by Sarah Mullen

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It has been in my online cart for a month. Once a week I pull up the image of the round pendant. Gold with two flowers etched on the front, a Cosmos for October and a Rose for June. On the back I chose a Water Lily for July. I edit it every time I look, removing and replacing the Water Lily. I can’t bring myself to buy it, with or without the third flower.

“I know he is young,” I said, “But I see it one of two ways. We commit to five years of complete chaos and have them back-to-back. Or we wait a couple years until just after we are out of diapers. We will have to start all over.” Bryan was torn as well. He was thirty-six and wanted to have children no older than forty.

“I don’t want to be sixty at their high school graduation” he said. Our son was only nine months old when talks of another child came about. I had just gotten used to stretches of sleep longer than four hours. He was still very much a baby. But when I closed my eyes at night I imagined another child in our living room, in our family photos, in the timeline set before us.

Four weeks after James was born, I tried hormonal birth control for the first time in my life. Whatever cocktail it created with my anti-depressants proved toxic, and I was left spiraling in anxiety, vividly picturing someone taking my baby, my husband cheating on and then leaving me, or driving into a tree while I had our sleeping child in the back seat. As a recovering alcoholic I was used to openly sharing my struggles with depression, anxiety, and all things mental health related. But I could not bring myself to share this flavor of mental illness with my husband, my best friend, or even my sponsor. I repeated my self-prescribed solution daily: I am a new mom. This too shall pass. I am fine. Things are ok.

Bryan came home from work and picked up the baby from the swing before walking over to give me a kiss. My heart rate slowed upon seeing him. I was nervous something had happened on his drive home. He was a few minutes later than usual.

“I am going to start dinner,” I told him.

“We can wait a few, or I can start it,” he said, bouncing a fussing baby.

“No, I want to do it now.” I stood up from where I sat and walked the few feet to our tiny apartment kitchen. I put the rice on the stove and began to prepare the vegetables. For a few minutes we talked about our days and anything new James was doing. Smoke began to fill the room and Bryan looked up at me.

“Damnit,” I said, pulling the small pot from the red coil of the electric stove. I opened the lid, adding more smoke to the small space. When I went to stir the rice, I learned that it was rendered solid, black at the bottom, forming a disc.

“Mama burned the rice,” Bryan said in a sing-song voice to James. “Let’s go see what we can do.” Before he could get up, I took the pot and threw it in the sink, turning the faucet on, adding steam to the smokey room.

“Thanks for working hard and making us dinner!” I screamed.

Bryan stared at me.

I began to sob and walked as fast as I could to our bedroom, slamming the door behind me. I sat on the bed, crying, embarrassed and worried, listening to Bryan clean up the remains of whatever I was cooking. After some time, he knocked on the bedroom door before coming in. He sat next to me but kept some distance between us. He was silent for a while. He finally spoke.

“If you are overwhelmed you can talk to me.” He paused before adding, “Or we can find someone for you to talk to. You just had a baby. It is normal for your emotions to be on edge. I want to make sure you are ok.” He read my face, preparing to weather another outburst.

Instead, I said, “The last few weeks have been so hard. I don’t know…” Before I could finish, I suddenly understood the problem. “I think it is the birth control. I know we don’t want to get pregnant with a two-month-old. But I really think that is the problem.”

“Stop taking it. We will figure it out,” he said, sensing my barrier dissolving and closing the gap between us. I stopped taking it the next day, washed the rest of the pills down the sink. Within two weeks I was back to my sleep deprived, emotional, new mom self. No vivid images of catastrophe, just weeping at Gillette commercials and ordering door dash instead of cooking.

For months we went on without any type of medical birth control, but the fear of getting pregnant led to its own form of stress. Another baby became my solution to the constant worry of pregnancy. My anxiety was eclipsed by my need for a healthy sexual relationship with my partner, not only for release and connection, but to feel like a woman, not solely a mother. As the topic continued to surface, we stopped being as vigilant. When I started to feel a different type of emotion stir within me, I took a pregnancy test that came up positive. It was June 26th.

Bryan wanted to tell everyone. Something told me to wait. His family lived in Chicago, and we compromised that we could tell them. After a week of hiding in every interpersonal interaction, we decided to tell my family when we were all together on the 4th of July. We ordered a shirt for James that said “big bro.” My father, filled with pride and excitement at the prospect of another grandchild, hung the shirt from an old stocking hook on the mantle.

A week later, we loaded up James and made our monthly trip to Costco. I went to the bathroom, the pregnancy hormones causing me to pee every thirty minutes. When I was done, I saw a single drop of red in the water, sinking slowly toward the porcelain. I flushed and went back to meet Bryan and the baby.

