Category Archives: Pregnancy

Elizabeth and Zacharias

Brave

During a Christmas Eve service at a church where my husband and I didn’t know anybody, I half-listened to the pastor’s sermon. Christmas Eve services tend not to be an accurate barometer of a church’s culture or a preacher’s ability to connect. Besides Easter, there is no bigger day, no more intense anticipation. How many ways can we talk about the birth of Christ? It’s important–critical–in Christianity, of course, but it’s also hard to meet expectations. So as the pastor spoke, I mainly enjoyed the candles and Christmas lights adorning the sanctuary, wondered how much snow would be piled up on the car by the time we got out, and tuned in once in awhile to hear the usual words–Joseph, inn, virgin.

Then the pastor began to talk about Elizabeth, who was barren and wished for a child. The angel Gabriel came to her husband first, before Mary, and told him that Elizabeth would have a child, after years of being infertile. Zacharias was doubtful, so Gabriel told him he wouldn’t have use of his voice until the prophecy was realized. Elizabeth was made pregnant and gave birth to a baby around the same time that Mary had Jesus.

I knew Elizabeth was a figure in the New Testament. After all, she has my name–or I have hers. But I never paid attention to her story, a woman who became pregnant with a boy she never thought she’d have, until the moment I sat in that pew, pregnant with a boy I never thought I’d have. There is not much else said about Elizabeth during her pregnancy. Was she scared? Being her age and expecting a child? Was she hopeful? Was she optimistic–she did have the word of an angel, after all, that she would become a mother. I imagine she was all of these things. Yet I am more drawn to her husband, Zacharias because he admitted doubt and was then silenced. Zacharias was afraid, pessimistic, unable to believe that he could get what he’d been hoping for, and the punishment was the loss of his voice.

Before I became pregnant, I never knew that pregnancy could be a fearful time. A time when many women obsess about what they eat and whether they’re exposed to harmful chemicals. We are doubtful of our ability to grow and carry life, and instead of talking about how pregnancy can be complex in both its joy and its terror, we lose our voice.  Who will want to hear about what we fear when we have been given such a gift? Who will be sympathetic to the vast responsibility of creating a person when it’s (often) something we’ve chosen? Here it is, what you’ve always wanted, now be happy and thankful and strong.

With no offense intended at Gabriel, bearer of good news and silencer of doubtful husbands, I’m trying to reclaim that voice, in small measures. It seems to be a two steps forward, one step back process. For instance, even writing this post has been…fraught. What to say, and how much to say, and whether it will all come back (in a magical thinking type of way) to bite me in the ass. All I want to do is open up a conversation, even if it’s just between me and the ether, about what it means to do something so big, and to admit that it’s scary. To acknowledge that it would be irresponsible, even, not to have fear, because fear is a sign that you know how big the stakes are. Fear during pregnancy is what prevents you from guzzling martinis and getting into hot tubs and going skydiving. Fear can exist next to our joy and anticipation, and it doesn’t make us less strong or less grateful.

In these last few months of my pregnancy, I’m reminding myself that I can be an Elizabeth-Zacharias hybrid. The woman who had almost given up hope; the husband who dared to voice doubt; the couple who were overwhelmed at the generosity of God’s gift. If it’s okay with Gabriel, I’m going to keep speaking through my uncertainty. And hope that it gives comfort to those who also doubt.

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Lifelines

HoldingHands

I read this post recently from Anne at Modern Mrs. Darcy about being a lifeline to someone who may not know how to ask for help, and conversely, getting a lifeline when you may not be able to ask for it. It tied in with something I’ve been thinking about lately, about where I’ve been in the past year. And this is not as much an existential “where” as a literal “where.” I’ve been MIA.

When I called Sarah, my closest friend from college, to tell her I was pregnant, finally (she knew I’d been trying for years), I gave her the whole shpiel–IVF treatments in the winter, pregnancy and then miscarriage in the spring, recovery in the early summer, back at the IVF by July, finishing my first trimester in September. As I finished my recitation, I realized, I had barely talked to her this year. I hadn’t mentioned any of this in the few phone calls (at her initiation) we’d shared. And suddenly, I felt self-conscious.

