my boss only a few hours after the first ultrasound. I was waiting on that first doctor appointment, when I would get to hear the heartbeat on the ultrasound. Then, I told myself, I would feel better and it would seem really real.

Seven weeks in and I had my first appointment. The midwife and office staff were friendly and congratulatory, and asked lots of questions about my health history and first pregnancy. And as I answered those questions, I looked around the room for the ultrasound, for that magical moment when I would hear the heartbeat and it would feel real. Then the midwife told me that this office didn’t have an ultrasound, and I’d have to make an appointment at another location, a week later, before I could hear the heartbeat. I was tremendously disappointed, but I tried to push it aside. I ordered the recommended pregnancy guides on Amazon (my old ones had long since been given away) and picked out a maternity dress to wear to a wedding I’d be attending at ~14 weeks. I silently talked to my belly in the shower, telling it how lucky it was to be arriving into such a happy family.

Eight weeks and 4 days. We drove to the next town, and I peed in a cup. We were taken into the ultrasound room, and I put on the lovely gown. The technician came in, stuck the wand up my vagina, and proceeded to move it around and measure things, providing a bit of commentary along the way. There’s my cervix. There’s my uterus. There’s something inside my uterus. To me, it looked vaguely babylike. But I noticed that the commentary had stopped. The technician asked me if I was sure of the date of my last period. I was. I asked whether the vaguely headlike thing was a head, and was told “No, that’s the sac.” Silence. I asked whether we would be able to hear the heartbeat. “There is no heartbeat.” I squeezed my husband’s hand and closed my eyes, looking away from the big screen on the wall that showed the thing that was not going to be my future child.

“You’re only measuring 5 weeks and 5 days, and there’s no heartbeat. I’m sorry, but this is not good.” A few more words of condolence, as the technician moved the wand around some more and made other measurements and I realized for the first time that the radio music was on way too loud for the silence in the darkened room. The technician removed the wand and left the room for me to get dressed before a consult with an ob/gyn (already on the schedule). I got dressed numbly and stood hugging my husband close while waiting the eternity for the technician to come back and lead us to the next room where radio played too loudly. Another eternity passed there. I refused to sit on the examining table. I was no longer a pregnancy patient.

A doctor I’d never met came in and said something sorry-like. I don’t remember all of what he said, but he told us that there was almost no chance this pregnancy would end well. I asked what happened next. He said that there was a very small chance that I’d just misdated my pregnancy, and that we could come back in a week for another ultrasound and see if there was a heartbeat. But he also talked about D&Cs, and that a miscarriage could go quickly or last for days, and making sure I knew my blood type (B+) and how I was likely to need a D&C even after a miscarriage. He said he knew it was a shock and that we would likely have other questions, so we could call him with any that afternoon, or we could reach a different doctor anytime. I think I expected to begin bleeding at any moment, even though I knew nothing had physically changed just because we’d seen the truth about the pregnancy in that ultrasound room. We made an appointment for an ultrasound 7 days later and my husband drove me home.

On the way home, I considered the doctor’s words. Could I really have mis-dated the pregnancy by a full two weeks? Was there really a glimmer of hope? No. I knew my timing and I knew my body. I’d never gone 32 days without a period except when pregnant or heavily lactating. My periods had been 22-25 days apart before I’d gone on the pill the last time. And how could I have gotten a positive pregnancy test at 32 days, and yet be off by two weeks? That would require the pregnancy test to have been positive within a few days of conception, far better than any pee-on-a-stick kit claimed to be. There was no question in my mind that pinning our hopes on an ultrasound heartbeat in 7 days was an exercise in self-delusional futility. I’m a scientist, and the data were clearly rejecting the hypothesis of a healthy but mis-dated pregnancy.

I felt like I had dull cramps, but I was sure they were psychosomatic as much as real. No bleeding, not even tiny spotting.  I felt like my body had let me down tremendously. How could it not produce a thriving embryo? And how could it delude me, maybe for weeks, into thinking I had one? The sense of disappointment in my body and loss of the possibilities I had only begun to allow myself to think of was suddenly far more real than the pregnancy had ever felt.

If I was going to suck at being pregnant, it seemed unfair that I was also sucking at miscarrying. What happened to having spotting or waking up to bleeding or intense cramping? How long was this going to take to get started? Was I going to need to figure out childcare for the weekend? I gave birth without any pain medication, and as much as the thought of a bloody, crampy period-but-worse sounded unappealing, I would do this the “natural” way. But when?