“All good?” he asked.

“Yes. let’s go,” I said. I told myself it meant nothing. That bleeding happens for all kinds of reasons in pregnancy. We walked through the aisles of food in large quantities, picking out our staples. My mind fixated on a bead of blood flowering in the water.

“Are you sure you are ok?” Bryan asked again, next to a giant bag of popcorn.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” I said.

The ride home was quiet, except for James babbling in the back seat.

“I was bleeding a little when I went to the bathroom,” I blurted out as we pulled into our parking spot. He paused before responding.

“I am sure it is ok. We had sex earlier. That’s probably it,” he reassured me. “Bleeding can happen in pregnancy for a lot of reasons.” He offered comfort, trying to settle me. I prayed and hoped and wished he was right. We decided if I was still bleeding tomorrow, I would call the OB. The office was not open on Sundays anyway. We went to my parents’ weekly dinner, and I was trying to act normal, forcing enthusiasm to answer questions about how I was feeling. Was I sick? When would I stop nursing James? When is my first appointment? Smiling and nodding as the life slipped from me, one drop at a time.

When I woke up the next morning, my pants were soaked with blood. I got in the shower. As I started to get ready for work Bryan woke up. He could see something was wrong.

“I am bleeding, a lot,” I said, through sudden tears. It was July 13th. We called the doctor and set an appointment for the next day, for only me. Pregnancy in a pandemic that keeps your partner from appointments is hard. A miscarriage in the same circumstances is even harder. I laid on the table as the doctor inserted a probe to view my uterus. “It may just be early,” she said. “Bleeding can happen for so many reasons.” That phrase again filled with half-hearted reassurance. When she pulled the wand away it was covered in blood. I was numb. I didn’t want to cry in that sterile room. She looked at me, trying to read my response. Face masks help stop the spread of disease, they also conceal emotion.

The next week was filled with appointments and blood draws and false hope. I laid on the couch, instructed not to exert myself for any reason. I ate frozen meals and sat idly by as Bryan played with James in the living room. I watched Little Women, my comfort movie, three times. I cried as the sisters put on plays in the attic. I cried as they grew up and their lives shifted. I cried as Jo put her hand on Meg’s pregnant stomach. I knew I was losing this baby. And I knew that if I did have a daughter her name would be Josephine.

I texted anyone I knew who had been in similar situations, needing reassurance. My best friend, my husband’s cousin, and my sister-in-law—all of them shared their stories while trying to leave the possibility that my situation might be different, reminding me to wait for the call. I awoke to a text. Thinking about you today. Comforting words from someone who had been waiting for the same call I knew was coming. When it did, the nurse confirmed what I knew. After six days the results were conclusive: “This pregnancy is not viable. Debbie wants you to come in tomorrow for a final blood draw and make sure no further action is needed.” It was July 20th.

In the office, she again tried to read me. “Do you want to be pregnant?” she asked.

“Yes, I do. It is just all happening so fast.”

“The good news is you passed everything. You won’t need a D&C. Just to be safe, you can start trying after your next cycle,” she instructed. A Dilation and Curettage, the same procedure used for early abortions was used to rid a body of non-viable tissue. She loaded me up with more prenatal supplements than I could carry comfortably. My consolation prize.

I walked through the office doors, tears obstructing my vision. I rushed to the car. I could not make it the 500 steps before they fell onto my cheeks, dampening the top of my mask. I had only imagined this baby for three weeks, from the positive test to the eight-week loss date. It was enough time to gaze into a shapeshifting future. To imagine how they would change everything. Maybe they already had.

I needed to make sense of it. I told myself a pregnancy lost at eight weeks was never going to be a baby, that I needed to move on and try again. I told myself this was the best-case scenario. No medical intervention was needed. We could possibly have a baby right away. I scoured websites for words of comfort but found an overwhelming amount of unhelpful information. Logic in the light loses clarity in the dark and I cried myself to sleep as Bryan dozed next to me, muffling my sobs so he would not know, though he always did.

Bryan told his family. I never asked what they said.

“Do you want me to tell them?” Bryan asked me about my parents. He was ready to take on their responses, trying to shield me from any discomfort he could.

“No. I should do it,” I said.

When I told them the next day, my mom gave me a hug. “I am so sorry, honey,” she said.

“The way I see it is there is one more grandchild I get to meet in heaven,” my dad assured me, offering the only consolation he knew. I was filled with rage. I distanced myself from the image of an angel child looking down on me. I debriefed my reaction to my father’s angel grandchild with a progressive and child-free friend.

