By Catherine Newman
I am having my blood drawn for the third time in four days. “Me again!” I say to the cute, hoop-earringed phlebotomist. He smiles and then looks politely away while tears leak out of my eyes and into my hair. I’m sure he’s not supposed to talk to me about my situation, but when I stand up to go, he punches me gently on the arm he hasn’t stuck, and smile-frowns. He says, “Hey, I hope this turns out good for you.” My chart says, Pregnancy. Suspected ectopic. As I leave, he’s swabbing the chair with alcohol, and I feel contagious.
If you’ve had one go badly, then you know the terrible exponential math at the beginning of a pregnancy. Hormone levels are supposed to double every three days, and you picture these numbers as a representation of the baby itself: it’s getting twice as big, twice as big again, cells properly multiplying in a kind of magical embryological choreography. Everything folds up the way it should. A flat plane of cells become tubes and tunnels, because your body has learned origami while you were sleeping! You are so good at this! Multiplication is your best and favorite function! But not always. Sometimes the numbers go down instead of up, a simple subtraction problem represented by the kind of dark blot in your underpants that makes you sit there with your head in your hands long after you’re done peeing. That was the kind of miscarriage I had before Ben, and it was quick and certain. After a second trip to the clinic down the street, a friend who happened to work there walked over with our results. She hugged me. “Not this one,” she said. “But it will happen.” And it did. But first this melancholy reproductive subplot had to end, what with the bleeding and the cramping and my drama-queen of a body throwing its miserable clots into the toilet.
This time there is no clarity, of either multiplication or subtraction. This pregnancy stays in a kind of algebraic twilight zone: x = x = ? Nobody knows. At first I picture a stalled-out ball of cells, neither growing nor dying. In nine months I will birth our beautiful blastocyst! I will swaddle it tenderly and push it around proudly in a pram. Babies with limbs and facial features? “Totally overrated!” I’ll say. “This one’s so easy!” I say this to a friend and she tortures me by not laughing. I am left hanging in more ways than I can count.
The stalling continues, and my doctor is on vacation, and her substitute is suspicious. If you might have one, don’t Google “ectopic pregnancy.” You will picture not only your baby growing uncomfortably in your fallopian tube—“Mama! I’m too squashed!”—but also your own death, your motherless children and motherless blastocyst dressed for school by a man who can’t remember if it’s a skirt or a dress that “also has the shirt part.” Blood work, numbers, no change. Day after day.
I am superstitious enough that I worry about the wish I make every year when I blow out my birthday candles: that everything stay the same. What kind of wish is that? It’s a crazy wish! I’m like Midas, only instead of a daughter made of gold I’m going to permanently have a three- and six-year-old, along with this ball of cells. Fifty years from now, I am going to be so sick of these ages. “Why can’t you be more like the ball of cells?” I’ll say to Ben and Birdy. “You don’t hear it arguing about the compost smell!” I always thought this wish was an improvement over my childhood wish—that I not have seen the terrifying Injun Joe cave scene in the Tom Sawyer movie—but now I’m not so sure.
I had not pictured adulthood as the crazy derangement of joy and sadness that it’s turning out to be. The children are lost to us over and over again, their baby selves smiling at us from photo albums like melancholy little ghosts of parenthood past. Where are those babies? They are here and not here. I want to remember the feel of a warm little hand in mine, or the damp, silky weight of a naked kid in my arms straight out of the bath. When I prop Birdy on my hip, she still slings a little arm around my shoulder, jaunty as a boyfriend—but she’s so heavy. The kids grow and grow, they grow right out the door! Like creatures in a Dr. Seuss book about people you love and love and then they move out and leave you and go to college like jerks, marry other people and refuse to live at home with you who love them so much, who loved them first. (Assuming you can even keep them alive that long.) Loss is ahead of us, behind us, woven into the very fabric of our happiness. I don’t wish nothing would change as much as I wish for the absence of more loss.
This, now, is change and loss. We didn’t even want a third child. I will give you a secret piece of advice. Ready? If you are ever kneeling above me with a wrapped condom in your hand and I say, panting, “No, no, we’re good, it’s safe”? We’re not good, and it’s not safe. Just, you know, FYI.