I googled “miscarriage”. The top results on miscarriage didn’t say anything useful. I wasn’t bleeding; I wanted to know when it would start. The only thing those first websites told me was what the doctor had said: many women who miscarry also end up having a D&C.

I remembered Maggie Koerth-Baker’s post from last summer: “The only good abortion is my abortion.” Here was a woman, like me, who found out through medical technology rather than her body that her embryo would never be a baby. She was deciding whether to have a D&C rather than a miscarriage +/- D&C at some indefinite time in the future. But how long would Maggie have had to wait for that miscarriage? How long would I wait? I googled some more…something like “waiting for miscarriage” and read more stories. Along the way, I found the term “missed miscarriage” and learned that sometimes it can be weeks before a miscarriage starts and that it can take days or weeks to complete.

My commitment to a natural miscarriage wavered. I remembered two more women who had blogged about pregnancy loss. Isis miscarried and seemed to take it in her usual impeccably-dressed stride, but it still didn’t exactly sound like a good time.Jo(e) lost a pregnancy and wrote simply but beautifully about the miscarriage. I didn’t feel as strong as Jo(e), and the line that stuck with me was “The waiting part was the hardest, waiting to go into labor when I knew that the contractions would not lead to a birth. I just wanted to get it over with.” I read a few other stories, but most of them started with the bleeding, not the waiting.

Then I re-read Maggie’s D&C decision story. Here was another busy, professional woman experiencing a tremendous loss on an uncertain timeframe and considering a D&C as a reasonable option. It dawned on me that there was no competition or bragging rights in waiting for a miscarriage; my entry to the secret sisterhood was the pregnancy loss not the bleeding. There’s no merit badge for miscarrying in your bathtub, and even if there was, I wasn’t sure I wanted it.

I read Zuska’s account of her D&C and it didn’t sound too bad. Not fun, for sure, but significantly better than waiting uncertainly for time bleeding in a bathtub. And, I reminded myself, the bathtub was the best case scenario, a “complete miscarriage” confirmed on another ultrasound….one showing an empty uterus. Less good scenarios included a trip to the ER, followed by a D&C. Being able to schedule a D&C on my terms, walk in without pain, and leave knowing it was over was seeming like a better ending of this ugly and heart-wrenching development. The thing that appealed most about the D&C was that it gave me some sense of control in a situation where I had no control. It let me be master of the calendar, and it gave me back the body that had let me down.

The next day I got an appointment with yet another MD in the practice. I wanted to talk things over and figure out what my timetable and options really looked like. This ob/gyn had looked at the ultrasound results and and agreed with my conclusion that given what was known about the timing of the pregnancy, the size of the sac, and the lack of a heartbeat that mine was not a viable pregnancy. I asked how long I might wait to miscarry, and the doctor confirmed that it could be weeks before I did. Weeks was a timeline that did not fit in my busy summer schedule. She offered that we could schedule a D&C at the local hospital for the next day, a Saturday. Saturday didn’t work, because we needed care for my child, but could I have one on Monday? Yes. The doctor said it was very unlikely that I would miscarry over the weekend, but that if I did they could do a D&C right away to get it over with. This was a level of control I could coexist with, a timeline of days not weeks, and still an out for my body to get on with the miscarriage if it could do it soon.

On Monday morning I had a D&C at a hospital surgical center. It was very hospitally and included a healthy dose of general anesthesia, but I was home and on the couch by early afternoon. The doctor said I could work the next day, but it took me about three days before I felt well enough to get out of the house much. My back hurt a lot for a day or two, and I ate ice cream and watched my favorite movies. Remembering Isis working through her miscarriage, I also allowed myself to dive back into my research from the comfort of my couch – taking my mind off the reality of my loss. By the end of the week I was back on campus. It took more than a week before I could sleep through the night without thinking or dreaming about the miscarriage. Two weeks post-D&C, the doctor gave me the all clear without so much as an exam or ultrasound and encouraged us to try for a summer vacation baby.

Two months later I don’t think about it very much, except when I do. We only told a very few people about the pregnancy and loss, but I do find myself referring to the “time when I wasn’t feeling well” that encompasses the fatigue of the pregnancy, the days of loss and sorrow, and the recovery from the D&C. While June was a pretty crappy month, I also feel like I got off easy in a lot of ways. I got pregnant quickly, so there wasn’t months of waiting to precede the loss. And I lost the baby early and fairly physically painlessly, before I’d shown a baby bump, told many people, or decorated a nursery. Since I know that most early miscarriages are the result of chromosomal abnormalities that are incompatible with life outside the womb, I can be relieved that it happened rather than carrying a baby to term, delivering it and watching it die in minutes or months. I have a wonderfully supportive partner, and the insurance and legal ability to make my own healthcare decisions.

