It’s considered a rite of passage for anyone who rides a bike in the Bay Area: At some point, your wheels will be stolen. Mine were nabbed near downtown, right outside a Walgreens, while I was picking up Easter candy — plus a pregnancy test, which was mostly an afterthought, as I was only a day or two late.
I promptly forgot about the test the minute I walked outside and discovered the empty rack where my beloved blue Ironhorse had been firmly locked minutes before. Sobbing, I called the police and then a friend to pick me up, since my husband, Chris, was at a bike race himself.
At home that evening, after tearfully recounting the experience to Chris, I remembered the test in my backpack. A few minutes later, I had my second major shock of the day — and the biggest of my life to that point — when those two pink lines bloomed on the stick. I insisted Chris go to the pharmacy for another test, and he came back with two more — both of which also turned up positive — along with a bouquet of flowers and a six-pack of O’Doul’s.
The next day was Easter, and, even in my dumbfounded state, we wanted to share the news with our parents in a memorable way. We Skyped them and held up the eggs we’d dyed, our names written on them in crayon per my family’s tradition, before revealing the one: half-pink, half-blue and Baby Tilton (Chris’s surname) scrawled across it.
“This is our favorite egg this year,” Chris said.
“The fertilized one,” I quipped.
For the next few days I walked around in a state of disbelief. Right around the corner was Mother’s Day, and I couldn’t get my head around the fact that in a few months I’d be one too.
For most of my life, I was ambivalent about having children. Absent of the yoke of parenting, my life just seemed to improve with age. I’ve always loved my job as a freelance writer, one that offers the glorious freedom to travel the world and work all day in my PJs if I feel like it. In my early thirties, while I was off on assignment in some exotic country or planning a midweek happy hour, friends were increasingly preoccupied with pregnancies and play dates. It may sound selfish, but not much about that looked fun or fulfilling to me.
I was ambivalent about getting married, too, until I met Chris when I was nearly 30. He was 10 years older, but acted (and looked) far younger than many guys I’d dated. His adventurous spirit and love of the outdoors matched mine; his laid-back personality rounded out my type A tendencies. Eventually, the idea of forever with someone seemed more like a blessing than a curse, a sentiment captured in a photo of the moment he proposed in Barcelona, my clasped hands and colossal smile the image of absolute, unfiltered joy.
We had different views on kids — Chris had always wanted them, I wasn’t sure I ever would — but we forged on anyway, hoping we’d somehow find common ground. Sure enough, a couple of years after our wedding, I felt the faintest ticks of a biological clock. Around my 37th birthday, I went off the Pill; around four months later, I found out I was expecting.
I was not exactly a pleasant pregnant woman during those first few weeks. Four weddings and my 20-year high school reunion loomed on the calendar, and the thought of attending plump and sober made me grumpy. Even running, my longtime, no-fail mood-lifter, was agonizing, despite my wrestling into two sports bras to minimize the jostling.
Then came our first sonogram. It revealed promising measurements and a healthy heartbeat, the whooshing percolating from the monitor the most beautiful, magical sound I’d ever heard. We stuck the black-and-white sonogram printout on the fridge door, where all good news goes, and nicknamed our growing life Tadpole Tilton.
Though completely exhausted, I was grateful to only have mild nausea, and I started thanking my baby — we were waiting to be surprised, but I had the feeling he was a boy — out loud for that. At night, my hand drifted instinctively to my belly, and babies started crawling through my dreams. I began walking instead of running, and on my walks I started threading one of my earbuds through my shirt and onto my belly, so we could both listen to music.
Because of our ages, Chris and I had already decided to undergo genetic testing. Our appointment was scheduled when I was around 12 weeks, and we were excited to see our baby again. On the screen, he was as active as we imagined any offspring of ours would be: wiggling around like a jumping bean and flinging up a tiny hand every few seconds, as if to say, “Hey, guys, here I am!”