“So, um…so that’s why I guess I’ve been quiet,” I said. It sounded so lame. “I mean, I know I’ve been sort of underground this year. I just felt like I couldn’t talk about what was happening.”

There was a pause. Sarah’s not much of a bullshitter. But she let me have my excuse and said, “I’m glad you told me why. I’ve been wondering. But now I know.”

After our phone call, I realized how much regret I felt at not having included her in what I was going through. I don’t think it’s self-absorbed to say…people want to be involved in your misery. Seriously. If they love you, they want to know. The previous six months I’d been operating under the illusion that I was saving people from my sadness, preventing them from having to deal with my loss when everyone has enough loss of their own. But really I denied Sarah, and everyone else I avoided, the opportunity to be a lifeline. The opportunity to share this with me, and come to understand me better, and come to find new strength in our friendship. I denied myself the opportunity to pay it back to her later. And I lost a year of knowing what was going on in her life.

I think about this last year and the fog I’ve been walking through. I think about my sister’s wedding, which took place in the middle of all of it, right before the 4th of July, how I felt unmoored during what should have been a happy time. I spent her wedding week and weekend on Cape Cod, mainly crying. I cried when I saw my family gathered at a restaurant for lunch and my cousins gathered around me, bewildered and trying to play it off with jokes. I sobbed through the end of the rehearsal dinner when my sister gave me my maid of honor gift. I wept the entire day of her wedding. When I woke up on our last morning in Massachusetts my eyelids were swollen and chapped from the salt of my tears. They peeled and flaked for 7 days after.

Certainly, some of this was from my joy at my sister’s happiness, but I believe most of it was my reaction to being simply lost, to having experienced something deep and shattering, and having tried to hide it away. I’ve spent a lot of time fearing vulnerability and the messiness of disclosure. What I failed to recognize is that life is messy, always, and it comes out one way or another. Instead of being a mess to friends after I lost my pregnancy, I became a mess during my family’s reunion. We can’t avoid the defining characteristics of human experience–loss, for one. The best we can hope for is that those around us will comfort us, and that we will in turn comfort those around us. But we have to be given those opportunities. We have to be, and accept, lifelines.

Gimme Shelter

When I stay away from the shelter for too long, I forget why I need it. I forget what hooked me in the first place, what has made me return week after week, through bad weather and bad moods. I forget that it found me when I was without purpose and had trouble leaving the house. That it pulled me from the dark place where I’d been hibernating. I forget that I need the shelter more than it needs me.

After a three week hiatus from preparing lunch, serving it, and cleaning up on Fridays, I return, grumpy and unmotivated, to the cramped kitchen. To the dreadlocked cook and the quirky kitchen coordinator. To the 65 residents who live there for a month or two at a time before transitioning out to make room for other people in crisis. To the lunches made with donated hot dog buns and subsidized milk.

At 12pm we open the doors and a small trickle of people file in. The woman who is fifth in line is unremarkable by the shelter’s standards. She is small-boned with curly hair that is loose and wild around her head. Her gait is interrupted by a limp. She wears a black t-shirt that’s too small. It shows an inch of skin above the waistband of her sweatpants. Her glasses were either provided by the shelter when she arrived, or she bought them during better times. She stands at the hot line and asks the cook about the lunch options. She’s told that we’re having chicken sausage or pork sausage sandwiches with hot marinara and melted cheese. She picks the chicken sausage and gets a large helping of french fries to accompany it. When she moves down to the cold line, several feet from the hot, I ask her what she’d like. Just milk, she says, and I pour her a tall glass.

She sits down alone at a round table and the next ten minutes pass. I dole out applesauce and mixed fruit cocktail, potato salad and raw carrots with ranch dressing. I tell the kids to be careful when they carry their trays back to their tables. We run out of ketchup and I scoot back to the storage closet to get another couple bottles.