I feel lucky that I had stories of women who’d gone down this road before me, and that through those stories, I was empowered to make the best decision for myself. My first motherhood story was about finding the patience to wait for a baby. My second motherhood story is about finding the strength to lose a pregnancy and reassert control over a body. I don’t know what the third one will be or if there will be one at all. But I do think it is through telling stories of motherhood won and motherhood lost that we give power to our own experiences and share whatever wisdom we have gained with women who will weave their own motherhood stories.  I hope that by sharing my story here that at least one woman will find information or solace for her own journey.

14 thoughts on “Motherhood Won and Lost: One Woman’s Story of Miscarriage

  1. Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m so sorry for your loss.
    I recall scouring the internet for stories like mine, too. I had a ;missed miscarriage’ as well, and felt horribly betrayed by my body. I could hardly fathom how it wouldn’t have given me any indication that I was carrying a dead child. I started my blog to share my story in part for my own catharsis, but also in hopes, like you, to share with someone who needs to hear it.
    Thank you, again, for sharing, and I hope the best for you. Hugs.

  2. What a strong and positive story! I had no idea how it would work out when I started reading, but I am glad you shared your innermost thoughts, and I’m glad that you have given confidence to other women that they can regain some sort of control. And I’m glad you already have a lovely little daughter to hug and sing with.

    All the very best for next time.

  3. In Japan, I saw a separate section within the grounds of a Temple where there were memorials to these babies … not sure if the ashes were interred there or it was just a memorial garden. Nevertheless, people had put flowers and toys near the plaques, and it was well-kept and obviously loved and taken very seriously. I thought it was a very sensitive idea. In our culture, we seem to be expected to forget and ‘get on with our lives’.

    • I think that’s lovely for those so inclined. For me, this story is my memorial. It’s going in the file with the birth story I wrote a few weeks after the birth of my first child and I will hold both of these memories in my heart forever.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing you story. Even a year after our loss, it is still comforting to hear the stories of others, but I’m sorry you had to experience it. Our story is much like yours. This was to be our second, and it was due around New Years. The whole pregnancy, I felt like something was different. My first pregnancy went by so easily. The second, I had no energy and never felt really well. There were a few times of spotting, so we went in for an ultrasound. This is where my story differs. Our MD was not sympathetic. She basically told us to either have the D&C or go home. When we asked about a second ultrasound, she treated us like we were idiots (not realizing I had my PhD). The decision for the D&C was pretty easy for us. My step-sons (teenagers) were arriving for the summer, and my in-laws were coming for a week-long visit (their first time seeing our 1st child). So we scheduled a D&C for that afternoon. During our wait to go to the hospital, my body seemed to decide that it also wanted me to experience a natural miscarriage. Blood and tissue just seemed to pour out of my body uncontrollably. When we finally got to the hospital, the cramps started. The cramps were even worse than being induced. To top it off, while I was on the gurney, bleeding, and cramping, a nurse walked up and tells me ” You can just say no.” She said nothing else to me the whole time. After then D&C, they needed me to stay for observation, so they put me on the women’s floor. Right next door to someone who just had a baby. The whole time I was there, I got to hear a baby crying (it felt like cruel and unusual punishment). I was extremely relieved to head home.
    Now, even a year later, my husband and I still think about baby J (named by my husband). However, I also try to think of good things that happened, many of which would not have been possible if I was pregnant or just had a baby. The same week I miscarried, I received my score for my K99 (a 15), which was the best score I ever received out of 8 grant applications. Getting funded, allowed me to apply for jobs and go on interviews right before Christmas (when I would have been 9 months pregnant). Now I will be starting my dream job, teaching medical students and doing research at a small school, in January 2014. I also got to help teach an undergraduate class for a full year instead of just part of one semester. Finally, I got to participate in a series of workshops dealing with mentoring undergraduates, which will be extremely helpful in the future.
    I’m sorry that your second pregnancy experience was similar to my own, and I hope for the best for you for your third (or fourth, fifth, etc) pregnancy story.