But we started to wonder why the technician was taking so many photos. The perinatologist put it bluntly a few minutes later: The measurement of the fluid on the back of the neck was double what it should have been, indicating severe problems. After the procedure, the genetic counselor told us our baby likely had an abnormality that was “very rarely compatible with life.” With those words, it felt like the very life was being sucked out of me. I lay crumpled on my side like roadkill, choking with sobs.
We had Memorial Day weekend to wait for results, and the next day, we escaped to Bodega Bay, a sleepy fishing village north of San Francisco. We walked the foggy coastline, fighting back tears each time we saw a child running along the sand. That night, we drifted into fitful sleep, a lonely foghorn sounding in the distance and Chris’s body curled around mine.
The news we were dreading came on Tuesday afternoon.
“They aren’t the results we were hoping for,” our genetic counselor told me gently over the phone. “The sample tested positive for trisomy 18. I’m so sorry.”
“OK, OK, OK,” I kept saying through my sobs. But it wasn’t OK. We knew by then that almost all babies diagnosed with trisomy 18, or Edwards syndrome, as it’s also known, either die in utero or within a week of delivery. The rare few who survive their first year have severe developmental challenges and physical deformities. Regular hospitalizations, including major surgeries, are the norm, and independent living is impossible.
Chris and I knew we could not gamble our baby’s well-being on the infinitesimal chance that he or she would defy such overwhelming odds. I made the toughest phone call of my life, to schedule the D&C (technically, an abortion, though I have never called it that. Instead, I think of it as a termination of my pregnancy). Over my sobs, my doctor explained what would happen: She would remove my uterine lining, and with it, the tiny fetus, about the size of a pea pod.
The day before the procedure, I lit a yellow candle symbolizing strength and put a hand on my belly, telling Tadpole Tilton how much we loved him and whom to look out for in heaven. I blew out the candle and a tidal wave of agony bent me in half. I couldn’t imagine how I’d continue living.
An hour and a half after arriving at the hospital the next day, I drifted into an anesthesia-fueled sleep, whispering goodbye to Tadpole Tilton. When I woke up, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.
The days that followed were a blur of tears and cramps. The cramps eventually went away, but the emotional pain gutted me to a depth I didn’t know was possible. The only relief came right after I woke up in the morning, in those bleary few seconds before I remembered my baby was gone, and then the grief swallowed me whole again.
Three weeks after the procedure, we took a trip to wine country, hoping it might ease the heartache, even just a little. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, and I thought about how easy it would be to drive to the waterfront below, like I normally do for a run, make my way to the middle of the span, and jump.
According to medical statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, up to 1 in 5 pregnancies ends (though some studies place that number much higher), more than 1 million fetal and stillborn losses occur every year, and another 6.7 million women of reproductive age have fertility issues. That’s an astounding number of women (and the people who love them) who suffer devastating reproductive trauma, yet I hadn’t heard many people talking about it, even in a society obsessed with oversharing the most mundane details of our lives, from a photo of our weekday lunch to a video of a kid being potty trained. Only when Chris and I shared our news did I hear the heartrending stories I’d never known from friends who had endured pregnancy losses too.
But after that initial outpouring of condolences, it seemed that some people just faded away, making me feel as if I had a disease they didn’t want to be exposed to. A handful of close friends and family helped soothe my broken heart, but in my darkest moments, I’ve never felt more alone. The world welcomes a pregnant woman with open arms and boundless joy, annoying as those unsolicited parenting tips and belly rubs can be. But when you lose a baby whose existence maybe hasn’t even been announced, that pink-and-blue bubble pops, plunging you into a state of gut-wrenching isolation. There’s no formalized way to acknowledge or process this type of grief. I spent many long days balled up on the couch, craving human contact but unable to cope with the prospect of facing a world so full of babies, children, and pregnant women.
Television and the internet offered no relief, either. A simple scroll through Facebook could wreck my day, with its never-ending stream of baby bumps and first steps, first words, first birthdays, and first days of school, while the celebrity baby frenzy plagued news outlets. Even social media navel-gazing that had nothing to do with kids — a pic of happy hour cocktails or a rant over traffic — were gut-wrenching reminders that while my life felt like it had stopped, it was still humming merrily along for the rest of the world.