The woman with curly hair and glasses comes back up to the hot line. “I’m sorry,” she says, “but can I try the other sandwich?” She gestures at her barely-touched chicken sausage. “This just tastes…weird. I’m pregnant, so it’s just me, but I don’t think I can eat it.” She gives a small smile.

“Sure, no problem,” the cook places a pork sausage sandwich on her tray. I watch her walk away and now see the full, rounded stomach, obscured a little by the rest of her body, which is also full and rounded. I guess she is about six months along, a month ahead of me.

A few people come up for seconds. Most begin to clean up their tables, deliver their empty trays to the slot in the kitchen wall near the industrial sink. The cook goes to his desk and makes notes about the meal–this many sausage patties consumed, this many cans of applesauce opened. I stand between the hot and cold lines, waiting for last minute stragglers.

The pregnant woman comes up again. She points to an empty spot on her tray and says, “More French fries please?”

“Sure,” I say. I fill the space. “Would you like anything else?”

“No, just fries. I have a craving.”

I smile at her, consider leaving it there, but then… “Did I hear you say you’re pregnant?”

“Yes,” she gives another hesitant smile. “I tried to eat the sandwich, but all I want is milk and fries.”

“I’m pregnant, too. It can be hard to eat normally,” I say. Her face opens up, and this time she gives me a huge smile.

She leans in, “What are you craving?”

I tell her I have aversions to everything I used to love–garlic, onions, beef, vegetables of all kinds–and I want to live on bread and fruit and yogurt. I tell her that when I came in this morning, I smelled something so awful in a corner of the kitchen I could barely breathe and I made the kitchen coordinator and cook help me look for the source for fifteen minutes. She lingers over the hot line, and I feel her absorbing my commiseration like a parched and cracking sponge. I feel her gladness, that there is someone else here who knows. I feel her fear, at being here at the shelter while pregnant, at having so few resources while having so much responsibility. I feel my own fear at growing this person, my doubt at whether my body can do it, at what kind of mother I’ll be. It is the ultimate power, the ultimate gift, and yet we are ultimately alone in this endeavor. And I feel how the terror is alleviated for both of us if only in this moment, because we can talk about something as simple as the smell of garlic and the taste of chicken sausage.

While she is finishing her meal and I am washing dishes, we watch each other. When she brings her tray up to the sink, she tells me she wishes I didn’t have to be on my feet, my hands wrist-deep in other people’s messes. It is this kindness that carries me through the rest of my day. It is this kindness that is like coming home, because I recognize it from so many other gifts the shelter has given me.

It is the shelter that saves me, again and again.

Trusting the Mothers

My mother and mother-in-law are both optimistic about this pregnancy. This one, my mother comforts me on the phone, will stick around. My mother-in-law puts her hand on my belly. This one feels lucky.

I have to trust them. I no longer trust myself.

***

In the first year of trying to get pregnant, I looked for signs and saw them. A moment of revulsion at what I’d fixed for dinner, a twinge of pain in my left breast. I think I’m pregnant, I told my husband, again and again, and we shared a smile each time, thinking this was it. It never was.

A year later, and I’m a week late, and this time my breasts really hurt. I take a pregnancy test and I see the blue control line, proof that it’s working, but also a very faint line next to it, which is supposed to signal pregnancy. It’s not dark, it’s not bold, and I can only see it when I tilt the test in specific lighting, but I take it as a positive, and spend the rest of the day humming. Finally, finally. I phone my husband at work and ask him to pick up a digital pregnancy test on his way home. I want something that says PREGNANT; I don’t want to leave it up to my interpretation of a shadow within a white oval. As we wait for the result that night, we laugh and tease each other, talk about how we’ll hide my pregnancy from our fun-loving, booze-hound friends during the first trimester. When three minutes is up, I tell my husband he should look first. He flips over the test, full of anticipation. His face falls.

“Oh no,” he says quietly.