“That’s dumb! It was a lump of cells,” she told me. I was filled with rage. I distanced myself from the image of cells rearranging and dissolving within me.

My best friend found out she was miscarrying on the day I gave birth to my son. I tracked my memories. Replaying every phone call filled with long pauses. Every text exchange. Had I said at least she knew she could get pregnant? At least it was early? She can try again? Or did I tell her, That sucks! What do you need from me? Space? To sit and cry with you? To laugh and take your mind away from the struggle? Did I reassure her that whatever she feels is ok? That there is no predestined way one should deal with pregnancy loss? My response most likely fell somewhere in between.

My next cycle started, and so did our trying. For the first time sex with Bryan was robotic and planned. I thought about timing and the best positions. Someone once told me to lay on my back, and though I knew this was an old wives’ tale, I found myself making excuses to stay in bed while he got up and showered. His body carried the pressure too. And both exhausted, we fought about who needed to initiate the week I was ovulating. The first two cycles passed without any change.

At the end of my third cycle, I took a test five days after I stopped ovulating, which fertility websites caution against. You are being crazy, Sarah, I told myself. I peed on a stick anyway. No second line appeared. Driving my son, I pulled to the side of the road. I cried and prayed to a god I was not sure heard me. And if he did, did he have any say in whether I was pregnant? I gave up the praying and said out loud, I really want this baby. My voice triggered a giggle in James, and I laughed as I cried and drove the rest of the way home.

Two weeks later I had not received my monthly reminder of failure. I took a test. I was pregnant. I immediately told Bryan before he left for work.

“Do you want to tell anyone?” he asked. Leaving the decision to me.

“No,” I said.

I dropped James off with my mom before work. I found it hard not to tell her. As I drove my thirty-minute commute, all I could think about was withholding. I worried that treating this pregnancy with secrecy might kill whatever was growing within me. The steep calling of transparency told me what I needed to do.

Bryan came home that evening. I told him we should tell our family.

“Let’s tell everyone except my mom,” he said. She was very upset by our loss. We agreed we would share the news.

Pregnancy after loss comes with many of the same worries as first time pregnancy. Can I do this? What if I lose this one? Did I do anything wrong? Can I do anything right? Every pain is monitored. Every bit of food consumed is cataloged. Every action weighed for impact. Pregnancy after loss comes with waking in a cold sweat after dreaming of giving birth to a beautiful, dead baby. I was afraid to call my now pregnant best friend. I didn’t want to trigger the same dream in her. Or my husband’s cousin, who was pregnant with her second after multiple losses before having her first. I was afraid to tell Bryan because I was afraid telling might make it real. I was afraid.

We flew to Chicago for Thanksgiving, knowing that any day we could get the call that our baby was healthy and had no abnormalities. They also check the gender.

It came at 10 a.m. and I stepped onto the back porch.

“Your blood test results are in, and everything looks great. Do you want to know the gender?” the nurse said.

“That is the best news!” I replied. “And yes, we do.”

“Congratulations, you are having a girl,” the voice told me.

I went inside to tell Bryan. “We are having our Josephine,” I said. Tears formed in his eyes as he held me. Our healthy baby Jo.

Bryan was born with a rare genetic condition that allows me frequent ultrasounds. Each time I left the office after hearing her strong heartbeat I was allowed reprieve from my days of worry only to slip into anxiety a few days before my next appointment. I carried her past full term. When I had to be induced for this labor, just like my first, on Father’s Day, I cried at the remembrance that my body does not work like it should. She was born at 4 p.m. the next day after an uneventful labor. It was June 21st.

When Jo was four weeks old, I woke up to the anniversary of our loss and felt a haze surrounding me. I felt guilty for being sad when I had a healthy baby in my arms. I felt guilty for feeling loss as I played with her rambunctious brother. I felt guilty as I spent most of the day crying while I nursed and played and cooked and read. I sat with the squelched potential of the heartbeat I never had the joy of hearing. Of the child I never had the opportunity to hold. I picked up Josephine and looked into her face, her dark eyes staring at me as she made shapes with her mouth. James took my hand to show me something in his room. I carried one child in my arms as the other led me. They were meant to be.

When I return to my online cart and stare at the pendant, I wonder if I should change the third flower. Should it be their expected due date? If I leave it as the date of loss, does that change the meaning of the other two? I still can’t bring myself to buy it. It sits there for me to return to again and again. I wonder what Bryan would say if he knew I wanted the third flower. I worry he would question why I want it with the extra one. But he would probably say to buy it exactly as I want it. That if I buy it without the third flower it may feel incomplete when I put it on. That the third flower is etched in my mind if not in the metal.

end of story

© 2022, Sarah Mullen Go to top