Birdy is three and Ben is six, and I don’t want another baby. I fear change, for one thing (see above), and for another I am starting to be not tired, which is intoxicating. The problem is that, also, I do want another baby. I have always loved to get pregnant, by accident or on purpose, in a way that I can’t really describe or explain. I don’t mean that I always knew I wanted to have kids, although that’s true too. I mean that since I’ve been having sex, I have always, and sometimes secretly, hoped to get pregnant from having it, even at times in my life when I fervently didn’t want to get pregnant. This is as crazy as it sounds. After some poorly-contracepted sex with my high-school boyfriend, I was terrified that I might be pregnant. And by “terrified” I mean something more like tantalized. It would have totally screwed up my track season, but I wanted to be pregnant anyway. The excitement is definitely part of it—the reproductive equivalent of a bee buzzing against your classroom windows, and everyone screaming or running out of the room. A break in the routine! Something fabulously different from American History, even if you end up getting stung! I got my period, between classes, in the third-floor bathroom with the big silver radiator that never turned off, even when it was broiling out. “Phew,” I said from my stall, sweating, to my best friend. “A total relief.” And this was and wasn’t true.
It is not new to me, ambivalence, and the pregnancy desire has not always matched desire itself: I have gotten pregnant with a bonfire raging in my heart, and I have also gotten pregnant with the matter-of-factness of boiling an egg or tripping over the flipped-up corner of the doormat. I have gotten pregnant using birth control well, using it badly, and using it not at all. Which is, you’ll notice, more pregnancies than the number of children I have. And yet every time, I have thrilled to the peed-on plastic stick with its baffling system of symbols: plus, minus, yay, nay. I always want to be pregnant. And even the losses have satisfied an odd craving, like a hook on which I’ve hung the heap of despair piled up inexplicably on the floor of my psyche. I don’t always understand my own sadness. Me and my Achilles heart.
Did you see the final episode of MASH? Do you remember Hawkeye and his flashback about a woman choking a chicken to death because it was making too much noise on the bus and they feared for their lives? Only then the memory came into focus, and it wasn’t a chicken, it was a baby? In this story, mine, the miscarriage comes into focus and it’s actually an abortion. Only it’s not this miscarriage, it’s an earlier one, which left behind the same agony of emptiness. But that’s not the story I’m choosing to tell you here, although it’s part of this story, the same way old bones are part of the milk in your baby’s cup.
After the red ectopic herring, the numbers drop to zero, and turn this into a plain old miscarriage. Uncertain as I am about the baby, I will be bereaved by its goneness. I will be alone, drinking the bitter reproductive blend of privacy and shame. “You have to remember to ask me about it every day,” I will cry to Michael, whose body will not offer him gory reminders of the wreckage. Later that week, Ben will crawl into bed with us after a nightmare and, moments after Michael whispers, “Tell us all about it, sweetie,” we will hear him gently snoring—which will make Ben and me laugh, but will also make me want to kill him. I will be furious. I will be depressed. Everybody around me will be suddenly hugely pregnant, teetering around on little feet like circus performers. I will take a lot of baths. I will buy a lot of maxi pads. I will kneel on the floor to fish a dark shape out of the toilet, then scrub my hands before touching my living right-here children. The would-be baby will fade into a melancholy background hum, a kind of pale outline that fills in on its due date, on its birthday a year after that. We will try again, but without conviction. I will start to feel old, to doubt my ability to bear anything other than a phlegmy little clump of cells, to doubt I have the energy to rock the clump to sleep every night.
On medical forms, I will write a number for “pregnancies” and a number for “live births,” and they will not be the same number. I will be indignant. “Live births? Are we guppies?” Eventually, I will be almost entirely happy again, under only the faintest shadow of doubt. Birdy will tell us that she remembers when they took Ben out of my belly. “I was already there, and they saw me there, and they took Benny out, and they closed you back up!” she’ll explain. “I had to wait.” “You were so, so patient,” I’ll say, and she’ll nod smugly and shrug. “I was.”
Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir Waiting for Birdy, and the blog Ben and Birdy. The above essay is a selection from her most recent memoir, Catastrophic Happiness, which can be ordered here. She is also the etiquette columnist for Real Simple magazine and a regular contributor to the New York Times Motherlode blog. Her first middle-grade novel will be published in 2017. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.