“What? No, that can’t be right,” I take the test from him. It says NOT PREGNANT. I hate the manufacturers of this test.

“It’s okay, honey,” he says.

“No it’s not….I’m sorry I got you excited for nothing.”

“No, don’t apologize, it’s fine….next month, right?” he looks hopeful.

“Right.”

It doesn’t happen next month or the one after that. I begin distrust myself, my body, my intuition. It is the most terrible betrayal. Many of my friends are crunchy, granola types who have natural childbirths, who labor in a tub in their living rooms, who meditate to prepare for birth, and bury their placentas in the backyard under a mulberry tree. They tell me to trust my body, to trust the process, to trust that eventually I’ll become pregnant. I don’t and I don’t and I don’t. I don’t ever become pregnant naturally, and the betrayal is so great, that I want this so badly, that my body can do so many other things well, but not this, the thing I want the most.

Filling out forms at the doctors’ offices (we’ll end up at many), I have trouble answering the questions. How painful are my periods? Well they feel very painful, but…I’m not sure. Maybe they aren’t. Can I tell when I’m ovulating? I thought I could, I thought I recognized the signs, but maybe I can’t. Maybe what I feel, what I intuit, isn’t reality. Maybe it isn’t anything but the desperate imagination of a desperate woman.

***

Four months after I miscarry, four years after we first began, I’m pregnant again, and this is the pregnancy the mothers believe in. In the early weeks, between the doctor appointments which are my only proof that the pregnancy is still viable, I don’t trust the nausea I experience. Maybe I want to be sickened by the smell of garlic. I don’t trust the exhaustion that has me in bed by 8 every night. Maybe I’m making myself tired. At a dinner with my husband’s co-workers, they ask me how I feel, and again, I have trouble answering.

“Sick…I think I feel sick,” I say, looking at their beaming faces. “But the next ultrasound is on Monday…so we’ll see then, you know, how things are going.”

“What do you mean?” says one woman who has two children of her own.

“I…I’m afraid I’m making it up…I’m afraid I want to feel signs of pregnancy that aren’t there,” I stutter. The woman looks at me with sympathy–she knows about last spring’s miscarriage–but not exactly with understanding.

I’m now past the iffy first trimester, my stomach growing each week with the proof that the baby exists. The relationship I have with my body is still damaged. The days pass in a wild, swirling mix of sweet belief that my body can do it if I only have faith, and dark despair that we’ll never get there, that my body has lost its way. I’m working to see its strengths, its resilience in the face of so much messiness, instead of seeing only how it has failed me.

In the meantime…I’m going to trust the mothers, who believe my body can do it, who tell me this time will be lucky.

Saying It

DiwaliPhoto credit.

We’re at a Diwali celebration and the house is packed. Caterers in the kitchen pull lamb and garlic flatbread out of the oven, assemble crab and corn samosas, dish out chutneys and arrange pistachio and cashew cookies on a platter. Tiny girls run around barefoot, their chubby tummies poking out from their midriff-baring saris.

Our friend Josh is sitting across from me, his 6’5″ frame perched on a wooden ledge in the living room. I’m trying to get comfortable on the low, squishy couch, but at 4.5 months pregnant, my sense of balance and mobility is already shot, and I am a seal negotiating the sand. Josh looks concerned because my husband, who is sitting next to him, has just told him I’m having  complications with my pregnancy.

“Some things are…um…weird in my uterus!” I shout over the din, gesturing in the air. I don’t know exactly why I phrase it this way. Maybe I’m tired of explaining it to people, maybe it seems like an odd place to have such a discussion, maybe it’s having to yell over all the merrymakers that makes me not want to bellow the words  “subchorionic hemorrhage” and “placenta previa.” As soon as I speak, though, I know how lame it sounds.

“I don’t know what that means,” Josh yells back. No kidding.

My husband Joe tries to fill in the blanks while I reflect for the umpteenth time that trying to be vague about what you struggle with, what you fear–never works.