    • Thanks for sharing your story too. I too try to think of how wonderful my family is just the way it is. I am so glad that you’ve had such happy experiences to partially counter-act your loss. Best of luck to you and your family in the future.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I’m sorry about your loss, but glad you were willing to post about it so openly. It is such a difficult experience. I’m a postdoc trying to have my first baby for the past year. I also suffered a miscarriage (missed m/c at 10 weeks) and a chemical pregnancy. I’m still waiting on a successful pregnancy. Just like you mention that you “got off easy”, I know that there are so many people who have gone through much harder things in their lives. But that doesn’t mean that this wasn’t something horrible too. The experience has been sad and isolating because miscarriage isn’t something you can easily share outside of close friends or family without also revealing your plans to have a family or too much information about your fertility. It is also something hard relate to for those who haven’t experienced it. I have found a lot of comfort in shared stories via the internet (articles, fertility forums, blog posts, etc). Thank you for also including links to other science bloggers who have suffered a loss. I am sorry for their pain, but their shared experiences are helpful to me, especially as I feel like they are people that I “know” from my blog lurking. As I continue to work on feeling peace and optimism, I am thankful for pieces like yours.

    D–There was a nice NYT article that mentions those temples:

    • Indeed, I think the isolation is one of the hardest parts. We really didn’t want family to know we were trying to conceive, because we didn’t want any pressure or watchful eyes around the process. But as the miscarriage unfolded, most of my family ended up knowing anyways and over the last few months I’ve chosen to share the story with more friends (and now the internet!). While I still don’t like the idea of people gossiping over my sex life, some experiences are far too important to keep to ourselves. And when we do share, we sometimes find a wonderful community of supportive friends, sharing little bits of themselves in the process. Hugs.

  6. Pingback: Friday Coffee Break « Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

  7. Hi I am sorry you all went through your pain. It is trite to say that these things happen for a reason. There was a heartbeat for awhile at least and you cradled a live thing. A baby for awhile. You saw the lines and received that bloodiest that said you were, so you knew your child. I wish I could say something, anything to make this right. I am a complete stranger to this world. My womb has known birth, but not pain.

  8. Thank you for sharing your story. I am a tenure-track faculty member. My first pregnancy was a simple one – two months of trying, fairly easy pregnancy, complicated delivery but healthy child. My second pregnancy took only one month to conceive, but was lost at 5 weeks (that lovely term ‘chemical pregnancy’- as biologist, I get it, but as a person I find it a bit insulting). Even though it passed on it’s own, I got to spend that day at the OB (w/ all the pregnant women) for tests/observation. Like you, I had suspected something was wrong (the home test just wasn’t ‘as’ positive as with baby #1). But, it still hurt emotionally (physically it was a bad period, not too hard). My third pregnancy took 3 more months and we were tracked to confirm things looked great (they did). First ultrasound, no heartbeat. Second ultrasound a week later – heartbeat, but at the bare minimum speed. We were told to watch and wait – I started spotting that afternoon and it grew heavier over the weekend. Third ultrasound the heart had slowed and I had a ‘natural’ miscarriage over the next 36 hours. Naively thought I could handle it and was at work the next morning (24h after the ultrasound).. even w/ prescription pain meds I lasted all of 2 hours before I was at home where it ended.

    It has been a few months since – more tests than I care to think of to find a cause (which usually there isn’t, but in my case there may be). It’s been hard – seems like everyone I know just had or is having a baby. Some of course due at the time of my two due dates. We will see what the future holds. In contrast to one of the other commenters, this has led to me caring much less about my career – I do want tenure, I do want to be successful (I don’t actually equate them), but more than anything I want a second child. In the final calculation, if I miss the window to have that child because of career, I won’t be happy. We aren’t all lucky enough to have pregnancies on demand.

    • Anonymous–I’m sorry for your losses. I agree that sitting in that waiting room with all the pregnant women is so hard (really I think that they should at least have us wait in the separate gyn waiting room). I really struggled through that follow-up appointments, realizing I was there looking for an empty uterus or a negative blood test in stark contrast to the other women in the room. We tried 7 months for the first loss and then 3 for the second, and I feel both hugely invested but also really sick of it. My work priorities have shifted too. Good luck to you–I hope you get what you are hoping for in both regards!

      • I remember having my first baby in the same ward that another woman was having problems with her baby. I am not sure what they were, but she was there specially and I remember feeling a thorn of pain, stinging in my auric side, as I had my baby, but she was struggling. I had seen a vigil of relatives and did my best to keep my baby quiet. The pain of losing a baby is something I hope never to go through, and even though I am not sorry for having my kids (I did begin to feel it) I will never throw them and their cries in the face of a mother facing the prospect of losing her own life or her baby’s.

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