Less than four weeks after the procedure (I was still counting our loss in weeks, the same way a new mother would count her baby’s age), I decided to attend the bachelorette party of a friend. I was still grieving desperately, but I figured a night on the town with some fun girls would be a nice change of pace. I put on my favorite little black dress and tried not to think about how my baby bump would have looked in its stretchy fabric.
A few hours and more than a few drinks into the evening, I was feeling, for the first time in weeks, like I wasn’t on the verge of tears. Our group of mostly twenty- and early-thirtysomethings ended up at a downtown club where the queue snaked around the block. We stood in line while two of the girls pranced off with bills in their palms and the bouncer in sight.
They returned, agitated, a few minutes later. “He won’t let us skip the line — I just don’t get it!” one of them pouted. “We’re all young and cute. It’s not like any of us is pregnant or anything!”
I turned to the bride-to-be and told her I had to go home.
How I wish this was the part where I could tell you about my happy ending — after a year and a half of trying naturally, hopes raised and dashed every month, and one round of IVF, after infinite blood tests and genetic analyses and ovulation predictor kits and cycle charting and temperature taking, after dozens of self-administered hormone shots and three high-quality embryos and a week of hopeful optimism, after all three of our microscopic maybe-babies were deemed unviable.
Instead, Chris and I are left with more questions than answers: How many more expensive fertility treatments can we afford? Do we have the emotional bandwidth to attempt the exhaustive process of adoption? Can our hearts survive any more waiting and wondering?
Through it all, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Tadpole Tilton — how old he would be, what he would look like, would he be riding a balance bike yet? Sometimes, when I hear a song on the radio or happen to catch a glimpse of my sonogram image, with its wondrous, beautiful profile, while scrolling through my photo library, the grief comes flooding back like it all happened yesterday. Mother’s Day and my Dec. 5 due date bring their own kind of torture, as I suspect they might forever.
In the meantime, I watch friend after friend get pregnant, give birth, rejoice and complain about motherhood, sometimes get pregnant again, and all too often drift away, caught up in the craziness of child-rearing, but also, I suspect, feeling like we have less and less in common. And some of that distance is on me, too. Sometimes, I just don’t have it in me to hear about the agony of sleep deprivation or the joy over first steps. It harkens back to high school in some ways: the sickening longing of being excluded from a club I desperately want to join but, no matter what I do, can’t get into. Only this time, the stakes feel much higher: my aging eggs and I, sitting on the sidelines in some sort of motherhood purgatory, while all the other lucky mommies parade their offspring in strollers and Bjorns, never missing a chance to proclaim how amazing the life-changing wonder of parenthood is. In a society that puts raising kids on a pedestal more than ever, it’s the loneliest place I have ever been.
If all of this sounds bitter, I suppose I am in some ways. The devastation of losing my baby and the anguish of not being able to get pregnant again have taken a massive toll on my spirit and soul. And that’s not to mention the guilt and self-doubt underlying it all: Why didn’t we start trying earlier? What if I have doomed Chris, the love of my life, to a life without children, one of his deepest desires? I’ve been so distraught about it all that, more than once, I’ve contemplated suicide, but I know that’s not the answer. I want to be here, but I want to be here as a mother, too.
I’m hopeful that by putting my story out there, as others are doing, there will be an increase in sensitivity, awareness, and honest conversations surrounding pregnancy loss and infertility, and it can be a little less awful for the millions of people experiencing it. Only when the scope of its trauma is recognized and accepted will women like me feel somewhat less alone and marginalized at the exact time they should be acknowledged and supported. The pain is too profound and affects far too many people to allow ourselves to hide behind “I don’t know what to say.”
But most of all, I still have hope that one day I’ll hold a baby, however it has to happen, in my arms. For now, though, and forever, I’ll be holding Tadpole Tilton in my heart.