I grew up with a mother who asked me about my feelings, who wanted to know what I was afraid of, and how she could make It better. For years I told her, and she did make It better. But she never told me what she was afraid of, and despite knowing she struggled with depression, with anxiety, I never ever saw It. She wanted to protect her children from It.

I moved away from home. I made friends. I asked them to tell me about their feelings and I wanted to make It better. Sometimes I told them what I was afraid of, but usually not, and over the years, I kept my struggles to myself, and sometimes away from the family that had told me it was okay to talk about It.

You know people like this. We don’t say It because it means being vulnerable. Or risking judgment. We don’t say It because it means we might make you uncomfortable. Or worried. We don’t say It for so long that we lose the ability to say It, and It hangs around our necks like an anvil.

By the time I was two years into fertility treatments, I had had nearly two decades of practice being silent. Silent about OCD, silent about depression, and in recent years, silent about infertility. I finally became pregnant…and quickly miscarried. It was the end of being silent. Like a rubber band pulled farther and farther apart, there were only two ways to ease the tension: break the band…or let go. I let go. I let go far and wide and free. I stopped guarding the secret of infertility like an unwanted treasure. I stopped saying, maybe someday we’ll have kids; maybe when Joe doesn’t have to work such long hours; maybe when we get our student loans paid off. I said It to the people I loved, the people who wanted to be compassionate, who wanted to support me, who knew I was carrying around something big and dark and unspoken. I’m saying It now to anyone who is reading, who has been there and couldn’t say It.

It has not been a perfect coming out. People say dumb things; people clam up when you’re finally ready to talk about It. But now that we’re here, I wouldn’t go back. The pain of keeping infertility, and then miscarriage, a secret, was much worse than the experience of being open about It.

So we go forward with this second pregnancy and this time–no secrets. Joe tells Josh that I have bleeds in my uterus. The placenta is in the wrong place. We don’t know if the baby will make it; we don’t know if my health will be compromised. We hope for resolution; we hope for a full-term pregnancy. We are thankful for each day I carry the baby we’ve waited five years for. We are scared. We are optimistic.

We are saying It.

Infertility, madness, and memory

WelcomeMatPhoto credit.

When I sit in the midwife’s office, waiting to see if the bleeding is another miscarriage, the time that passes is both immeasurable and long, the silence both a racket and a void. My husband, of course, has a stake in the outcome, but I am more aware than ever of my aloneness in this moment. That women carry children, bear children, nurse children—it is a special kind of burden, and I am feeling its sting as I try to take deep breaths. I think about my friend Addie’s truth: faith is an empty room.

It’s hard to know exactly what other writers mean when they speak their truths, but for me, this sentiment describes how any kind of faith, not just religious faith, but belief and trust in anything you can’t know for sure, anything out of your grasp, is essentially a journey of solitude. No one can tell you it will be okay. No one can shoulder what you fear. You may eventually find comfort in the experiences of others, but there is a significant portion of your time spent in isolation. It must be that way.

This blog will attempt to talk about my experiences in those empty rooms. Nonfiction writers and memoirists often have 1 or 2 topics they come back to again and again. The topics they just can’t quit, the ones that formed who they are. In my grad school MFA program, we quickly learned each other’s topics: cancer, family dysfunction, exploration of modern masculinity, sexual identity, evangelical Christianity, landscape and identity. We wrote about them over and over again, seeing our cancer diagnosis as it related to our spouse, seeing our sexual orientation as it influenced our childhood. We wanted to understand our obsessions and so we wrote our way through them.

This blog will tackle the two topics I return to again and again: my attempts to become and remain pregnant, and my lifelong history of mental illness. Though not related through cause and effect, they are in many ways inseparable to me because they inform so much of how I see the world. They have been at turns destructive and nurturing, terrifying and fascinating. If these topics are familiar to you in your own life, this blog may be for you. If they’re unfamiliar but you like entering unknown worlds, this blog may be for you. If you enjoy memoir and nonfiction as a genre, no matter the topic, this blog may be for you.

Welcome.